The History of Computing

Hosted by Charles Edge

Computers touch all most every aspect of our lives today. We take the way they work for granted and the unsung heroes who built the technology, protocols, philosophies, and circuit boards, patched them all together - and sometimes willed amazingness out of nothing. Not in this podcast. Welcome to the History of Computing. Let's get our nerd on!

194 Episodes

Technology
History

St Jude, Felsenstein, and Community Memory

     6/25/2022

Lee Felsenstein went to the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s. He worked at the tape manufacturer Ampex, where Oracle was born out of before going back to Berkeley to finish his degree. He was one of the original members of the Homebrew Computer Club, and as with so many inspired by the Altair S-100 bus, designed the Sol-20, arguably the first microcomputer that came with a built-in keyboard that could be hooked up to a television in 1976. The Apple II was introduced the following year.

Adam Osborne was another of the Homebrew Computer Club regulars who wrote An Introduction to Microcomputers and sold his publishing company to McGraw-Hill in 1979. Flush with cash, he enlisted Felsenstein to help create another computer, which became the Osborne 1. The first commercial portable computer, although given that it weighed almost 25 pounds, is more appropriate to call a luggable computer. Before Felsensten built computers, though, he worked with a few others on a community computing project they called Community Memory. 

Judith Milhon was an activist in the 1960s Civil Rights movement who helped organize marches and rallies and went to jail for civil disobedience. She moved to Ohio, where she met Efrem Lipkin, and as with many in what we might think of as the counterculture now, they moved to San Francisco in 1968. St Jude, as she became called learned to program in 1967 and ended up at the Berkeley Computer Company after the work on the Berkeley timesharing projects was commercialized. There, she met Pam Hardt at Project One. 

Project One was a technological community built around an alternative high school founded by Ralph Scott. They brought together a number of non-profits to train people in various skills and as one might expect in the San Francisco area counterculture they had a mix of artists, craftspeople, filmmakers, and people with deep roots in technology. So much so that it became a bit of a technological commune. They had a warehouse and did day care, engineering, film processing, documentaries, and many participated in anti-Vietnam war protests.

They had all this space and Hardt called around to find the computer. She got an SDS-940 mainframe donated by TransAmerica in 1971. Xerox had gotten out of the computing business and TransAmerica’s needs were better suited for other computers at the time. They had this idea to create a bulletin board system for the community and created a project at Project One they called Resource One. Plenty thought computers were evil at the time, given their rapid advancements during the Cold War era, and yet many also thought there was incredible promise to democratize everything. 

Peter Deutsch then donated time and an operating system he’d written a few years before. She then published a request for help in the People’s Computer Computer magazine and got a lot of people who just made their own things. An early precursor to maybe micro-services, where various people tinkered with data and programs. They were able to do so because of the people who could turn that SDS into a timesharing system. 

St Jude’s partner Lipkin took on the software part of the project. Chris Macie wrote a program that digitized information on social services offered in the area that was maintained by Mary Janowitz, Sherry Reson, and Mya Shone. That was eventually taken over by the United Way until the 1990s. 

Felsenstein helped with the hardware. They used teletype terminals to connect a video terminal and keyboard built into a wooden cabinet so real humans could access the system. The project then evolved into what was referred to as Community Memory.

Community Memory
Community Memory became the first public computerized bulletin board system established in 1973 in Berkeley, California. The first Community Memory terminal was located at Leopard’s Record in Berkeley. This was the first opportunity for people who were not studying the scientific subject to be able to use computers. It became very popular but soon was shut down by the founders because they face hurdles to replicate the equipment and languages being used. They were unable to expand the project. 

This allowed them to expand the timesharing system into the community and became a free online community-based resource used to share knowledge, organize, and grow. The initial stage of Community Memory from 1973 to 1975, was an experiment to see how people would react to using computers to share information. 

Operating from 1973 to 1992, it went from minicomputers to microcomputers as those became more prevelant. Before Resource One and Community Memory, computers weren’t necessarily used for people. They were used for business, scientific research, and military purposes. After Community Memory,  Felsenstein and others in the area and around the world helped make computers personal. Commun tty Memory was one aspect of that process but there were others that unfolded in the UK, France, Germany and even the Soviet Union - although those were typically impacted by embargoes and a lack of the central government’s buy-in for computing in general. 

After the initial work was done, many of the core instigators went in their own directions. For example, Felsenstein went on to create the SOL and pursue his other projects in personal computing. Many had families or moved out of the area after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. The economy still wasn’t great, but the technical skills made them more employable. 

Some of the developers and a new era of contributors regrouped and created a new non-profit in 1977. They started from scratch and developed their own software, database, and communication packages. It was very noisy so they encased it in a card box. It had a transparent plastic top so they could see what was being printed out. This program ran from 1984 to 1989.  After more research, a new terminal was released in 1989 in Berkeley. By then it had evolved into a pre-web social network. 

The modified keyboard had brief instructions mounted on it, which showed the steps to send a message, how to attach keywords to messages, and how to search those keywords to find messages from others. 

Ultimately, the design underwent three generations, ending in a network of text-based browsers running on basic IBM PCs accessing a Unix server. It was never connected to the Internet, and closed in 1992. By then, it was large, unpowered, and uneconomical to run in an era where servers and graphical interfaces were available. A booming economy also ironically meant a shortage of funding. The job market exploded for programmers in the decade that led up to the dot com bubble and with inconsistent marketing and outreach, Community Memory shut down in 1992.

Many of the people involved with Resource One and Community memory went on to have careers in computing. St Jude helped found the cypherpunks and created Mondo 2000 magazine, a magazine dedicated to that space where computers meet culture. She also worked with Efrem Lipkin on CoDesign, and he was a CTO for many of the dot coms in the late 1990s. Chris Neustrup became a programmer for Agilent. The whole operation had been funded by various grants and donations and while there haven’t been any studies on the economic impact due to how hard it is to attribute inspiration rather than direct influence, the payoff was nonetheless considerable.


Research In Motion and the Blackberry

     6/17/2022

Lars Magnus Ericsson was working for the Swedish government that made telegraph equipment in the 1870s when he started a little telegraph repair shop in 1976. That was the same year the telephone was invented. After fixing other people’s telegraphs and then telephones he started a company making his own telephone equipment. He started making his own equipment and by the 1890s was shipping gear to the UK. As the roaring 20s came, they sold stock to buy other companies and expanded quickly.

Early mobile devices used radios to connect mobile phones to wired phone networks and following projects like ALOHANET in the 1970s they expanded to digitize communications, allowing for sending early forms of text messages, the way people might have sent those telegraphs when old Lars was still alive and kicking. At the time, the Swedish state-owned Televerket Radio was dabbling in this space and partnered with Ericsson to take first those messages then as email became a thing, email, to people wirelessly using the 400 to 450 MHz range in Europe and 900 MHz in the US. That standard went to the OSI and became a 1G wireless packet switching network we call Mobitex.

Mike Lazaridis was born in Istanbul and moved to Canada in 1966 when he was five, attending the University of Waterloo in 1979. He dropped out of school to take a contract with General Motors to build a networked computer display in 1984. He took out a loan from his parents, got a grant from the Canadian government, and recruited another electrical engineering student, Doug Fregin from the University of Windsor, who designed the first circuit boards. to join him starting a company they called Research in Motion. Mike Barnstijn joined them and they were off to do research. 

After a few years doing research projects, they managed to build up a dozen employees and a million in revenues. They became the first Mobitex provider in America and by 1991 shipped the first Mobitex device. They brought in James Balsillie as co-CEO, to handle corporate finance and business development in 1992, a partnership between co-CEOs that would prove fruitful for 20 years. 

Some of those work-for-hire projects they’d done involved reading bar codes so they started with point-of-sale, enabling mobile payments and by 1993 shipped RIMGate, a gateway for Mobitex. Then a Mobitex point-of-sale terminal and finally with the establishment of the PCMCIA standard, a  PCMCIP Mobitex modem they called Freedom.

Two-way paging had already become a thing and they were ready to venture out of PoS systems. So  in 1995, they took a $5 million investment to develop the RIM 900 OEM radio modem. They also developed a pager they called the Inter@ctive Pager 900 that was capable of  two-way messaging the next year. Then they went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1997.

The next year, they sold a licensing deal to IBM for the 900 for $10M dollars. That IBM mark of approval is always a sign that a company is ready to play in an enterprise market. And enterprises increasingly wanted to keep executives just a quick two-way page away. But everyone knew there was a technology convergence on the way. They worked with Ericsson to further the technology and over the next few years competed with SkyTel in the interactive pager market.

Enter The Blackberry
They knew there was something new coming. Just as the founders know something is coming in Quantum Computing and run a fund for that now. They hired a marketing firm called Lexicon Branding to come up with a name and after they saw the keys on the now-iconic keyboard, the marketing firm suggested BlackBerry. They’d done the research and development and they thought they had a product that was special. So they released the first BlackBerry 850 in Munich in 1999. But those were still using radio networks and more specifically the DataTAC network.

The age of mobility was imminent, although we didn’t call it that yet. Handspring and Palm each went public in 2000. 

In 2000, Research In Motion brought its first cellular phone product in the BlackBerry 957, with push email and internet capability. But then came the dot com bubble. Some thought the Internet might have been a fad and in fact might disappear. But instead the world was actually ready for that mobile convergence. Part of that was developing a great operating system for the time when they released the BlackBerry OS the year before. And in 2000 the BlackBerry was named Product of the Year by InfoWorld. 

The new devices took the market by storm and shattered the previous personal information manager market, with shares of that Palm company dropping by over 90% and Palm OS being setup as it’s own corporation within a couple of years. People were increasingly glued to their email. While the BlackBerry could do web browsing and faxing over the internet, it was really the integrated email access, phone, and text messaging platform that companies like General Magic had been working on as far back as the early 1990s.

The Rise of the BlackBerry
The BlackBerry was finally the breakthrough mobile product everyone had been expecting and waiting for. Enterprise-level security, integration with business email like Microsoft’s Exchange Server, a QWERTY keyboard that most had grown accustomed to, the option to use a stylus, and a simple menu made the product an instant smash success. And by instant we mean after five years of research and development and a massive financial investment.

The Palm owned the PDA market. But the VII cost $599 and the BlackBerry cost $399 at the time (which was far less than the $675 Inter@ctive Pager had cost in the 1990s). The Palm also let us know when we had new messages using the emerging concept of push notifications. 2000 had seen the second version of the BlackBerry OS and their AOL Mobile Communicator had helped them spread the message that the wealthy could have access to their data any time. But by 2001 other carriers were signing on to support devices and BlackBerry was selling bigger and bigger contracts. 5,000 devices, 50,000 devices, 100,000 devices. And a company called Kasten Chase stepped in to develop a secure wireless interface to the Defense Messaging System in the US, which opened up another potential two million people in the defense industry

They expanded the service to cover more and more geographies in 2001 and revenues doubled, jumping to 164,000 subscribers by the end of the year. That’s when they added wireless downloads so could access all those MIME attachments in email and display them. Finally, reading PDFs on a phone with the help of GoAmerica Communications! And somehow they won a patent for the idea that a single email address could be used on both a mobile device and a desktop. I guess the patent office didn’t understand why IMAP  was invented by Mark Crispin at Stanford in the 80s, or why Exchange allowed multiple devices access to the same mailbox.

They kept inking contracts with other companies. AT&T added the BlackBerry in 2002 in the era of GSM. The 5810 was the first truly convergent BlackBerry that offered email and a phone in one device with seamless SMS communications. It shipped in the US and the 5820 in Europe and Cingular Wireless jumped on board in the US and Deutsche Telekom in Germany, as well as Vivendi in France, Telecom Italia in Italy, etc. The devices had inched back up to around $500 with service fees ranging from $40 to $100 plus pretty limited data plans. The Tree came out that year but while it was cool and provided a familiar interface to the legions of Palm users, it was clunky and had less options for securing communications. The NSA signed on and by the end of the year they were a truly global operation, raking in revenues of nearly $300 million. 

The Buying Torndado
They added web-based application in 2003, as well as network printing. They moved to a Java-based interface and added the 6500 series, adding a walkie-talkie function. But that 6200 series at around $200 turned out to be huge. This is when they went into that thing a lot of companies do - they started suing companies like Good and Handspring for infringing on patents they probably never should have been awarded. They eventually lost the cases and paid out tens of millions of dollars in damages. More importantly they took their eyes off innovating, a common mistake in the history of computing companies.

Yet there were innovations. They released Blackberry Enterprise Server in 2004 then bolted on connectors to Exchange, Lotus Domino, and allowed for interfacing with XML-based APIs in popular enterprise toolchains of the day. They also later added support for GroupWise. That was one of the last solutions that worked with symmetric key cryptography I can remember using and initially required the devices be cradled to get the necessary keys to secure communications, which then worked over Triple-DES, common at the time. One thing we never liked was that messages did end up living at Research in Motion, even if encrypted at the time. This is one aspect that future types of push communications would resolve. And Microsoft Exchange’s ActiveSync. 

By 2005 there were CVEs filed for BlackBerry Enterprise Server, racking up 17 in the six years that product shipped up to 5.0 in 2010 before becoming BES 10 and much later Blackberry Enterprise Mobility Management, a cross-platform mobile device management solution. Those BES 4 and 5 support contracts, or T-Support, could cost hundreds of dollars per incident. Microsoft had Windows Mobile clients out that integrated pretty seamlessly with Exchange. But people loved their Blackberries.

Other device manufacturers experimented with different modes of interactivity. Microsoft made APIs for pens and keyboards that flipped open. BlackBerry added a trackball in 2006, that was always kind of clunky. Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, and others were experimenting with new ways to navigate devices, but people were used to menus and even styluses. And they seemed to prefer a look and feel that seemed like what they used for the menuing control systems on HVAC controls, video games, and even the iPod. 

The Eye Of The Storm
A new paradigm was on the way. Apple's iPhone was released in 2007 and Google's Android OS in 2008. By then the BlackBerry Pearl was shipping and it was clear which devices were better.

No one saw the two biggest threats coming. Apple was a consumer company. They were slow to add ActiveSync policies, which many thought would be the corporate answer to mobile management as group policies in Active Directory had become for desktops. Apple  and Google were slow to take the market, as BlackBerry continued to dominate the smartphone industry well into 2010, especially once then-president Barack Obama strong-armed the NSA into allowing him to use a special version of the BlackBerry 8830 World Edition for official communiques. Other world leaders followed suit, as did the leaders of global companies that had previously been luddites when it came to constantly being online. Even Eric Schmidt, then chairman of google loved his Crackberry in 2013, 5 years after the arrival of Android.

Looking back, we can see a steady rise in iPhone sales up to the iPhone 4, released in 2010. Many still said they loved the keyboard on their BlackBerries. Organizations had built BES into their networks and had policies dating back to NIST STIGs. Research in Motion owned the enterprise and held over half the US market and a fifth of the global market. That peaked in 2011.

BlackBerry put mobility on the map. But companies like AirWatch, founded in 2003 and  MobileIron, founded in 2007, had risen to take a cross-platform approach to the device management aspect of mobile devices. We call them Unified Endpoint Protection products today and companies could suddenly support BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and iPhones from a single console. Over 50 million Blackberries were being sold a year and the stock was soaring at over $230 a share. 

Today, they hold no market share and their stock performance shows it. Even though they’ve pivoted to more of a device management company, given their decades of experience working with some of the biggest and most secure companies and governments in the world.

The Fall Of The BlackBerry
The iPhone was beautiful. It had amazing graphics and a full touch screen. It was the very symbol of innovation. The rising tide of the App Store also made it a developers playground (no pun intended). It was more expensive than the Blackberry, but while they didn’t cater to the enterprise, they wedged their way in there with first executives and then anyone. Initially because of ActiveSync, which had come along in 1996 mostly to support Windows Mobile, but by Exchange Server 2003 SP 2 could do almost anything Outlook could do - provided software developers like Apple could make the clients work.

So by 2011, Exchange clients could automatically locate a server based on an email address (or more to the point based on DNS records for the domain) and work just as webmail, which was open in almost every IIS implementation that worked with Exchange. And Office365 was released in 2011, paving the way to move from on-prem Exchange to what we now call “the cloud.” And Google Mail had been around for 7 years by then and people were putting it on the BlackBerry as well, blending home and office accounts on the same devices at times. In fact, Google licensed Exchange ActiveSync, or EAS in 2009 so support for Gmail was showing up on a variety of devices.

BlackBerry had everything companies wanted. But people slowly moved to that new iPhone. Or Androids when decent models of phones started shipping with the OS on them. BlackBerry stuck by that keyboard, even though it was clear that people wanted full touchscreens. The BlackBerry Bold came out in 2009. BlackBerry had not just doubled down with the keyboard instead of full touchscreen, but they tripled down on it.

They had released the Storm in 2008 and then the Storm in 2009 but they just had a different kind of customer. Albeit one that was slowly starting to retire. This is the hard thing about being in the buying tornado. We’re so busy transacting that we can’t think ahead to staying in the eye that we don’t see how the world is changing outside of it. 

As we saw with companies like Amdahl and Control Data, when we only focus on big customers and ignore the mass market we leave room for entrants in our industries who have more mass appeal. Since the rise of the independent software market following the IBM anti-trust cases, app developers have been a bellwether of successful platforms. And the iPhone revenue split was appealing to say the least. 

Sales fell off fast. By 2012, the BlackBerry represented less than 6 percent of smartphones sold and by the start of 2013 that number dropped in half, falling to less than 1 percent in 2014. That’s when the White House tested replacements for the Blackberry. There was a small bump in sales when they finally released a product that had competitive specs to the iPhone, but it was shortly lived. The Crackberry craze was officially over. 

BlackBerry shot into the mainstream and brought the smartphone with them. They made the devices secure and work seamlessly in corporate environments and for those who could pay money to run BES or BIS. They proved the market and then got stuck in the Innovator’s Dilemna. They became all about features that big customers wanted and needed. And so they missed the personal part of personal computing.

Apple, as they did with the PC and then graphical user interfaces saw a successful technology and made people salivate over it. They saw how Windows had built a better sandbox for developers and built the best app delivery mechanism the world has seen to date. Google followed suit and managed to take a much larger piece of the market with more competitive pricing. 

There is so much we didn’t discuss, like the short-lived Playbook tablet from BlackBerry. Or the Priv. Because for the most part, they a device management solution today. The founders are long gone, investing in the next wave of technology: Quantum Computing. The new face of BlackBerry is chasing device management, following adjacencies into security and dabbling in IoT for healthcare and finance. Big ticket types of buys that include red teaming to automotive management to XDR. Maybe their future is in the convergence of post-quantum security, or maybe we’ll see their $5.5B market cap get tasty enough for one of those billionaires who really, really, really wants their chicklet keyboard back. Who knows but part of the fun of this is it’s a living history.

 

 


Colossal Cave Adventure

     6/2/2022

Imagine a game that begins with a printout that reads:

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully. In the distance there is a tall gleaming white tower.

Now imagine typing some information into a teletype and then reading the next printout. And then another. A trail of paper lists your every move. This is interactive gaming in the 1970s. Later versions had a monitor so a screen could just show a cursor and the player needed to know what to type. Type N and hit enter and the player travels north. “Search” doesn’t work but “look” does. “Take water” works as does “Drink water” but it takes hours to find dwarves and dragons and figure out how to battle or escape. This is one of the earliest games we played and it was marvelous. The game was called Colossal Cave Adventure and it was one of the first conversational adventure games. Many came after it in the 70s and 80s, in an era before good graphics were feasible. But the imagination was strong. 

The Oregon Trail was written before it, in 1971 and Trek73 came in 1973, both written for HP minicomputers. Dungeon was written in 1975 for a PDP-10. The author, Don Daglow, went on the work on games like Utopia and Neverwinter Nights Another game called Dungeon showed up in 1975 as well, on the PLATO network at the University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana. As the computer monitor spread, so spread games.

William Crowther got his degree in physics at MIT and then went to work at Bolt Baranek and Newman during the early days of the ARPANET. He was on the IMP team, or the people who developed the Interface Message Processor, the first nodes of the packet switching ARPANET, the ancestor of the Internet. They were long hours, but when he wasn’t working, he and his wife Pat explored caves. She was a programmer as well. Or he played the new Dungeons & Dragons game that was popular with other programmers.

The two got divorced in 1975 and like many suddenly single fathers he searched for something for his daughters to do when they were at the house. Crowther combined exploring caves, Dungeons & Dragons, and FORTRAN to get Colossal Cave Adventure, often just called Adventure. And since he worked on the ARPANET, the game found its way out onto the growing computer network. Crowther moved to Palo Alto and went to work for Xerox PARC in 1976 before going back to BBN and eventually retiring from Cisco.

Crowther loosely based the game mechanics on the ELIZA natural language processing work done by Joseph Weizenbaum at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s. That had been a project to show how computers could be shown to understand text provided to computers. It was most notably used in tests to have a computer provide therapy sessions. And writing software for the kids or gaming can be therapeutic as well. As can replaying happier times. 

Crowther explored Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky in the early 1970s. The characters in the game follow along his notes about the caves, exploring the area around it using natural language while the computer looked for commands in what was entered. It took about 700 lines to do the original Fortran code for the PDP-10 he had at his disposal at BBN. When he was done he went off on vacation, and the game spread.

Programmers in that era just shared code. Source needed to be recompiled for different computers, so they had to. Another programmer was Don Woods, who also used a PDP-10. He went to Princeton in the 1970s and was working at the Stanford AI Lab, or SAIL, at the time. He came across the game and asked Crowther if it would be OK to add a few features and did. His version got distributed through DECUS, or the Digital Equipment Computer Users Society. A lot of people went there for software at the time. The game was up to 3,000 lines of code when it left Woods.

The adventurer could now enter the mysterious cave in search of the hidden treasures. The concept of the computer as a narrator began with Collosal Cave Adventure and is now widely used. Although we now have vast scenery rendered and can point and click where we want to go so don’t need to type commands as often. The interpreter looked for commands like “move”, “interact” with other characters, “get” items for the inventory, etc. Woods went further and added more words and the ability to interpret punctuation as well. He also added over a thousand lines of text used to identify and describe the 40 locations. Woods continued to update that game until the mid-1990s.

James Gillogly of RAND ported the code to C so it would run on the newer Unix architecture in 1977  and it’s still part of many a BSD distribution. Microsoft published a version of Adventure in 1979 that was distributed for the Apple II and TRS-80 and followed that up in 1981 with a version for Microsoft DOS or MS-DOS. Adventure was now a commercial product. Kevin Black wrote a version for IBM PCs. Peter Gerrard ported it to Amiga

Bob Supnik rose to a Vice President at Digital Equipment, not because he ported the game, but it didn’t hurt. And throughout the 1980s, the game spread to other devices as well. Peter Gerrard implemented the version for the Tandy 1000. The Original Adventure was a version that came out of Aventuras AD in Spain. They gave it one of the biggest updates of all. Colossal Cave Adventure was never forgotten, even though it was Zork was replaced. Zork came along in 1977 and Adventureland in 1979.

Ken and Roberta Williams played the game in 1979. Ken had bounced around the computer industry for awhile and had a teletype terminal at home when he came across Colossal Cave Adventure in 1979. The two became transfixed and opened their own company to make the game they released the next year called Mystery House. And the text adventure genre moved to a new level when they sold 15,000 copies and it became the first hit. Rogue, and others followed, increasingly interactive, until fully immersive graphical games replaced the adventure genre in general. That process began when Warren Robinett of Atari created the 1980 game, Adventure. 

