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Published: October 1, 1999

 
 

An Interview with John Seely Brown

Part scientist, part artist and part philosopher, John Seely Brown is chief scientist of the Xerox Corporation and director of its Palo Alto Research Center, better known as PARC.

Founded in 1970 to do basic research, PARC is best known for inventing - but never capitalizing on - personal computer technology including the graphical user interface and devices for computer networking. Despite those early missteps, the center has played a critical and continuing role in the revitalization of Xerox.

Dr. Brown, who has been at PARC since the late 1970's, has been deeply involved in the formation of Xerox's corporate strategy and its positioning as "The Document Company." At PARC, that mission has been expanded to include - in the company's shorthand - "Transforming the Way People Work."

With the ability to go far beyond the mechanics of copier machines, Dr. Brown has stretched his research to include human learning and the management of radical innovation. This has led to projects in organizational learning, ethnographies of the workplace, complex adaptive systems and techniques for "unfreezing" the corporate mind. His personal research interests include digital culture, ubiquitous computing, user-centered design and organizational and individual learning.

Where many would see challenges, Dr. Brown characteristically sees opportunities. "Seeing differently means learning to question the conceptual lenses through which we view and frame the world, our businesses, our core competencies, our competitive advantage and our business models. It means finding new eyeglasses that will enable us to see strategies and structure taking shape, even if we feel that we are on the edge of chaos," he wrote in "Seeing Differently: Insights on Innovation" (Harvard Business School Press, 1997).

Dr. Brown received his B.S. in Mathematics and Physics from Brown University and his M.S. in Mathematics and Ph.D. in Computer and Communication Sciences from the University of Michigan. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Research on Learning, a nonprofit institute for addressing the problems of lifelong learning. He is a member of the National Academy of Education and a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. He also serves on numerous advisory boards and boards of directors. The Harvard Business School Press plans to publish Dr. Brown's next book, "The Social Life of Information," in the spring.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Brown views the Internet as the kind of transformative implementation of technology that could reshape business and society. Interviewed at PARC's Palo Alto campus in the heart of Silicon Valley, Dr. Brown reflected on the changes coming soon in the Internet Age.

S&B: As we enter this new millennium with the ubiquity of the Internet, one thing that strikes me is how we're all still using technologies that were invented here at Xerox PARC 20 to 25 years ago - the graphical user interface of the Alto computer, the Ethernet. I have to wonder if somebody should have a Monty Python moment and say, "And now for something completely different." Given the weights of standards and installed bases, is that just simply impossible?

J.S. BROWN: The time has come, unquestionably, to think about a discontinuity in how we interact with technology. If the technology itself were not going through a discontinuity, then I would be pessimistic about being able to create a fundamentally new kind of user experience. But the technology is going through a discontinuity. I think we are going to see the elimination of the old. I personally think that in five years the PC will be history. You will not see personal computers in people's offices.

That will then set the stage. I think we need to ask what is going to be the user experience, not what is going to be the user interface. I think the whole notion of the user experience has to do with how we bring the physical architecture, the social architecture and the informational architecture of our workscape into alignment. How do we bring space, sociology and computation into a marriage, or into a kind of harmony, that will let technology finally disappear?

Basically, we start thinking about the walls being computational, that white board being computational, the table being computational, the file cabinets being computational. Then when we interact with these artifacts we invoke their inherent computational capabilities without even being aware that we are using a computer.

Let me give you a concrete example - and this is actually the example that got me going on this issue some time ago. I happen to be a fanatic motorcyclist and high-performance car driver. One day I woke up and realized that I thought of my automobile as actually being a four-wheel computational platform. Today's advanced automobiles have computational brake systems, computational suspension systems, computational injection systems, etc. What is amazing is that you are never aware of these systems. As you drive the car all that computation is there invisibly serving you - keeping you better connected to the road in panic situations. These systems match your driving practices so seamlessly that they seem to be invisible.

S&B: Now, is it possible to build an interface to productivity and communications tools that would be as transparent?

