Back when Xerox invented the mouse

Xerox PARC, founded in the 1960s, was among the most cutting edge research group of its time.  On December 9, 1968, Douglas Englebart famously showcased a set of inventions that set the vision for the future of computing.  In a world when everything ran on a black and white screen with punch cards and command lines, he showcased live video conferencing, real-time document editing, and something called a graphical user interface.

In the center of all of this technology was a simple box-with-a-ball device that came to be known as the mouse, which then promptly spent the next 11 years in obscurity, discussed only by the geekiest pioneers in technology. 

In 1979, Steve Jobs was heavily influenced by the mouse, which eventually culminated into a graphical user interface in a full-feature operating system Apple Computer named MacIntosh.  We know how the rest of the story went – the mouse is standard issue on every desktop computer, and many people buy one for their notebooks, too.

The mouse is the technology invention that made computers mainstream, removing the need for anyone to know how to run a command line. the way that the advent of touchscreens enabled toddlers to operate a computing device.

So why didn’t Xerox do anything about their incredible inventions?  Why are we using Apple computers, Microsoft PCs, with Xerox almost entirely out of the computers business?  (The real answer probably involves the fact that hardware has become a low-margin business, allowing very few winners who can soak up the overhead cost of developing new devices and sell enough to make a profit.  But just forget that for a second.)

The “Why are we all using Apple and not Xerox computers today” question is a business school classic.

The standard business school answer may point towards a combination of the following: (1)  leadership, (2) spreading itself too thin, (3) the failure to nurture an idea past inception, or (4) the disruptive ability of Apple and Microsoft as nascent companies.

One might think this problem had been analyzed so thoroughly one would be able take the lessons from Xerox as a sort of organizational fable, morals that are transposable to life.  The problem with retrospection is that there is really just one way to look back, despite myriad of ways to look forward.  “How did we get here” is an easier question to answer than “where do we go now?”

While writing entire dissertations on the failures of Xerox may be academically beneficial, the entire thing may have been as easily explained as Xerox simply did not have a crystal ball.   Sometimes case studies may be little more than a grand exercise in historian’s fallacy.

While seeing the fallacy when examining other works and other cases, seeing that of our own when perusing our own should’ve, could’ve, and might’ves can be remarkably difficult.  And it is the fact that despite consciously knowing that we are fallible to our own hindsight that makes a story like Xerox’s missed opportunity to dominate PC hardware a meaningful one.  Perhaps realizing that we can’t help ourselves from looking back, this fact alone, is more educational than learning the myriad of individual factors.

And don’t feel bad for Xerox.  They’re doing fine.  $14B worth of market capital fine.

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

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