Robinett saw Colossal Cave Adventure when he visited the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1977. He was inspired into a life of programming by a programming professor he had in college named Ken Thompson while he was on sabbatical from Bell Labs. That’s where Thompason, with Dennis Ritchie and one of the most amazing teams of programmers ever assembled, gave the world Unix and the the C programming language at Bell Labs. Adventure game went on to sell over a million copies and the genre of fantasy action-adventure games moved from text to video.


MySpace And My First Friend, Tom

     5/14/2022

Before Facebook, there was MySpace. People logged into a web page every day to write to friends, show off photos, and play music. Some of the things we still do on social networks. The world had been shifting to personal use of computers since the early days when time sharing systems were used in universities. Then came the Bulletin Board Systems of the 80s. But those were somewhat difficult to use and prone to be taken over by people like the ones who went on to found DefCon and hacking collectives. 

Then in the 1990s computers and networks started to get easier to use. We got tools like AOL Instant Messenger and a Microsoft knockoff called Messenger. It’s different ‘cause it doesn’t say Instant. The rise of the World Wide Web meant that people could build their own websites in online communities. We got these online communities like Geocities in 1994, where users could build their own little web page. Some were notes from classes at universities; others how to be better at dressing goth. They tried to sort people by communities they called cities, and then each member got an address number in their community. They grew fast and even went public before being acquired by Yahoo! in 1999. Tripod showed up the year after Geocities came out and got acquired by Yahoo! competitor Lycos in 1998, signaling that portal services in a pre-modern search engine world would be getting into more content to show ads to eyeballs. Angelfire was another that started in 1996 and ended up in the Lycos portfolio as well. More people had more pages and that meant more eyeballs to show ads to. No knowledge of HTML was really required but it did help to know some.

The GeoCities idea about communities was a good one. Turns out people liked hanging out with others like themselves online. People liked reading thoughts and ideas and seeing photos if they ever bothered to finish downloading. But forget to bookmark a page and it could be lost in the cyberbits or whatever happened to pages when we weren’t looking at them. 

The concept of six agrees of Kevin Bacon had been rolling around a bit, so Andrew Weinreich got the idea to do something similar to Angelfire and the next year created SixDegrees.com. It was easy to evolve the concept to bookmark pages by making connections on the site. Except to get people into the site and signing up the model appeared to be the flip side: enter real world friends and family and they were invited to join up. Accepted contacts could then post on each others bulletin boards or send messages to one another. We could also see who our connections were connected to, thus allowing us to say “oh I met that person at a party.” Within a few years the web of contacts model was so successful that it had a few million users and was sold for over $100 million. By 2000 it was shut down but had proven there was a model there that could work.

Xanga came along the next year as a weblog and social networking site but never made it  to the level of success. Classmates.com is still out there as well, having been founded in 1995 to build a web of contacts for finding those friends from high school we lost contact with. Then came Friendster and MySpace in 2003. Friendster came out of the gate faster but faded away quicker. These took the concepts of SixDegrees.com where users invited friends and family but went a little further, allowing people to post on one another boards. 

MySpace went a little further. They used some of the same concepts Geocities used and allowed people to customize their own web pages. When some people learned HTML to edit their pages, they got the bug to create. And so a new generation of web developers was created as people learned to layout pages and do basic web programming in order to embed files, flash content, change backgrounds, and insert little DHTML or even JavaScript snippets.

MySpace was co-founded by Chris DeWolfe, Uber Whitcomb, Josh Berman, and Tom Anderson while working at an incubator or software holding company called eUniverse, which was later renamed to Intermix Media. Brad Greenspan founded that after going to UCLA and then jumping headfirst into the startup universe. He created Entertainment Universe, then raised $2M in capital from Lehman Brothers, another $5M from others and bought a young site called CD Universe, which was selling Compact Disks online. He reverse merged that into an empty public shell company, like a modern SPAC works, and was suddenly the CEO of a public company, expanding into online DVD sales. Remember, these were the days leading up to the dot com bubble. There was a lot of money floating around.

They expanded into dating sites and other membership programs. We’d think of monthly member fees as Monthly Recurring Revenue now, but at the time there was so much free stuff on the internet that those most sites just gave it away and built revenue streams on advertising revenues.

CDs and DVDs have data on them. Data can be shared. Napster proved how lucrative that could be by then. Maybe that was something eUniverse should get into. DeWolfe created a tool called Sitegeist, which was a site with a little dating, a little instant messaging, and a little hyper localized search. It was just a school project but got him thinking. Then, like millions of us were about to do, he met Tom.

Tom was a kid from the valley who’d been tinkering with computers for years, as “Lord Flathead” who’d been busted hacking as a kid before going off to the University of California at Berkeley before coming home to LA to do software QA for an online storage company. The company he worked for got acquired as a depressed asset by eUniverse in 2002, along with Josh Berman. They got matched up with DeWolfe, and saw this crazy Friendster coming out of nowhere and decided to build something like it.

They had a domain they weren’t using called MySpace.com, which they were going to use for another online storage project. So they grabbed Aber Whitcomb, fired up a ColdFusion IDE and given the other properties eUniverse was sitting on had the expertise to get everything up and running fairly quickly. So they launched MySpace internally first and then had little contests to see who could get the most people to sign up. eUniverse had tens of millions of users on the other properties so they emailed them too. Within two years they had 20 million users and were the centerpiece of the eUniverse portfolio. Wanting in on what the young kids were doing these days, Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation, or NewsCorp for short, picked up the company for $580 Million in cash. It’s like an episode of Succession, right?

After the acquisition of Myspace by news corporation, Myspace continued its exponential growth. Later in the year, the site started signing up 200,000 new users every day. About a year later, it was registering approx. 320,000 users each day. They localized into different languages and became the biggest website in the US. So they turned on the advertising machine, paying back their purchase price by doing $800 million in revenue back to NewsCorp. 

MySpace had become the first big social media platform that was always free that allowed users to freely express their minds and thoughts with millions of other users, provided they were 13 years or older. They restricted access to profiles of people younger than 16 years in such a way that they couldn’t be viewed by people over 18 years old. That was to keep sexual predators from accessing the profile of a minor. Kids turned out to be a challenge. In 2006, during extensive research the company began detecting and deleting profiles of registered sex offenders which had started showing up on the platform. 

Myspace partnered with Sentinel Tech Holdings Corporation to build a searchable, national database containing names, physical descriptions, and other identity details known as the Sentinel Safe which allowed them to keep track of over half a million registered sex offenders from  U.S. government records. This way they developed the first national database of convicted sex offenders to protect kids on the platform, which they then provided to state attorney generals when the sex offenders tried to use MySpace. 

Facebook was created in 2004 and Twitter was created in 2006. They picked up market share, but MySpace continued to do well in 2007 then not as well in 2008. By 2009, Facebook surpassed Myspace in the number of unique U.S. visitors. Myspace began a rapid decline and lost members fast. Network effects can disappear as quickly as they are created. They kept the site simple and basic; people would log in, make new friends, and share music, photos, and chat with people. Facebook and Twitter constantly introduced new features for users to explore; this kept the existing users on the site and attracted more users. Then social media companies like twitter began to target users on Myspace. 

New and more complicated issues kept coming up. Pages were vandalized, there were phishing attacks, malware got posted to the site, and there were outages as the ColdFusion code had been easy to implement but proved harder to hyperscale. In fact, few had needed to scale a site like MySpace had in that era. Not only were users abandoning the platform, but employees at Myspace started to leave. The changes to MySpace’s executive ranks went down quicky in June 2009 by a layoff of 37.5% of its workforce reducing, the employees went down from 1,600 to 1,000.

Myspace attempted to rebrand itself as primarily a music site to try and gain the audience they lost. They changed the layout to make it look more attractive but continued a quick decline just as Facebook and Twitter were in the midst of a meteoric rise. In 2011 News Corporation sold Myspace to Specific Media and Justin Timberlake for around $35 million. Timberlake wanted to make a platform where fans could go and communicate with their favorite entertainers, listen to new music, watch videos, share music, and connect with others who liked the same things. Like Geocities but for music lovers. They never really managed to turn things around.

In 2016, Myspace and its parent company were acquired by Time Inc. and later Time inc. was in turn purchased by the Meredith Corporation. A few months later the news cycle on and about the platform became less positive. A hacker retrieved 427 million Myspace passwords and tried to sell them for $2,800. In 2019, Myspace accidentally deleted over 50 million digital files including photos, songs, and videos during a server migration. Everything up to 2015 was erased. In some ways that’s not the worst thing, considering some of the history left on older profiles.

MySpace continues to push music today, with shows that include original content, like interviews with artists. It’s more of a way for artists to project their craft than a social network. It’s featured content, either sponsored by a label or artist, or from artists so popular or with such an intriguing story their label doesn’t need to promote them. There are elements of a social network left, but nothing like the other social networks of the day. And there’s some beauty in that simplicity.

MySpace was always more than just a social networking website; it was the social network that kickstarted the web 2.0 experience we know today. Tom was everyone who joined the networks first friend. So he became the first major social media star. MySpace became the most visited social networking site in the world, often surpassing Google in number of visitors. Then the network effect moved elsewhere, and those who inherited the users analyzed what caused them to move away from MySpace and either through copying features, out innovating, or acquisition, have managed to remain dominant for over a decade. But there’s always something else right around the corner.

One of the major reasons people abandoned MySpace was to be with those who thought just like them. When Facebook was only available to college kids it had a young appeal. It slowly leaked into the mainstream and my grandmother started typing the word like when I posted pictures of my kid. Because we grew up. They didn’t attempt to monetize too early. They remained stable. They didn’t spend more than they needed to keep the site going, so never lost control to investors. Meanwhile, MySpace grew to well over a thousand people to support a web property that would take a dozen to support today. Facebook may move fast and break things. But they do so because they saw what happens when we don’t.


Gateway 2000, and Sioux City

     5/9/2022

Theophile Bruguier was a fur trader who moved south out of Monreal after a stint as an attorney in Quebec before his fiancé died. He became friends with Chief War Eagle of the Yankton Sioux. We call him Chief, but he left the Santee rather than have a bloody fight over who would be the next chief. The Santee were being pushed down from the Great Lakes area of Minnesota and Wisconsin by the growing Ojibwe and were pushing further and further south.

There are two main divisions of the Sioux people: the Dakota and the Lakota. There are two main ethnic groups of the Dakota, the Eastern, sometimes called the Santee and the Western, or the Yankton. After the issues with the his native Santee, he was welcomed by the Yankton, where he had two wives and seven children. 

Chief War Eagle then spent time with the white people moving into the area in greater and greater numbers. They even went to war and he acted as a messenger for them in the War of 1812 and then became a messenger for the American Fur Company and a guide along the Missouri. After the war, he was elected a chief and helped negotiate peace treaties. He married two of his daughters off to Theophile Bruguier, who he sailed the Missouri with on trips between St Louis and Fort Pierre in the Dakota territory. 

The place where Theophile settled was where the Big Sioux and Missouri rivers meet. Two water ways for trade made his cabin a perfect place to trade, and the chief died a couple of years later and was buried in what we now call War Eagle Park, a beautiful hike above Sioux City. His city. Around the same time, the Sioux throughout the Minnesota River were moved to South Dakota to live on reservations, having lost their lands and war broke out in the 1860s. 

Back at the Bruguier land, more French moved into the area after Bruguier opened a trading post and was one of the 17 white people that voted in the first Woodbury County election, once Wahkaw County was changed to Woodbury to honor Levi Woodbury, a former Supreme Court Justice. 

Bruguier sold some of his land to Joseph Leonais in 1852. He sold it to a land surveyor, Dr. John Cook, who founded Sioux City in 1854. By 1860, with the westward expansion of the US, the population had already risen to 400. Steamboats, railroads, livestock yards, and by 1880 they were over 7,000 souls, growing to 6 times that by the time Bruguier died in 1896. Seemingly more comfortable with those of the First Nations, his body is interred with Chief War Eagle and his first two wives on the bluffs overlooking Sioux City, totally unrecognizable by then.

The goods this new industry brought had to cross the rivers. Before there were bridges to cross the sometimes angry rivers, ranchers had to ferry cattle across. Sometimes cattle fell off the barges and once they were moving, they couldn’t stop for a single head of cattle. Ted Waitt’s ancestors rescued cattle and sold them, eventually homesteading their own ranch. And that ranch is where Ted started Gateway Computers in 1985 with his friend Mike Hammond. 

Michael Dell started Dell computers in 1984 and grew the company on the backs of a strong mail order business. He went from selling repair services and upgrades to selling full systems. He wasn’t the only one to build a company based on a mail and phone order business model in the 1980s and 1990s. Before the internet that was the most modern way to transact business. 

Ted Waitt went to the University of Iowa in Iowa City a couple of years before Michael Dell went to the University of Texas. He started out in marketing and then spent a couple of years working for a reseller and repair store in Des Moines before he decided to start his own company.

Gateway began life in 1985 as the Texas Instruments PC Network, or TIPC Network for short. They sold stuff for Texas Instruments computers like modems, printers, and other peripherals. The TI-99/4A had been released in 1979 and was discontinued a year before. It was a niche hobbyist market even by then, but the Texas Instruments Personal Computer had shipped in 1983 and came with an 8088 CPU. It was similar to an IBM PC and came with a DOS. But Texas Instruments wasn’t a clone maker and the machines weren’t fully Personal Computer compatible. Instead, there were differences. 

They found some success and made more than $100,000 in just a few months, so brought in Tedd’s brother Norm. Compaq, Dell, and a bunch of other companies were springing up to build computers. Anyone who had sold parts for an 8088 and used DOS on it knew how to build a computer. And after a few years of supplying parts, they had a good idea how to find inexpensive components to build their own computers. They could rescue parts and sell them to meatpacking plants as full-blown computers. They just needed some Intel chips, some boards, which were pretty common by then, some RAM, which was dirt cheap due to a number of foreign companies dumping RAM into the US market.

They built some computers and got up to $1 million in revenue in 1986. Then they became an IBM-compatible personal computer when they found the right mix of parts. It was close to what Texas Instruments sold, but came with a color monitor and two floppy disk drives, which were important in that era before all the computers came with spinning hard drives. Their first computer sold for just under $2,000, which made it half what a Texas Instruments computer cost. They found the same thing that Dell had found: the R&D and marketing overhead at big companies meant they could be more cost-competitive. They couldn’t call the computers a TIPC Network though. Sioux City, Iowa became the Gateway to the Dakotas, and beyond, so they changed their name to Gateway 2000. 

Gateway 2000 then released an 80286, which we lovingly called the 286, in 1988 and finally left the ranch to move into the city. They also put Waitt’s marketing classes to use and slapped a photo of the cows from the ranch in a magazine that said “Computers from Iowa?” and one of the better tactics for long-term loyalty, they gave cash bonuses to employees based on their profits. Within a year, they jumped to $12 million in sales. Then $70 million in 1989, and moved to South Dakota in 1990 to avoid paying state income tax. The cow turned out to be popular, so they kept Holstein cows in their ads and even added them to the box. Everyone knew what those Gateway boxes looked like.

Like Dell, they hired great tech support who seemed to love their jobs at Gateway and would help with any problems people found. They brought in the adults in 1990. Executives from big firms. They had been the first to Mae color monitors standard and now, with the release of Windows they became the first big computer seller to standardize on the platform. 

They released a notebook computer in 1992. The HandBook was their first computer that didn’t do well. It could have been the timing, but in the midst of a recession in a time when most households were getting computers, a low cost computer sold well and sales hit $1 billion. Yet they had trouble scaling to their ship hundreds of computers a day. They opened an office in Ireland and ramped up sales overseas. Then they went public in 1993, raising $150 million. The Wiatt’s hung on to 85% of the company and used the capital raised in the IPO to branch into other areas to complete the Gateway offering: modems, networking equipment, printers, and more support representatives. 

Sales in 1994 hit $2.7 billion a year. They added another support center a few hours down the Missouri River in Kansas City. They opened showrooms. They added a manufacturing plant in Malaysia. They bought Osborne Computer. They opened showrooms and by 1996 Gateway spent tens of millions a year in advertising. The ads worked and they became a household name. They became a top ten company in computing with $5 billion in sales. Dell was the only direct personal computer supplier who was bigger. 

They opened a new sales channel: the World Wide Web. Many still called after they looked up prices at first but by 1997 they did hundreds of millions in sales on the web. By then, Ethernet had become the standard network protocol so they introduced the E-Series, which came with networks. They bought Advanced Logic Research to expand into servers. They launched a dialup provider called gateway.net. 

By the late 1990s, the ocean of companies who sold personal computers was red. Anyone could head down to the local shop, buy some parts, and build their own personal computer. Dell, HP, Compaq, and others dropped their prices and Gateway was left needing a new approach. Three years before Apple opened their first store, Gateway launched Gateway Country, retail stores that sold the computer, the dialup service, and they went big fast, launching 58 stores in 26 states in a short period of time. With 2000 right around the corner, they also changed their name to Gateway, Inc. Price pressure continued to hammer away at them and they couldn’t find talent so they moved to San Diego. 

1999 proved a pivotal year for many in technology. The run-up to the dot com bubble meant new web properties popped up constantly. AOL had more capital than they could spend and invested heavily into Gateway to take over the ISP business, which had grown to over half a million subscribers. They threw in free Internet access with the computers, opened more channels into different sectors, and expanded the retail stores to over 200. Some thought Waitt needed to let go and let someone with more executive experience come in. So long-time AT&T exec Jeff Weitzen, who had joined the company in 1998 took over as CEO. By then Waitt was worth billions and it made sense that maybe he could go run a cattle ranch. By then his former partner Mike Hammond had a little business fixing up cars so why not explore something new. 

Waitt stayed on as chairman as Weitzen reorganized the company. But the prices of computers continued to fall. To keep up, Gateway released the Astro computer in 2000. This was an affordable, small desktop that had a built-in monitor, CPU, and speakers. It ran a 400 MHz Intel Celeron, had a CD-ROM, and a 4.3 GB hard drive, with 64 Megabytes of memory, a floppy, a modem, Windows 98 Second Edition, Norton Anti-Virus, USB ports, and the Microsoft Works Suite. All this came in at $799. Gateway had led the market with Windows and other firsts they jumped on board with. They had been aggressive. The first iMac had been released in 1998 and this seemed like they were following that with a cheaper computer.

Gateway Country stores grew over 400+ stores. But the margins had gotten razor thin. That meant profits were down. Waitt came back to run the company, the US Securities and Exchange Commission filed charges for fraud against Weitzen, the former controller, and the former CFO, and that raged on for years. In that time, Gateway got into TVs, cameras, MP3 players, and in 2004 acquired eMachines, a rapidly growing economy PC manufacturer. Their CEO, Wayne Inouye then came in to run Gateway. He had been an executive at The Good Guys! and Best Buy before taking the helm of eMachines in 2001, helping them open sales channels in retail stores. But Gateway didn’t get as much a foothold in retail.

That laptop failure from the 1980s stuck with Gateway. They never managed to ship a game-changing laptop. Then the market started to shift to laptops. Other companies left on that market but Gateway never seemed able to ship the right device. They instead branched into consumer electronics. The dot com bubble burst and they never recovered. The financial woes with the SEC hurt trust in the brand. The outsourcing hurt the trust in the brand. The acquisition of a budget manufacturer hurt the brand. Apple managed to open retail stores to great success, while preserving relationships with big box retailers. But Gateway lost that route to market when they opened their own stores. Then Acer acquired Gateway in 2007. They can now be found at Walmart, having been relaunched as a budget brand of Acer, a company who the big American firms once outsourced to, but who now stands on their own two feed as a maker of personal computers.


Whistling Our Way To Windows XP

     4/25/2022

Microsoft had confusion in the Windows 2000 marketing and disappointment with Millennium Edition, which was built on a kernel that had run its course. It was time to phase out the older 95, 98, and Millennium code. So in 2001, Microsoft introduced Windows NT 5.1, known as Windows XP (eXperience). XP came in a Home or Professional edition. 

Microsoft built a new interface they called Whistler for XP. It was sleeker and took more use of the graphics processors of the day. Jim Allchin was the Vice President in charge of the software group by then and helped spearhead development. XP had even more security options, which were simplified in the home edition. They did a lot of work to improve the compatibility between hardware and software and added the option for fast user switching so users didn’t have to log off completely and close all of their applications when someone else needed to use the computer. They also improved on the digital media experience and added new libraries to incorporate DirectX for various games. 

Professional edition also added options that were more business focused. This included the ability to join a network and Remote Desktop without the need of a third party product to take control of the keyboard, video, and mouse of a remote computer. Users could use their XP Home Edition computer to log into work, if the network administrator could forward the port necessary. XP Professional also came with the ability to support multiple processors, send faxes, an encrypted file system, more granular control of files and other objects (including GPOs), roaming profiles (centrally managed through Active Directory using those GPOs), multiple language support, IntelliMirror (an oft forgotten centralized management solution that included RIS and sysprep for mass deployments), an option to do an Automated System Recovery, or ASR restore of a computer. Professional also came with the ability to act as a web server, not that anyone should run one on a home operating system. XP Professional was also 64-bit given the right processor.

XP Home Edition could be upgraded to from Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, Millineum, and XP Professional could be upgraded to from any operating system since Windows 98 was released., including NT 4 and Windows 2000 Professional. And users could upgrade from Home to Professional for an additional $100.  

Microsoft also fixed a few features. One that had plagued users was that they had to gracefully unmount a drive before removing it; Microsoft got in front of this when they removed the warning that a drive was disconnected improperly and had the software take care of that preemptively. They removed some features users didn’t really use like NetMeeting and Phone Dialer and removed some of the themes options. The 3D Maze was also sadly removed. Other options just cleaned up the interface or merged technologies that had become similar, like Deluxe CD player and DVD player were removed in lieu of just using Windows Media Player. And chatty network protocols that caused problems like NetBEUI and AppleTalk were removed from the defaults, as was the legacy Microsoft OS/2 subsystem.

In general, Microsoft moved from two operating system code bases to one. Although with the introduction of Windows CE, they arguably had no net-savings. However, to the consumer and enterprise buyer, it was a simpler licensing scheme. Those enterprise buyers were more and more important to Microsoft. Larger and larger fleets gave them buying power and the line items with resellers showed it with an explosion in the number of options for licensing packs and tiers. But feature-wise Microsoft had spent the Microsoft NT and Windows 2000-era training thousands of engineers on how to manage large fleets of Windows machines as Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers (MCSE) and other credentials. Deployments grew and by the time XP was released, Microsoft had the lions’ share of the market for desktop operating systems and productivity apps. XP would only cement that lead and create a generation of systems administrators equipped to manage the platform, who never knew a way other than the Microsoft way.

One step along the path to the MCSE was through servers. For the first couple of years, XP connected to Windows 2000 Servers. Windows Server 2003, which was built on the Windows NT 5.2 kernel, was then released in 2003. Here, we saw Active Directory cement a lead created in 2000 over servers from Novell and other vendors. Server 2003 became the de facto platform for centralized file, print, web, ftp, software  time, DHCP, DNS, event, messeging, and terminal services (or shared Remote Desktop services through Terminal Server). Server 2003 could also be purchased with Exchange 2003. Given the integration with Microsoft Outlook and a number of desktop services, Microsoft Exchange. 