J.S. BROWN: It has to be possible. I claim that the next generation of technologies will be able to function invisibly, to keep you better connected to others and to amplify your awareness of what is going on around you. In fact, I think the challenge is to rebalance the dominant design philosophy of high-tech systems - a design stance that has gotten fundamentally out of balance with how we humans think and interact. A given design can be situated along three dimensions: the center/periphery, the explicit/implicit and attending/attuning.

Let's consider the first dimension - center/periphery. Our visual system processes both the center and the periphery. It is our peripheral vision that keeps us located in space and alerts us to when something is changing. When an object is detected flying toward us, the awareness of that movement - not what kind of object it is but that something is moving - is downloaded into our center visual system and starts to prepare the interpretation of what that object actually is. In a very interesting way, it is our peripheral vision balanced with our center vision that gives us an ability not to be always surprised.

Consider my favorite experiment. Take two empty toilet-paper tubes. Glue them onto your eyeglasses. Then walk around for about three hours. By then, you are apt to have collapsed into a twitching heap - because everything was a surprise. Objects suddenly pop into your vision. "Oh, I didn't see that coming." And if you have not collapsed in three hours, try wearing earplugs. Now, you really have no sense of anything except what is in the center, because your hearing gives you 360-degree awareness. All you have is your center system at work - giving you the feeling of being lost in the bigger social, physical space surrounding you.

S&B: Are you saying that is the kind of information systems we have today?

J.S. BROWN: All user interfaces today amplify the center at the expense of the periphery - a form of tunnel vision. That is why after doing this toilet-paper tube experiment, you feel about the same as you do sitting three hours in front of any user interface, any PC system, because you are constantly being surprised. All these things are happening that come as surprises and keep you from feeling located. Search the Web; the same thing happens.

I could show you some novel interfaces. One of the primary ones is the hyperbolic-tree browser used to help you search Web sites or large document bases. It is our first attempt to provide the user with a rendering of the center framed by the periphery. It is a dynamic interface, so you have a sense of where you have been and where you may need to go. Our first example was on the Library of Congress's Web site. When you can see this work, you say, "Ah. It gives me a completely different feeling than if I were browsing in the normal way."

Let's move on to the second dimension - explicit/implicit. We, as technologists, tend to focus on the explicit at the expense of the implicit. Look at the way a newspaper works. You know, as any reader of a newspaper knows, but without having explicit knowledge of it, that stories that start above the fold are more important than stories that start below the fold. You use these kinds of implicit cues to guide your navigation and to help you interpret what you see. Look at the difference between an original manuscript and the finished article that appears in a magazine. It is a completely different experience because the layout of the information, the choice of typefaces, the quality of the paper, the use of color - all these are implicit cues that help you make sense of the explicit, the content.

Traditionally, when we think about designing interfaces, we do not think much about the design and use of implicit cues. For example, I hand you a tiny, two-inch dictionary and ask you to check the spelling of a word. You cannot find the word. What do you think? "Ignore the dictionary, my guess is it is spelled correctly." But if I hand you the 24-volume Oxford English Dictionary and you cannot find it, you will say, "Maybe that word is really spelled wrong even if it looks O.K. to me."

Now go to the computer. Check the spelling using, for example, Microsoft Word. Suppose it can't find the word. You don't know what to think. Is Microsoft using a tiny dictionary or is it using a huge dictionary? There are no implicit cues to tell you how to interpret the fact that the word cannot be found in Word's dictionary.

Now what would a computer scientist do to fix this shortcoming? He would put a message in the computer that says "there are 300,000 words in the dictionary." That is an explicit message, not an implicit signal. Whereas a good designer might very well, for example, create a book sound that relates to the size of the dictionary. Whenever you open the dictionary, the sound of opening a book occurs, perhaps a tinkle if it is a small dictionary and a thud if it is a large one. The user wouldn't have to attend to anything. He would have picked up the message implicitly by being attuned to that natural sound. It would enable him to act accordingly - unconsciously. That gets back to the last dimension, attending, which is a conscious activity, versus attuning, which is basically a subconscious activity.

