PARC CEO Mark Bernstein talks innovation, Steve Jobs and Xerox

PARC CEO Mark Bernstein talks innovation, Steve Jobs and Xerox

Summary: We caught up with PARC CEO Mark Bernstein to talk shop and innovation. Bernstein talks about the state of R&D, whether he'd let Steve Jobs in the building today, cleantech and PARC's past present and future.

TOPICS: Apple, CXO, Emerging Tech

This interview is cross posted on Smart Planet.

The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) has a storied history and is responsible for much of the computing technology we take for granted. Today, PARC has a more refined mission as a wholly-owned yet independent subsidiary of Xerox.

We caught up with PARC CEO Mark Bernstein to talk shop and innovation. Bernstein has led PARC since 2001. The conversation was spurred by a question raised by Marvell co-founder Weili Dai, who argued that the U.S. needs a new Bell Labs.

What follows is a recap of my conversation with Bernstein with a bit of color commentary.

Are the glory days of R&D gone? Bernstein noted that research for just innovation's sake is a dying breed. Here Bernstein made a few notable points. The aim to turn innovation into products has altered the equation somewhat. This topic gets at that Bell Labs question. Do we need another Bell Labs? "Historically, monopolies developed research labs to discover knowledge and give it to the world to utilize," said Bernstein. Something like Bell Labs was measured on Nobel prizes. "These labs were figures of merit. Monopolies supported research because they thought it was a necessity to prepare for the future and preserve the monopoly." I noted that Ma Bell could have created Bell Labs to keep regulators off the company's back. There was a little of that too.

So do we need more monopolies? Bernstein chuckled at that argument, but did note that companies like General Electric, RCA and AT&T (when it was one massive monopoly) did tend to like research. "Every monopoly is ultimately doomed," said Bernstein.

How is corporate research changing? "Research is viewed through business performance," said Bernstein. "And generally that means short-term expectations for return and research focused on returns in less than three years," said Bernstein. Microsoft Research today is the closest thing to representing the old model where you research is conducted just to think about the future without a lot of product pressure, said Bernstein. Although some of those innovations at Microsoft Research do wind up in products. "(Bill) Gates appreciated having bright people around thinking about the future unbounded and breakthrough ideas," said Bernstein.

Do labs need a focus? Bernstein noted that PARC has always had a focus on the future of work. All the breakthroughs---PARC had an iPad-ish device called the PARC Pad way before it was cool---were focused on how people would work in the future. Even though Xerox was largely interested in laser printer breakthroughs every research effort somehow tied to work. "The vision was to have multiple unique perspectives on the office of the future," said Bernstein.

How do you gauge success? To Bernstein and PARC research is successful when it is utilized in the world. And it doesn't necessarily have to be utilized by the home team. PARC's discoveries wound up in companies like 3Com, Adobe and Apple. "Success is when disruptive technologies make their way to the world," said Bernstein. That take is interesting since one view of PARC is that it created all of this cool stuff, but Xerox never really capitalized on it---or at least as much as it could have. There was a good reason for that, said Bernstein. "Xerox didn't want to turn into a computer company. It wasn't attractive," he added. Indeed, the laser printer technology alone paid for PARC. In Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, Michael A. Hiltzik writes:

Another great myth is that Xerox never earned any money from PARC. The truth is that its revenues from one invention alone, the laser printer, have come to billions of dollars---returning its investment in PARC many times over.

Would Bernstein let Jobs in the PARC facilities today? That view that Xerox/PARC didn't capitalize enough on its breakthroughs is common. For instance, Jason Perlow said I should ask whether PARC would let Steve Jobs in the building since a lot of those PARC ideas built Apple. "It would be great to have Steve come over," quipped Bernstein. "I'd just have to be careful about what I showed him." To set the record straight, Jobs was invited to PARC. It's not like Jobs snuck in the building and ran off with a graphical user interface. Apple engineers visited PARC in 1979 and then incorporated PARC's approach to a user interface. According to Hiltzik, PARC got private shares of Apple in exchange for the demo.

Even more comical was Apple's 1988 lawsuit against Microsoft alleging that the software giant stole the Macintosh's look and feel. Microsoft's defense: We both stole the GUI from Xerox's PARC. In any case, Hiltzik reported in his PARC tome that no two people have the same account of Jobs' visit. However, the book is worth a purchase just for the Apple chapter about the Jobs' PARC demo.