The groupware market in 2003 and the years that followed were dominated by Lotus Notes, Novell’s GroupWise, and Exchange. Microsoft was aggressive. They were aggressive on pricing. They released tools to migrate from Notes to Exchange the week before IBM’s conference. We saw some of the same tactics and some of the same faces that were involved in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer anti-trust suit from the 1990s. The competition to Change never recovered and while Microsoft gained ground in the groupware space through the Exchange Server 4.0, 5.0, 5.5, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2016 eras, by Exchange 2019 over half the mailboxes formerly hosted by on premises Exchange servers had moved to the cloud and predominantly Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud service. Some still used legacy Unix mail services like sendmail or those hosted by third party providers like GoDaddy with their domain or website - but many of those ran on Exchange as well. The only company to put up true competition in the space has been Google.

Other companies had released tools to manage Windows devices en masse. Companies like Altiris sprang out of needs for companies who did third party software testing to manage the state of Windows computers. Microsoft had a product called Systems Management Server but Altiris built a better product, so Microsoft built an even more robust solution called System Center Configuration Management server, or SCCM for short, and within a few years Altiris lost so much business they were acquired by Symantec. Other similar stories played out across other areas where each product competed with other vendors and sometimes market segments - and usually won.

To a large degree this was because of the tight hold Windows had on the market. Microsoft had taken the desktop metaphor and seemed to own the entire stack by the end of the Windows XP era. However, the technology we used was a couple of years after the product management and product development teams started to build it. And by the end of the XP era, Bill Gates had been gone long enough, and many of the early stars that almost by pure will pushed products through development cycles were as well. Microsoft continued to release new versions of the operating systems but XP became one of the biggest competitors to later operating systems rather than other companies. This reluctance to move to Vista and other technologies was the main reason extended support for XP through to 2012, around 11 years after it was released. 


Windows NT 5 becomes Windows 2000

     4/17/2022

Microsoft Windows 2000 was the successor to Windows NT 4.0, which had been released in 1997. Windows 2000 didn’t have a code name (supposedly because Jim Allchin didn’t like codenames), although its service packs did; Service Pack 1 and Windows 2000 64-bit were codenamed "Asteroid" and "Janus," respectively. 2000 began as NT 5.0 but Microsoft announced the name change in 1998, in a signal with when customer might expect the OS. 

Some of the enhancements were just to match the look and feel of the consumer Windows 98 counterpart. For example, the logo in the boot screens was cleaned up and they added new icons.  Some found Windows 2000 to be more reliable, others claimed it didn’t have enough new features. But what it might have lacked in features from a cursory glance, Windows 2000 made up for in stability, scalability, and reliability. 

This time around, Microsoft had input from some of their larger partners. They released the operating system to partners in 1999, after releasing three release candidates or developer previews earlier that year. They needed to, if only so third parties could understand what items needed to be sold to customers. There were enough editions now, that it wasn’t uncommon for resellers to have to call the licensing desk at a distributor (similar to a wholesaler for packaged goods) in order to figure out what line items the reseller needed to put on a bid, or estimate. 

Reporters hailed it as the most stable product ever produced by Microsoft. It was also the most secure version. 2000 brought Group Policies forward from NT and enhanced what could be controlled from a central system. The old single line domain concept for managing domains was enhanced to become what Microsoft called Active Directory, a modern directory service that located resources in a database and allowed for finely grained controls of those resources. Windows 2000 also introduced NTFS 3, an Encrypted File System that was built on top of layers of APIs, each with their own controls. 

Still, Windows 98 was the most popular operating system in the world by then and it was harder to move people to it than initially expected. Microsoft released Windows 98 Second Edition in 1999 and then Windows Millennium Edition, or Me, in 2000. Millennium was a flop and helped move more people into 2000, even though 2000 was marketed as a business or enterprise operating system. 

Windows 2000 Professional was the workstation workhorse. Active Directory and other server services ran on Windows 2000 Server Edition. They also released Advanced Server and Datacenter Server for even more advanced environments, with Datacenter able to support up to 32 CPUs. Professional borrowed many features from both NT and 98 Second Edition, including the Outlook Express email client, expanded file system support, WebDAV support, Windows Media Player, WDM (Windows Driver Model), the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) for making it easier to manage those GPOs, support for new mass storage devices like Firewire, hibernation and passwords to wake up from hibernation, the System File Checker, new debugging options, better event logs, Windows Desktop Update (which gave us “Patch Tuesday”), a new Windows Installer, Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI), Plug and Play hardware (installing new hardware in Windows NT was a bit more like doing so in Unix than Windows 95), and all the transitions and animations of the Windows shell like an Explorer integrated with Internet Explorer. 

Some of these features were abused. We got Code Red, Nimbda, and other malware that became high profile attacks against vulnerable binaries. These were unprecedented in terms of how quickly a flaw in the code could get abused en masse. Hundreds of thousands of computers could be infected in a matter of days with a well crafted exploit. Even some of the server services were exploited such as the IIS, or Internet Information Services server. Microsoft responded with security bulletins but buffer overflows and other vulnerabilities allows mass infections. So much so that the US and other governments got involved. This wasn’t made any easier by the fact that the source code for parts of 2000 was leaked on the Internet and had been used to help find new exploits.

Yet Windows 2000 was still the most secure operating system Microsoft had put out. Imagine how many viruses and exploits would have appeared on all those computers if it hadn’t of been. And within Microsoft, Windows 2000 was a critical step toward mass adoption of the far more stable, technically sophisticated Windows NT platform. It demonstrated that a technologically powerful Windows operating system could also have a user-friendly interface and multimedia capabilities.


The R Programming Language

     4/1/2022

R is the 18th level of the Latin alphabet. It represents the rhotic consonant, or the r sound. It goes back to the Greek Rho, the Phoenician Resh before that and the Egyptian rêš, which is the same name the Egyptians had for head, before that. R appears in about 7 and a half percent of the words in the English dictionary. 

And R is probably the best language out there for programming around various statistical and machine learning tasks. We may use tools like Tensorflow imported to languages like python to prototype but R is incredibly performant for all the maths. And so it has become an essential piece of software for data scientists. 

The R programming language was created in 1993 by two statisticians Robert Gentleman, and Ross Ihaka at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. It has since been ported to practically every operating system and is available at r-project.org. Initially called "S," the name changed to "R" to avoid a trademark issue with a commercial software package that we’ll discuss in a bit. R was primarily written in C but used Fortran and since even R itself. 

And there have been statistical packages since the very first computers were used for math. 

IBM in fact packaged up BMDP when they first started working on the idea at UCLA Health Computing Facility. That was 1957. Then came SPSS out of the University of Chicago in 1968. And the same year, John Sall and others gave us SAS, or Statistical Analysis System) out of North Carolina State University. And those evolved from those early days through into the 80s with the advent of object oriented everything and thus got not only windowing interfaces but also extensibility, code sharing, and as we moved into the 90s, acquisition’s. BMDP was acquired by SPSS who was then acquired by IBM and the products were getting more expensive but not getting a ton of key updates for the same scientific and medical communities.

And so we saw the upstarts in the 80s, Data Desk and JMP and others. Tools built for windowing operating systems and in object oriented languages. We got the ability to interactively manipulate data, zoom in and spin three dimensional representations of data, and all kinds of pretty aspects. But they were not a programmers tool.

S was begun in the seventies at Bell Labs and was supposed to be a statistical MATLAB, a language specifically designed for number crunching. And the statistical techniques were far beyond where SPSS and SAS had stopped. And with the breakup of Ma Bell, parts of Bell became Lucent, which sold S to Insightful Corporation who released S-PLUS and would later get bought by TIBCO. Keep in mind, Bell was testing line quality and statistics and going back to World War II employed some of the top scientists in those fields, ones who would later create large chunks of the quality movement and implementations like Six Sigma. Once S went to a standalone software company basically, it became less about the statistics and more about porting to different computers to make more money. 

Private equity and portfolio conglomerates are, by nature, after improving the multiples on a line of business. But sometimes more statisticians in various feels might feel left behind. And this is where R comes into the picture. R gained popularity among statisticians because it made it easier to write complicated statistical algorithms without learning an entire programming language. Its popularity has grown significantly since then. R has been described as a cross between MATLAB and SPSS, but much faster.


R was initially designed to be a language that could handle statistical analysis and other types of data mining, an offshoot of which we now call machine learning. R is also an open-source language and as with a number of other languages has plenty of packages available through a package repository - which they call CRAN (Comprehensive R Archive Network). This allows R to be used in fields outside of statistics and data science or to just get new methods to do math that doesn’t belong in the main language. 

There are over 18,000 packages for R. One of the more popular is ggplot2, an open-source data visualization package. data.table is another that performs programmatic data manipulation operations. dplyr provides functions designed to enable data frame manipulation in an intuitive manner. tidyr helps create tidier data. Shiny generates interactive web apps. And there are plenty of packages to make R easier, faster, and more extensible.

By 2015, more than 10 million people used R every month and it’s now the 13th most popular language in use. And the needs have expanded. We can drop r scripts into other programs and tools for processing. And some of the workloads are huge. This led to the development of parallel computing, specifically using MPI (Message Passing Interface). 

R programming is one of the most popular languages used for statistical analysis, statistical graphics generation, and data science projects. There are other languages or tools for specific uses but it’s even started being used in those. 

The latest version, R 4.1.2, was released on 21/11/01. R development, as with most thriving open source solutions, is guided by a group of core developers supported by contributions from the broader community. It became popular because it provides all essential features for data mining and graphics needed for academic research and industry applications and because of the pluggable and robust and versatile nature.

And projects like tensorflow and numpy and sci-kit have evolved for other languages. And there are services from companies like Amazon that can host and process assets from both, both using unstructured databases like NoSQL or using Jupyter notebooks.

A Jupyter Notebook is a JSON document, following a versioned schema that contains an ordered list of input/output cells which can contain code, text (using Markdown), formulas, algorithms, plots and even media like audio or video. Project Jupyter was a spin-off of iPython but the goal was to create a language-agnostic tool where we could execute aspects in Ruby or Haskel or Python or even R. This gives us so many ways to get our data into the notebook, in batches or deep learning environments or whatever pipeline needs to be built based on an organization’s stack. Especially if the notebook has a frontend based on Amazon SageMaker Notebooks, Google's Colaboratory and Microsoft's Azure Notebook.

Think about this. 25% of the languages lack a rhotic consonant. Sometimes it seems like we’ve got languages that do everything or that we’ve built products that do everything. But I bet no matter the industry or focus or sub-specialty, there’s still 25% more automation or instigation into our own data to be done. Because there always will be.


The Earliest Days of Microsoft Windows NT

     3/24/2022

The first operating systems as we might think of them today (or at least anything beyond a basic task manager) shipped in the form of Multics in 1969. Some of the people who worked on that then helped created Unix at Bell Labs in 1971. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Unix flowed to education, research, and corporate environments through minicomputers and many in those environments thought a flavor of BSD, or Berkeley Software Distribution, might become the operating system of choice on microcomputers. But the microcomputer movement had a while other plan if only in spite of the elder minicomputers.

Apple DOS was created in 1978 in a time when most companies who made computers had to mail their own DOS as well, if only so software developers could built disks capable of booting the machines. Microsoft created their Disk Operating System, or MS-DOS, in 1981. They proceeded to Windows 1 to sit on top of MS-DOS in 1985, which was built in Intel’s 8086 assembler and called operating system services via interrupts. That led to poor programmers locking down points in order to access memory addresses and written assuming a single-user operating system.

Then came Windows 2 in 1987, Windows 3 in 1992, and released one of the most anticipated operating systems of all time in 1995 with Windows 95. 95 turned into 98, and then Millineum in 2000. But in the meantime, Microsoft began work on another generation of operating systems based on a fusion of ideas between work they were doing with IBM, work architects had done at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), and rethinking all of it with modern foundations of APIs and layers of security sitting atop a kernel.

Microsoft worked on OS/2 with IBM from 1985 to 1989. This was to be the IBM-blessed successor of the personal computer. But IBM was losing control of the PC market with the rise of cloned IBM architectures. IBM was also big, corporate, and the small, fledgeling Microsoft was able to move quicker. Really small companies that find success often don’t mesh well with really big companies that have layers of bureaucracy. The people Microsoft originally worked with were nimble and moved quickly. The ones presiding over the massive sales and go to market efforts and the explosion in engineering team size was back to the old IBM.

OS/2 had APIs for most everything the computer could do. This meant that programmers weren’t just calling assembly any time they wanted and invading whatever memory addresses they wanted. They also wanted preemptive multitasking and threading. And a file system since by then computers had internal hard drives. The Microsoft and IBM relationship fell apart and Microsoft decided to go their own way.

Microsoft realized that DOS was old and building on top of DOS was going to some day be a big, big problem. Windows 3 was closer, as was 95, so they continued on with that plan. But they started something similar to what we’d call a fork of OS/2 today. So Gates went out to recruit the best in the industry. He hired Dave Cutler from Digital Equipment to take on the architecture of the new operating system.

Cutler had worked on the VMS operating system and helped lead efforts for next-generation operating system at DEC that they called MICA. And that moment began the march towards a new operating system called NT, which borrowed much of the best from VMS, Microsoft Windows, and OS/2 - and had little baggage. Microsoft was supposed to make version 3 of OS/2 but NT OS/2 3.0 would become just Windows NT when Microsoft stopped developing on OS/2. It took 12 years, because um, they had a loooooot of customers after the wild success of first Windows 3 and then Windows 95, but eventually Cutler and team’s NT would replace all other operating systems in the family with the release of Windows 2000.

Cutler wanted to escape the confines of what was by then the second largest computing company in the world. Cutler worked on VMS and RSX-12 before he got to Microsoft. There were constant turf battles and arguments about microkernels and system architecture and meetings weren’t always conducive with actually shipping code. So Cutler went somewhere he could. At least, so long as they kept IBM at bay. Cutler brought some of the team from Digital with him and they got to work on that next generation of operating systems in 1988.

They sat down to decide what they wanted to build, using the NS OS/2 operating system they had a starting point. Microsoft had sold Xenix and the team knew about most every operating system on the market at the time. They wanted a multi-user environment like a Unix. They wanted programming APIs, especially for networking, but different than what BSD had. In fact, many of the paths and structures of networking commands in Windows still harken back to emulating those structures.

The system would be slow on the 8086 processor, but ever since the days of Xerox PARC, everyone knew Moore’s Law was real and that the processors would double in speed every other year. Especially since Moore was still at Intel and could make his law remain true with the 286 and 386 chips in the pipeline. They also wanted the operating system to be portable since IBM selected the Intel CPU but there were plenty of other CPU architectures out there as well.

The original name for NT was to be OS/2 3.0. But the IBM and Microsoft relationship fell apart and the two companies took their operating systems in different directions. OS/2 became went the direction of Warp and IBM never recovered. NT went in a direction where some ideas came over from Windows 95 or 3.1 but mostly the team just added layers of APIs and focused on making NT a fully 32-bit version of Windows that could that could be ported to other platforms including ARM, PowerPC, and the DEC Alpha that Cutler had exposure to from his days at Digital.

The name became Windows NT and NT began with version 3, as it was in fact the third installment of OS/2. The team began with Cutler and a few others, grew to eight and by the time it finally shipped as NT 3.1 in 1993 there were a few hundred people working on the project. Where Windows 95 became the mass marketed operating system, NT took lessons learned from the Unix, IBM mainframe, and VMS worlds and packed them into an operating system that could run on a corporate desktop computer, as microcomputers were called by then.

The project cost $150 million, about the same as the first iPhone. It was a rough start. But that core team and those who followed did what Apple couldn’t in a time when a missing modern operating system nearly put Apple out of business. Cutler inspired, good managers drove teams forward, some bad managers left, other bad managers stayed, and in an almost agile development environment they managed to break through the conflicts and ship an operating system that didn’t actually seem like it was built by a committee. Bill Gates knew the market and was patient enough to let NT 3 mature.

They took the parts of OS/2 like LAN Manager. They took parts of Unix like ping. But those were at the application level. The microkernel was the most important part. And that was a small core team, like it always is.

The first version they shipped to the public was Windows NT 3.1. The sales people found it easiest to often say that NT was the business-oriented operating system. Over time, the Windows NT series was slowly enlarged to become the company’s general-purpose OS product line for all PCs, and thus Microsoft abandoned the Windows 9x family, which might or might not have a lot to do with the poor reviews Millennium Edition had.

Other aspects of the application layer the original team didn’t do much with included the GUI, which was much more similar to Windows 3.x. But based on great APIs they were able to move faster than most, especially in that era where Unix was in weird legal territory, changing hands from Bell to Novell, and BSD was also in dubious legal territory. The Linux kernel had been written in 1991 but wasn’t yet a desktop-class operating system. So the remaining choices most business considered were really Mac, which had serious operating system issues at the time and seemed to lack a vision since Steve Jobs left the company, or Windows.

Windows NT 3.5 was introduced in 1994, followed by 3.51 a year later. During those releases they shored up access control lists for files, functions, and services. Services being similar in nearly every way to a process in Unix. It sported a TCP/IP network stack but also NetBIOS for locating computers to establish a share and a file sharing stack in LAN Manager based on the Server Message Block, or SMB protocol that Barry Feigenbaum wrote at IBM in 1983 to turn a DOS computer into a file server. Over the years, Microsoft and 3COM add additional functionality and Microsoft added the full Samba with LDAP out of the University of Michigan as a backend and Kerberos (out of MIT) to provide single sign-on services.

3.51 also brought a lot of user-mode components from Windows 95. That included the Windows 95 common control library, which included the rich edit control, and a number of tools for developers. NT could run DOS software, now they were getting it to run Windows 95 software without sacrificing the security of the operating system where possible. It kinda’ looked like a slightly more boring version of 95. And some of the features were a little harder to use, like configuring a SCSI driver to get a tape drive to work. But they got the ability to run Office 95 and it was the last version that ran the old Program Manager graphical interface.

Cutler had been joined by Moshe Dunie, who led the management side of NT 3.1, through NT 4 and became the VP of the Windows Operating System Division so also had responsibility for Windows 98 and 2000. For perspective, that operating system group grew to include 3,000 badged Microsoft employees and about half that number of contractors. Mark Luovsky and Lou Perazzoli joined from Digital. Jim Alchin came in from Banyan Vines.

Windows NT 4.0 was released in 1996, with a GUI very similar to Windows 95. NT 4 became the workhorse of the field that emerged for large deployments of computers we now refer to as enterprise computing. It didn’t have all the animation-type bells and whistles of 95 but did perform about as well as any operating system could. It had the NT Explorer to browse files, a Start menu, for which many of us just clicked run and types cmd. It had a Windows Desktop Update and a task scheduler. They released a number of features that would take years for other vendors to catch up with. The DCOM, or Distributed Component Object Modeling and Object Linking & Embedding (or OLE) was a core aspect any developer had to learn. The Telephony API (or TAPI) allowed access to the modem. The Microsoft Transaction Server allowed developers to build network applications on their own sockets. The Crypto API allowed developers to encrypt information in their applications. The Microsoft Message Queuing service allowed queuing data transfer between services.

They also built in DirectX support and already had OpenGL support. The Task Manager in NT 4 was like an awesome graphical version of the top command on Unix. And it came with Internet Explorer 2 built in. NT 4 would be followed by a series of service packs for 4 years before the next generation of operating system was ready. That was Windows 5, or more colloquially called Windows 2000.

In those years NT became known as NT Workstation, the server became known as NT Server, they built out Terminal Server Edition in collaboration with Citrix. And across 6 service packs, NT became the standard in enterprise computing. IBM released OS/2 Warp version 4.52 in 2001, but never had even a fraction of the sales Microsoft did. By contrast, NT 5.1 became Windows XP and 6 became Vista in while OS/2 was cancelled in 2005.


Qualcomm: From Satellites to CDMA to Snapdragons

     3/17/2022

Qualcomm is the world's largest fabless semiconductor designer. The name Qualcomm is a mashup of  Quality and Communications and communications has been a hallmark of the company since its founding. They began in satellite communications and today most every smartphone has a Qualcomm chip. The ubiquity of communications in our devices and everyday lives has allowed them a $182 billion market cap as of the time of this writing. 

Qualcomm began with far humbler beginnings. They emerged out of a company called Linkabit in 1985. Linkabit was started by Irwin Jacobs, Leonard Kleinrock, and Andrew Viterbi - all three former graduate students at MIT. 

Viterbi moved to California to take a job with JPL in Pasadena, where he worked on satellites. He then went off to UCLA where he developed what we now call the Viterti algorithm, for encoding and decoding digital communications. Jacobs worked on a book called Principles of Communication Engineering after getting his doctorate at MIT. Jacobs then took a year of leave to work at JPL after he met Viterbi in the early 1960s and the two hit it off. By 1966, Jacobs was a professor at the University of California, San Diego. Kleinrock was at UCLA by then and the three realized they had too many consulting efforts between them, but if they consolidated the request they could pool their resources. Eventually Jacobs and Viterbi left and Kleinrock got busy working on the first ARPANET node when it was installed at UCLA.

Jerry Heller, Andrew Cohen, Klein Gilhousen, and James Dunn eventually moved into the area to work at Linkabit and by the 1970s Jacobs was back to help design telecommunications for satellites. They’d been working to refine the theories from Claude Shannon’s time at MIT and Bell Labs and were some of the top names in the industry on the work. And the space race needed a lot of this type of work. They did their work on Scientific Data Systems computers in an era before that company was acquired by Xerox. Much as Claude Shannon got started thinking of data loss as it pertains to information theory while trying to send telegraphs over barbed wire, they refined that work thinking about sending images from mars to earth. 

Others from MIT worked on other space projects as a part of missions. Many of those early employees were Viterbi’s PhD students and they were joined by Joseph Odenwalder, who took Viterbi’s decoding work and combined it with a previous dissertation out of MIT when he joined Linkabit. That got used in the Voyager space probes and put Linkabit on the map. They were hiring some of the top talent in digital communications and were able to promote not only being able to work with some of the top minds in the industry but also the fact that they were in beautiful San Diego, which appealed to many in the Boston or MIT communities during harsh winters.

As solid state electronics got cheaper and the number of transistors more densely packed into those wafers, they were able to exploit the ability to make hardware and software for military applications by packing digital signal processors that had previously taken a Sigma from SDS into smaller and smaller form factors, like the Linkabit Microprocessor, which got Viterbi’s algorithm for encoding data into a breadboard and a chip. 

The work continued with defense contractors and suppliers. They built modulation and demodulation for UHF signals for military communications. That evolved into a Command Post Modem/Processor they sold, or CPM/P for short. They made modems for the military in the 1970s, some of which remained in production until the 1990s. And as they turned their way into the 1980s, they had more than $10 million in revenue. 

The UC San Diego program grew in those years, and the Linkabit founders had more and more local talent to choose from. Linkabit developed tools to facilitate encoded communications over commercial satellites as well. They partnered with companies like IBM and developed smaller business units they were able to sell off. They also developed a tool they called VideoCipher to encode video, which HBO and others used to do what we later called scrambling on satellite signals. As we rounded the corner into the 1990s, though, they turned their attention to cellular services with TDMA (Time-Division Multiple Access), an early alternative to CDMA.