As we move into the network age, we need to rebalance our design strategies for achieving a better balance between the center versus the periphery, the explicit versus the implicit, and attending versus attuning. We need less tunnel vision and more awareness of the setting that produced the information or experience.

S&B: I think what we are talking about to a great extent is context. J.S. BROWN: Yes, absolutely, and we are picking up contextual cues that keep us located in time and space - social space and physical space. What I want as we move into the 21st century are ways to amplify my awareness of what's going on around me. "Around" may not be geographically around, but may be around my work group, no matter how distributed that work group is in the world. Can we create an environment in which I feel like I am working with folks next door, even when they may be very far away? So I think of this challenge as building "awareness amplifiers" rather than informational power tools.

S&B: When you talk of the PC being history in five years, then these kinds of tools must be in the prototype stages already.

J.S. BROWN: Yes. Let me give you three examples.

One is the dynamic hyperbolic tree browser that I mentioned.

A second example is our water fountain downstairs that happens to be on the Net checking our stock price. The speed at which that water bubbles out of the fountain actually informs you - kind of subconsciously - what is going on in the market; the faster the flow, the higher Xerox stock is.

A third is the "Dangling String," an eight-foot string that we had dangling from the ceiling in the corner of our commons. The string was connected to a motor that made it twirl. The motor was connected to an Ethernet so that each packet of information that went past would cause the motor to advance. The string would twirl and make a whirling sound according to network traffic. So you had a sense whether the traffic on the Ethernet was fast or slow. It was very much like how I hear people walking by my office and can sense "oh, it must be lunch," because of the sudden increase in the number of people I hear walk by.

These are just simple examples of building into the environment cues that make you more aware of what is going on around you.

S&B: This gets back to the whole notion of ubiquitous computers.

J.S. BROWN: It is the deeper notion of ubiquitous computing stemming from the phenomenology of awareness. How do you make things ready-at-hand, without having to focus on them? Very much like when you are writing with a pen, it becomes transparent. The interface of that pen kind of disappears as you start to write with it. You appear to reach right through it - the interface - onto the paper you are working on. If you have to think about the interface, it is visible. It has gotten in your way and then you spend time managing your interactions with the interface as opposed to seamlessly reaching right through it onto the work you are doing, the people you want to communicate with and so on.

S&B: And you think that the Internet provides an opening for a new kind of user experience, especially one that is more transparent?

J.S. BROWN: I think, yes. Most people think of the Internet as a network to networks. But now designers,

S&B: And you think that the Internet provides an opening for a new kind of user experience, especially one that is more transparent?

J.S. BROWN: I think, yes. Most people think of the Internet as a network to networks. But now designers, producers of content and authors tend to think of it as a medium.

The Internet is becoming a new medium that has both reach and reciprocity. Broadcast technology has tremendous reach but no reciprocity. Phone calls have very limited reach, one on one, but a lot of reciprocity. With the multicast backbone, what we call the "M-bone," which can continuously connect many users at the same time, a new kind of medium begins to emerge. It will be a medium that combines the best of broadcast and narrowcast to create a new kind of midcast technology that actually has both reach and reciprocity. That is going to be very interesting.

Second, if you are brought up on the Net, so to speak, you find that there is no sharp boundary between production and consumption. As you produce, you consume. As you consume, you produce. As you buy something, you leave behind recommendations, for example. So there is a continual flow between production and consumption and almost every transaction can be viewed as partly production and partly consumption. The boundary between consumption and production becomes fluid.

S&B: Eric Schmidt, the chairman and chief executive officer of Novell Inc., says that we are inevitably going from a transaction-based economy to a relationship-based economy.

J.S. BROWN: Yes, but I also want to enhance activity - being engaged. We tend to draw fixed boundaries: You write a book, you read something. But in the world I am talking about, reading and writing become part and parcel of the same activity.

That then completely transforms the different kinds of relationships you have. It is a very subtle but profound shift when you move from fixed boundaries to fluid boundaries and a move that touches on the gift economy as well.

S&B: What do you mean by the gift economy?

J.S. BROWN: Well, look at open source - the software made available by a group of people in many cases free of charge and free for any programmer to modify, improve or share with other programmers. Could you imagine open source catching on five years ago?