But that whole line of thinking about PARC, Apple and success of research does get at how perceptions have changed. A few decades ago research utilized by anyone was a success. Today, that view could be deemed as frivolous in an ROI-happy world. "Success for innovation is not the invention, but the adoption of the technology," said Bernstein. "Patents just protect an idea, but that's just stacking BBs. What you do with that technology is what's important." On PARC past and present? Xerox's initial take on PARC was similar to the Bell Labs approach. Then in 2002-2004, PARC was up for sale or prepped for a spin-off, but Xerox couldn't find a suitable buyer in a rough market. However, today PARC is a very interesting hybrid and Xerox probably would be kicking itself if it unloaded it. Bernstein explained the PARC model now. Today, half of PARC is focused on being independent and pursuing clean-tech and change-the-world type discoveries. The other half is focused on helping the parent, Xerox, and its ACS services unit. That collaboration between PARC and ACS will the worth watching in future years. Why? IBM has that research and services game down. Xerox with PARC and ACS could do something similar. Research and services could be the secret sauce for Xerox. Bernstein said that PARC "is happy to be working with ACS and the opportunities are huge."

"We have the opportunity to create more valuable services that hide the complexity of work," said Bernstein. A lot of that work with ACS and PARC will focus on information flows in corporations and systems. Meanwhile, ACS' focus on transportation and healthcare are ripe areas for PARC's knowhow, said Bernstein, who added that the research lab's favorite areas are health and energy.

Cleantech's role. Bernstein said PARC has had a cleantech practice for five years. Key areas include solar energy, using CO2 as an energy source, hydrodynamic separation and government work focused on things like desalination for the military, said Bernstein. "These things have broad applicability," he said. How does PARC make money? For starters, PARC's financials are summarized on the "other" line in Xerox's consolidated results. Bernstein said PARC works with clients such as Samsung, incubates startups, licenses its technology and collects royalties and cashes in equity stakes. For instance, Powerset, a search engine bought by Microsoft, was built on PARC codebase and 63 patents. "We cashed in when Microsoft bought Powerset out," said Bernstein.

What does PARC look for in a researcher? Bernstein is looking to hire another 25 researchers to built PARC's roster to 200. Some of that hiring will be used to support ACS, but researchers can work on multiple projects. Bernstein said the main thing PARC wants in a researcher is passion. "That person has to believe in the power of ideas and defend them while collaborating and listening," said Bernstein. In addition, a researcher has to want to change the world---something Bernstein says is prevalent in the younger generation. "They have to want to make a difference to fit into the PARC nervous system," he said. What does the U.S. need to do on the research front? Bernstein agreed that there should be some completely non-commercial entity focusing on research that transforms "science into technology." The Feds have taken some steps in that direction with funding of the National Institute of Health (NIH) and DARPA, but the U.S. needs a purpose for the funding as well as a sustained effort. DARPA is making progress on logistics research, clean water and things that influence how wars are fought. "The key is that it has to be a sustained research effort," said Bernstein. "The U.S. is taking some steps in the right direction, but it's unclear how sustainable it is given the politics," says Bernstein. That sustainable point is interesting. For instance, the U.S. lacks a rallying cry. There's no space race or anything that captures the imagination of the broader public. Health and energy are important, but don't quite spur the enthusiasm that other research efforts have enjoyed.

Source: PARC CEO Mark Bernstein on innovation, R&D, Steve Jobs and Xerox

Topics: Apple, CXO, Emerging Tech

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  • "Ideas People" are worth their weight in aerogel

    "Powerset, a search engine bought by Microsoft, was built on PARC codebase and 63 patents. ?We cashed in when Microsoft bought Powerset out,? said Bernstein"

    I suspect what Microsoft bought was 63 otherwise typical USPTO junk patents, given credibility by the history of Parc labs.

    So they can attack rivals, and when people point to the generic non innovative nature of the 'inventions' and the USPTO's policy of skipping the innovation test... MS can talk a lot about Parc's history in computing to try to give rhetorical substance to otherwise worthless claims.

    What Parc needs is people with ideas. Those people are worth their weight in aerogel.
  • Actually, Microsoft's primary defense was that their

    legal agreement with Apple to code Word and Excel included a perpetual right to use Apple interface elements. The judge agreed. This wasn't the first time Apple had written a stupid contract (see the history for the sosumi sound).
    • No

      "Microsoft?s defense: We both stole the GUI from Xerox?s PARC."


