Is Google’s X Lab the Xerox PARC of Our Day?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I had the distinct privilege of serving on the Xerox PARC Venture advisory board. This arm of Xerox PARC was created in the heyday of the early internet and was designed to look at technology inside Xerox PARC and mine the IP to either find ways to productize it or license it to bring new revenues into this hallowed research facility. High tech historians know some of the most important PC technology created were done so at Xerox PARC. Things like the mouse, ethernet, the Graphical User Interface, Object Oriented programming, laser printers and the original concept of the tablet/laptop, Alan Kay’s DynaBook, were all developed inside this lab. Historians will also know that, while these were developed at PARC, most were commercialized outside of the company and, in many cases, Xerox did not make much money from these inventions.

I have to admit that during this time I was like a kid in a candy store. The advisory board would meet at various Xerox locations around the world and researchers and scientists would show us what they were working on. We would then research the feasibility or marketability of the products put in front of us. A few would actually be sponsored by this Xerox Venture fund along with various VCs, while others would be licensed for use by big companies and start ups who could use the IP to build and grow their companies. My NDA from this project prohibits me from telling what was funded or licensed but, during the time I spent as an advisor, we saw a few technologies come out of the labs and make it to the market, mostly through licensing agreements.

But what I discovered during my time as an advisor to the Xerox Venture Group was that these PARC researchers pretty much had carte blanche to go off and create the things of their imagination. While there were many projects around strategic goals for Xerox, some things I was shown were just one-off interesting inventions. For example, one product I saw I can comment on was a two-handed mouse. The guys behind this were convinced it would revolutionize computer input. However, using it was impossible since both hands would be tied up using the mouse and neither could be used to type at the same time. As you can imagine, this one did not get out the door.

Of course, Xerox PARC is not the only important research lab in Silicon Valley. SRI, HP, Intel and many others continue to do ground-breaking research that impacts our tech world. However, one lab in the Valley has the feel of Xerox PARC in that they seem to be open to working on all types of technology ideas that go way beyond the strategic goals of the company. Google’s X Lab has emerged as one of the more interesting tech research labs on the planet and, given their financial means, they could have a great impact on the role technology plays in our lives in the future.

Some of the publicly known research projects include self-driving cars, space elevators, Project Loon (balloons that hover over areas without internet connection and give access), Project Wing (a drone delivery service), Google Contact Lenses that monitor glucose in tears, a wind power company called Makani Power, Lift Labs, makers of a tremor-canceling spoon for Parkinson patients, artificial neural networks for speech recognition, the Web of Things, Google Glasses, a hoverboard, and even experiments in teleportation.

These are publicly known projects but who knows what else Google X Labs is doing given a similar approach and what appears to be a strong commitment to broad research and a hefty budget to back it.

Of great personal interest to me are the contact lenses that can monitor blood sugar. As a diabetic, this particular research could make my life very different. Today, I have to test my blood at least four times a day to adjust my insulin doses. The idea behind these contact lenses is, when worn, they use tears and take a blood sugar measurement to give people accurate readings a diabetic patient can act on. Diabetes has become a huge problem all over the world and perfecting this technology could be a major breakthrough for diabetes care. However, this project underscores the idea that Google’s X Lab has the latitude to do research projects well beyond their strategic interests and do what are often referred to as “moonshots” or creating new technologies that could have major worldwide impact.

Over the years, I have advised various research labs in my work but most were highly focused on creating strategic technologies that would benefit their bottom line. That does not seem to be case with Google’s X Lab. From what I hear, they are also working on food projects dealing with world hunger, environmental projects for protecting the planet and many others that appear to stray well beyond their bottom line interests. I applaud Google’s Xerox PARC-like approach to research with X Labs and am intrigued that this lab has emerged as what might be called “the Xerox PARC of our age”.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

1,366 thoughts on “Is Google’s X Lab the Xerox PARC of Our Day?”

  1. By drawing parallels between Google X and PARC, are you implying that a scrappy small startup will come along, steal what Google X is doing, commercialise it, and revolutionise an industry? All while Google fails to commercialise it themselves? You’re certainly referring to that PARC/Apple story in paragraph one.

