The past century may have brought us unprecedented technological advancement, but it’s also a metaphorical graveyard of dozens of businesses that failed to innovate, or failed to see opportunities, and were consequently wiped off the map.
Many of those businesses were giants of their times, solid organisations with near monopolies and worth billions of dollars; but along the way something went horribly wrong and they disappeared in almost no time.
If companies today are to survive the next decade, they’ll be well advised to study those that failed closely and draw lessons from their examples.
Of all the failures of the 20th century, none were as spectacularly unfortunate as the story of the graphical user interfaces (GUIs) on computers.
Until the mid-1980s, the only way to navigate through your computer was via what we call the “Command Prompt” or “Terminal” today.
All you had was a black screen with text indicating the current folder you were in. You needed to type in commands to navigate the system and open apps.
Then, in 1984, Apple released the first commercially available computer with a GUI, the Apple Lisa. The machine was a huge success.
Apple was followed by a number of other companies, most notably Microsoft, who released the first version of their Windows operating system in 1894.
Thanks to the cutting edge technology and extreme convenience, the graphical interfaces were a massive success and kicked off a whole new era of computing. They were nothing short of transformational.
But who actually invented the graphical user interface?
Some people will say Microsoft, others might say Apple, but it was neither. The company that invented the GUI was one that is not at all associated with computers: Xerox.
Xerox released the first computer with a GUI in 1973, more than a decade before the launch of Apple’s Lisa. In computing terms, a decade is more than a lifetime.
The Xerox Alto, as the computer was called, was truly ground-breaking, decades ahead of its time. In some ways, the release of the Alto was far more remarkable than the release of the iPhone.
Whereas the iPhone was built on a number of existing technologies, the Alto was innovation in its true form: they really brought something new into existence that never existed before.
The Alto was an amazing machine, even by today’s standards. It introduced a number of software concepts still in use today.
Because Xerox was a printer company, their aim was to was to revolutionise the printing industry; hence, they developed desktop publishing software especially for the Alto. They were the first to create a word processor, a drawing programme and a photo editor.
Users could use the visual, WYSIWIG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) software, not too different from today’s generation of software, to prepare documents like letters, posters and pamphlets for printing.
They could then print those documents via a built-in printer that was attached to the Alto. Bear in mind, this was in the early 1970s.
The question is, why isn’t Xerox known for this?
Xerox has a unique place in innovation history where, rather than failing to innovate, they innovated something that was truly remarkable, but made a single mistake: they did not see its true potential.
Not only that, but some people at Xerox saw the Alto as a threat to their printer business. The result was that the Alto was relegated to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, or Parc, as it’s popularly known, where it was put on display for visitors to see as the “future of computing”.
Around 1979, a brilliant young entrepreneur happened to visit Parc, and he saw the Alto. Immediately, a light bulb went on in his head, and he saw its potential. He arranged for his team to receive a demo of the system.
This entrepreneur was Steve Jobs, and not five years later, the Apple Lisa was released, being largely inspired by the Alto.
Lisa was a massive success, launched Apple into one of the forerunners in the crowded computer market and helped the company to bolster its place in technology and corporate history.
Seeing the success of the Lisa, Xerox attempted to bring the Alto to market, but it was too late: the Lisa had taken too much of the market share, and by then other competitors were already riding the bandwagon.
Fast-forward four decades, and Apple and Microsoft dominate the tech industry, and were among the first companies in history to pass the trillion-dollar valuation mark.
As for Xerox, in early 2018 the company was absorbed into FujiFilm Holdings, ending a 115-year run as an independent company.
“Xerox is the poster child for monopoly technology businesses that cannot make the transition to a new generation of technology,” according to David B Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School.