      "Actually, Microsoft's primary defense was that their
      legal agreement with Apple to code Word and Excel included a perpetual right to use Apple interface elements."


      Sad how little IT history is known today. MS licensed Apple technology for windows (yes Apple had significant additions to PARC ideas, whose contribution to the GUI was enormous). Apple claimed the license didn't cover Windows 3 (1 & 2 were a joke).

      Apple lost on the grounds look & feel could not be given "patent-like protection" (ironic given the software patents awarded today).

      Interesting article on PARC. Clearly Bernstein knows his history.
      Richard Flude
  • RE: PARC CEO Mark Bernstein talks innovation, Steve Jobs and Xerox

    This is the best thing I've read with your by-line in a good while.

    Thinking about PARC, Apple, and Windows 1, I understand Jobs' point. He was the one who gave Xerox equity in Apple, which, while it isn't the same as paying (because Xerox takes on a risk that Apple goofs up the execution), Xerox got to prosper if the upside does and did happen. Apple also gave Microsoft advanced peeks at the guts of MacOS 1 and thought Microsoft played fast and loose with the NDA provisions.

    I've come to decide that the result of the Apple-Microsoft dustup was correct (though I never had any doubts as to how the law was applied.) Look and feel should not be protectable.

    If I were to try and make a concise critique of the US's current patent system, it would be that it should get back to its roots as providing limited monopoly for executions and not concepts. When PARC made the laser printer, it was a device. Dropping it on your foot would hurt.

    I noticed over the weekend that the USPTO has decided to make it easier for something to be not obvious.

    I wonder if the way patent granting has changed over the last decades with the USPTO's nominal, but essentially meaningless commitment to "devices," has contributed to the dearth of private r&d. You pay bright folks good money to design, build, test, and engineer something new only to discover, once the revenue rolls in, somebody is suing you in East Texas over some something they took no further than description and diagram.
  • It is a myth that Xerox willingly agreed to Apple taking GUI

    [i]Much later, in the midst of the Apple v. Microsoft lawsuit in which Apple accused Microsoft of violating its copyright by appropriating the use of the "look and feel" of the Macintosh GUI, [b]Xerox also sued Apple[/b] on the same grounds.[/i]

    Yes, the lawsuit was dismissed for a variety of reasons, all of them good I'm sure. However Apple zealots want to make it seem that Parc was a willing business partner in letting Apple "develop" (I use the term loosely) the GUI. The truth is that Parc felt that Apple stole the GUI, they were simply unsuccessful in proving it legally. Parc got duped by Jobs.
    • Comprehension failure

      "The truth is that Parc felt that Apple stole the GUI, they were simply unsuccessful in proving it legally. "

      Actually no. PARC's claim that if Apple was successful with it's look & feel claims them PARC should also benefit.

      "Parc got duped by Jobs."

      You didn't read the article then, or is the zealotry clouding your comprehension?
      Richard Flude
    • RE: PARC CEO Mark Bernstein talks innovation, Steve Jobs and Xerox

      @NonZealot<br><br>Are you and I really going to have this argument again (which always ends with you mysteriously disappearing)?<br><br>First, XEROX did NOT sue Apple on the "same grounds." There is no need to assume, as the facts are readily available. But I forget, your idea of "facts" IS the things that you assume.<br>More to the point, please research and tell me exactly how much Bill Gates paid XEROX PARC. And then please tell us how many PARC engineers, the ones who actually developed the technology, and therefore had a right to claim it as "theirs", were subsequently hired by MS.<br><br>As for Apple developing the GUI, I will explain this to you once again, Apple DID develop the GUI. While much of the original work was done by PARC (and much, like the work of Englebart, even preceded it) a vast mountain of original work was done by Apple. The bible in the field, after all, is the Apple Human User Interface Guidelines.<br><br>But please, as I have asked you NUMEROUS time before, please describe to me the GUI to the Alto OS and file system.<br>HAHAHAHA<br>Why do I laugh? Because if you knew ANYTHING worth a crap about the Alto GUI, you would know that the OS interface, called the Executive, IIRC, the equivalent of the Finder in MacOS, and various sundry things in Windows, was A COMMAND LINE!!!!!<br><br>The whole idea of a GUI to manipulate the file system, and control the actual OS came about because of original work done by Apple.<br><br>How do I know? Because, as I have informed you OVER AND OVER AGAIN, I was one of the first users of the original Altos. From there we moved on to the truly amazing Three Rivers Computer Corporation's (GO STEELERS!) Perq mini-computer, truly a computer ahead of its time. As it came out in 1979, that predated the mac as well, so perhaps you should unleash your dogs of war on them as well, standing up to this torrid sullying of XEROX's good name?
  • The Apple Mouse

