One of the tech industry’s most historically innovative companies pivots for an increasingly digital, interconnected future.

Preparing for its biggest product launch in the 21st century so far, Xerox (NYSE: XRX) Vice President of Global Marketing Bertrand Cerisier began with a story from his, and the company’s, past.

When Cerisier joined Xerox in 1986, he was given a new Xerox workstation equipped with a 16-inch screen, a keyboard and, notably, a mouse. At the time, the setup blew the mind of Cerisier, then a salesman in France. The mouse allowed him to click icons on the screen to open programs and navigate the PC’s interface in a way that was intuitive and far beyond anything else on the market.

Xerox and The Future Of Work

Xerox CEO Jeff Jacobson unveils the largest product launch in Xerox history.

“This was 1986” he says, still a little in awe. “This company has always been capable of bringing technologies to market years before others. But it’s also a story of missed opportunities.”

Cerisier is referring to Xerox’s legendary Palo Alto Research Center — better known as PARC. There, starting in 1970, company engineers turned loose a host of technological wonders, including networked computers and something it called a “graphical user interface.” That innovation allowed people to operate a computer without arduously programming in code. In 1979, one important visitor to PARC saw that technology demonstrated for the first time. His name was Steve Jobs. “I thought it was the best thing I’d seen in my life,” Jobs said, and he shifted the focus of his company, Apple Computer, around it.

At the time, Xerox was a dominant force in photocopying and document handling, but it wasn’t positioned to bring many of the innovations from PARC to market.

“The great thing is that we’ve learned from our mistakes,” Cerisier says. “The fire is still there — that innovation engine and love for technology. But we’re grown-ups now. We know the technologies we can sell, and we’re doing what needs to be done to sell them. For me, that’s the big change. We are now looking at technology in terms of how cool it can be for the customer, but we’re also working in parallel on how we can sell it, and how to be quickest to market.”

At the company’s midtown Manhattan executive briefing center, Xerox CEO Jeff Jacobson spoke with dozens of journalists and industry analysts about a program it calls “The Future of Work.”

The program is a near-total reinvention of Xerox’s entire product line that Cerisier characterizes as “probably the biggest change since we moved from analog to digital.” It involves connecting 29 printers and multifunction devices via ConnectKey, the company’s proprietary Internet of things (Iot) software platform.

“We understand the changes that are occurring in the workplace,” Jacobson says. “The process of getting work done has moved from the desktop to your pocket.”

Xerox’s “Future of Work” goes back to its long history of innovation, says Jacobson. He noted that in its early days, it helped a physicist/lawyer named Chester Carlson bring his photocopying process to market. Carlson invented the world’s first prototype copy machine in 1938, on the second floor of a house owned by his mother-in-law in Astoria, Queens — “just across the Queensboro Bridge,” Jacobson says, pointing out the window to the bridge.

Then-CEO Joseph Wilson made bringing Carlson’s invention to market the company’s primary goal, and the rest, as they say, is history, as Xerox became dominant in the category of making copies. In 1964, Xerox demonstrated Long Distance Xerography (LDX), which connected two distant copiers by telephone lines, laying the technological groundwork for faxing. That was just one of the breakthroughs Xerox engineers have made over the years.

But the new century has brought Xerox an existential problem. The future of its core business — multifunction printers — began to look grim. An increasingly large number of processes that once required printing were going digital. What’s more, the machines themselves were getting cheaper, so that every sale had less profit.

And that’s why Xerox had to pivot, to create what it calls “the workplace assistant,” a new, smart, infinitely upgradeable suite of equipment and services. “It’s no longer good enough just to deliver great products. We have to help people become more productive,” says Jacobson.

The defining elements of the new Xerox machines are connectivity, customization, personalization and security. Together, these facets will “transform the experience itself,” Jacobson says.

To demonstrate what he meant, he rolled a commercial. Back in 1977, Xerox produced one of the most famous TV ads in history. It aired during Super Bowl XI and featured a monk named Brother Dominic who is asked to make 500 more copies of a manuscript he has just painstakingly hand-copied in script. Instead of weeping, he goes to a copy shop and uses a Xerox 9200. This year, Xerox updated the ad, bringing back beleaguered Brother Dominic to copy 500 more manuscripts, but in 35 different languages, with personalized recipients on seven continents. In the new ad, Dominic swipes a card to log in, taps a purple icon on a large tablet-sized screen, selects the languages and the destinations, and it all happens — translated versions arrive moments later on iPads around the world, in Chinese, Japanese and Hebrew.

Xerox and the workplace of the future.

Xerox VP of Global Marketing Bertrand Cerisier (right) discusses Xerox’s new ConnectKey portfolio of multi-function printers.

“In this age, it still starts with the physical printed page as the igniter,” Jacobson says. But the ways in which Xerox machines handle that document is at the crux of how the company is reinventing itself. With sales of multifunction printers basically flat, Xerox is targeting a fast-growing universe of small business customers who work primarily from smartphones and are unlikely to invest in a large, expensive, enterprise office machine.

Xerox engineers have redesigned its products to be easily customizable by software developers and sales affiliates, who receive development kits to design custom apps for its open-source ConnectKey platform. The apps they design address invoicing, scan-to-email, and sharing of digital records. Xerox designs many apps, but increasingly the apps are coming from partner dealers to solve their customers’ problems. This creates loyalty, and new revenue streams, because dealers can charge for these services.

This new business is booming. There were 11 apps and 13,000 installs a year ago when ConnectKey was first introduced on a handful of machines. Now there are 42 apps and more than 300,000 installs. The growing group of developers are surprising Xerox all the time. One longtime partner just introduced an app that uses Alexa to make Xerox machines voice activated.

“The beauty of this is that we’re not in control of what’s coming next,” says Darren Cassidy, president of the Xerox U.S. Channels Unit.

Simplicity is another advantage. All 29 of Xerox’s core products are powered by their ConnectKey Technology, with identical interfaces for a $500 monochrome home office machine and a $15,000 full-color enterprise unit. A user can log in and print from anywhere, scan and upload to their cloud storage, and automate processes like invoice and expense-account handling.

As apps proliferate, explains Cerisier, it becomes easier to pinpoint workplace inefficiencies in document handling, and to address them. In this way, a multifunction printer can resume its position as a central component of the office, he says. Some of that involves educating customers about what the new generation of machines can do. Cerisier explains that the average customer has no idea that they can link copies to Dropbox, scan to email, translate a page into Russian, or access these and other features by swiping on a tablet.

“This is no longer about selling printers,” he says. “It’s about selling workplace automation solutions.”