A view from Dave Trott: It's not who has the idea. It's who spots it
A view from Dave Trott

It's not who has the idea. It's who spots it

In 1962, Douglas Englebart had a vision.

The Cold War was at its height and the only future anyone could see for computers involved destruction, controlling a network of nuclear missiles.

But Englebart’s vision for computers was to enhance man’s peaceful, creative potential.

And so, for the next six years he worked with a team of like-minded engineers.

In 1968, he demonstrated this in San Francisco in front of a thousand computer experts.

Over 90 minutes he showed the audience possibilities they hadn’t dreamed of.

On stage with him was a 22-foot-high screen and a live link with his colleagues in Menlo Park, 30 miles away.

In 1968, Englebart demonstrated: the computer mouse, hypertext, WISYWIG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get), GUI (graphics-user-interface), word processing, video conferencing, dynamic file linking, revision control, desktop publishing.

He was on screen with his colleagues, 30 miles away, editing each other’s work.

We take it all for granted now, it’s on all laptops, but 50 years ago there were no laptops.

Everyone left the presentation stunned.

But people outside the technology community couldn’t see the point in what he was doing.

So Englebart lost his funding and the project was discontinued.

Several of the people who’d worked with him got jobs at Xerox, who had an experimental West Coast lab called Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC).

They carried on with the work they’d been doing and developed the Alto computer.

It would need big money to make it successful, but Xerox was a huge, rich company.

So they took their "personal computer" to head office in New York, to show the board.

But New York is very different to the West Coast.

What the board saw was hippies, with a crazy idea about computers for ordinary people.

Everyone knew computers were only for business, housed in huge air-conditioned rooms.

And anyway, all this would hurt Xerox’s business, which was paper copiers.

So Xerox head office cancelled the project.

And it was ignored and gathered dust for 15 years.

Until Steve Jobs, who hadn’t known any of this, heard a rumour about the amazing things that PARC had invented ages ago.

Jobs had sold some stock to Xerox, so he was allowed access to PARC labs.

What he saw blew his mind: the computer mouse, pull-down command screens, WISYWIG graphics display.

And Jobs put it all into the 1984 Macintosh, which revolutionised computing.

It had such a game-changing effect that Microsoft copied everything Jobs had copied.

In 1988 Jobs took Microsoft to court, Bill Gates’ defence was as follows:

"Well Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbour named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it."

In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that Microsoft could copy the Macintosh copy of Xerox.

But imagine how the board at Xerox must be kicking themselves.

The people who cancelled the project many years earlier.

Because the lesson for us is in the creative way entrepreneurs respond to ideas.

Apple and Microsoft went on to become two of the biggest companies in the world.

In 2018, Xerox had to sell half its company to Fujifilm and lay off 10,000 workers.

That’s the difference between looking through the windscreen or the rear-view mirror.

Because ideas are everywhere: all around us, all the time.

As I learned from John Webster: creativity isn’t about who has the idea, creativity is about who spots it.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three