S&B: And now we have Linux, free of charge.

J.S. BROWN: But more important to me is that it was an emergent phenomenon from a community working together with no immediate form of recompense except for social capital intertwined with intellectual capital. This group produces and consumes each other's creations, forming a tremendous amount of social capital within that community of practice.

Let me throw out a potentially provocative analogy. Historically, leisure used to mean freedom in work. Leisure now has come to mean freedom from work. In the days of a more craft-based economy, you had a sense of self-expression through your work. Curiously, in the Internet Age, we are going back to that sense of leisure. If we can actually reach that earlier stage of freedom in work, think how that could transform the whole workplace. Think how that could transform the knowledge economy in terms of creating both meaning in our lives and financial capital.

So we could be entering into a really interesting dislocation. If we could actually move from one sense of leisure - freedom from work - to this other sense of leisure - freedom in work - it would be profound. We would have unleashed a constructivist notion of learning and meaning and identity creation all in one.

S&B: I heard Raymond J. Lane, president and chief operating officer of the Oracle Corporation, say recently that the good news is the Internet may be the permanent state of information technology. I can see where Mr. Lane might want to believe that is true, but I wonder how that possibly can be true. Could anything be permanent?

J.S. BROWN: Most of what is happening here involves people who are taking a look at how to restructure their value chain, or restructure their architecture of revenue, or change their value chain into a value web by using the Internet. You have to be able to look at how something is being done and realize it doesn't have to be done that way. Also notice that many of the new startups today are not really based on technology innovation.

S&B: No, it is business models.

J.S. BROWN: It is business model innovations.

S&B: So many of the early plays on the Internet seem to be about disintermediation.

J.S. BROWN: Well, reintermediation.

S&B: Okay. How do you differentiate there?

J.S. BROWN: Take Amazon.com. What are you reintermediating? Initially it was just a fast way to get books on a 24-7 basis. Then they put in recommendations and built a community. Then with that community they started to get the affiliate programs because they had all the back-room operations set up so they could then get those affiliate programs at no cost. They reintermediated by bringing in reviews and recommendation systems, and constructing communities - all around book distribution. So they disintermediated the bookstore, but reintermediated the community as recommender.

S&B: There has got to be room for a new kind of business model that doesn't simply disintermediate something in the bricks-and-mortar world.

J.S. BROWN: Yes. Here is an example that is part of our new book contract. Our contract with the publisher says that we can build our own Web site and can sell the book ourselves - out of my garage. They ship me a carload of books at a set price and I can sell them any way that I want. I could also charge a few pennies for autographing it or, more likely, set up a discussion group around the topic and possibly charge for that. Who knows?

S&B: How might the Web affect learning in general?

J.S. BROWN: In 1950, we had television as a new medium. That could have been harnessed as a learning platform - the British Broadcasting Corporation surely did it for a while. In the United States, it became solely a form of entertainment. That led to a lot of passivity in how you received information, which may have moved us away from a culture of learning.

This whole idea of the fluidity between production and consumption, this ability to interact around content and socially construct our understandings of that content, and possibly even supplement it, facilitated by the Web, may lead away from pure entertainment to edutainment, in the deepest sense of the word. Basically, more and more people on the Web are now discovering that it is pleasurable - a form of leisure - to engage in discovery, discussion and socially constructing joint understandings.

It is very exciting that a culture of learning could emerge in the first part of the 21st century. But this is quite a different view of learning from the pedagogy of transmission of information. Here we would be trying to create a milieu of learnees.

S&B: What does that mean to the great learning institutions?

J.S. BROWN: I think we are going to find that every learning institution - starting with our school system but also moving all the way up through the research universities - is going to be radically transformed or go out of business. Every business school I know in the United States is scrambling to create distance learning for their executive education programs. These universities are competing with each other to sell their education services to companies around the world.

We also need to step back and rethink and redesign the entire "system" of higher education. How do we get more synergy between the elements of higher education like community colleges, state colleges and universities, and how do each of these leverage the Web for combining on-campus learning with workplace learning - learning, not training? Locally optimizing each element almost never produces an overall system optimization.

