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Xerox comes up with a new kind of PC

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Xerox learns its lessons and comes up with a new kind of PC

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1993, The Syracuse Newspapers

It's not true that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Xerox did that when it invented the modern personal computer, but somebody else got the credit and the dough.

Yes, Xerox, the copier company. This story's been told before, so I'll just mention it in passing. In the 1970s, the Xerox research lab in Palo Alto, Calif. came up with a new way of working with a computer. Instead of typing commands onto a blank screen, you pushed a mouse around the desk and clicked the button on little pictures called icons. Programs showed up in windows on the screen.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? That's because the founders of Apple Computer visited the Xerox lab one day in the early ‘80s and liked what they saw. They asked if they could borrow the mouse-and-window idea for a computer they were working on, and got Xerox's approval. (Xerox didn't even ask for a license fee or payment of any kind.)

The result, of course, was the Apple Macintosh. And, later, Microsoft Windows.

What Xerox didn't do, as we can see now, was market its invention properly. It tried to sell a mouse-and-window computer called the Star, but that failed. Apple knew how to get the message of modern computing across, and the billions of dollars that have billowed into Apple from sales of the Mac have proven that better mousetraps need to be sold, not just invented.

But now Xerox is at it again—this time, with careful control over who gets the profits (Xerox, of course!) if its new idea succeeds.

The idea is both revolutionary and amazingly simple. It starts out with the concept of a small, easy-to-carry computer that can read your handwriting. This computer would be of various dimensions, from the size and shape of a Post-It Note pad to a general size of a legal pad.

Here is where Xerox adds a revolutionary touch. This notepad computer would not function on its own. It would send everything you scribble on it to a much more powerful computer by radio waves or by infrared beams (Xerox is trying both methods), and it would receive data back from that computer to show it on the notepad screen.

The best part is this: The notepad computers would be all over the home or office, just like regular notepads or Post-It Notes are now. When you picked up one of these notepads, a little ID card in your pocket would tell it who you are, and it would signal the main computer to send your electronic mail (or your checkbook balance, or whatever) to the notepad you are holding, and of course it would save anything you wrote on the notepad in the main computer's memory.

This turns the entire concept of "personal" computing upside down. The notepad would not necessarily belong to you, any more than a blank piece of paper does. You just grab it and write something down. You could be in an airport terminal or at the public library and do the same thing—you scribble something on a notepad, and put it down when you are through.

(Would people steal these things? Sure, just like they steal pencils and pads now. But they'd be very cheap, and you'd be able to buy a carton of notepad communications devices at the stationery store for $20 or $30.)

Xerox knows there are a lot of drawbacks—the range of the radio or infrared signal, for one thing—but the promise of this invention is immense. The biggest roadblock right now is getting everything miniaturized. And small screen displays aren't quite good enough yet.

But you can expect a product like this to reach the market within five years or so. It's one of those ideas that just have to succeed on its brilliance alone—if Xerox can market it right. One thing's certain: This time, Xerox won't be giving the concept away to visitors.

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