You Mean, Xerox Technology Isn't Up For Grabs?

by David Sims

As if Palm hadn't had a tough enough year, now we have a district court in Rochester, N.Y.
ruling that Palm's Graffiti handwriting-recognition system was ripped off from Xerox. Palm and its parent company, 3Com, are both liable for damages.

Xerox, which has been on the ropes for years, can hardly be blamed for trying to recoup some of the profits from one of its inventions. But we can ask, why start now? Xerox R& D -- primarily out of its Palo Alto Research Center, PARC -- almost singlehandedly came up with all the inventions that make the computing industry the consumer-friendly marketplace it is today. Maybe U.S. Robotics thought Xerox technology was fair game. The story of a pre-Macintosh Steve Jobs getting a tour of PARC in the early 1980s and seeing both the mouse and the graphical user interface at work is an industry legend now, a contemporary version of the myth of stealing fire from the gods. Ethernet came out of the place, and if memory serves, electricity and rope, too.

Xerox's top execs, based in chilly Rochester far away from the bean-bag-chair visionaries at PARC, never showed too much interest in making a killing off the ideas that came out there. They were focused on holding onto patents in their core business, office copier machines -- pretty hot stuff in the 1970s. But so was the telecopier. In the end, the feds made them share their technology with competitors like Sharp and Canon, who of course undersold them and drove them right out of the small office and home market.

Over the past year, Xerox's share price has been treading water just to keep from hitting the pink sheets. (It closed at 9.03 on Thursday.) Maybe it will get another bounce from this coup, as the courts recognize its ownership over the technology it rather uncleverly dubbed "Unistrokes" (snicker, snicker).

Meanwhile, Palm can add this one to their debit column, right below iPaq's rising market share and just above Carl Yankowski's severance package.