S&B: I read a paper you wrote, "The Future of the University in the Digital Age," which was both about the failure of technology to transform education and a blueprint for re-engineering education using technology. I am struck by the fact that if you visit a university today students are making dates on their palmtops and they all have T1 lines to their dorm rooms, but the learning processes haven't changed to any great extent.

J.S. BROWN: Neither the good nor the bad learning processes have changed. What we would like to do is to transform the bad and maintain the good. By that I mean most of what we learn at the university is not in the classroom per se. It is interacting with each other. It is being exposed to diverse communities of scholars. It is also interacting with graduate students, faculty and visiting lecturers. We have the ability to apprentice either by lurking or by officially apprenticing to the masters in that university, and so on. So it is not a question of just taking a set of courses, which is what you get with distance learning.

On the other hand, there may be a way to do some distance learning combined with some on-campus learning. There may be much better ways to use the assets that are already in place. It may not make sense to drive across town just to go to hear a lecture, for instance. Why can't I go into some local place such as a community college, even if I do go to the major university, and have a study group there that will watch and discuss a video-transmitted lecture with me? Or why can't I just get that on the Web, but then be able to count on having a personal relationship with the teaching instructor, because I have been on campus the previous semester and have established a relationship with him there? We need to consider hybrid forms of learning, learning on campus augmented by the Web, etc.

S&B: I think there is a sense that there has always been a value in being immersed in that milieu - living it.

J.S. BROWN: Right. In some ways we look at it as "the virtual extends the physical" - it does not replace it. So we are looking at a lot of our own work and how to complement the physical, not replace it. So many people think that you have to replace the newspaper with a digital newspaper instead of thinking how to complement the physical newspaper with a digital source. They think we are going to replace the bricks-and-mortar university with a virtual university, not how we can augment the physical university with virtual capabilities so we can extend our learning relationships after we leave the campus - to continue conversations with favorite professors, 10, 20 years later. So we build a community of learners, starting from the shared social experiences on campus.

S&B: Going over your papers I came across these two phrases that I think are related: "the knowledge ecology" or "ecology of learning." Tell me what those phrases mean.

J.S. BROWN: A knowledge ecology can be looked at in the small and in the large. In the small, take Xerox PARC for example. The key for keeping Xerox PARC at the cutting edge is, first of all, creating a milieu that brings new ideas together, then combines them in new ways to create yet more new ideas. The challenge is to create a milieu in which people can take the risks of going beyond their own disciplines and enter the white space between fields. The white space by definition is almost totally unexplored. So if you really want to know where the high hit rate is for radical new ideas, it sits between the traditional academic disciplines.

You have to build a risk-taking environment and then you have to build an environment in which people come together on their own accord. It has to be authentic. Then there is a very interesting question: How can you act as the agent of husbandry in a knowledge ecology? One answer is that lab managers have to help their researchers get to the root of their own intuitions. The managers have to make sure that their researchers are grounded on the one hand, but are also refining and enhancing their intuitions through that grounding.

Then you have to look at how you craft the physical space to facilitate informal interactions. For example, at PARC you will find wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling white boards everywhere. As researchers start a conversation, enough of their conversation is laid out on the white board so that someone coming by, from the periphery, can catch a glimpse, find it interesting and then move from the periphery to the center of the conversation by being able to pick up the context. Where do you put these types of white boards? Near a coffee pot. When a fresh pot of coffee is brewed, the coffee pot sends a signal over the Ethernet announcing that. That helps to bring people together. Sure - a simple hack, but nevertheless, effective.

S&B: How does the concept of "communities of practice" fit into that?

J.S. BROWN: Well, very often you really are bringing different communities of practice together, not just individuals. So a community of practice is a set of people who have been working together over a long period of time and building a very rich set of shared experiences through their shared practices - have their own genre for speaking and so on. They have their own trust mechanisms built up because they know what each of them can do. That makes ideas flow very, very easily inside the community, but that also tends to create barriers between communities. What we discover is that most new ideas actually arise out of the community of practice, not out of a single individual. Hence, you can think of communities of practice as the knowledge-producing entities of the knowledge ecology.