Along the way, Linkabit got acquired by a company called MACOM in 1980 for $25 million. The founders liked that the acquirer was a fellow PhD from MIT and Linkabit stayed separate but grew quickly with the products they were introducing. As with most acquisitions, the culture changed and by 1985 the founders were gone. The VideoCipher and other units were sold off, spun off, or people just left and started new companies. Information theory was decades old at this point, plenty of academic papers had been published, and everyone who understood the industry knew that digital telecommunications was about to explode; a perfect storm for defections.

Qualcomm
Over the course of the next few years over two dozen companies were born as the alumni left and by 2003, 76 companies were founded by Linkabit alumni, including four who went public. One of the companies that emerged included the Linkabit founders Irwin Jacobs and Andrew Viterbi, Begun in 1985, Qualcomm is also based in San Diego. The founders had put information theory into practice at Linkabit and seen that the managers who were great at finance just weren’t inspiring to scientists. 

Qualcomm began with consulting and research, but this time looked for products to take to market. They merged with a company called Omninet and the two released the OmniTRACS satellite communication system for trucking and logistical companies. They landed Schneider National and a few other large customers and grew to over 600 employees in those first five years. It remained a Qualcomm subsidiary until recently. Even with tens of millions in revenue, they operated at a loss while researching what they knew would be the next big thing. 

Code-Division Multiple Acces, or CDMA, is a technology that allows for sending information over multiple channels so users can share not just a single frequency of the radio band, but multiple frequencies without a lot of interference. The original research began all the way back in the 1930s when Dmitry Ageyev in the Soviet Union researched the theory of code division of signals at Leningrad Electrotechnical Institute of Communications. That work and was furthered during World War II by German researchers like Karl Küpfmüller and Americans like Claude Shannon, who focused more on the information theory of communication channels. 

People like Lee Yuk-wing then took the cybernetics work from pioneers like Norbert Weiner and helped connect those with others like Qualcomm’s Jacobs, a student of Yuk-wing’s when he was a professor at MIT. They were already working on CDMA jamming in the early 1950s at MIT’s Lincoln Lab. Another Russian named Leonid Kupriyanovich put the concept of CMDA into practice in the later 1950s so the Soviets could track people using a service they called Altai. That made it perfect for  perfect for tracking trucks and within a few years was released in 1965 as a pre-cellular radiotelephone network that got bridged to standard phone lines.

The Linkabit and then Qualcomm engineers had worked closely with satellite engineers at JPL then Hughes and other defense then commercial contractors. They’d come in contact with work and built their own intellectual property for decades. Bell was working on mobile, or cellular technologies. Ameritech Mobile Communications, or Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS) as they were known at the time, launched the first 1G network in 1983 and Vodaphone launched their first service in the UK in 1984. Qualcomm filed their first patent for CDMA the next year. 

That patent is one of the most cited documents in all of technology. Qualcomm worked closely with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US and with industry consortiums, such as the CTIA, or Cellular Telephone Industries Association. Meanwhile Ericsson promoted the TDMA standard as they claimed it was more standard; however, Qualcomm worked on additional patents and got to the point that they licensed their technology to early cell phone providers like Ameritech, who was one of the first to switch from the TDMA standard Ericsson promoted to CDMA. Other carriers switched to CDMA as well, which gave them data to prove their technology worked.

The OmniTRACS service helped with revenue, but they needed more. So they filed for an initial public offering in 1991 and raised over $500 billion in funding between then and 1995 when they sold another round of shares. By then, they had done the work to get CDMA encoding on a chip and it was time to go to the mass market. They made double what they raised back in just the first two years, reaching over $800 million in revenue in 1996. 

Qualcomm and Cell Phones
One of the reasons Qualcomm was able to raise so much money in two substantial rounds of public funding is that the test demonstrations were going so well. They deployed CDMA in San Diego, New York, Honk Kong, Los Angeles, and within just a few years had over a dozen carriers running substantial tests. The CTIA supported CDMA as a standard in 1993 and by 1995 they went from tests to commercial networks. 

The standard grew in adoption from there. South Korea standardized on CDMA between 1993 to 116. The CDMA standard was embraced by Primeco in 1995, who used the 1900 MHz PCS band. This was a joint venture between a number of vendors including two former regional AT&T spin-offs from before the breakup of AT&T and represented interests from Cox Communications, Sprint, and turned out to be a large undertaking. It was also the largest cellular launch with services going live in 19 cities and the first phones were from a joint venture between Qualcomm and Sony. Most of PrimeCo’s assets were later merged with AirTouch Cellular and the Bell Atlantic Mobile to form what we now know as Verizon Wireless. 

Along the way, there were a few barriers to mass proliferation of the Qualcomm CDMA standards. One is that they made phones. The Qualcomm Q cost them a lot to manufacture and it was a market with a lot of competition who had cheaper manufacturing ecosystems. So Qualcomm sold the manufacturing business to Kyocera, who continued to license Qualcomm chips. Now they could shift all of their focus on encoding bits of data to be carried over multiple radio channels to do their part in paving the way for 2G and 3G networks with the chips that went into most phones of the era. 

Qualcomm couldn’t have built out a mass manufacturing ecosystem to supply the world with every phone needed in the 2G and 3G era. Nor could they make the chips that went in those phones. The mid and late 1990s saw them outsource then just license their patents and know-how to other companies. A quarter of a billion 3G subscribers across over a hundred carriers in dozens of countries. They got in front of what came after CDMA and worked on multiple other standards, including OFDMA, or Orthogonal frequency-Division Multiple Access. For those they developed the Qualcomm Flarion Flash-OFDM and 3GPP 5G NR, or New Radio. And of course a boatload of other innovative technologies and chips. Thus paving the way to have made Qualcomm instrumental in 5G and beyond. 

This was really made possible by this hyper-specialization. Many of the same people who developed the encoding technology for the Voyager satellite decades prior helped pave the way for the mobile revolution. They ventured into manufacturing but as with many of the designers of technology and chips, chose to license the technology in massive cross-licensing deals. These deals are so big Apple sued Qualcomm recently for a billion in missed rebates. But there were changes happening in the technology industry that would shake up those licensing deals. 

Broadcom was growing into a behemoth. Many of their designs sent from stand-alone chips to being a small part of a SoC, or system on a chip. Suddenly, cross-licensing the ARM gave Qualcomm the ability to make full SoCs.  Snapdragon has been the moniker of the current line of SoCs since 2007. Qualcomm has an ARM Architectural License and uses the ARM instruction set to create their own CPUs. The most recent incarnation is known as Krait. They also create their own Graphics Processor (GPU) and Digital Signal Processors (DSPs) known as Adreno and Hexagon. They recently acquired Arteris' technology and engineering group, and they used Arteris' Network on Chip (NoC) technology.

Snapdragon chips can be found in the Samsung Galaxy, Vivo, Asus, and Xiaomi phones. Apple designs their own chips that are based on the ARM architecture, so in some ways compete with the Snapdragon, but still use Qualcomm modems like every other SoC. Qualcomm also bought a new patent portfolio from HP, including the Palm patents and others, so who knows what we’ll find in the next chips - maybe a chip in a stylus. 

Their slogan is "enabling the wireless industry," and they’ve certainly done that. From satellite communications that required a computer the size of a few refrigerators to battlefield communications to shipping trucks with tracking systems to cell towers, and now the full processor on a cell phone. They’ve been with us since the beginning of the mobile era and one has to wonder if the next few generations of mobile technology will involve satellites, so if Qualcomm will end up right back where they began: encoding bits of information theory into silicon.


The Short But Sweet History Of The Go Programming Language

     3/13/2022

The Go Programming Language

Go is an open-source programming language with influences from Limbo, C, APL, Modular, Oberon, Pascal, Alex, Erlang, and most importantly, C. While relatively young compared to many languages, there are over 365,000 repositories of Go projects on Github alone. There are a few reason it gained popularity so quickly: it’s fast and efficient in the right hands, simple to pick up, doesn’t have some of the baggage of some more mature languages, and the name Ken Thompson.

The seamless way we can make calls from Go into C and the fact that Ken Thompson was one of the parties responsible for C, makes it seem in part like a modern web enabled language that can stretch between the tasks C is still used for all the way to playing fart sounds in an app. And it didn’t hurt that co-author Rob Pike had whelped write books, co-created UTF-8, and was part of the distributed operating system Plan 9  team at Bell Labs and had worked on the Limbo programming language there. 

And Robert Griesemer was another co-author. He’d begun his career studying under Niklaus Wirth, the greater of Pascal, Modula, and Oberon. So it’s no surprise that he’d go on to write compilers and design languages. Before go, he’d worked on the V8 JavaScript engine at Google and a compiler for the Java HotSpot Virtual Machine.

So our intrepid heroes assembled (pun intended) at Google in 2009. But why? Friends don’t let friends write in C. Thompson had done something amazing for the world with C. But that was going on 50 years ago. And others had picked up the mantle with C++. But there were shortcomings the team wanted to address. And so Go has the ability to concatenate string variables without using a preprocessor, has many similarities to languages like BASIC from the Limbo influences, but the most impressive feature about this programming language is its support for concurrent execution. And probably the best garbage collection facility I’ve ever seen. 

The first version of the language wasn't released to the public and wouldn’t be for a few years. The initial compiler was written in C but over time they got to where it can be self-hosted, which is to say that Go is compiled in Go. 

Go is a compiled language that can run on a command line, in a browser, on the server, or even be used to compile itself. Go compiles fast and has no global variables to clutter memory. This simplicity makes it easy to read through Go code line by line without consulting any parsing tools or syntax charts. Let’s look at a quick Hello World:

// A basic Go program that demonstrates "Hello World!"
package main
import "fmt"
func main() {
    fmt.Println("Hello World!")
}

The output would be a simple Hello World!

Fairly straight forward but the power gets into more of the scripting structures - especially given that a micro service is just a lot of little functional scripts. The language itself has no connection to any other functional programming languages and does not include support for object orientation or reflection. The language consists of two parts: a parser (which processes an input file) and a bytecode interpreter, which translates all source code into machine code. Consequently, Go programs tend to compile quickly and run very efficiently because they are mainly independent of the runtime environment and can execute directly on the hardware without being interpreted by some sort of virtual machine first. Additionally, there is no need for a separate interpreter during execution since everything runs natively.

The libraries and sources built using the Go programming language provide developers with a straightforward, safe, and extensibility system to build on. We have things like Go Kit, GORM, cli, Vegeta, fuzzy, Authboss, Image, Time, gg, and mgo. These can basically provide pre-built functions and APIs to hook into any old type of service or give a number of things for free.

Go was well designed from the outset and while it’s evolved over the years, it hasn’t changed as much as many other languages. with the latest release being Go 1.17. 1.1 came just a couple of months after the initial release to increase how much memory could be used on 64 bit chips by about 10-fold, add detection for race conditions, added the uint for 64 bit integers. Oh and fixed a couple of issues in the compiler. 1.2 also came in 2013 and tweaked how slicing of arrays worked in a really elegant way (almost ruby-like) and allowed developers to call the runtime scheduler for non-inline calls. And added a thread limit, like the ulimit a bash would have, for 10,000 threads. And they doubled the grouting minimum size of the stack. 

Then the changes got smaller. This happens as every language gets more popular. The more people use it, the more havoc the developers cause when they make breaking changes. Bigger changes are contiguous models of grouting stacks in 1.3, the addition of internal packages in 1.4, a redesigned garbage collector in 1.5 when Go was moved away from C and implemented solely in Go and assembler. And 17 releases later, it’s more popular than ever. While C remains the most popular language today, Go is hovering in the top 10. Imagine, one day saying let’s build a better language for concurrent programming. And then viola; hundreds of thousands of people are using it. 


awk && Regular Expressions For Finding Text

     3/4/2022

Programming was once all about math. And life was good. Then came strings, or those icky non-numbery things. Then we had to process those strings. And much of that is looking for patterns that wouldn’t be a need with integers, or numbers. For example, a space in a string of text. Let’s say we want to print hello world to the screen in bash. That would be the echo command, followed by “Hello World!” Now let’s say we ran that without the quotes then it would simply echo out the word Hello to the screen, given that the interpreter saw the space and ended the command, or looked for the next operator or verb according to which command is being used.

Unix was started in 1969 at Bell Labs. Part of that work was The Thompson shell, the first Unix shell, which shipped in 1971. And C was written in 1972. These make up the ancestral underpinnings of the modern Linux, BSD, Android, Chrome, iPhone, and Mac operating systems.

A lot of the work the team at Bell Labs was doing was shifting from pure statistical and mathematical operations to connect phones and do R&D faster to more general computing applications. Those meant going from math to those annoying stringy things. Unix was an early operating system and that shell gave them new abilities to interact with the computer. People called files funny things. There was text in those files. And so text manipulation became a thing.

Lee McMahon developed sed in 1974, which was great for finding patterns and doing basic substitutions. Another team  at Bell Labs that included Finnish programmer Alfred Aho, Peter Weinberger, and Brian Kernighan had more advanced needs. Take their last name initials and we get awk. Awk is a programming language they developed in 1977 for data processing, or more specifically for text manipulation. Marc Rochkind had been working on a version management tool for code at Bell and that involved some text manipulation, as well as a good starting point for awk. 

It’s meant to be concise and given some input, produce the desired output. Nice, short, and efficient scripting language to help people that didn’t need to go out and learn C to do some basic tasks. AWK is a programming language with its own interpreter, so no need to compile to run AWK scripts as executable programs. 

Sed and awk are both written to be used as one0line programs, or more if needed. But building in an implicit loops and implicit variables made it simple to build short but power regular expressions. Think of awk as a pair of objects. The first is a pattern followed by an action to take in curly brackets. It can be dangerous to call if the pattern is too wide open.; especially when piping information For example,  ls -al at the root of a volume and piping that to awk $1 or some other position and then piping that into xargs to rm and a systems administrator could have a really rough day. Those $1, $2, and so-on represent the positions of words. So could be directories. 

Think about this, though. In a world before relational databases, when we were looking to query the 3rd column in a file with information separated by some delimiter, piping those positions represented a simple way to effectively join tables of information into a text file or screen output. Or to find files on a computer that match a pattern for whatever reason. 

Awk began powerful. Over time, improvements have enabled it to be used in increasingly  complicated scenarios. Especially when it comes to pattern matching with regular expressions. Various coding styles for input and output have been added as well, which can be changed depending on the need at hand. 

Awk is also important because it influenced other languages. After becoming part of the IEEE Standard 1003.1, it is now a part of the POSIX standard. And after a few years, Larry Wall came up with some improvements, and along came Perl. But the awk syntax has always been the most succinct and useable regular expression engines. Part of that is the wildcard, piping, and file redirection techniques borrowed from the original shells.

The AWK creators wrote a book called The AWK Programming Language for Addison-Wesley in 1988. Aho would go on to develop influential algorithms, write compilers, and write books (some of which were about compilers). Weinberger continued to do work at Bell before becoming the Chief Technology Officer of Hedge Fund Renaissance Technologies with former code breaker and mathematician James Simon and Robert Mercer. His face led to much love from his coworkers at Bell during the advent of digital photography and hopefully some day we’ll see it on the Google Search page, given he now works there. 

Brian Kernighan was a contributor to the early Multics then Unix work, as well as C. In fact, an important C implementation, K&R C, stands for Kernighan and Ritchie C. He coauthored The C Programming Language ands written a number of other books, most recently on the Go Programming Language. He also wrote a number of influential algorithms, as well as some other programming languages, including AMPL. His 1978 description of how to manage memory when working with those pesky strings we discussed earlier went on to give us the Hello World example we use for pretty much all introductions to programming languages today. He worked on ARPA projects at Stanford, helped with emacs, and now teaches computer science at Princeton, where he can help to shape the minds of future generations of programming languages and their creators. 


Banyan Vines and the Emerging Local Area Network

     2/27/2022

One of my first jobs out of college was ripping Banyan VINES out of a company and replacing it with LAN Manager. Banyan VINES was a network operating system for Unix systems. It came along in 1984. This was a time when minicomputers running Unix were running at most every University and when Unix offered far more features that the alternatives.

Sharing files was as old as the Internet. Telnet was created in 1969. FTP came along in 1971. SMB in 1983. Networking computers together had evolved from just the ARPANET to local protocols like ALOHAnet, which inspired Bob Metcalfe to start work on the PARC Universal Packet protocol with David Boggs, which evolved into the Xerox Network Systems, or XNS, suite of networking protocols that were developed to network the Xerox Alto. Along the way the two of them co-invented Ethernet. But there were developments happening in various locations in silos. For example, TCP was more of an ARPANET then NSFNET project so wasn’t used for computers on their own networks to communicate yet.

Data General was founded in 1968 when Edson de Castro, the project manager for the PDP-8 at Digital Equipment Corporation, grew frustrated that the PDP wasn’t evolving fast enough. He, Henry Burkhardt, and Richard Sogge of Digital would be joined by Herbert Richman, who did sales for Fairchild Semiconductor. They were proud of the PDP-8. It was a beautiful machine. But they wanted to go even further. And they didn’t feel like they could do so at Digital. A few computers later,

Within a year, they shipped the next generation machine, which they called the Nova. They released more computers but then came the explosion of computers that was the personal computing market. Microcomputers showed up in offices around the world and on multiple desks. And it didn’t take long before people started wondering if it wouldn’t be faster to run a cable between computers than it was to save a file to a floppy and get on an elevator.

By the 1970s, Data General had been writing software for customers, mostly for the rising tide of UNIX System V implementations. But just giving customers a TCP/IP stack or an application that could open a socket over an X.25 network, which was later replaced with Frame Relay networks run by phone systems and for legacy support on those X.25 was streamed over TCP/IP. Some of the people from those projects at Data General saw an opportunity to build a company that focused on a common need, moving files back and forth between the microcomputers that were also being connected to these networks.

David Mahoney was a manager at Data General who saw what customers were asking for. And he saw an increasing under of those microcomputers needed a few common services to connect to. So he left to form Banyan Systems in 1983, bringing Anand Jagannathan and Larry Floryan with him. They built Banyan VINES (Virtual Integrated NEtwork Service) in 1984, releasing version 1. Their client software could run on DOS and connect to X.25, Token Ring (which IBM introduced in 1984), or the Ethernet networks Bob Metcalfe from Xerox and then 3Com was a proponent of. After all, much of their work resembled the Xerox Network Systems protocols, which Metcalfe had helped develop.

They used a 32-bit address. They developed an Address Resolution Protocol (or ARP) and Routing Table Protocol (RTP) that used tables on a server. And they created a file services application, print services application, and directory service they called StreetTalk. To help, they brought in Jim Allchin, who eventually did much of the heavy lifting. It was similar enough to TCP/IP, but different. Yet as TCP/IP became the standard, they added that at a cost.

The whole thing came in at $17,000 and ran on less bandwidth than other services, and so they won a few contracts with the US State Deparment, US Marine Corps, and other government agencies. Many embassies used 300 baud phone lines with older modems and the new VINES service allowed them to do file sharing, print sharing, and even instant messaging throughout the late 80s and early 90s. The Marine Corp used it during the Gulf War and in an early form of a buying tornado, they went public in 1992, raising $28 million through NASDAQ.

They grew to 410 employees and peaked at around $75 million in sales, spread across 7000 customers. They’d grown through word of mouth and other companies with strong marketing and sales arms were waiting in the wings. Novel was founded in 1983 in Utah and they developed the IPX network protocol. Netware would eventually become one of the most dominant network operating systems for Windows 3 and then Windows 95 computers.

Yet, with incumbents like Banyan VINES and Novel Netware, this is another one of those times when Microsoft saw an opening for something better and just willed it into existence. And the story is similar to that of dozens of other companies including Novell, Lotus, VisiCalc, Netscape, Digital Research, and the list goes on and on and on.

This kept happening because of a number of reasons. The field of computing had been comprised of former academics, many of whom weren’t aggressive in business. Microsoft ended up owning the operating system and so had selling power when it came to cornering adjacent markets because they could provide the cleanest possible user experience. People seemed to underestimate Microsoft until it was too late. Inertia. Oh, and Microsoft could outspend on top talent and offer them the biggest impact for their work. Whatever the motivators, Microsoft won in nearly every nook and cranny in the IT field that they pursued for decades.

The damaging part for Banyan was when they teamed up with IBM to ship LAN Manager, which ultimately shipped under the name of each company. Microsoft ended up recruiting Jim Allchin away and with network interface cards falling below $1,000 it became clear that the local area network was really just in its infancy. He inherited LAN Manager and then NT from Dave Cutler and the next thing we knew, Windows NT Server was born, complete with file services, print services, and a domain, which wasn’t a fully qualified domain name until the release of Active Directory. Microsoft added Windsock in 1993 and released their own protocols. They supported protocols like IPX/SPX and DECnet but slowly moved customers to their own protocols.

Banyan released the last version of Banyan VINES, 7.0, in 1997. StreetTalk eventually became an NT to LDAP bridge before being cancelled in the end. The dot com bubble was firmly here, though, so all was not lost. They changed their name in 1999 to ePresence, shifting their focus to identity management and security, officially pulling out of the VINES market. But the dot com bubble burst, so they were acquired in 2003 by Unisys.

There were other companies in different networking niches along the way. Phil Karn wrote KA9Q NOS to connect CP/M and then DOS to TCP/IP in 1985. He wrote it on a Xerox 820, but by then Xerox was putting Zilog chips in computers and running CP/M, seemingly with little of the flair the Alto could have had. But with KA9Q NOS any of the personal computers on the market could get on the Internet and that software helped host many a commercial dialup connection and would go on to be used for years in small embedded devices that needed IP connectivity. Those turned out to be markets overtaken by Banyan who was overtaken by Novel, who was overtaken by Microsoft when they added WinSock.

There are a few things to take away from this journey. The first is that when IBM and Microsoft team up to develop a competing product, it’s time to pivot when there’s plenty of money left in the bank. The second is that there was an era of closed systems that was short lived when vendors wanted to increasingly embrace open standards. Open standards like TCP/IP. We also want to keep our most talented team in place. Jim Allchin was responsible for those initial Windows Server implementations. Then SQL Server. He was the kind of person who’s a game changer on a team. We also don’t want to pivot to the new hotness because it’s the new hotness. Customers pay vendors to solve problems. Putting an e in front of the name of a company seemed really cool in 1998. But surveying customers and thinking more deeply about problems they face - that’s where magic can happen. Provided we have the right talent to make it happen.


The Nature and Causes of the Cold War

     2/18/2022

Our last episode was on Project MAC, a Cold War-era project sponsored by ARPA. That led to many questions like what led to the Cold War and just what was the Cold War. We'll dig into that today.

The Cold War was a period between 1946, in the days after World War II, and 1991, when the United States and western allies were engaged in a technical time of peace that was actually an aggressive time of arms buildup and proxy wars. Technology often moves quickly when nations or empires are at war. In many ways, the Cold War gave us the very thought of interactive computing and networking, so is responsible for the acceleration towards our modern digital lives.

And while I’ve never seen it references as such, this was more of a continuation of wars between the former British empire and the Imperialistic Russian empires. These make up two or the three largest empires the world has ever seen and a rare pair of empires that were active at the same time. 

