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Innovation vs Iteration: XEROX’s Laser Printer.

By September 27, 2013 No Comments

Nearly every organisation we meet in our Luna Tractor travels talks about wanting more innovation, and some that they are looking to techniques like Agile to get it. There’s a problem with this though: Agile is fundamentally about iteration and making calculated incremental changes. That’s not to say that innovation isn’t also an iterative process because it typically is; the issue is that true innovation – the invention of new and unique things – requires more than just an iterative learning cycle.

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Throughout the history of science we see the same discoveries being made in different places around the same time; I have to believe therefore that someone would have invented a laser printer eventually. Xerox’s 9700 Laser Printer was the most commercially successful idea to come out of their PARC labs, but it almost wasn’t invented by Xerox at all.

The Laser Printer’s story begins with Gary Starkweather, having only narrowly chosen optics over nuclear physics, seeing Theodore Mainman’s first pink ruby laser created at the Hughes Research Lab in Malibu. This laser revolutionised the field of optics forever and inspired Starkweather’s masters research. He ended up working at Xerox PARC’s older internal rival, the Xerox Webster Labs, trying to get traction for the idea of using lasers to create images in copier drums rather than the present crude approach using lenses. Having gotten as far as creating a basic prototype as a side project and yet still he couldn’t get traction with either the theoreticians or the business types who wanted him to focus on improving the lenses in their existing designs instead:

“What’s the point of painting at 200 dots per inch?”

“Where will you ever get 1,000,000 bits of information?” (That’s less than 1/10th of 1 MB.)

Starkweather also realised that his laser approach would allow a way to use data created directly on a computer to make computer printouts as we know them today – a problem not previously well solved in computer science circles. In response to all this his section manager said…

“Stop, or I’m going to take your people away.”

He read in an internal newsletter about the new PARC lab being built on the West Coast and tried to get transfered. Again his boss rebuffed him.

“Forget it, Gary … you’re never going to be moved to the West Coast. And you’re to stop playing around with that laser stuff.”

Eventually Starkweather made a successful appeal to a more senior manager, George White, who as chance would have it had spent some time at university working with lasers during his physics degree also. He saw the potential and had Gary transfered over to the PARC Labs against all corporate protocols.

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By 1971 it had taken 11 years from the time Gary Starkweather started studying optics at university until he and his team created a working laser printer in the PARC labs. The story continues as the team then had to work out how to feed data to this new printer. Another knucklehead move by the administration saw the computer science team moved about 2 miles away from Starkweather’s lab … ‘just for a year’ … This limitation led to the creation of a modulated laser link to transfer data between the labs, and apart from the concern it caused folks who saw the red beam on cutting through the air on foggy mornings it worked flawlessly.

Despite everyone at PARC using their laser printer internally to print millions of pages it still took years for the rest of Xerox to catch up with some corporate behaviour so boneheaded (and disturbingly familiar) that it hurts to read about. The story concludes in 1977 with the 9700 printer finally being launched after three cancelations of the product. It was one of Xerox’s best-selling product of all time.

While Gary and team did use iterative appraoches to work through their problem lists, solving them one by one, it took quite a bit more than that to drive the true innovation. They also needed:

– A long term outlook with no guarantee of success.
– Freedom from traditional ROI measures and governance.
– Ceative and alternative thinkers with clear mental space.
– Sources of inspiration and new ideas. This came from bringing together the disparate fields of optics and computer science.
– Separation and air cover from the traditonal Xerox organisation.

True innovation is time consuming, unpredictable and hardwork. That’s why we’re still waiting on our flying cars.

Ref: Dealers of Lighting

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