The Future of Communication Technology: Inventor Bob Purvy On How His Technological Innovations Have Shaken Up How We Connect and Communicate With Each Other

I played a role in bringing computers and the Internet to everyone. It’s been a giant effort by thousands of companies and millions of people over fifty or more years, and I’m proud I played some part in it. Now you have access to all the world’s knowledge on a device you can carry in your pocket. And it also makes phone calls.

The telephone totally revolutionized the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on…What’s next? What’s just around the corner?

In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Purvy.

Bob Purvy is a retired engineer who worked on the Xerox Star. In his career he also worked at Burroughs, 3Com, Oracle, and Google, among other employers. He has six patents and wrote a paper on software patents that was cited in an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in the CLS Bank v. Alice case.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Igrew up on the far South Side of Chicago, where both my parents had grown up as well; in fact, I went to the same high school that both of them attended (Fenger, whose most famous alumnus was Eliot Ness). My two brothers were much older than I was, so I was practically an only child. I went to the library religiously. I graduated third in a high school class of 729.

When I started college, as the first of my family to attend college, I was an Electrical Engineering major. After 8 weeks I had switched into Psychology, which horrified my parents. I was never really a science nerd, though, and didn’t like the Chemistry and Physics courses. Nonetheless, after a year of Psych, I decided I wanted to have a job when I left school, and I switched again into Mathematics and Computer Science. This worked for me, and I stuck with it all the way to a Master’s in Computer Science, also at the U of I.

My first job was at Burroughs in Irvine, California (after a short purgatory in Detroit). After three years there, I was lucky enough to be hired at Xerox to work on the Star, which is the subject of my book Inventing the Future. “Dan Markunas,” one of the main characters, is modelled on me. The name was chosen because it’s Lithuanian, which was my dad’s ancestry.

The Star effort was still the best job I ever had, and it probably spoiled me for all other jobs.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

At Google in 2014, I was a Technical Advisor in Patent Litigation (I had an interest in patents and got my license as a Patent Agent in 2004). Microsoft had bought a patent about online maps whose filing date was 1996, and they had sued Google with it in Germany, successfully. Google had lost the first round and the judge was planning to issue an injunction against Google Maps in Germany, which would have been catastrophic. No one in Germany would have been able to use Google Maps at all!

Judges in Germany almost never reconsider those decisions, since their legal system tests the validity of the patent in a separate proceeding later. This is the main reason Microsoft sued in Germany in the first place.

Naturally, almost all the technical advisors, including me, set about trying to invalidate the patent with “prior art.” For several days we all looked in vain, and finally, in Google Scholar, I just typed “client server maps.” The very first search result was a paper by David DeWitt, then at the University of Wisconsin but, oddly enough, now a Microsoft Fellow. It seemed to fill the bill. How no one, including me, had thought of this search before is still a mystery.

I flew down to Los Angeles to meet with our German attorneys. We spent the day discussing it and looking for a less “techie” paper, since DeWitt’s paper was a little abstruse. Finally, we concluded that it was the best we could do, and Ralf, the lead attorney, started working on his brief requesting the judge to reconsider.

Amazingly, the judge did, saying there was a high probability that the patent would be nullified, and he stayed the injunction. The patent was indeed later nullified. I think in that one bit of work I probably earned my salary for my entire career.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One thing that isn’t exactly a “life lesson” but I say it all the time about debugging, and that is my absolute favorite thing about programming. In a broader sense, “debugging” and playing Detective is something everyone in STEM fields has to do.

“The worst bug is when nothing happens.”

What this means is: when the system crashes or gives the wrong result, you have a place to start. Even if it doesn’t always do it! At least you have something to go on.

But if something was supposed to happen and didn’t, where do you look?

I wish I did have a specific instance where this happened (or failed to happen!) for me, but I can’t give you one now.

can tell you about a recent instance where I was playing a movie (I won’t name the service, but it’s not a well-known one) and it just froze in the middle. I reported it, and the Support person responded, “That movie worked for me!”

This is a classic instance of fail-to-debug: something bad happened, but now you can’t see it. A real Engineer does not give up; he or she keeps coming back to the problem, for years, if necessary, until it’s solved.

Come to think of it, this ties into the next question: in the later years of my parents’ lives, they loved to work the LA Times crossword puzzles, and I would help. I remember Dad getting frustrated in the morning at our inability to solve it and laying it aside with frustration. But always, always he’d pick it up in an hour or two and try again. Sometimes this pattern would repeat itself all day long. Eventually we’d get it. So maybe I got this behavior from him.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My dad was the biggest influence on me growing up. He was not particularly intellectual himself, being more of a jock. His very first job was with a laundry that wanted him for its baseball team! In high school he played quarterback on the football team at 115 pounds (although “quarterback” didn’t mean throwing passes like it does now — they used a single-wing formation).

