A Really Good Bar Code

It’s always good to see John Seely Brown, I thought, entering last Thursday’s press conference at Internet World. Casually dressed, but elegant in that old Silicon Valley way, Mr. Seely Brown is the chief scientist at Xerox PARC, the legendary research center in Palo Alto that labored so mightily to bring us the mouse, and other wonders Xerox was never able to capitalize on.

Mr. Seely Brown realizes that there are values in technology other than money, and he came to New York to introduce the latest, a “social computing” system called FlowPort.

“Every document I read I mark-up,” he said. “These annotations translate as instructions to my assistant on what to do with the document. They’re really amplifiers. How do we honor that and move it seamlessly into the virtual world, then vice versa?”

FlowPort is going to be the platform for many of Xerox’ future solutions. It’s based on a form technology (created at PARC) called PaperWare. By checking a box on a PaperWare form, you send commands to a FlowPort server on storing and distributing the document electronically.

The interface for this routing is called a DataGlyph, working under a new Internet fax protocol. Within a year, each Xerox device priced as low as $1,000 should understand it, and other vendors will also be able to build the technology into their equipment. “It’s open, open, open,” Mr. Seely Brown said.

I looked carefully at the DataGlyphs, as Mr. Seely Brown showed how they be read electronically no matter which way paper entered a copier. It gave me an “Ask Ashley moment.” Ashley, for those of you without “tweens” (kids 8-12) in the house, is a Nickelodeon character, a sweet little girl who becomes abusive when she reads stupid (made-up) letters from (supposed) viewers. I’m afraid Ashley’s reaction to the DataGlyph technology would not be pleasant.

“It’s just a stinking BAR CODE!” she would shriek. “You brought me here to look at a stinking BAR CODE!”

Well, yes and no, Mr. Seely Brown might admit to her. It is a bar code technology, but very condensed, and it can be read when it enters a machine off-center. It has a lot of applications, linking the worlds of paper and data seamlessly.

“But it’s still a stinking BAR CODE,” Ashley would shriek again.

But it’s a really GOOD bar code, Mr. Seely Brown would respond. (He’s nothing if not patient — he has a lot in common with Mr. Rogers.)

I mention all this because Wall Street acted like Ashley in the wake of Mr. Seely Brown’s announcement. Xerox stock tanked last week, mainly because buyers are taking slower, less expensive machines rather than the big iron Xerox has been trying to sell them. Maybe FlowPort will change that, and even if it doesn’t the technology will come into wide use, and filter down into those less expensive machines.

Technology isn’t all about money, you know. At the end of the day history won’t write about who made the great fortunes, but who made the great advances.

After the press conference Mr. Seely Brown shrugged himself into his own topcoat, and walked out of the building alone, like a great Western gunfighter, off into the sunset. His work here was done. But it is a really good bar code.

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