X is for Xerox. To anyone not familiar with computers, this name means photocopiers. But Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre in California has been the source of several wonderful innovations in computing: the graphical user interface (mouse, icons, windows), hypertext, laser printers, and the Ethernet protocol for local area networks.

Xerox Parc was set up in the Seventies to provide new computing ideas. The trouble was, it wasn't good at using them or keeping them to itself, despite employing such top scientists as Alan Kay (who developed the laptop) and Doug Englebart (inventor of the mouse).

One products was the Alto, an "intuitive" computer with a graphical interface. But it needed $100,000 of hardware to work. Not surprisingly, the marketing department felt it wouldn't fly.

Down the street was a small company called Apple, where Steve Wozniak, wanted to create a machine to enable people to work with information in new ways. He arranged to give Xerox a block of stock options in exchange for a tour of Parc and a demonstration of the Alto. He went on to create the Mac, which embodied the Alto's advances: a mouse, windows and an intuitive graphical interface. Xerox Parc is a lot more careful about keeping research to itself, but has never regained the mantle it acquired in those days. The title is spread among people at Apple and MIT's Media Lab.

The shortsightedness of Xerox is set out in Fumbling the future: how Xerox invented, then ignored, the first personal computer by Douglas Smith and Robert Alexander (William Morrow, 1988). If you're thinking of setting up a blue-skies computer research centre, read this first.