S&B: How does this notion relate to kinds of learning environments?

J.S. BROWN: Now the same idea starts to play out in creating a learning ecology, leveraging the Internet. Virtually any kid, no matter how specialized his interest is, can find other kids around the world who share the same interests. So they create their own little community of interest in which they share information and explore ideas together. Kids of every age - 6 to 60 - become their own micro research group and construct their own understanding of phenomena. Depending on the subject matter, this could be a sizable community or not. New people can link and lurk on the periphery until they feel they contribute, then join. So it becomes a natural little element of a broader ecology, because most of us on the Web are members of multiple communities of interest. You start to have, in essence, all kinds of linkages, so you have a rich, evolving ecology constantly constructing new insights, combining fragments of different ideas and leveraging creative abrasion and cross-pollination.

S&B: That goes back to your sense of creating a place where people are comfortable in the white space between disciplines. On the Net, that just sort of happens organically.

J.S. BROWN: Yes, it does happen organically, and the question is, how to leverage that for accelerating or facilitating learning and for grinding new conceptual lenses for "seeing differently." It is a completely different dynamic from the mechanistic model of teaching. The past hundred years has been based on the factory-model of teaching - we educated kids to work in factories during the Industrial Revolution and we use industrial metaphors to form our methods of education. We are now beginning to use biological or ecological notions that afford us the opportunity to rethink possible institutional regimes for learning.

S&B: Does judgment become more important on the Web?

J.S. BROWN: Absolutely! The role of judgment becomes critical. On the Web, most information does not have an institutional warranty behind it, which really means that you have to learn to exercise much more judgment. For example, if you want to borrow a piece of code or use a fact, you have to assess the believability of the information. If you find something in the library, you do not have to think very hard about its believability. If it is on the Web, you have to think pretty hard. So the irony is, to be literate on the Web, you have to be more facile at making judgments.

Thus, we are now creating a medium that takes us right back to the 1700's and to what enabled our democracy to exist, because democracy requires a deliberate populace that is capable of making judgments. Have we just created something that goes to the heart of that issue? We have, and yet we are sitting around and bemoaning the problems with the Net in terms of getting kids exposed to wrong information instead of seeing that the Net forces kids to make judgments. I think that you begin to see quite a different momentum developing that could be very encouraging for the 21st century.

S&B: Let's talk a little bit about the institutionalization of innovation. It seems that the business world has changed in ways that would make it very difficult to start something akin to one of the great research labs today, given the pressure for short-term earnings growth and cost-cutting. Is there still a place for the kind of unfettered research that has gone on at Xerox PARC, Bell Labs [a division of Lucent Technologies Inc.] and the Sarnoff Corporation, or should we count on academia for that?

J.S. BROWN: Well, one has to be very careful with those terms. If by "unfettered research," you mean solely curiosity-driven, then you will not find that in corporate research centers. But what you find here at Xerox PARC is what we call pioneering research, which is very far from applied research.

In pioneering research, we know the strategic intent of the corporation, and then our mission becomes how to help enact that intent. How do we marinate in the fundamental problems of the corporation and the world, go to the root of these problems, crack them and from that create the new platforms of growth for the corporation, platforms that have lasting impact on the world?

So here at Xerox PARC our job is to hit home runs. We do not do incremental research. We do not tinker with improving products. That is better accomplished in the business divisions. Here we are trying to create completely new kinds of user experiences, such as this hyperbolic-tree browser. Here we want to create radical new technologies for printing, so you can print a document in your office as inexpensively as The New York Times prints the pages of its papers, but still have the printer fit on a desktop. Is that possible? Likewise, can we create a printer that makes no noise, unlike the print shops or printers that you are used to?

We started taking on that problem here. Well, you could build a printer that makes no noise by either building noise cancellation systems, or by building a printer with no moving parts. A printer with no moving parts is an oxymoron - or is it? Maybe you can actually build a million micromachines that operate at a microscopic level. When you look at it, it looks as if nothing is moving - yet it is printing. It turns out that we can do that. We call it smart matter - an arena in which we bring computation into the material itself. In many ways, these machines seem more organic than not.