And the third, well, we’ll get to the Mongols in this story as well. These were larger than the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, or any of the Chinese dynasties. In fact, the British Empire that reached its peak in 1920 was 7 times larger than the land controlled by the Romans, clocking in at 13.7 million square miles. The Russian Empire was 8.8 million square miles. Combined the two held nearly half the world. And their legacies live on in trade empires, in some cases run by the same families that helped fun the previous expansions. 

But the Russians and British were on a collision course going back to a time when their roots were not as different as one might think. They were both known to the Romans. But yet they both became feudal powers with lineages of rulers going back to Vikings.

We know the Romans battled the Celts, but they also knew of a place that Ptolemy called Sarmatia Europea in around 150AD, where a man named Rurik settle far later. He was a Varangian prince, which is the name Romans gave to Vikings from the area we now call Sweden. The 9th to 11th century saw a number o these warrior chiefs flow down rivers throughout the Baltics and modern Russia in search of riches from the dwindling Roman vestiges of empire. Some returned home to Sweden; others conquered and settled. They rowed down the rivers: the Volga, the Volkhov, the Dvina, and the networks of rivers that flow between one another, all the way down the Dnieper river, through the Slavic tripes Ptolemy described which by then had developed into city-states, such as Kiev, past the Romanians and Bulgers and to the second Rome, or Constantinople. 

The Viking ships rowed down these rivers. They pillaged, conquered, and sometimes settled. The term for rowers was Rus. Some Viking chiefs set up their own city-states in and around the lands. Some when their lands back home were taken while they were off on long campaigns. Charlemagne conquered modern day France and much of Germany, from The Atlantic all the way down into the Italian peninsula, north into Jutland, and east to the border with the Slavic tribes. He weakened many, upsetting the balance of power in the area. Or perhaps there was never a balance of power. 

Empires such as the Scythians and Sarmatians and various Turkic or Iranian powers had come and gone and each in their wake crossing the vast and harsh lands found only what Homer said of the area all the way back in the 8th century BCE, that the land was deprived of sunshine. The Romans never pushed up so far into the interior of the steppes as the were busy with more fertile farming grounds. But as the Roman Empire fell and the Byzantines flourished, the Vikings traded with them and even took their turn trying to loot Constantinople. And Frankish Paris. And again, settled in the Slavic lands, marrying into cultures and DNA. 

The Rus
Rome retreated from lands as her generals were defeated. The Merovingian dynasty rose in the 5th century with the defeat of Syagrius, the last Roman general Gaul and lasted until a family of advisors slowly took control of running the country, transitioning to the Carolingian Empire, of which Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, as he was crowned, was the most famous. He conquered and grew the empire. 

Charlemagne knew the empire had outgrown what one person could rule with the technology of the era, so it was split into three, which his son passed to his grandsons. And so the Carolingian empire had made the Eastern Slavs into tributaries of the Franks. There were hostilities but by the Treaty of Mersen in 870 the split of the empire generally looked like the borders of northern Italy, France, and Germany - although Germany also included Austria but not yet Bohemia. It split and re-merged and smaller boundary changes happened but that left the Slavs aware of these larger empires.

The Slavic peoples grew and mixed with people from the Steppes and Vikings. The Viking chiefs were always looking for new extensions to their trade networks. Trade was good. Looting was good. Looting and getting trade concessions to stop looting those already looted was better. The networks grew. One of those Vikings was Rurik. Possibly Danish Rorik, a well documented ally who tended to play all sides of the Carolingians and a well respected raider and military mind. 

Rurik was brought in as the first Viking, or rower, or Rus, ruler of the important trade city that would be known as New City, or Novgorod. Humans had settled in Kiev since the Stone Age and then by Polans before another prince Kyi took over and then Rurik’s successor Oleg took Smolensk and Lyubech. Oleg extended the land of Rus down the trading routes, and conquered Kiev. Now, they had a larger capital and were the Kievan Rus. 

Rurik’s son Igor took over after Oleg and centralized power in Kiev. He took tribute from Constantinople after he attacked, plunder Arab lands off the Caspian Sea, and was killed overtaxing vassal states in his territory. His son Sviatoslav the Brave then conquered the Alans and through other raiding helped cause the collapse of the Kazaria and Bulgarian empires. They expanded throughout the Volga River valley, then to the Balkans, and up the Pontic Steppe, and quickly became the largest empire in Europe of the day. His son Vladimir the Great expanded again, with he empire extending from the Baltics to Belarus to the Baltics and converted to Christianity, thus Christianizing the lands he ruled. 

He began marrying and integrating into the Christian monarchies, which his son continued. Yaroslov the Wise married the daughter of the King of Sweden who gave him the area around modern-day Leningrad. He then captured Estonia in 1030, and as with others in the Rurikid dynasty as they were now known, made treaties with others and then  pillaged more Byzantine treasures. He married one daughter to the King of Norway, another to the King of Hungary, another to the King of the Franks, and another to Edward the Exile of England, and thus was the grandfather of Edgar the Aetheling, who later became a king of England. 

The Mongols
The next couple of centuries saw the rise of Feudalism and the descendants of Rurik fight amongst each other. The various principalities were, as with much of Europe during the Middle Ages, semi-independent duchies, similar to city-states. Kiev became one of the many and around the mid 1100s Yaroslav the Wise’s great-grandson, Yuri Dolgoruki built a number of new villages and principalities, including one along the Moskva river they called Moscow. They built a keep there, which the Rus called kremlins. 

The walls of those keeps didn’t keep the Mongols out. They arrived in 1237. They moved the capital to Moscow and Yaroslav II, Yuri’s grandson, was poisoned in the court of Ghengis Khan’s grandson Batu. The Mongols ruled, sometimes through the descendants of Rurik, sometimes disposing of them and picking a new one, for 200 years. This is known as the time of the “Mongol yoke.” 

One of those princes the Mongols let rule was Ivan I of Moscow, who helped them put down a revolt in a rival area in the 1300s. The Mongols trusted Moscow after that, and so we see a migration of rulers of the land up into Moscow. The Golden Horde, like the Viking  Danes and Swedes settled in some lands. Kublai Khan made himself ruler of China. Khanates splintered off to form the ruling factions of weaker lands, such as modern India and Iran - who were once the cradle of civilization. Those became the Mughals dynasties as they Muslimized and moved south. And so the Golden Horde became the Great Horde.

Ivan the Great expanded the Muscovite sphere of influence, taking Novgorod, Rostov, Tver, Vyatka, and up into the land of the Finns. They were finally strong enough to stand up to the Tatars as they called their Mongol overlords and made a Great Stand on the Ugra River. And summoning a great army simply frightened the Mongol Tatars off. Turns out they were going through their own power struggles between princes of their realm and Akhmed was assassinated the next year, with his successor becoming Sheikh instead of Khan.

Ivan’s grandson, Ivan the Terrible expanded the country even further. He made deals with various Khans and then conquered others, pushing east to conquer the Khanate of Sibiu and so conquered Siberia in the 1580s. The empire then stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean. 

He had a son who didn’t have any heirs and so was the last in the Rurikid dynasty. But Ivan the Terrible had married Anastasia Romanov, who when he crowned himself Caesar, or Tsar as they called it, made her Tsaritsa. And so the Romanov’s came to power in 1596 and following the rule of Peter the Great from 1672 to 1725, brought the Enlightenment to Russia. He started the process of industrialization, built a new capital he called St Petersburg, built a navy, made peace with the Polish king, then Ottoman king, and so took control of the Baltics, where the Swedes had taken control of on and off since the time of Rurik. 

Russian Empire
Thus began the expansion as the Russian Empire. They used an alliance with Denmark-Norway and chased the Swedes through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, unseating the Polish king along the way. He probably should not have allied with them. They moved back into Finland, took the Baltics so modern Latvia and Estonia, and pushed all the way across the Eurasian content across the frozen tundra and into Alaska. 

Catherine the Great took power in 1762 and ignited a golden age. She took Belarus, parts of Mongolia, parts of modern day Georgia, overtook the Crimean Khanate, and modern day Azerbaijan. and during her reign founded Odessa, Sevastopol and other cities. She modernized the country like Peter and oversaw nearly constant rebellions in the empire. And her three or four children went on to fill the courts of Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, and the Netherlands. She set up a national network of schools, with teachings from Russian and western philosophers like John Locke. She collected vast amounts of art, including many from China. She set up a banking system and issued paper money. She also started the process to bring about the end of serfdom. Even though between her and the country she owned 3.3 million herself. 

She planned on invading the Khanate of Persia, but passed away before her army got there. Her son Paul halted expansion. And probably just in time. Her grandson Alexander I supported other imperial powers against Napoleon and so had to deal with the biggest invasion Russia had seen. Napoleon moved in with his grand army of half a million troops. The Russians used a tactic that Peter the Great used and mostly refused to engage Napoleon’s troops instead burning the supply lines. Napoleon lost 300,000 troops during that campaign. Soon after the Napoleanic wars ended, the railways began to appear. The country was industrializing and with guns and cannons, growing stronger than ever. 

The Opium Wars, between China and the UK then the UK and France were not good to China. Even though Russia didn’t really help they needed up with a piece of the Chinese empire and so in the last half of the 1800s the Russian Empire grew by another 300,000 square miles on the backs of a series of unequal treaties as they came to be known in China following World War I. 

And so by 1895, the Romanovs had expanded past their native Moscow, driven back the Mongols, followed some of the former Mongol Khanates to their lands and taken them, took Siberia, parts of the Chinese empire, the Baltics, Alaska, and were sitting on the third largest empire the world had ever seen, which covered nearly 17 percent of the world. Some 8.8 million square miles. And yet, still just a little smaller than the British empire. They had small skirmishes with the British but by and large looked to smaller foes or proxy wars, with the exception of the Crimean War. 

Revolution
The population was expanding and industrializing. Workers flocked to factories on those train lines. And more people in more concentrated urban areas meant more ideas. Rurik came in 862 and his descendants ruled until the Romanovs took power in 1613. They ruled until 1917. That’s over 1,000 years of kings, queens, Tsars, and Emperors. The ideas of Marx slowly spread. While the ruling family was busy with treaties and wars and empire, they forgot to pay attention to the wars at home. 

People like Vladimir Lenin discovered books by people like Karl Marx. Revolution was in the air around the world. France had shown monarchies could be toppled. Some of the revolutionaries were killed, others put to work in labor camps, others exiled, and still others continued on. Still, the empire was caught up in global empire intrigues. The German empire had been growing and the Russians had the Ottomans and Bulgarians on their southern boarders. They allied with France to take Germany, just as they’d allied with Germany to take down Poland. And so after over 1.8 million dead Russians and another 3.2 million wounded or captured and food shortages back home and in the trenches, the people finally had enough of their Tsar. They went on strike but Tsar Nicholas ordered the troops to fire. The troops refused. The Duma stepped in and forced Nicholas to abdicate. Russia had revolted in 1917, sued Germany for peace, and gave up more territory than they wanted in the process. Finland, the Baltics, their share of Poland, parts of the Ukraine. It was too much. But the Germans took a lot of time and focus to occupy and so it helped to weaken them in the overall war effort. 

Back home, Lenin took a train home and his Bolshevik party took control of the country. After the war Poland was again independent. Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Serbs became independent nations. In the wake of the war the Ottoman Empire was toppled and modern Turkey was born. The German Kaiser abdicated. And socialism and communism were on the rise. In some cases, that was really just a new way to refer to a dictator that pretended to care about the people. Revolution had come to China in 1911 and Mao took power in the 1940s. 

Meanwhile, Lenin passed in 1924 and Rykov, then Molotov, who helped spur a new wave of industrialization. Then Stalin, who led purges of the Russian people in a number of Show Trials before getting the Soviet Union, as Russian Empire was now called, into World War II. Stalin encouraged Hitler to attack Poland in 1939. Let’s sit on that for a second. He tried to build a pact with the Western powers and after that broke down, he launched excursions annexing parts of Poland, Finland, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia. Many of the lands were parts of the former Russian Empire. The USSR had chunks of Belarus and the Ukraine before but as of the 1950s annexed Poland, Easter Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria as part of the Warsaw Pact, a block of nations we later called the Soviet Bloc. They even built a wall between East and West Germany.

During and after the war, the Americans whisked German scientists off to the United States. The Soviets were in no real danger from an invasion by the US and the weakened French, Austrians, and military-less Germans were in no place to attack the Soviets. The UK had to rebuild and British empire quickly fell apart. Even the traditional homes of the vikings who’d rowed down the rivers would cease to become global powers. And thus there were two superpowers remaining in the world, the Soviets and the United States. 

The Cold War
The Soviets took back much of the former Russian Empire, claiming they needed buffer zones or through subterfuge. At its peak, the Soviet Union cover 8.6 million square miles; just a couple hundred thousand shy of the Russian Empire. On the way there, they grew to a nation of over 290 million people with dozens of nationalities. And they expanded the sphere of influence even further, waging proxy wars in places like Vietnam and Korea. They never actually went to war with the United States, in much the same way they mostly avoided the direct big war with the Mongols and the British - and how Rorik of Dorestad played both sides of Frankish conflicts. We now call this period the Cold War.

The Cold War was an arms race. This manifested itself first in nuclear weapons. The US is still the only country to detonate a nuclear weapon in war time, from the bombings that caused the surrender of Japan at the end of the war. The Soviets weren’t that far behind and detonated a bomb in 1949. That was the same year NATO was founded as a treaty organization between Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United States. 

The US upped the ante with the hydrogen bomb in 1952. The Soviets got the hydrogen bomb in 1955. And then came the Space Race. Sputnik launched in 1957. The Russians were winning the space race. They further proved that when they put Yuri Gagarin up in 1961. By 1969 the US put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

Each side developed military coalitions, provided economic aid to allies, built large arsenals of weapons, practiced espionage against one another, deployed massive amounts of propaganda, and spreading their ideology. Or at least that’s what the modern interpretation of history tells us. There were certainly ideological differences, but the Cold War saw the spread of communism as a replacement for conquest. That started with Lenin trying to lead a revolt throughout Europe but shifted over the decades into again, pure conquest. 

Truman saw the rapid expansion of the Soviets and without context that they were mostly reclaiming lands conquered by the Russian imperial forces, won support for the Truman Doctrine. There, he contained Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe. First, they supported Greece and Turkey. But the support extended throughout areas adjacent to Soviet interests. Eisenhower saw how swiftly Russians were putting science in action with satellites and space missions and nuclear weapons - and responded with an emphasis in American science. 

The post-war advancements in computing were vast in the US. The industry moved from tubes and punch cards to interactive computing after the Whirlwind computer was developed at MIT first to help train pilots and then to intercept soviet nuclear weapons. Packet switching, and so the foundations of the Internet were laid to build a computer network that could withstand nuclear attack. Graphical interfaces got their start when Ivan Sutherland was working at MIT on the grandchild of Whirlwind, the TX-2 - which would evolve into the Digital Equipment PDP once privatized. Drum memory, which became the foundation of storage was developed to help break Russian codes and intercept messages. There isn’t a part of the computing industry that isn’t touched by the research farmed out by various branches of the military and by ARPA.  

Before the Cold War, Russia and then the Soviet Union were about half for and half against various countries when it came to proxy wars. They tended to play both sides. After the Cold War it was pretty much always the US or UK vs the Soviet Union. Algeria, Kenya, Taiwan, the Sudan, Lebanon, Central America, the Congo, Eritrea, Yemen, Dhofar, Algeria, Malaysia, the Dominican Republic, Chad, Iran, Iraq, Thailand, Bolivia, South Africa, Nigeria, India, Bangladesh, Angolia, Ethiopia, the Sahara, Indonesia, Somalia, Mozambique, Libya, and Sri Lanka. And the big ones were Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Many of these are still raging on today. 

The Soviet empire grew to over 5 million soldiers. The US started with 2 nuclear weapons in 1945 and had nearly 300 by 1950 when the Soviets had just 5. The US stockpile grew to over 18,000 in 1960 and peaked at over 31,000 in 1965. The Soviets had 6,129 by then but kept building until they got close to 40,000 by 1980. By then the Chinese, France, and the UK each had over 200 and India and Israel had developed nuclear weapons. Since then only Pakistan and North Korea have added warheads, although there are US warheads located in Germany, Belgium, Italy, Turkey, and the Netherlands. 

Modern Russia
The buildup was expensive. Research, development, feeding troops, supporting asymmetrical warfare in proxy states, and trade sanctions put a strain on the government and nearly bankrupted Russia. They fell behind in science, after Stalin had been anti-computers. Meanwhile, the US was able to parlay all that research spending into true productivity gains. The venture capital system also fueled increasingly wealthy companies who paid taxes. Banking, supply chains, refrigeration, miniaturization, radio, television, and everywhere else we could think of. By the 1980s, the US had Apple and Microsoft and Commodore. The Russians were trading blat, or an informal black market currency, to gain access to knock-offs of ZX Spectrums when the graphical interfaces systems were born.

The system of government in the Soviet Union had become outdated. There were some who had thought to modernize it into more of a technocracy in an era when the US was just starting to build ARPANET - but those ideas never came to fruition. Instead it became almost feudalistic with high-ranking party members replacing the boyars, or aristocrats of the old Kievan Rus days. The standard of living suffered. So many cultures and tribes under one roof, but only the Slavs had much say.  As the empire over-extended there were food shortages. If there are independent companies then the finger can be pointed in their direction but when food is rationed by the Politburo then the decline in agricultural production became dependent on bringing food in from the outside. That meant paying for it. Pair that with uneven distribution and overspending on the military. 

The Marxist-Leninist doctrine had been a one party state. The Communist Party. Michael Gorbachev allowed countries in the Bloc to move into a democratic direction with multiple parties. The Soviet Union simply became unmanageable. And while Gorbachev took the blame for much of the downfall of the empire, there was already a deep decay - they were an oligarchy pretending to be a communist state. The countries outside of Russia quickly voted in non-communist governments and by 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and the Eastern European countries began to seek independence, most moving towards democratic governments. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in 15 separate countries and left the United States standing alone as the global superpower. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO in 1999. 2004 saw Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia join. 2009 brought in Albania and Croatia. 2017 led to Montenegro and then North Macedonia. Then came the subject of adding Ukraine. The country that the Kievan Rus had migrated throughout the lands from. The stem from which the name  and possibly soul of the country had sprouted from. How could Vladimir Putin allow that to happen? Why would it come up?

As the Soviets pulled out of the Bloc countries , they left remnants of their empire behind. Belarus, Kazakstan, and the Ukraine were left plenty of weapons that couldn’t be moved quickly. Ukraine alone had 1,700 nuclear weapons, which included 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Add to that nearly 2,000 biological and chemical weapons. Those went to Russia or were disassembled once the Ukrainians were assured of their sovereignty. The Crimea, which had been fought over in multiple bloody wars was added to Ukraine. At least until 2014, when Putin wanted the port of Sevastopol, founded by Catherine the Great. Now there was a gateway from Russia to the Mediterranean yet again.

So Kievan Rus under Rurik is really the modern Ukraine and the Russian Empire then Romanov Dynasty flowed from that following the Mongol invasions. The Russian Empire freed other nations from the yolk of Mongolian rule but became something entirely different once they over-extended. Those countries in the empire often traded the Mongol yolk for the Soviet yolk. And entirely different from the Soviet Union that fought the Cold War and the modern Russia we know today. 

Meanwhile, the states of Europe had been profoundly changed since the days of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and Marx. Many moved left of center and became socialized parts of their economy. No one ever need go hungry in a Scandanavian country. Health care, education, even child care became free in many countries. Many of those same ideals that helped lift the standard of living for all in developed countries then spread, including in Canada and some in the US. And so we see socialism to capitalism as more of a spectrum than a boolean choice now. And totalitarianism, oligarchy, and democracy as a spectrum as well. Many could argue reforms in democratic countries are paid for by lobbyists who are paid for by companies and thus an effective oligarchy. Others might argue the elections in many countries are rigged and so they aren’t even oligarchs, they’re monarchies. 

Putin took office in 1999 and while Dmitry Medvedev was the president for a time, but he effectively ruled in a tandemocracy with Putin until Putin decided to get back in power. That’s 23 years and counting and just a few months behind when King Abdullah took over in Jordan and King Mohammed VI took over in Morocco. And so while democratic in name, they’re not all quite so democratic.

Yet they do benefit from technology that began in Western countries and spread throughout the world. Countries like semi-conductor manufacturer Sitronics even went public on the London stock exchange. Hard line communists might (and do) counter that the US has an empire and that western countries conspire for the downfall of Russia or want to turn Russians into slaves to the capitalist machine. As mentioned earlier, there has always been plenty of propaganda in this relationship. Or gaslighting. Or fake news. Or disinformation. 

One of those American advancements that ties the Russians to the capitalist yoke is interactive computing. That could have been developed in Glushkov’s or Kitov’s labs in Russia, as they had the ideas and talent. But because the oligarchy that formed around communism, the ideas were sidelined and it came out of MIT - and that led to Project MAC, which did as much to democratize computing as Gorbachev did to democratize the Russian Federation.


Project MAC and Multics

     2/15/2022

Welcome to the history of computing podcast. Today we’re going to cover a cold war-era project called Project MAC that bridged MIT with GE and Bell Labs.

The Russians beat the US to space when they launched Sputnik in 1958. Many in the US felt the nation was falling behind and so later that year president Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed then president of MIT James Killian as the Presidential Assistant for Science and created ARPA. The office was lean and funded a few projects without much oversight. One was Project MAC at MIT, which helped cement the university as one of the top in the field of computing as it grew.

Project MAC, short for Project on Mathematics and Computation, was a 1960s collaborative endeavor to develop a workable timesharing system. The concept of timesharing initially emerged during the late 1950s. Scientists and Researchers finally went beyond batch processing with Whirlwind and its spiritual predecessors, the TX-0 through TX-2 computers at MIT. We had computer memory now and so had interactive computing. That meant we could explore different ways to connect directly with the machine.

In 1959, British mathematician Christopher Strachey presented the first public presentation on timesharing at a UNESCO meeting, and John McCarthy distributed an internal letter regarding timesharing at MIT. Timesharing was initially demonstrated at the MIT Computational Center in November 1961, under the supervision of Fernando Corbato, an MIT professor. J.C.R. Licklider at ARPA had been involved with MIT for most of his career in one way or another and helped provide vision and funding along with contacts and guidance, including getting the team to work with Bolt, Beranek & Newman (BBN).

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin went to space in 1961. The Russians were still lapping us. Money. Governments spend money. Let’s do that.

Licklider assisted in the development of Project MAC, machine-assisted cognition, led by Professor Robert M. Fano. He then funded the project with $3 million per year. That would become the most prominent initiative in timesharing. In 1967, the Information Processing Techniques Office invested more than $12 million in over a dozen timesharing programs at colleges and research institutions. Timesharing then enabled the development of new software and hardware separate from that used for batch processing. Thus, one of the most important innovations to come out of the project was an operating system capable of supporting multiple parallel users - all of whom could have complete control of the machine.

The operating system they created would be known as Multics, short for Multiplexed Information and Computing Service. It was created for a GE 645 computer but modular in nature and could be ported to other computers. The project was a collaborative effort between MIT, GE, and Bell Labs. Multics was the first time we really split files away from objects read in memory and wrote them into memory for processing then back to disk. They developed the concepts of dynamic linking, daemons, procedural calls, hierarchical file systems, process stacks, a split between user land and the system, and much more.