    That’s the first thing that came to my mind, and I would like to know if that was your intention. It’s certainly something I’ve been thinking about ever since 1993, when I was shown basic research labs run by commercial companies with no clear business goal, during the bubble economy in Japan. As you would expect, these labs were shuttered a bit after the bubble burst.

    1. the difference could be due to the fact that Google has the means, the brand, relations with many OEM’s, the market force and dominance, and also the most important platform for future technology to market their own breakthrough and a army of lawyer to protect their IP,

      1. I am pretty sure that Xerox was dominant in the field of photocopiers in much the same way that Google is dominant in search today. Maybe even more so.

        For example, just like you often use word “google” as a verb, I know that at least in Japan, “xerox” was also a verb that was synonymous with “take a photocopy”.

    2. That’s a possibility, and it would still be good: something new would come out of it., too bad for Google if they’re not savvy enough to spot it/use it.
      What I find interesting is the contrast between Google and other tech giants.
      MS Research seems to be doing interesting stuff too, but it feels like there’s a strong vetting stage, where anything that doesn’t reinforce their existing position gets vetoed.
      Apple seems very private about their research. It’s delivered either ready for purchase with the full PR spiel, or not at all. And it’s very bursty: launch a new category, then iterate buying innovators or copying from others, rinse, repeat. Billion-dollar question: what’s the next thing that can be made sexier and easier ? I’m betting desktops+laptops+consoles. Those seem right for iOSization ?
      IBM seem to be doing mostly basic research, not so much development ? I’m wondering if they’re not the actual PARC heir, progressing stuff for others to develop.
      More recent upstarts (Facebook) seem to be doing only development, no real research ?

      1. My understanding is that the research at PARC was bold, but it was based on an accurate prediction by Xerox that some time in the future, people will stop passing around paper and using photocopiers. Instead, Xerox predicted that they would communicate via computers, and Xerox wanted to dominate in that era as well. PARC’s task was very clear and focused in this regard.

        What Google is doing now is much more aimless than what PARC was doing. For this reason, I actually expect the outcome of Google X to be much worse than PARC.

        1. Yes and no. I am not sure Google’s research is aimless and not strategic. We just don’t know, but clearly some of the projects our outside their wheel house.

        2. PARC appeared to be Xerox’s way of “giving back to the world” rather than strategic investment, being awash with cash in the days of photocopier-dominated global corporations. It took the visits of Intel and DEC to make them realise the awesomeness of the Ethernet technology that Bob Metcalfe had developed for their internal use and then create a consortium (DIX) to monetise and standardise its use.

          Even Steve Jobs frenzied and childlike reaction to the GUI technology PARC pioneered (well documented by PARC technicians present at the time), coupled with Apple’s offer of $1 million in shares to license the technology, failed to rouse Xerox out of their strategic slumber with regard to the ground-breaking stuff their scientists were coming up with.

          Remember PostScript? Object Orientated Programming? All made in PARC Xerox and monetised elsewhere. While PARC techies were pretty well aware of the ramifications of their breakthroughs, apparently the Xerox suits, miles away in their ivory towers, couldn’t see through the mountains of cash they were generating then…

          1. Yes, that seems to be what the books on the history of the Mac suggest. Unfortunately, we may be hearing just one side of the story. Little is known about what held the Xerox suits in their “ivory towers” back from commercialising PARC’s inventions.

            This is a problem.

            Because we don’t know what blinded Xerox, we don’t have a good idea of whether future companies like Google will be able to capitalise on their very own “moonshots”. We don’t know whether Google will be able to avoid becoming Xerox, or whether it is following the same path. The one thing that we can be certain of however, is that Xerox was so wildly successful that it must have easily been able to hire some of the best and brightest people on the planet, just as Google is doing right now. The Xerox suits might have been in an ivory tower, but they were not dumb. (And one can also argue that Google seems to have a nice ivory tower too)

            Tim’s comment above is very insightful in this regard;

            A scrappy start(up) could take the research focus or concept and commercialize it as a single product easier and faster than Google since Google would always be having to focus on its strategic link to the overall business model.