To build vast collections of microscopic machines, each machine doing a microscopic piece of work, but now all orchestrated by an Internet built into the piece of material - I call it bringing the telecosm to the microcosm. We can show you beams, structural beams that can be made many times stronger by being able to sense buckling waves and then cancel those waves, very much like the way you cancel a sound wave, thereby strengthening the beams many times.

So, it is a beautiful example of saying, "Let's go to the root of a major problem." By cracking that, it turns out that you crack a lot of other problems at the same time and those breakthroughs then play out over many areas of use. We then exploit this radical technique for our areas of use - those having to do with "the document company" - and then we license the new technique for other areas of use. So, for example, the kind of printer we are dreaming about right now may just be able to print DNA. That could be its own billion-dollar business, which we would spin out.

S&B: Yes, I suppose depositing nucleotides would not be all that different from depositing ink drops.

J.S. BROWN: Right. So here is a case of, if you are going for the home runs, you know why you are doing it. You do not try to circumvent obstacles; rather, you go to the root of what stands in the way. Then you cannot help but discover something that is going to be incredibly powerful for the company but also have all kinds of auxiliary applications.

Crucially, we also have to be ambidextrous! We have to think about the business models that the technology enables as much as the technology itself.

S&B: One of the interpretations of why Xerox did not capitalize on the Alto computer and some of the other technologies that were developed here was that they did not fit the business model that was in place at the time.

J.S. BROWN: That is a fair assessment. Of course what is not well understood is that we did capitalize on all that technology and that is what revolutionized both the laser printing game, which we invented here, and also the copier game.

In the early 80's Xerox had lost an astronomical amount of its market share to Japan Inc. Instead of focusing on the PC, we took every piece of technology in this building, including the Ethernet and distributed processing, put it inside a light lens copier and revolutionized copy quality. In 1984 we even had artificial-intelligence systems inside the copier that would diagnose how the machine was wearing out, download that diagnosis to the home office and prepare the tech rep to swing by with just the right parts at just the right time to fix the machine. I believe PARC's innovations helped save the company. To believe that we could have fought the war of Japan Inc. at the same time and launch another business with a radically different business model was beyond the cognitive or operational capacity of Xerox - at least at that time.

S&B: Today you have the flexibility to take some of these new ideas forward and form startups and actually retain an ownership; before you did not have a stake in 3Com or Adobe or Metaphor.

J.S. BROWN: We are set up now to very rapidly get our own seed funding, to do a market validation of the value proposition. We can spin an entity all the way out, maintaining 20 percent equity; view it as a stand-alone inside the company, giving employees 20 percent equity; or ship it immediately to the business division as some kind of an options play. On top of that, of course, we also patent everything and we have a new business group that just handles patents and licensing.

S&B: The big research universities used to be kind of laissez-faire about their inventions, but now you see Stanford and M.I.T. very actively marketing and other schools rushing to adopt that model. Do you find you are competing with them? Can you partner with them? Is there a relationship between a place like Xerox PARC and those schools?

J.S. BROWN: I think that we are trying to find much more creative ways to bring industry and the research universities together - to find a new kind of research enterprise, maybe, that is a win/win situation for both.

What form that is going to take, I don't know. It needs to be an ecology of experiments. We are leading several of them here, in the way we work with full professors who are full time on campuses but are here during the summer with all their graduate students. We have very clear separations between the proprietary work they do here, which is often an application of the theoretical work they did on campus. So, in some ways it works out incredibly well, especially when it is easy to separate what is done where while still achieving real synergy. The experiences of the students here will ground the theory they are getting in academe, and the theory being created in academe is being informed by real problems outside.

Reprint No. 99410


Authors
Lawrence M. Fisher, [email protected], covered technology for the New York Times for 15 years and has written for dozens of other publications. Mr. Fisher, who is based in San Francisco, is a recipient of the Hearst Award for investigative journalism.
 
 
 
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