But Dad would take me to the library every two or three weeks and browse the books while I picked out four or five to take home. We never, never bought books and there were none in the house, or indeed, in the houses of any of the neighbors.

Dad was one of the coaches for my Little League team, mainly so I would get to play. I wasn’t a bad player by any means, but I wasn’t a star, either. His biggest wish was that I would go to college and get a good job when I got out, and I could never let go of that, so that’s what I did.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I played a role in bringing computers and the Internet to everyone. It’s been a giant effort by thousands of companies and millions of people over fifty or more years, and I’m proud I played some part in it. Now you have access to all the world’s knowledge on a device you can carry in your pocket. And it also makes phone calls.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the cutting-edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

I’m retired, so I’m not actually working on cutting edge communication tech. What I’m doing is communicating the subjective experience of working in high tech, or at least trying to, via my book Inventing the Future. As the great French author Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

There are many, many computer history and business history books, but there aren’t many that do that. The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder is the example most people think of, although that was non-fiction and came out only a few years after the events it describes.

I was actually there and still talk to many of the others who were, too. Many of them have reviewed the book on Amazon or GoodReads, and you can get a good idea what it’s like by what they said.

How do you think this might change the world?

It’s very difficult for a young person to imagine what it might be like to actually do a job. You can read about its technical facets, or its history or requirements, but not what it would feel like. Lots of young people go into fashion or journalism or some “soft” career because they imagine it’s more “creative” than being an engineer. They have an image of their prospective colleagues that they get from The Big Bang Theory, and think “Oh, I’m not like that.” I think realistic fiction can dispel these stereotypes.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Inventing the Future presents history as it actually happened, not as popular mythology rewrote it. I find that more and more, people haven’t even heard of the Xerox Star, which is bad enough. If they have, they think “Oh, Jobs visited Xerox and stole it all.” This manages to be unfair to both companies, which is quite a feat.

Having a good idea is only a beginning, if a necessary one. What you do with the idea matters just as much, and Apple unquestionably did the hard work of making something people would buy, while Xerox didn’t. I think people imagine that once you have a “billion-dollar idea,” you sit back and the money rolls in. At the risk of using a Thomas Edison cliche, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

I included the time period after we introduced Star (to wild acclaim), rather than ending Inventing the Future there, for a reason: to show that success in business is as hard to handle as failure. Maybe harder.

We saw that we’d achieved something big, and the company was not ready to exploit it. The signs had been there all along, and in fact many people had been saying it all along. If there is a lesson there, it’s to make up your own mind, listen even to people that everyone else scorns, and don’t let the dominant opinion sway you.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

What Inventing the Future shows, I hope, is that engineering is not boring, and marketing is not boring. You don’t have to be in a career that’s called “creative” in order to use creativity in your work.

Making a great idea into a great product is essential if it’s to be widely adopted. Having seen several revolutions in Silicon Valley now, I know that the people who have the idea first are not always the ones who make the money, or even usually the ones. I remember interviewing at a startup in the late 90’s who thought that sharing photographs was going to be a big opportunity. They were right. I don’t think they’re still around, though.

The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?

Often when people talk about “the end of work” or the guaranteed income, they get rhapsodic about how everyone will use their newfound leisure time to pursue their creative passions. Of course, most people don’t have any, and they use the extra time to drink, watch TV, and play video games. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

In my case it was more from retirement than from the pandemic, but I finally figured out that writing fiction, and writing in general, was something I wanted to do. Inventing the Future is the first book to come out of that, and there will be more.

I would hope that people have learned from the pandemic that doing something that’s satisfying to you is more important than making money or pleasing others. I hope people like reading the book, but it’s more important that I liked writing it.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

First: Walk around and talk to people. All kinds of people, not just the ones you work with neighbors, construction workers, fire fighters, nannies at the park, homeless people, old people. What do you have to lose? Ask them questions and let them talk. Don’t give away any information about yourself that you wouldn’t want to be public, of course, or let them take advantage of you.

If the only people you talk to are people like yourself, then you’ll never know anything that those people don’t know. But the main reason is that it will make you feel good.

The story: I’ve had a very friendly dog for about 6 ½ years now. Thanks to Ernie, I now know lots of neighbors whom I’d driven past for 30+ years, as well as countless strangers. A dog is the best conversation-opener you can possibly imagine, even with people who don’t have a dog. Often, they used to have one, or maybe they have a family member who does.