    To me, the most annoying "feature" of an Apple is the single-button mouse! Didn't the Xerox Alto have more than one mouse button?! I remember that I was shocked when I first saw an Apple with a single mouse button and wondered how I was going to use that! Apple copied so much from Xerox. I never understood why they didn't copy all the mouse buttons because single-button mouse is just such a bad idea. There days, Apple needed to use <Command><Btn> and <Option><Btn> to simulate the 3-button mouse. Dear Apple, please add the mouse buttons back so that I don't have to click so much!
    • RE: PARC CEO Mark Bernstein talks innovation, Steve Jobs and Xerox

      The Xerox Alto (used in demo for Jobs) had 3 buttons
    • RE: PARC CEO Mark Bernstein talks innovation, Steve Jobs and Xerox

      @billcheng Hi, this is the tail end of 2010. Before commenting, please take a refresher course in The Current State of Consumer Products. Thank you.
    • Like you actually use an Apple mouse!

      @billcheng aka Troll
      You never figured out, from all the documentation, that clicking an old Apple mouse while holding down the Control key was the same as right-clicking? Slow learner?

      Of course, Apple has had multiple buttons on the "Mighty Mouse" since 2005--but I guess you weren't paying attention. "The mouse has four functional "buttons": a left capacitive sensor, a right capacitive sensor, a track ball with a pressure sensor and side squeeze sensors. The track ball enables users to scroll a page or document in any direction, including diagonally." Then, in 2009, it was replaced by The Magic Mouse, "the first consumer mouse to have multi-touch capabilities." I guess you missed all these news items...
    • RE: PARC CEO Mark Bernstein talks innovation, Steve Jobs and Xerox

      As aready stated, the Alto had three buttons. The Mac had one, as an overarching design goal in all Apple products has always end-user simplicity. This is NOT a bad goal. In fact, I doubt very seriously that there is very much that you can accomplish with a typical two button mouse that can not be done just as easily with a single button.
      That said, MacOS has supported multiple button mice for over a decade, and this support became much more prominent in OSX, with its UNIX core. Contrary to popular (and apparently your) opinion, ALL macs ship with the equivalent of multiple button mice, and have for many years. Even the laptops.

      If you are going to bitch, please learn what you are bitching about.
  • RE: PARC CEO Mark Bernstein talks innovation, Steve Jobs and Xerox

    From the article: "Every monopoly is ultimately doomed, said Bernstein." Should I worry about the monopoly that provides water to my neighborhood, or the one that provides electricity? What would it mean if they were doomed?<br><br>You're right, he probably only meant "technology monopolies" not utilities, but for over 100 years, the old AT&T was a utility monopoly, just like water and electricity, except it had far more regulation--local, state and federal. I was there, and Bell Labs was far more than something to distract regulators--what a cheap shot comment! <br><br>"At its peak, Bell Laboratories was the premier facility of its type, developing a wide range of revolutionary technologies, including radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory, the UNIX operating system, the C programming language and the C++ programming language. Seven Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Laboratories."<br><br>After the federal courts saw their way clear to break up AT&T, it was all downhill for Bell Labs and they were mismanaged into truly a mere shadow of their former self. I still get ill when I think about their merger with Alcatel...
  • RE: PARC CEO Mark Bernstein talks innovation, Steve Jobs and Xerox

    The interesting thing to me about the whole scenario with Apple, Xerox and Microsoft is that Apple clearly made contractual arrangements with Xerox to use elements of the PARC Lab's GUI, and history records Apple's Jobs and his engineers going to the lab subsequently to work with Xerox to develop the Mac OS GUI. In the case of Microsoft and Apple, where is the evidence that Microsoft made any overtures toward Xerox labs to use the GUI? If that was their defense (and I'm not sure it's correct to assert that it was), then what kind of arrangement did they make with Xerox? What, if anything, does history record about that? To my knowledge, Mr. Bernstein could tell no such parallel tale about Bill Gates or his engineers paying him a visit, but maybe someone in Redmond might at least want to say thank you to both Xerox and Apple.