By the end of six months after Project MAC was created, 200 users in 10 different MIT departments had secured access to the system. The Project MAC laboratory was apart from its former Department of Electrical Engineering by 1967 and evolved into its interdepartmental laboratory.

Multics progressed from computer timesharing to a networked computer system, integrating file sharing and administration capabilities and security mechanisms into its architecture. The sophisticated design, which could serve 300 daily active users on 1,000 MIT terminal computers within a couple more years, inspired engineers Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie to create their own at Bell Labs, which evolved into the C programming language and the Unix operating system.

See, all the stakeholders with all the things they wanted in the operating system had built something slow and fragile. Solo developers don’t tend to build amazing systems, but neither do large intracompany bureaucracies.

GE never did commercialize Multics because they ended their computer hardware business in 1970. Bell Labs dropped out of the project as well. So Honeywell acquired the General Electric computer division and so rights to the Multics project. In addition, Honeywell possessed several other operating systems, each supported by its internal organizations.

In 1976, Project MAC was renamed the Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) at MIT, broadening its scope. Michael L. Dertouzos, the lab's director, advocated developing intelligent computer programs. To increase computer use, the laboratory analyzed how to construct cost-effective, user-friendly systems and the theoretical underpinnings of computer science to recognize space and time constraints. Some of their project ran for decades afterwards. In 2000, several Multics sites were shut down.

The concept of buying corporate “computer utilities” was a large area of research in the late 60s to 70s. Scientists bought time on computers that universities purchased. Companies did the same. The pace of research at both increased dramatically. Companies like Tymeshare and IBM made money selling time or processing credits, and then after an anti-trust case, IBM handed that business over to Control Data Corporation, who developed training centers to teach people how to lease time. These helped prepare a generation of programmers when the microcomputers came along, often taking people who had spent their whole careers on CDC Cybers or Burroughs mainframes by surprise. That seems to happen with the rapid changes in computing. But it was good to those who invested in the concept early. And the lessons learned about scalable architectures were skills that transitioned nicely into a microcomputer world. In fact, many environments still run on applications built in this era.

The Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) accomplished other ground-breaking work, including playing a critical role in advancing the Internet. It was often larger but less opulent than the AI lab at MIT. And their role in developing applications that would facilitate online processing and evaluation across various academic fields, such as engineering, medical, and library sciences led to advances in each. In 2004, LCS merged with MIT's AI laboratory to establish the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), one of the flagship research labs at MIT. And in the meantime countless computer scientists who contributed at every level of the field flowed through MIT - some because of the name made in those early days. And the royalties from patents have certainly helped the universities endowment.

The Cold War thawed. The US reduced ARPA spending after the Mansfield Amendment was passed in 1969. The MIT hackers flowed out to the world, changing not only how people thought of automating business processes, but how they thought of work and collaboration. And those hackers were happy to circumvent all the security precautions put on Multics, and so cultural movements evolved from there. And the legacy of Multics lived on in Unix, which evolved to influence Linux and is in some way now a part of iOS, Mac OS, Android, and Chrome OS.


Dell: From A Dorm Room to a Board Room

     2/4/2022

Dell is one of the largest technology companies in the world, and it all started with a small startup that sold personal computers out of Michael Dell's dorm room at the University of Texas. From there, Dell grew into a multi-billion dollar company, bought and sold other companies, went public, and now manufactures a wide range of electronics including laptops, desktops, servers, and more. 

After graduating high school, Michael Dell enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin with the idea that he would some day start his own company. Maybe even in computers. He had an Apple II in school and Apple and other companies had done pretty well by then in the new microcomputer space. He took it apart and these computers were just a few parts that were quickly becoming standardized. Parts that could be bought off the shelf at computer stores. So he opened a little business that he ran out of his dorm room fixing computers and selling little upgrades. Many a student around the world still does the exact same thing.

He also started buying up parts and building new computers. Texas Instruments was right up the road in Dallas. And there was a price war in the early 80s between Commodore and Texas Instruments. Computers could be big business. And it seemed clear that this IBM PC that was introduced in 1981 was going to be more of a thing, especially in offices. Especially since there were several companies making clones of the PC, including Compaq who was all over the news as Silicon Cowboys, having gotten to $100 million in sales within just two years. 

So from his dorm room in 1984, Dell started a little computer company he called PCs Limited. He built PCs using parts and experimented with different combinations. One customer led to another and he realized that a company like IBM bought a few hundred dollars worth of parts, put them in a big case and sold it for thousands of dollars. Any time a company makes too much margin, smaller and more disruptive companies will take the market away. Small orders turned into bigger and ones and he was able to parlay each into being able to build bigger orders. 

They released the Turbo PC in 1985. A case, a mother board, a CPU, a keyboard, a mouse, some memory, and a CPU chip. Those first computers he built came with an 8088 chip. Low overhead meant he could be competitive on price: $795. No retail store front and no dealers, who often took 25 to 50 percent of the money spent on computers, let the company run out of a condo. He’d sold newspapers as a kid so he was comfortable picking up the phone and dialing for dollars. He managed to make $200,000 in sales in that first year. So he dropped out of school to build the company. 

To keep costs low, he sold through direct mail and over the phone. No high-paid sellers in blue suits like IBM, even if the computers could run the same versions of DOS. He incorporated as Dell Computer Company in 1987, started to expand internationally, and on the back of rapid revenue growth and good margins. They hit $159 million in sales that year. So they took the company public in 1988. The market capitalization when they went public was $30 million and quickly rose to $80 million. By then we’d moved past the 8088 chips and the industry was standardizing on the 80386 chip, following the IBM PS/2. By the end of 1989 sales hit $250 million. 

They needed more Research and Development firepower, so they brought in Glenn Henry. He’d been at IBM for over 20 years and managed multiple generations of mid-range mainframes then servers and then RISC-based personal computers. He helped grow the R&D team into the hundreds and quality of computer went up, which paired well with costs of computers remaining affordable compared to the rest of the market. 

Dell was, and to a large degree still is, a direct to consumer company. They experimented with the channel in the early 1990s, which is to say 3rd parties that were authorized to sell their computers. They signed deals to sell through distributors, computer stores, warehouse clubs, and retail chains. But the margins didn’t work, so within just a few years they cancelled many of those relationships. Instead they went from selling to companies to the adjacent home market. 

It seems like that’s the last time in recent memory that direct mailing as a massive campaign worked. Dell was able to undercut most other companies who sold laptops at the time by going direct to consumers. They brought in marketing execs from other companies, like Tandy. The London office was a huge success, bringing in tens of millions in revenue, so they brought on a Munich office and then slowly expanded into tother countries. They were one of the best sales and marketing machines in that direct to consumer and business market. Customers could customize orders, so maybe add a faster CPU, some extra memory, or even a scanner, modem, or other peripheral. They got the manufacturing to the point where they could turn computers around in five days. Just a decade earlier people waited months for computers.

They released their first laptop in 1989, which they called the 316LT. Just a few years earlier, Michael Dell was in a dorm room. If he’d completed a pre-med degree and gotten into medical school, he’d likely be in his first or second year. He was now a millionaire; and just getting started.

With the help of their new R&D chief, they were able to get into the server market where the margins were higher, and that helped get more corporate customers. By the end of 1990, they were the sixth largest personal computer company in the US. To help sales in the rapidly growing European and Middle Eastern offices, they opened another manufacturing location in Ireland. And by 1992, they became a one of the top 500 companies in the world. Michael Dell, instead of being on an internship in medical school and staring down the barrel of school loans, was the youngest CEO in the Fortune 500.

The story is almost boring. They just grow and grow. Especially when rivals like IBM, HP, Digital Equipment, and Compaq make questionable finance and management choices that don’t allow those companies to remain competitive. They all had better technology at many times, but none managed to capitalize on the markets. Instead of becoming the best computer maker they could be, they played corporate development games and wandered away from their core businesses. Or like IBM they decided that they didn’t want to compete with the likes of Dell and just sold off their PC line to Lenovo. But Dell didn’t make crappy computers. 

They weren’t physically inspiring like some computers at the time, but they got the job done and offices that needed dozens or hundreds of machines often liked working with Dell. They continued the global expansion through the 90s and added servers in 1996. By now there were customers buying their second or third generation of computer, going from DOS to Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. And they did something else really important in 1996: they began to sell through the web at dell.com. Within a few months they were doing a million a day in sales and the next year hit 10 million PCs sold. 

Little Dell magazines showed up in offices around the world. Web banners appeared on web pages. Revenues responded and went from $2.9 billion in 1994 to $3.5 billion in 1995. And they were running at margins over 20 percent. Revenue hit $5.3 billion in 1996, 7.8 in 1997, 12.3 in 1998, 18.2 in 1999, and $25.3 in 2000. The 1990s had been good to Dell. Their stock split 7 times. It wouldn’t double every other year again, but would double again by 2009.

In the meantime, the market was changing. The Dell OptiPlex is one of the best selling lines of computers of all time and offers a glimpse into what was changing. Keep in mind, this was the corporate enterprise machine. Home machines can be better or less, according to the vendor. The processors ranged from a Celeron up to a Pentium i9 at this point. 

Again, we needed a mother board, usually an ATX or a derivative. They started with that standard ATX mother board form factor but later grew to be a line that came in the tower, the micro, and everything in between. Including an All-in-one. That Series 1 was beige and just the right size to put a big CRT monitor on top of it. It sported a 100 MHz 486 chip and could take up to 64 megabytes of memory across a pair of SIMM slots. The Series 2 was about half the size and by now we saw those small early LCD flat panel screens. They were still beige though.

As computers went from beige to black with the Series 3 we started to see the iconic metallic accents we’re accustomed to now. They followed along the Intel replacement for the ATX motherboard, the BTX, and we saw those early PCI form factors be traded for PCIe. By the end of the Series 3 in 2010, the Optiplex 780 could have up to 16 gigs of memory as a max, although that would set someone back a pretty penning in 2009. And the processors came ranging from the 800 MHz to 1.2 GHz. We’d also gone from PS/2 ports with serial and parallel  to USB 2 ports and from SIMM to DIMM slots, up to DDR4 with the memory about as fast as a CPU. 

But they went back to the ATX and newer Micro ATX with the Series 4. They embraced the Intel i series chips and we got all the fun little metal designs on the cases. Cases that slowly shifted to being made of recycled parts. The Latitude laptops followed a similar pattern. Bigger faster, and heavier. They released the Dell Dimension and acquired Alienware in 2006, at the time the darling of the gamer market. Higher margin hardware, like screaming fast GPU graphic cards. But also lower R&D costs for the Dell lines as there was the higher end line that flowed down to the OptiPlex then Dimension.

Meanwhile, there was this resurgent Apple. They’d released the iMac in 1998 and helped change the design language for computers everywhere. Not that everyone needed clear cases. Then came the iPod in 2001. Beautiful design could sell products at higher prices. But they needed to pay a little more attention to detail. But more importantly, those Dells were getting bigger and faster and heavier while the Apple computers were getting lighter, and even the desktops more portable. The iPhone came in 2007. The Intel MacBook Air came 10 years after that iMac, in 2008. The entire PC industry was in a race for bigger power supplies to push more and more gigahertz through a CPU without setting the house on fire and Apple changed the game. The iPad was released in 2010. Apple finally delivered on the promise of the Dynabook that began life at Xerox PARC.

Dell had been in the drivers seat. They became the top personal computer company in 2003 and held that spot until HP and Compaq merged. But their spot would never be regained as revenue slowed from the time the iPad was released for almost a decade, even contracting at times. See, Dell had a close partnership with Intel and Microsoft. Microsoft made operating systems for mobile devices but the Dell Venue was not competitive with the iPhone. They also tried making a mobile device using Android but the Streak never sold well either and was discontinued as well. 

While Microsoft retooled their mobile platforms to compete in the tablet space, Dell tried selling Android tablets but discontinued those in 2016. To make matters worse for Dell, they’d ridden a Microsoft Windows alliance where they never really had to compete with Microsoft for nearly 30 years and then Microsoft released the Surface in 2012. The operating systems hadn’t been pushing people to upgrade their computers and Microsoft even started selling Office directly and online, so Dell lost revenue bundling Office with computers. 

They too had taken their eye off the market. HP bought EDS in 2008, diversifying into a services organization, something IBM had done well over a decade before. Except rather than sell their PC business they made a go at both. So Dell did the same, acquiring Perot Systems, the company Perot started after he sold EDS and ran for president, for $3.9 billion, which came in at a solid $10 billion less than what HP paid for EDS. 

The US was in the midst of a recession, so that didn’t help matters either. But it did make for an interesting investment climate. Interest rates were down, so large investors needed to put money to work to show good returns for customers. Dell had acquired just 8 companies before the Great Recession but acquired an average of 5 over each of the next four years. This allowed them to diversify, And Michael Dell made another savvy finance move, he took the company private in 2013 with the help of Silver Lake partners. 5 years off the public market was just what they needed. 2018 they went public again on the backs of revenues that had shot up to to $79 billion from a low of around $50 billion in 2016. And they exceeded $94 billion in 2021. 

The acquisition of EMC-VMware was probably the most substantial to $67 billion. That put them in the enterprise server market and gave them a compelling offer at pretty much every level of the enterprise stack. Although at this point maybe it remains to be seen if the enterprise server and storage stack is still truly a thing. 

A Dell Optiplex costs about the same amount today as it did when Dell sold that first Turbo PC. They can be had cheaper but probably shouldn’t. Adjusted for an average 2.6 percent inflation rate, that brings those first Dell PCs to just north of $2,000 as of the time of this writing. Yet the computer remained the same, with fairly consistent margins. That means the components have gotten half as expensive because they’re made in places with cheaper labor than they were in the early 1980s. That means there are potentially less components, like a fan for certain chips or RAM when they’re memory integrated in a SoC, etc. 

But the world is increasingly mobile. Apple, Google, and Microsoft sell computers for their own operating systems now. Dell doesn’t make phones and they aren’t in the top 10 for the tablet market. People don’t buy products from magazines that show up any longer. Now it’s a quick search on Amazon. And looking for a personal computer there, the results right this second (that is, while writing this paragraph) showed the exact same order as vendor market share for 2021: Lenovo, followed by HP, then Dell. All of the devices looked about the same. Kinda’ like those beige injection-molded devices looked about the same. 

HP couldn’t have such a large company exist under one roof and eventually spun HP Enterprise out into its own entity. Dell sold Perot Systems to NTT Docomo to get the money to buy EMC on leverage. Not only do many of these companies have products that look similar, but their composition does as well. What doesn’t look similar is Michael Dell. He’s worth just shy of $60 billion dollars (according to the day and the markets). His book, Direct From Dell is one of the best looks at the insides of a direct order mail business making the transition to early commerce one can find. Oh, and it’s not just him and some friends in a dorm room. It’s 158,000 employees who help make up over a $42 billion market cap. And helped generations of people afford personal computers. That might be the best part of such a legacy.


Bill Atkinson's HyperCard

     1/29/2022

We had this Mac lab in school. And even though they were a few years old at the time, we had a whole room full of Macintosh SEs. I’d been using the Apple II Cs before that and these just felt like Isaac Asimov himself dropped them off just for me to play with. Only thing: no BASIC interpreter. But in the Apple menu, tucked away in the corner was a little application called HyperCard.

HyperCard wasn’t left by Asimov, but instead burst from the mind of Bill Atkinson. Atkinson was the 51st employee at Apple and a former student of Jeff Raskin, the initial inventor of the Mac before Steve Jobs took over. Steve Jobs convinced him to join Apple where he started with the Lisa and then joined the Mac team until he left with the team who created General Magic and helped bring shape to the world of mobile devices. But while at Apple he was on the original Mac team developing the menu bar, the double-click, Atkinson dithering, MacPaint, QuickDraw, and HyperCard. 

Those were all amazing tools and many came out of his work on the original 1984 Mac and the Lisa days before that. But HyperCard was something entirely different. It was a glimpse into the future, even if self-contained on a given computer. See, there had been this idea floating around for awhile.  Vannevar Bush initially introduced the world to a device with all the world’s information available in his article “As We May Think” in 1946. Doug Engelbart had a team of researchers working on the oN-Line System that saw him give “The Mother of All Demos in 1968” where he showed how that might look, complete with a graphical interface and hypertext, including linked content. Ted Nelson introduced furthered the ideas in 1969 of having linked content, which evolved into what we now call hyperlinks. Although Nelson thought ahead to include the idea of what he called transclusions, or the snippets of text displayed on the screen from their live, original source. 

HyperCard built on that wealth of information with a database that had a graphical front-end that allowed inserting media and a programming language they called HyperTalk. Databases were nothing new. But a simple form creator that supported graphics and again stressed simple, was new. Something else that was brewing was this idea of software economics. Brooks’ Law laid it out but Barry Boehm’s book on Software Engineering Economics took the idea of rapid application development another step forward in 1981. People wanted to build smaller programs faster. And so many people wanted to build tools that we needed to make it easier to do so in order for computers to make us more productive.

Against that backdrop, Atkinson took some acid and came up with the idea for a tool he initially called WildCard. Dan Winkler signed onto the project to help build the programming language, HyperTalk, and they got to work in 1986. They changed the name of the program to HyperCard and released it in 1987 at MacWorld. Regular old people could create programs without knowing how to write code. There were a number of User Interface (UI) components that could easily be dropped on the screen, and true to his experience there was panel of elements like boxes, erasers, and text, just like we’d seen in MacPaint. Suppose you wanted a button, just pick it up from the menu and drop it where it goes. Then make a little script using the HyperText that read more like the English language than a programming language like LISP. 

Each stack might be synonymous with a web page today. And a card was a building block of those stacks. Consider the desktop metaphor extended to a rolodex of cards. Those cards can be stacked up. There were template cards and if the background on a template changed, that flowed to each card that used the template, like styles in Keynote might today. The cards could have text fields, video, images, buttons, or anything else an author could think of. And the author word is important. Apple wanted everyone to feel like they could author a hypercard stack or program or application or… app. Just as they do with Swift Playgrounds today. That never left the DNA.

We can see that ease of use in how scripting is done in HyperTalk. Not only the word scripting rather than programming, but how HyperTalk is weakly typed. This is to say there’s no memory safety or type safety, so a variable might be used as an integer or boolean. That either involves more work by the interpreter or compiler - or programs tend to crash a lot. Put the work on the programmers who build programming tools rather than the authors of HyperCard stacks.

The ease of use and visual design made Hypercard popular instantly. It was the first of its kind. It didn’t compile at first, although larger stacks got slow because HyperTalk was interpreted, so the team added a just-in-time compiler in 1989 with HyperCard 2.0. They also added a debugger. 

There were some funny behaviors. Like some cards could have objects that other cards in a stack didn’t have. This led to many a migration woe for larger stacks that moved into modern tools. One that could almost be considered HyperCard 3, was FileMaker. Apple spun their software business out as Claris, who bought Noshuba software, which had this interesting little database program called Nutshell. That became FileMaker in 1985. By the time HyperCard was ready to become 3.0, FileMaker Pro was launched in 1990. 

Attempts to make Hypercard 3.0 were still made, but Hypercard had its run by the mid-1990s and died a nice quiet death. The web was here and starting to spread. The concept of a bunch of stacks on just one computer had run its course. Now we wanted pages that anyone could access. HyperCard could have become that but that isn’t its place in history. It was a stepping stone and yet a milestone and a legacy that lives on. Because it was a small tool in a large company. Atkinson and some of the other team that built the original Mac were off to General Magic. Yet there was still this idea, this legacy. 

Hypercard’s interface inspired many modern applications we use to create applications. The first was probably Delphi, from Borland. But over time Visual Studio (which we still use today) for Microsoft’s Visual Basic. Even Powerpoint has some similarities with HyperCard’s interface. WinPlus was similar to Hypercard as well. Even today, several applications and tools use HyperCard’s ideas such as HyperNext, HyperStudio, SuperCard, and LiveCode. HyperCard also certainly inspired FileMaker and every Apple development environment since - and through that, most every tool we use to build software, which we call the IDE, or Integrated Development Environment.

The most important IDE for any Apple developer is Xcode. Open Xcode to build an app and look at Interface Builder and you can almost feel Bill Atkinson’s pupils dilated pupils looking back at you, 10 hours into a trip. And within those pupils visions - visions of graphical elements being dropped into a card and people digitized CD collections, built a repository for their book collection, put all the Grateful Dead shows they’d recorded into a stack, or even built an application to automate their business. Oh and let’s not forget the Zine, or music and scene magazines that were so popular in the era that saw photocopying come down in price. HyperCard made for a pretty sweet Zine. 

HyperCard sprang from a trip when the graphical interface was still just coming into its own. Digital computing might have been 40 years old but the information theorists and engineers hadn’t been as interested in making things easy to use. They wouldn’t have been against it, but they weren’t trying to appeal to regular humans. Apple was, and still is. The success of HyperCard seems to have taken everyone by surprise. Apple sold the last copy in 2004, but the legacy lives on. Successful products help to mass-

Its success made a huge impact at that time as well on the upcoming technology. Its popularity declined in the mid-1990s and it died quietly when Apple sold its last copy in 2004. But it surely left a legacy that has inspired many - especially old-school Apple programmers, in today’s “there’s an app for that” world.


How Ruby Got Nice

     1/24/2022

As with many a programming language, ruby was originally designed as a teaching language - to teach programming to students at universities. From there, it is now used to create various programs, including games, interfaces for websites, scripts to run on desktop computers, backend REST endpoints, and business software. Although ruby is used for web development more than anything else. It has an elegant syntax that makes it easy to read the code; this is one of the reasons why Ruby is so popular, especially with beginners (after all it was designed to teach programming).

Yukihiro Matsumoto, or Mats for short, originally developed the ruby's programming language in the 1990s. Ruby was initially designed as an interpreted scripting language. That first interpreter, MRI, or Mats’s Ruby Interpreter, spread quickly. In part because he’s nice. In fact, he’s so nice that the motto MINASWAN, or “Matz is nice and so we are nice.” Juxtapose this against some of the angrier programmers who develop their own languages. And remember, it was a teach language. And so he named ruby  after a character he encountered in a children's book. Or because it was a birthstone. Or both.

He graduated from the University of Tsukuba and worked on compilers before writing a mail agent in Emacs Lisp. Having worked with Lisp and Perl and Python, he was looking for a language that was truly object-oriented from the ground up. He came up with the idea in 1993 of another Lisp at the core, but something that used objects like Smalltalk. That would allow developers to write less cyclomatically complex code. And yet he wanted to provide higher-order functions for routine tasks like Perl and Python did. Just with native objects rather than those bolted on the side. And he wanted to do so in as consistent a manner as possible.

Believe it or not that meant dynamic typing. And garbage collection for free. And literal notation for some things like arrays and regular expressions while allowing for dynamic reflection for meta programming and allowing for everything to be an expression. The syntax is similar to a python or a perl and yet whitespace in things like indentation doesn’t play a part. It’s concise and the deep thinking that goes into making something concise can be incredible. And yet freeing. 

The first version of Ruby was released in 1995 and allowed programs to be concise, so written with fewer lines of code than would have been possible with other languages at the time. And yet elegant. In 1996, David Flanagan and Jim Weirich grabbed the MRI interpreter and started using ruby for real projects. And so ruby expanded outside of Japan. 