          2. This isn’t so much about what books suggest as what former PARC engineers have revealed in interviews.

            They are on record (interviews abound on YouTube and the like) as saying they were desperately trying to hide stuff from the likes of Steve Jobs, who had PARC access granted from “above their heads” – Steve himself, in his usual outspoken manner, is on record as well, querying Xerox’s lack of strategic motivation given the implications of what he had seen there, and making predictions as to the consequences of those lapses…

            While there is much hindsight to be learned by today’s incumbents, one worrying fact is hard to ignore – the only thing Mankind learns from history is that Mankind learns nothing from history, a bizarre and troubling paradox…

          3. Yes, I’ve read about those interviews in the books. What I haven’t read is the accounts by the Xerox management at that time in the “ivory towers”.

            Maybe if we were given a more complete and balanced description of history, then we might learn.

      2. “Billion-dollar question: what’s the next thing that can be made sexier and easier ? ” This is indeed an interesting question. My bet on it is that something to do with an integrated work-life lifestyle.

        I think that we are moving into direction where there will be no clear boundaries between work and personal life anymore.

        Globalization means that your colleagues in China start working and expect you to answer their emails or phone calls late at night. So you have to come home from work and then work from home late at night. Also you can make money on Internet from home. Another example is Uber. People can use their own car and switch between work and personal life as they please. So they need something they can use 24/7.

        I think the battleground for these new gadgets will be in Small Business segment because this is where boundaries are very weak.

    3. A scrappy start could take the research focus or concept and commercialize it as a single product easier and faster than Google since Google would always be having to focus on its strategic link to the overall business model.

      1. Tim, i’m not sure there’s an overall business model for Google’s innovations, except for the need to make money somehow. Google explains it as – “we’re trying to solve big problem, when we do , rewards will come”.

        Do you see it differently ?

      2. Won’t a good patent strategy work against a startup ? why didn’t xerox PARC didn’t use that ?

        1. If you read the history of Xerox PARC they did patent many things. But some were in early stages of an idea and in the case of the UI they showed Jobs work in progress. Those working on thus project did not want Jobs to see it but they were over ruled.

      3. Tim , does Google becoming alphabet solves that issue , in you mind ?

        Also, aren’t many of the projects Google-X takes not within the reach of startups ?

        1. I suspect that is why Alphabet was created however these companies are still under the Google influence and could only do this if they got good financial support and are let alone by the mother ship. As for Google X Projects, sure others could do this but Google does have the marketing clout to make them much more successful.

    1. Some of them do…but in the end they all could depending on what business model is applied to each.

  2. The sandbox approach seems to be working for both Microsoft and Google. Self driving cars is a product of Google X and Kinect was a product of Microsoft research. Of course not all of their projects can be productized. On a question of Apple innovation vs. Google/Microsoft innovation they have a very different approach. Apple is run by artists and designers and Microsoft/Google is run by engineers and scientists. And every good engineer when he is approached with a new idea asks “What is the utility?” and artist asks “Where is the beauty?”.

    1. Great points…I have worked with both groups and the key is having each group talking to each other and working together. That does not always happen though

    2. True, certainly to a degree. However, you miss a third question which bridges the two; and this is a question that is key to the success of Apple: What is the utility to the end user, and how can we make it as easy or desirable as possible for the end user (by changing behavior for the better if necessary) to actually take advantage of that utility to a degree that makes it worth pursuing? That’s where sitting at the crossroads of humanities and technology comes into play.

      1. “What is the utility to the end user, ”

        I think it is a bit of a variation, though. I think, either in parallel or just before that, they ask “Is this something _I_ would use?” I think that was certainly the case with Jobs. I think every successful product from Apple and a few of the missteps started out and was released as Steve Jobs as user #1. I think Cook and Ive think that way, too. But I am less convinced of their efficacy.

        Joe

    3. …’coz no company is run y financiers asking “where the revenue/margin” and no strategist asking where’s the lock-in 🙂

  3. I don’t know, Tim. PARC focused on bite-sized practical projects that, when taken together over time, steered the computer industry. Google X projects, by their own admission, are “moonshots” that (with obvious exceptions) don’t seem to be faring very well beyond generating buzz. Perhaps a better equivalent model would be Bell Labs, scaled? Their work was felt in so many disparate disciplines.