I know things like HAE (Height Above Ellipsoid), which a guy from a company who installs height-sensing equipment told me (this lets 911 know what floor someone is on, not just what building they’re in). My dog gets free salami from a neighborhood pizza joint, where I know most of the workers now. I know that a company trying to open a data center in Silicon Valley will get told that there just isn’t any power available for them.

Are these things “trivia”? Yeah, they are. But you can’t know when you might discover something really useful, e.g. “The housing bubble is about to burst.”

Second: When you’re talking, you’re not learning anything. Listen and ask questions. To put it another way: if you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’re in the wrong room.

There are people who, when someone else is talking, are obviously just waiting to jump in and say something. Don’t be one of those.

The story: I had four jobs with larger companies, and three of them were full of people much smarter than I am (Xerox, Oracle, and Google). I’m not sure I’d say “I learned everything I know from them” but it’s pretty close.

Third: People will always tell you, “You’re really creative, but you need to harness that creativity.” Ignore them.

The story: I often heard that at 3Com (which will be covered in my second book: shameless self-promotion here). The people who said it were invariably uncreative dolts who followed the crowd slavishly, and what they really meant was “give me something I can use to make me successful. Don’t make me think.”

Fourth: Ignore what the executives and top managers say. Just watch what they do. And continue to watch, because it shifts with the political winds.

The story: In all the years of the Xerox Star development described in my book Inventing the Future, we always heard from management, “Xerox is totally behind what you all are doing out in California. We’re building the future here!” As you’ll see in the book, this was a massive effort that went on for four years or more.

However, what hard evidence did we see of that? Was Xerox gearing up to teach its salespeople how to sell this thing? No. Were they sending us back East to teach their people how it worked? No. Were they doing the sensible test-market thing and trying to sell something to customers, no matter how expensive it was, so they could learn what the market really was? No. That inaction should have told us more than any words could have.

The second part of that is that executive-suite politics are volatile. To the extent that you can detect it at all, it’s by the subtle shifts in what they do and say, or don’t do and say as often.

Fifth: The accepted dogma is almost always wrong. People who succeed invariably do so by ignoring it.

The story: The protocol that powers the Internet, TCP/IP, has the weakness (and strength) that individual computers at the edge have no control over them, and they will send as much data as their counterpart on the other edge lets them. This naturally leads to big buildups of data in the net, in the routers and other equipment that sits between sender and receiver. This can make it impossible to predict how long anything will take, or how fast the server on the other end will respond to you, or even if it will.

The conventional wisdom for handling this was that you had to introduce queues with priorities in the middle. You must never “interfere” with the data that the users send. All the experts said so, and all the Quality-of-Service efforts that were going on involved some kind of queueing.

In 1998, I went with a startup, Packeteer, that rejected the conventional wisdom, and succeeded well enough to go public. They had a box in the middle of a company’s network that twiddled the TCP “window size” (which tells the computer at the other end how much data it can send) and delayed the acknowledgements. Effectively, they controlled the computers at the ends directly, either speeding them up or slowing them down according to the user’s policies. The customers didn’t care about the “expert” dogma; their applications continued to run just fine.

Sixth (a bonus!): If you’re afraid of public speaking (most people are), don’t go to Toastmasters or take a course on it. Their advice (move your hands, maintain eye contact) is garbage. I can always tell when someone’s inhaled that stuff, because they look artificial. The audience doesn’t want to see some robot; they want to see you.

Instead, take singing lessons at your local community college. Audition for choirs or community theater choruses. Once you can handle it when three people behind a table say “OK, give your music to the pianist, and stand on that “X” on the floor (20 feet away)” and you sing for them, public speaking will never intimidate you.

“But I can’t sing!” you’re protesting. For maybe one person in a thousand, that’s really true. The other 999 can improve, enormously.

The story: I first took singing around 1990, for pretty much this reason (public speaking). I discovered I wasn’t terrible at it, and I sang in the chorus for a number of operas and operettas with community groups. I never made a dime from it, although I was offered a spot in the chorus for The Flying Dutchman with San Jose Opera, which would have paid me $800. I didn’t take it because I had another commitment, plus I don’t like Wagner. (Wagner operas demand huge male choruses, which is always a problem!)

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d like to inspire a movement called “Think for yourself. Don’t depend on other people to think for you.”

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Search for “Albert Cory”, my pen name. “Bob Purvy,” my given name, may also lead to something.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.


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