As the popularity grew, Matz founded his own company called Object Technology Inc, This allowed him to continue developing Ruby while making money. After all, programmers gotta’ eat too. In 2006 Matsumoto committed the first version of what would eventually become Rails on Version Control Systems (VCS), a precursor git. 

Ruby is written in C, which means it has access to most underlying operating systems given the right API access. It has a vast dictionary with nearly 1 million entries. It can often be found in many event-driven frameworks, with the most popular being Ruby on Rails, a server-side web application framework developed by David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp in 2004. Other frameworks include Sinatra (which came in 2007), Roda, Camping (which comes in at a whopping 4k in size), and Padrino. And Ramaze and Merb and Goliath. Each has their own merits. 

These libraries help developers code faster, easier, and more efficiently than if they had to write all the server-side code from scratch. Another aspect of Ruby that made it popular is a simple package manager. RubyGems came about in 2003. Here, we lay out a simple structure that includes a README, a gem spec with info about the gem, a lib directory (the code for the gem), a test directory, and a makefile for Ruby they call a Rake. This way the developer of the gem does everything needed to be able to call them in their code. And so there are now well over 100,000 gems out there.

Not all work with all the interpreters. Ruby went from 1.0 in 1996 to 1.2 in 1998 to 1.4 in 1999 and 1.6 in 2000. Then to 1.8 in 2003 and by then it was gettin popular and ready to get standardized. This always slows down changes. So it went to become an ISO standard in 2012 - the hallmark if you will that a language is too big to fail. Ruby 2 came along the next year with nearly full backwards compatibility. And then 3 came in 2020 in order to bring just-in-time compilation, which can make the runtime faster than just interpreting. And unlike the XRuby variant, no need to do java-style compilation.

Still, not all ruby tooling needs to be compiled. Ruby scripts can be loaded in tools like Amazon’s Lambda service or Google Cloud Functions. From there, it can talk to tools like MySQL and MongoDB. And it’s fun. I mean, Matz uses the word fun. And ruby can present a challenge that to experienced programmers might be seen as fun. Because anything you can do with other languages, you can do with ruby. Might not get as much for free as with a spring security for Java, but it’s still an excellent language and sometimes I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t get so much for free with certain lanuages.

Matz is now the chief architect of Heroku. He has since written a slimmed down version of ruby called mruby and another language called streem. He also wrote a few books on ruby. Because you know, he’s nice.


Email: From Time Sharing To Mail Servers To The Cloud

     1/15/2022

With over 2.6 billion active users ad 4.6billion active accounts email has become a significant means of communication in the business, professional, academic, and personal worlds. Before email we had protocols that enabled us to send messages within small splinters of networks. Time Sharing systems like PLATO at the University of Champaign-Urbana, DTSS at Dartmouth College, BerkNet at the University of California Berkeley, and CTTS at MIT pioneered electronic communication. Private corporations like IBM launched VNET We could create files or send messages that were immediately transferred to other people.

The universities that were experimenting with these messaging systems even used some of the words we use today. MIT’s CTSS used the MAIL program to send messages. Glenda Schroeder from there documented that messages would be placed into a MAIL BOX in 1965. She had already been instrumental in implementing the MULTICS shell that would later evolve into the Unix shell. Users dialed into the IBM 7094 mainframe and communicated within that walled garden with other users of the system. That was made possible after Tom Van Vleck and Noel Morris picked up her documentation and turned it into reality, writing the program in MAD or the Michigan Algorithm Decoder.

But each system was different and mail didn’t flow between them. One issue was headers. These are the parts of a message that show what time the message was sent, who sent the message, a subject line, etc. Every team had different formats and requirements. The first attempt to formalize headers was made in RFC 561 by Abhay Bhutan and Ken Pogran from MIT, Jim White at Stanford, and Ray Tomlinson.

Tomlinson was a programmer at Bolt Beranek and Newman. He defined the basic structure we use for email while working on a government-funded project at ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) in 1971. While there, he wrote a tool called CYPNET to send various objects over a network, then ported that into the SNDMSG program used to send messages between users of their TENEX system so people could send messages to other computers. The structure he chose was Username@Computername because it just made sense to send a message to a user on the computer that user was at. We still use that structure today, although the hostname transitioned to a fully qualified domain name a bit later. Given that he wanted to route messages between multiple computers, he had a keen interest in making sure other computers could interpret messages once received.

The concept of instantaneous communication between computer scientists led to huge productivity gains and new, innovative ideas. People could reach out to others they had never met and get quick responses. No more walking to the other side of a college campus. Some even communicated primarily through the computers, taking terminals with them when they went on the road. Email was really the first killer app on the networks that would some day become the Internet.
People quickly embraced this new technology. By 1975 almost 75% of the ARPANET traffic was electronic mails, which provided the idea to send these electronic mails to users on other computers and networks.

Most universities that were getting mail only had one or two computers connected to ARPANET. Terminals were spread around campuses and even smaller microcomputers in places. This was before the DNS (Domain Name Service), so the name of the computer was still just a hostname from the hosts file and users needed to know which computer and what the correct username was to send mail to one another. Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler had been maintaining a hosts file to keep track of computers on the growing network when her employer Stanford was just starting the NIC, or Network Information Center. Once the Internet was formed that NIC would be the foundation or the InterNIC who managed the buying and selling of domain names once Paul Mockapetris formalized DNS in 1983.

At this point, the number of computers was increasing and not all accepted mail on behalf of an organization. The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) began to connect people across the world to the Internet during the 1980s and for many people, electronic mail was the first practical application they used on the internet. This was made easier by the fact that the research community had already struggled with email standards and in 1981 had defined how servers sent mail to one another using the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP, in RFC 788, updated in 1982 with 821 and 822. Still, the computers at networks like CSNET received email and users dialed into those computers to read the email they stored. Remembering the name of the computer to send mail to was still difficult.

By 1986 we also got the concept routing mail in RFC 974 from Craig Partridge. Here we got the first MX record. Those are DNS records that define the computer that received mail for a given domain name. So stanford.edu had a single computer that accepted mail for the university. These became known as mail servers. As the use of mail grew and reliance on mail increased, some had multiple mail servers for fault tolerance, for different departments, or to split the load between servers. We also saw some split various messaging roles up. A mail transfer agent, or MTA, sent mail between different servers. The received field in the header is stamped with the time the server acting as the MTA got an email. MTAs mostly used port 25 to transfer mail until SSL was introduced when port 587 started to be used for encrypted connections.

Bandwidth and time on these computers was expensive. There was a cost to make a phone call to dial into a mail provider and providers often charged by the minute. So people also wanted to store their mail offline and then dial in to send messages and receive messages. Close enough to instant communication. So software was created to manage email storage, which we call a mail client or more formally a Mail User Agent, or MUA. This would be programs like Microsoft Outlook and Apple Mail today or even a web mail client as with Gmail. POP, or Post Office Protocol was written to facilitate that transaction in 1984. Receive mail over POP and send over SMTP. POP evolved over the years with POPv3 coming along in 1993.

At this point we just needed a username and the domain name to send someone a message. But the number of messages was exploding. As were the needs. Let’s say a user needed to get their email on two different computers. POP mail needed to know to leave a copy of messages on servers. But then those messages all showed up as new on the next computer. So Mark Crispin developed IMAP, or Internet Message Access Protocol, in 1986, which left messages on the server and by IMAPv4 in the 1990s, was updated to the IMAPv4 we use today. Now mail clients had a few different options to use when accessing mail.

Those previous RFCs focused on mail itself and the community could use tools like FTP to get files. But over time we also wanted to add attachments to emails so MIME, or Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions became a standard with RFC 1341 in 1993. Those mail and RFC standards would evolve over the years to add better support for encapsulations and internationalization.

With the more widespread use of electronic mail, the words were shortened and to email and became common in everyday conversations. With the necessary standards, the next few years saw a number of private vendors jump on the internet bandwagon and invest in providing mail to customers America Online added email in 1993, Echomail came along in 1994, Hotmail added advertisements to messages, launching in 1996, and Yahoo added mail in 1997. All of the portals added mail within a few years.

The age of email kicked into high gear in the late 1990s, reaching 55 million users in 1997 and 400 million by 1999. During this time having an email address went from a luxury or curiosity to a societal and business expectation, like having a phone might be today. We also started to rely on digital contacts and calendars, and companies like HP released Personal Information Managers, or PIMs. Some companies wanted to sync those the same way they did email, so Microsoft Exchange was launched in 1996. That original concept went all the way back to PLATO in the 1960s with Dave Wooley’s PLATO NOTES and was Ray Ozzie’s inspiration when he wrote the commercial product that became Lotus Notes in 1989. Microsoft inspired Google who in turn inspired Microsoft to take Exchange to the cloud with Outlook.com.

It hadn’t taken long after the concept of sending mail between computers was possible that we got spam. Then spam blockers and other technology to allow us to stay productive despite the thousands of messages from vendors desperately trying to sell us their goods through drip campaigns. We’ve even had legislation to limit the amount of spam, given that at one point over 9 out of 10 emails was spam. Diligent efforts have driven that number down to just shy of a third at this point.

Email is now well over 40 years old and pretty much ubiquitous around the world. We’ve had other tools for instant messaging, messaging within every popular app, and group messaging products like bulletin boards online and now group instant messaging products like Slack and Microsoft Teams. We even have various forms of communication options integrated with one another. Like the ability to initiate a video call within Slack or Teams. Or the ability to toggle the Teams option when we send an invitation for a meeting in Outlook. Every few years there’s a new communication medium that some think will replace email. And yet email is as critical to our workflows today as it ever was.


The Teletype and TTY

     1/10/2022

Teleprinters, sometimes referred to as teletypes based on the dominance of the Tyletype corporation in their hayday, are devices that send or receive written transmissions over a wire or over radios. Those have evolved over time to include text and images. And while it may seem as though their development corresponds to the telegraph, that’s true only so far as discoveries in electromagnetism led to the ability to send tones or pules over wires once there was a constant current.

That story of the teletype evolved through a number of people in the 1800s. The modern telegraph was invented in 1835 and taken to market a few years later. Soon after that, we were sending written messages encoded and typed on what we called a teletype machine, or teletypewriter if you will. Those were initially invented by a German inventor, Friedrich König in 1837, the same year Cooke and Wheatstone got their patent on telgraphy in England, and a few years before they patented automatic printing.

König figured out how to send messages over about 130 miles. Parts of the telegraph were based on his work. But he used a wire per letter of the alphabet and Samuel Morse used a single wire and encoded messages with the Morse code he developed.

Alexander Bain developed a printing telegraph that used electromagnets that turned clockworks. But keep in mind that these were still considered precision electronics at the time and human labor to encode, signal, receive, and decode communications were still cheaper. Therefore, the Morse telegraph service that went operational in 1846 became the standard.

Meanwhile Royal Earl House built a device that used piano keyboards to send letters, which had a shift register to change characters being sent. Thus predating the modern typewriter, developed in 1878, by decades. Yet, while humans were cheaper, machines were less prone to error, unless of course they broke down.

Then David Edward Hughes developed the first commercial teletype machine known as the Model 11 in 1855 to 1856. A few small telegraph companies then emerged to market the innovation, including Wester Union Telegraph company.

Picking up where Morse left off, Émile Baudot developed a code that consisted of five units, that became popular in France and spread to England in 1897 before spreading to the US. That’s when Donald Murray added punching data into paper tape for transmissions and incremented the Baudot encoding scheme to add control characters like carriage returns and line feeds. And some of the Baudot codes and Murray codes are still in use.

The ideas continued to evolve. In 1902, Charles Krum invented something he called the teletypewriter, picking up on the work started by Frank Pearne and funded by Joy Morton of the Morton Salt company. He filed a patent for his work. He and Morton then formed a new company called the Morkrum Printing Telegraph. Edward Kleinschmidt had filed a similar patent in 1916 so they merged the two companies into the Morkrump-Kleinschmidt Company in 1925 but to more easily market their innovation changed the name to the Teletype Corporation in 1928, then selling to the American Telegraph and Telephone Company, or AT&T, for $30M. And so salt was lucrative, but investing salt money netted a pretty darn good return as well.

Teletype Corporation produced a number of models over the next few decades. The Model 15 through 35 saw an increase in the speed messages could be sent and improved encoding techniques. As the typewriter became a standard, the 8.5 by 11 inch came as a means of being most easily compatible for those typewriters. The A standard was developed so A0 is a square meter, A1 is half that, A2, half that, and so on, with A4 becoming a standard paper size in Europe. But teletypes often had continual feeds and so while they had the same width in many cases, paper moved from a small paper tape to a longer roll of paper cut the same size as letter paper.

Decades after Krum was out of the company, the US Naval Observatory built what they called a Krum TTY to transmit data over radio, naming their device after him. Now, messages could be sent over a telegraph wire and wirelessly.

Thus by 1966 when the Inktronic shipped and printed 1200 characters a minute, it was able to print in baud or ASCII, which Teletype had developed for guess who, the Navy. But they had also developed a Teletype they called the Dataspeed with what we think of as a modem today, which evolved into the Teletype 33, the first Teletype to be consistently used with a computer. The teletype could send data to a computer and receive information that was printed in the same way information would be sent to another teletype operator who would respond in a printout. Another teletype with the same line receives that signal. When hooked to a computer though, the operator presses one of the keys on the teletype keyboard, it transmits an electronic signal.

Over time, those teletypes could be installed on the other side of a phone line. And if a person could talk to a computer, why couldn’t two computers talk to one another? ASCII was initially published in 1963 so computers could exchange information in a standardized fashion. Bell Labs was involved and so it’s no surprise we saw ASCII show up within just a couple of years on the Teletype.

ASCII was a huge win. Teletype sold over 600,000 of the 32s and 33s. Early video screens cost over $10,000 so interactive computing meant sending characters to a computer, which translated the characters into commands, and those into machine code. But the invention of the integrated circuit, MOSFET, and microchip dropped those prices considerably.

When screens dropped in price enough, and Unix came along in 1971, also from the Bell system, it’s no surprised that the first shells were referred to as TTY, short for teletype. After all, the developers and users were often literally using teletypes to connect. As computing companies embraced time sharing and added the ability to handle multiple tasks those evolved into the ability to invoke multiple TTY sessions as a given user, thus while waiting for a task to complete we could do another task. And so we got tty1, tty2, tty3, etc.

The first GUIs were then effectively macros or shell scripts that were called by clicking a button. And those evolved so they weren’t obfuscating the shell but instead now we open a terminal emulator in most modern operating systems not to talk to the shell directly but to send commands to the emulator that interprets them in more modern languages. And yet run tty and we can still see the “return user’s terminal name” to quote the man page.

Today we interact with computers in a very different way than we did over teletypes. We don’t send text and receive the output in a a print-out any longer. Instead we use monitors that allow us to use keyboards to type out messages through the Internet as we do over telnet and then ssh using either binary or ASCII codes.

The Teletype and typewriter evolved into today's keyboard, which offers a faster and more efficient way to communicate. Those early CTSS then Unix C programs that evolved into ls and ssh and cat are now actions performed in graphical interfaces or shells. The last remaining teletypes are now used in airline telephone systems. And following the breakup of AT&T, Teletype Corporation need finally in 1990, as computer terminals evolved into a different direction. Yet we still see their remnants in everyday use.


A History of Esports

     1/8/2022

It’s human nature to make everything we do competitive. I’ve played football, ran track at times, competed in hacking competitions at Def Con, and even participated in various gaming competitions like Halo tournaments. I always get annihilated by kids who had voices that were cracking, but I played!

Humans have been competing in sports for thousands of years. The Lascaux in France shows people sprinting over 15,000 years ago. The Egyptians were bowling in the 5,000s BCE. The Sumerians were wrestling 5,000 years ago. Mesopotamian art shows boxing in the second or third millennium BCE. The Olmecs in Mesoamerican societies were playing games with balls around the same time.

Egyptian monuments show a number of individual sports being practiced in Egypt as far back as 2,000 BCE. The Greeks evolved the games first with the Minoans and Mycenaeans between 1,500 BCE and 1,000BCE and then they first recorded their Olympic games in 776 BCE, although historians seem to agree the games were practiced at least 500 years before that evolving potentially from funeral games.

Sports competitions began as ways to showcase an individuals physical prowess. Weight lifting, discus, whether individual or team sports, sports rely on physical strength, coordination, repetitive action, or some other feat that allows one person or team to stand out.

Organized team sports first appeared in ancient times. The Olmecs in Mesoamerica but Hurling supposedly evolved past 1000 BCE, although written records of that only begin around the 16th century and it could be that was borrowed through the Greek game harpaston when the Romans evolved it into the game harpastum and it spread with Roman conquests. But the exact rules and timelines of all of these are lost to written history. Instead, written records back up that western civilization team sports began with polo appearing about 2,500 years ago in Persia. The Chinese gave us a form of kickball they called cuju, around 200 BCE. Football, or soccer for the American listeners, started in 9th century England but evolved into the game we think of today in the 1850s, then a couple of decades later to American football. Meanwhile, cricket came around in the 16th century and then hockey and baseball came along in the mid 1800s with basketball arriving in the 1890s. That’s also around the same time the modern darts game was born, although that started in the Middle Ages when troops threw arrows or crossbow bolts at wine barrels turned on their sides or sections of tree trunks.

Many of these sports are big business today, netting multi-billion dollar contracts for media rights to show and stream games, naming rights to stadiums for hundreds of millions, and players signing contracts for hundreds of millions across all major sports. There’s been a sharp increase in sports contracts since the roaring 1920s, rising steadily until the television started to show up in homes around the world until ESPN solidified a new status in our lives when it was created in 1979. Then came the Internet and the money got crazy town.

All that money leads the occasional entrepreneurial minded sports enthusiast to try something new. We got the World Wrestling Body in the 1950s, which evolved out of Jim McMahon’s father’s boxing promotions put him working with Toots Mondt on what they called Western Style Wrestling. Beating people up has been around since the dawn of life but became an official sport when UFC 1 was launched in 1993. We got the XFL in 1999. So it’s no surprise that we would take a sport that requires hand-eye coordination and turn that into a team endeavor. That’s been around for a long time, but we call it Esports today.

Video Game Competitions
Competing in video games is as almost as old as, well, video games. Spacewar! was written in 1962 and students from MIT competed with one another for dominance of deep space, dogfighting little ships, which we call sprites today, into oblivion. The game spread to campuses and companies as the PDP minicomputers spread. Countless hours spent playing and by 1972, there were enough players that they held the first Esports competition, appropriately called the Intergalactic Spacewar! Olympics. Of course, Steward Brand would report on that for Rolling Stone, having helped Mouse inventor Doug Englebart with the “Mother of All Demos” just four years before.

Pinball had been around since the 1930s, or 1940s with flippers. They could be found around the world by the 1970s and 1972 was also the first year there was a Pinball World Champion. So game leagues were nothing new. But Brand and others, like Atari founder Nolan Bushnell knew that video games were about to get huge.

Tennis was invented in the 1870s in England and went back to 11th century France. Tennis on a screen would make loads of sense as well when Tennis For Two debuted in 1958. So when Pong came along in 1972, the world (and the ability to mass produce technology) was ready for the first video game hit. So when people flowed into bars first in the San Francisco Bay Area, then around the country to play Pong, it’s no surprise that people would eventually compete in the game.

From competing in billiards to a big game console just made sense. Now it was a quarter a game instead of just a dart board hanging in the corner. And so when Pong went to home consoles of course people competed there as well.

Then came Space Invaders in 1978. By 1980 we got the first statewide Space Invaders competition, and 10,000 players showed up. The next year there was a Donkey Kong tournament and Billy Mitchell set the record for the game at 874,300 that stood for 18 years. We got the US National Video Game Team in 1983 and competitions for arcade games sprung up around the world. A syndicated television show called Starcade even ran to show competitions, which now we might call streaming. And Tron came in 1982. Then came the video game crash of 1983.

But games never left us. The next generation of consoles and arcade games gave us competitions and tournaments for Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat then first-person game like Goldeneye and other first-person shooters later in the decade, paving the way for games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. Then in 1998 a legendary StarCraft 2 tournament was held and 50 million people around the world tuned in on the Internet. That’s a lot of eyeballs.

Team options were also on the rise. Netter had been written to play over the Internet by 16 players at once. Within a few years, massive multiplayers could have hundreds of players duking it out in larger battle scenes. Some were recorded and posted to web pages. There was appetite for tracking scores for games and competing and even watching games, which we’ve all done over the shoulders of friends since the arcades and consoles of old.

Esports and Twitch
As the 2000s came, Esports grew in popularity. Esports is short for the term electronic sports, and refers to competitive video gaming, which includes tournaments and leagues. Let’s set aside the earlier gaming tournaments and think of those as classic video games. Let’s reserve the term Esports for events held after 2001.

That’s because the World Cyber Games was founded in 2000 and initially held in 2001, in Seoul, Korea (although there was a smaller competition in 2000). The haul was $300,000 and events continue on through the current day, having been held in San Francisco, Italy, Singapore, and China. Hundreds of people play today. That started a movement.

Major League Gaming (MLG) came along in 2002 and is now regarded as one of the most significant Esports hosts in the world. The Electronic Sports World Cup came in 2003 were the first tournaments, which were followed by the introduction of ESL Intel Extreme Master in 2007 and many others. The USA Network broadcast their first Halo 2 tournament in 2006.

We’ve gone from 10 major tournaments held in 2000 to an incalculable number today. That means more teams. Most Esports companies are founded by former competitors, like Cloud9, 100 Thieves, and FaZeClan. Team SoloMid is the most valuable Esports organization. Launched by League of Legends star Dan Dinh and his brother in 2009, and is now worth over $400 million and has fielded teams like ZeRo for Super Smash Brothers, Excelerate Gaming for Rainbow Six Seige, Team Dignitas for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and even chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura.

The analog counterpart would be sports franchises. Most of those were started by athletic clubs or people from the business community. Gaming has much lower startup costs and thus far has been more democratic in the ability to start a team with higher valuations.

Teams play in competitions held by leagues, of which There seems to be new ones all the time. The NBA 2K League and the Overwatch League are two new leagues that have had early success. One reason for teams and leagues like this is naming and advertising rights. Another is events like The International 2021, with a purse of over $40M. The inaugural League of Legends World Championship took place in 2011. In 2013 another tournament was held in the Staples Center in Los Angeles (close to their US offices). Tickets for the event sold out within minutes. The purse for that was originally $100,000 and has since risen to over $7M. But others are even larger. Arena of Valor tournament Honor of Kings World Champion Cup is $7.7M and Fortnite World Cup Finals has gone as high as $15M.

One reason for the leagues and teams is that companies that make games want to promote their games. The video game business is almost an 86 billion dollar industry. Another is that people started watching other people play on YouTube. But then YouTube wasn’t really purpose-built for gaming. Streamers made due using cameras to stream images of themselves in a picture-in-picture frame but that still wasn’t optimal. Esports had been broadcast (the original form of streaming) before but streaming wasn't all that commercially successful until the birth of Twitch in 2011.

YouTube had come along in 2005 and Justin Kan and Emmett Shear created Justin.tv in 2007 as a place for people to broadcast video, or stream, online. They started with just one channel: Justin’s life. Like 24 by 7 life. They did Y Combinator and managed to land an $8M seed round. Justin had a camera mounted to his hat, and left that outside the bathroom since it wasn’t that kind of site. They made a video chat system and not only was he streaming, but he was interacting with people on the other side of the stream. It was like the Truman Show, but for reals.

A few more people joined up, but then came other sites to provide this live streaming option. They added forums, headlines, comments, likes, featured categories of channels, and other features but just weren’t hitting it. One aspect was doing really well: gaming. They moved that to a new site in 2011 and called that Twitch. This platform allowed players to stream themselves and their games. And they could interact with their viewers, which gave the entire experience a new interactive paradigm. And it grew fast with the whole thing being rebranded as Twitch in 2014.

Amazon bought Twitch in 2014 for $1B. They made $2.3 Billion in 2020 with an average of nearly 3 million concurrent viewers watching nearly 19 billion hours of content provided monthly by nearly 9 million streamers. Other services like Youtube Gaming have come and gone but Twitch remains the main way people watch others game. ESPN and others still have channels for Esports, but Twitch is purpose-built for gaming. And watching others play games is no different than Greeks showing up for the Olympics or watching someone play pool or watching Liverpool play Man City. In fact, the money they make is catching up.

Platforms like Twitch allow professional gamers and those who announce the games to to become their own unique class of celebrities. The highest paid players have made between three and six million dollars, with the top 10 living outside the US and making their hauls from Dota 2. Others have made over a million playing games like Counter-Strike, Fortnite, League of Legends, and Call of Duty. None are likely to hold a record for any of those games for 18 years. But they are likely to diversify their sources of income. Add a YouTube channel, Twitch stream, product placements, and appearances - and a gamer could be looking at doubling what they bring in from competitions.

Esports has come far but has far further to go. The total Esports market was just shy of $1B in 2020 and expected tor each $2.5B in 2025 (which the pandemic may push even faster). Not quite the 100 million that watch the Super Bowl every year or the half billion that tune into the World Cup finals but growing at a faster rate than the Super Bowl, which has actually declined in the past few years. And the International Olympic Committee recognized the tremendous popularity of Esports throughout the world in 2017 and left open the prospect of Esports becoming an Olympic sport in the future (although with the number of vendors involved that’s hard to imagine happening).

Perhaps some day when archaeologists dig up what we’ve left behind, they’ll find some Egyptian Obelisk or gravestone with a controller and a high score. Although they’ll probably just scoff at the high score, since they already annihilated that when they first got their neural implants and have since moved on to far better games!

Twitch is young in the context of the decades of history in computing. However, the impact has been fast and along with Esports shows us a windows into how computing has reshaped entire ways we week not only entertainment, but also how we make a living. In fact, the US Government recognized League of Legends as a sport as early as 2013, allowing people to get Visas to come into the US and play. And where there’s money to be made, there’s betting and abuse. 2010 saw SaviOr and some of the best Starcraft players to ever play embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. That almost destroyed the Esports gaming industry. And yet as with the Video Game Crash of 1983, the industry has always bounced back, at magnitudes larger than before.


Of Heath Robinson Contraptions And The Colossus

     12/14/2021

The Industrial Revolution gave us the rise of factories all over the world in the 1800s. Life was moving faster and we were engineering complex solutions to mass produce items. And many expanded from there to engineer complex solutions for simple problems. Cartoonist Heath Robinson harnessed the reaction from normal humans to this changing world in the forms of cartoons and illustrations of elaborate machines meant to accomplish simple tasks.

These became known as “Heath Robinson contraptions” and were a reaction to the changing and increasingly complicated world order as much as anything. Just think of the rapidly evolving financial markets as one sign of the times! Following World War I, other cartoonists made similar cartoons. Like Rube Goldberg, giving us the concept of Rube Goldberg machines in the US.

And the very idea of breaking down simple operations into Boolean logic from those who didn’t understand the “why” would have seemed preposterous. I mean a wheel with 60 teeth or a complex series of switches and relays to achieve the same result? And yet with flip-flop circuits one would be able to process infinitely faster than it would take that wheel to turn with any semblance of precision. The Industrial Revolution of our data was to come.

And yet we were coming to a place in the world where we were just waking up to the reality of moving from analog to digital as Robinson passed away in 1944 with a series of electromechanical computers named after Robinson and then The Colossus. These came just one year after Claude Shannon and Alan Turing, two giants in the early history of computers, met at Bell Labs.

And a huge step in that transition was a paper by Alan Turing in 1936 called "On Computable Numbers with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” This would become the basis for a programmable computing machine concept and so before the war, Alan Turing had published papers about the computability of problems using what we now call a Turing machine - or recipes. Some of the work on that paper was inspired by Max Newman, who helped Turing go off to Princeton to work on all the maths, where Turing would get a PhD in 1938. He returned home and started working part-time at the Government Code and Cypher school during the pre-war buildup.

Hitler invaded Poland the next year, sparking World War II. The Poles had gotten pretty good with codebreaking, being situated right between world powers Germany and Russia and their ability to see troop movements through decrypted communications was one way they were able to keep forces in optimal locations. And yet the Germans got in there. The Germans had built a machine called the Enigma that also allowed their Navy to encrypt communications. Unable to track their movements, Allied forces were playing a cat and mouse game and not doing very well at it. Turing came up with a new way of decrypting the messages and that went into a new version of the Polish Bomba.

Later that year, the UK declared war on Germany. Turing’s work resulted in a lot of other advances in cryptanalysis throughout the war. But he also brought home the idea of an electromechanical machine to break those codes - almost as though he’d written a paper on building machines to do such things years before.

The Germans had given away a key to decrypt communications accidentally in 1941 and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park got to work on breaking the machines that used the Lorenz Cipher in new and interesting ways. The work had reduced the amount of losses - but they needed more people. It was time intensive to go through the possible wheel positions or guess at them, and every week meant lives lost. Or they needed more automation of people tasks… So they looked to automate the process.

Turing and the others wrote to Churchill directly. Churchill started his memo to General Ismay with “ACTION THIS DAY” and so they were able to get more bombes up and running. Bill Tutte and the codebreakers worked out the logic to process the work done by hand. The same number of codebreakers were able to a ton more work. The first pass was a device with uniselectors and relays. Frank Morrell did the engineering design to process the logic. And so we got the alpha test of an automation machine they called the Tunny. The start positions were plugged in by hand and it could still take weeks to decipher messages.

Max Newman, Turing’s former advisor and mentor, got tapped to work on the project and Turing was able to take the work of Polish code breakers and others and add sequential conditional probability to guess at the settings of the 12 wheels of an Enigma machine and thus get to the point they could decipher messages coming out of the German navy on paper. No written records indicate that Turing was involved much in the project beyond that.

Max Newman developed the specs, heavily influenced by Turing’s previous work. They got to work on an electro-mechanical device we now call the Heath Robinson. They needed to be able to store data. They used paper tape - which could process a thousand characters per second using photocell readers - but there were two and they had to run concurrently. Tape would rip and two tapes running concurrently meant a lot might rip.

Charles Wynn-Williams was a brilliant physicist who worked with electric waves since the late 1920s at Trinity College, Cambridge and was recruited from a project helping to develop RADAR because he’d specifically worked on electronic counters at Cambridge. That work went into the counting unit, counting how many times a function returned a true result.

As we saw with Bell Labs, the telephone engineers were looking for ways to leverage switching electronics to automate processes for the telephone exchange. Turing recommended they bring in telephone engineer Tommy Flowers to design the Combining unit, which used vacuum tubes to implement Boolean logic - much as the paper Shannon wrote in 1936 that he gave Turing over tea at Bell labs earlier 1943. It’s likely Turing would have also heard of the calculator George Stibitz of Bell Labs built out of relay switches all the way back in 1937. Slow but more reliable than the vacuum tubes of the era. And it’s likely he influenced those he came to help by collaborating on encrypted voice traffic and likely other projects as much if not more. Inspiration is often best found at the intersectionality between ideas and cultures.

Flowers looked to use vacuum tubes where the wheel patterns were produced. This gave one less set of paper tapes and infinitely more reliability. And a faster result. The programs were stored but they were programmable. Input was made using the shift registers from the paper tape and thyratron rings that simulated the bitstream for the wheels. There was a master control unit that handled the timing between the clock, signals, readouts, and printing. It didn’t predate the Von Neumann architecture. But it didn’t not.

The switch panel had a group of switches used to define the algorithm being used with a plug-board defining conditions. The combination provided billions of combinations for logic processing. Vacuum tube valves were still unstable but they rarely blew when on, it was the switching process. So if they could have the logic gates flow through a known set of wheel settings the new computer would be more stable. Just one thing - they needed 1,500 valves! This thing would be huge!

And so the Colossus Mark 1 was approved by W.G. Radley in 1943. It took 50 people 11 months to build and was able to compute wheel settings for ciphered message tapes. Computers automating productivity at its finest. The switches and plugs could be repositioned and so not only was Colossus able get messages decrypted in hours but could be reprogrammed to do other tasks.

Others joined and they got the character reading up to almost 10,000 characters a second. They improved on the design yet again by adding shift registers and got over four times the speeds. It could now process 25,000 characters per second.

One of the best uses was to confirm that Hitler got tricked into thinking the attack at Normandy at D-Day would happen elsewhere. And so the invasion of Normandy was safe to proceed. But the ability to reprogram made it a mostly universal computing machine - proving the Turing machine concept and fulfilling the dreams of Charles Babbage a hundred years earlier.

And so the war ended in 1945. After the war, The Colossus machines were destroyed - except the two sent to British GHCQ where they ran until 1960. So the simple story of Colossus is that it was a series of computers built in England from 1943 to 1945, at the heart of World War II. The purpose: cryptanalysis - or code breaking.

Turing went on to work on the Automatic Computing Engine at the National Physical Laboratory after the war and wrote a paper on the ACE - but while they were off to a quick start in computing in England having the humans who knew the things, they were slow to document given that their wartime work was classified.

ENIAC came along in 1946 as did the development of Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. That same year Max Newman wrote to John Von Neumann (Wiener’s friend) about building a computer in England. He founded the Royal Society Computing Machine Laboratory at Victory University of Manchester, got Turing out to help and built the Manchester Baby, along with Frederic Williams and Thomas Kilburn. In 1946 Newman would also decline becoming Sir Newman when he rejected becoming an OBE, or Officer of the Order of the British Empire, over the treatment of his protege Turing not being offered the same. That’s leadership. They’d go on to collaborate on the Manchester Mark I and Ferranti Mark I. Turing would work on furthering computing until his death in 1954, from taking cyanide after going through years of forced estrogen treatments for being a homosexual. He has since been pardoned post

Following the war, Flowers tried to get a loan to start a computer company - but the very idea was ludicrous and he was denied. He retired from the Post Office Research Station after spearheading the move of the phone exchange to an electric, or what we might think of as a computerized exchange.

Over the next decade, the work from Claude Shannon and other mathematicians would perfect the implementation of Boolean logic in computers. Von Neumann only ever mentioned Shannon and Turing in his seminal 1958 paper called The Computer And The Brain. While classified by the British government the work on Colossus was likely known to Von Neumann, who will get his own episode soon - but suffice it to say was a physicist turned computer scientist and worked on ENIAC to help study and develop atom bombs - and who codified the von Neumann architecture.

We did a whole episode on Turing and another on Shannon, and we have mentioned the 1945 article As We May Think where Vannevar Bush predicted and inspired the next couple generations of computer scientists following the advancements in computing around the world during the war. He too would have likely known of the work on Colossus at Bletchley Park. Maybe not the specifics but he certainly knew of ENIAC - which unlike Colossus was run through a serious public relations machine.

There are a lot of heroes to this story. The brave men and women who worked tirelessly to break, decipher, and analyze the cryptography. The engineers who pulled it off. The mathematicians who sparked the idea. The arrival of the computer was almost deterministic. We had work on the Atanasoff-Berry Computer at Iowa State, work at Bell Labs, Norbert Wiener’s work on anti-aircraft guns at MIT during the war, Konrad Zuse’s Z3, Colossus, and other mechanical and electromechanical devices leading up to it.

But deterministic doesn’t mean lacking inspiration. And what is the source of inspiration and when mixed with perspiration - innovation? There were brilliant minds in mathematics, like Turing. Brilliant physicists like Wynn-Williams. Great engineers like Flowers. That intersection between disciplines is the wellspring of many an innovation. Equally as important, then there’s a leader who can take the ideas, find people who align with a mission, and help clear roadblocks. People like Newman. When they have domain expertise and knowledge - and are able to recruit and keep their teams inspired, they can change the world. And then there are people with purse strings who see the brilliance and can see a few moves ahead on the chessboard - like Churchill. They make things happen.

And finally, there are the legions who carried on the work in theoretical, practical, and in the pure sciences. People who continue the collaboration between disciplines, iterate, and bring products to ever growing markets. People who continue to fund those innovations. It can be argued that our intrepid heroes in this story helped win a war - but that the generations who followed, by connecting humanity and bringing productivity gains to help free our minds to solve bigger and bigger problems will hopefully some day end war.

Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We hope to cover your contributions. Drop us a line and let us know how we can. And thank you so much for listening. We are so, so lucky to have you.


Clifford Stoll and the Cuckoo’s Egg

     12/3/2021

A honeypot is basically a computer made to look like a sweet, yummy bit of morsel that a hacker might find yummy mcyummersons. This is the story of one of the earliest on the Internet.

Clifford Stoll has been a lot of things. He was a teacher and a ham operator and appears on shows. And an engineer at a radio station. And he was an astronomer. But he’s probably best known for being an accidental systems administrator at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who setup a honeypot in 1986 and used that to catch a KGB hacker.

It sounds like it could be a movie. And it was - on public television. Called “The KGB, the Computer, and Me.” And a book.

Clifford Stoll was an astronomer who stayed on as a systems administrator when a grant he was working on as an astronomer ran out. Many in IT came to the industry accidentally. Especially in the 80s and 90s.

Now accountants are meticulous. The monthly accounting report at the lab had never had any discrepancies. So when the lab had a 75 cent accounting error, his manager Dave Cleveland had Stoll go digging into the system to figure out what happened. And yet what he found was far more than the missing 75 cents.

This was an error of time sharing systems. And the lab leased out compute time at $300 per hour. Everyone who had accessed the system had an account number to bill time to. Well, everyone except a user named hunter. They disabled the user and then got an email that one of their computers tried to break into a computer elsewhere.

This is just a couple years after the movie War Games had been released. So of course this was something fun to dig your teeth into. Stoll combed through the logs and found the account that attempted to break into the computers in Maryland was a local professor named Joe Sventek, now at the University of Oregon. One who it was doubtful made the attempt because he was out town at the time.

So Stoll set his computer to beep when someone logged in so he could set a trap for the person using the professors account. Every time someone connected a teletype session, or tty, Stoll checked the machine. Until Sventek connected and with that, he went to see the networking team who confirmed the connection wasn’t a local terminal but had come in through one of the 50 modems through a dial-up session.

There wasn’t much in the form of caller ID. So Stoll had to connect a printer to each of the modems - that gave him the ability to print every command the user ran. A system had been compromised and this user was able to sudo, or elevate their privileges. UNIX System V had been released 3 years earlier and suddenly labs around the world were all running similar operating systems on their mainframes. Someone with a working knowledge of Unix internals could figure out how to do all kinds of things. Like add a program to routine housecleaning items that elevated their privileges.

They could also get into the passwd file that at the time housed all the passwords and delete those that were encrypted, thus granting access without a password. And they even went so far as to come up with dictionary brute force attacks similar to a modern rainbow table to figure out passwords so they wouldn’t get locked out when the user whose password was deleted called in to reset it again.

Being root allowed someone to delete the shell history and given that all the labs and universities were charging time, remove any record they’d been there from the call accounting systems. So Stoll wired a pager into the system so he could run up to the lab any time the hacker connected. Turns out the hacker was using the network to move laterally into other systems, including going from what was ARPANET at the time to military systems on Milnet. The hacker used default credentials for systems and leave accounts behind so he could get back in later.

Jaeger means hunter in German and those were both accounts used. So maybe they were looking for a German. Tymenet and Pacbell got involved and once they got a warrant they were able to get the phone number of the person connecting to the system. Only problem is the warrant was just for California.

Stoll scanned the packet delays and determined the hacker was coming in from overseas. The hacker had come in through Mitre Corporation. After Mitre disabled the connection the hacker slipped up and came in through International Telephone and Telegraph. Now they knew he was not in the US. In fact, he was in West Germany. At the time, Germany was still divided by the Berlin Wall and was a pretty mature spot for espionage. They confirmed the accounts were indicating they were dealing with a German.

Once they had the call traced to Germany they needed to keep the hacker online for an hour to trace the actual phone number because the facilities there still used mechanical switching mechanisms to connect calls. So that’s where the honeypot comes into play. Stoll’s girlfriend came up with the idea to make up a bunch of fake government data and host it on the system. Boom. It worked, the hacker stayed on for over an hour and they traced the number.

Along the way, this hippy-esque Cliff Stoll had worked with “the Man.” Looking through the logs, the hacker was accessing information about missile systems, military secrets, members of the CIA. There was so much on these systems. So Stoll called some of the people at the CIA. The FBI and NSA were also involved and before long, German authorities arrested the hacker.

Markus Hess, whose handle was Urmel, was a German hacker who we now think broke into over 400 military computers in the 80s. It wasn’t just one person though. Dirk-Otto Brezinski, or DOB, Hans Hübner, or Pengo, and Karl Koch, or Pengo were also involved. And not only had they stolen secrets, but they’d sold them to The KGB using Peter Carl as a handler.

Back in 1985, Koch was part of a small group of hackers who founded the Computer-Stammtisch in Hanover. That later became the Hanover chapter of the Chaos Computer Club. Hübner and Koch confessed, which gave them espionage amnesty - important in a place with so much of that going around in the 70s and 80s. He would be found burned by gasoline to death and while it was reported a suicide, that has very much been disputed - especially given that it happened shortly before the trials.

DOB and Urmel received a couple years of probation for their part in the espionage, likely less of a sentence given that the investigations took time and the Berlin Wall came down the year they were sentenced.

Hübner’s story and interrogation is covered in a book called Cyberpunk - which tells the same story from the side of the hackers. This includes passing into East Germany with magnetic tapes, working with handlers, sex, drugs, and hacker-esque rock and roll. I think I initially read the books a decade apart but would strongly recommend reading Part II of it either immediately before or after The Cukoo’s Egg.

It’s interesting how a bunch of kids just having fun can become something far more. Similar stories were happening all over the world - another book called The Hacker Crackdown tells of many, many of these stories. Real cyberpunk stories told by one of the great cyberpunk authors. And it continues through to the modern era, except with much larger stakes than ever.

Gorbachev may have worked to dismantle some of the more dangerous aspects of these security apparatuses, but Putin has certainly worked hard to build them up. Russian-sponsored and other state-sponsored rings of hackers continue to probe the Internet, delving into every little possible hole they can find. China hacks Google in 2009, Iran hits casinos, the US hits Iranian systems to disable centrifuges, and the list goes on. You see, these kids were stealing secrets - but after the Morris Worm brought the Internet to its knees in 1988, we started to realize how powerful the networks were becoming.

But it all started with 75 cents. Because when it comes to security, there’s no amount or event too small to look into.


Buying All The Things On Black Friday and Cyber Monday

     11/26/2021

The Friday after Thanksgiving to the Monday afterwards is a bonanza of shopping in the United States, where capitalism runs wild with reckless abandon. It’s almost a symbol of a society whose identity is as intertwined with with rampant consumerism as it is with freedom and democracy. We are free to spend all our gold pieces.

And once upon a time, we went back to work on Monday and looked for a raise or bonus to help replenish the coffers. But since fast internet connections started to show up in offices in the late 90s the commodification of holiday shopping, the very digitization of materialism.

But how did it come to be? The term Black Friday goes back to a financial crisis in 1869 after Jay Gould and Jim Fisk tried to corner the market on Gold. That backfired and led to a Wall Street crash in September of that year. As the decades rolled by, Americans in the suburbs of urban centers had more and more disposable income and flocked to city centers the day after Thanksgiving. Finally, by 1961, the term showed up in Philadelphia where turmoil over the holiday shopping extravaganza inside.

And so as economic downturns throughout the 60s and 70s gave way to the 1980s, the term spread slowly across the country until marketers, decided to use it to their advantage and run sales just on that day. Especially the big chains that were by now in cities where the term was common.

And many retailers spent the rest of the year in the red and made back all of their money over the holidays - thus they got in the black. The term went from a negative to a positive.

Stores opened earlier and earlier on Friday. Some even unlocking the doors at midnight after shoppers got a nice nap in following stuffing their faces with turkey the earlier in the day.

As the Internet exploded in the 90s and buying products online picked up steam, marketers of online e-commerce platforms wanted in on the action. See, they considered brick and mortar to be mortal competition. Most of them should have been looking over their shoulder at Amazon rising, but that’s another episode.

And so Cyber Monday was born in 2005 when the National Retail Federation launched the term to the world in a press release. And who wanted to be standing in line outside a retail store at midnight on Friday? Especially when the first Wii was released by Nintendo that year and was sold out everywhere early Friday morning. But come Cyber Monday it was all over the internet. Not only that, but one of Amazon’s top products that year was the iPod. And the DS Lite. And World of Warcraft. Oh and that was the same year Tickle Me Elmo was sold out everywhere. But available on the Internets. The online world closed the holiday out at just shy of half a billion dollars in sales. But they were just getting started.

And I’ve always thought it was kitschy. And yet I joined in with the rest of them when I started getting all those emails. Because opt-in campaigns were exploding as e-tailers honed those skills at appealing to not wanting to be the worst parent in the world. And Cyber Monday grew year over year. Even as the Great Recession came and has since grown first to a billion dollar shopping day in 2010 and as brick and mortar companies jumped in on the action, $4 billion by 2017, $6 billion in 2018, and nearly $8 billion in 2019.

As Covid-19 spread and people stayed home during the 2020 holiday shopping season, revenues from Cyber Monday grew 15% over the previous year, hitting $10.8 billion. But it came at the cost of brick and mortar sales, which fell nearly 24% over the same time a year prior. I guess it kinda’ did, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Seeing the success of the Cyber Monday marketers, American Express launched Small Business Saturday in 2010, hoping to lure shoppers into small businesses that accepted their cards. And who doesn’t love small businesses? Politicians flocked into malls in support, including President Obama in 2011. And by 2012, spending was over $5 billion on Small Business Saturday, and grew to just shy of $20 billion in 2020. To put that into perspective, Georgia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Jamaica, Niger, Armenia, Haiti, Mongolia, and dozens of other countries have smaller GDPs than just one shopping day in the US.

Brick and mortar stores are increasingly part of online shopping. Buy online, pick up curb-side. But that trend goes back to the early 2000s when Walmart was a bigger player on Cyber Monday than Amazon. That changed in 2008 and Walmart fought back with Cyber Week, stretching the field in 2009. Target said “us too” in 2010. And everyone in between hopped in. The sales start at least a week early and spread from online to retail in person with hundreds of emails flooding my inbox at this point. This year, Americans are expected to spend over $36 billion during the weekend from Black Friday to Cyber Monday. And the split between all the sales is pretty much indistinguishable. Who knows or to some degrees cares what bucket each gets placed in at this point.

Something else was happening in the decades as Black Friday spread to consume the other days around the Thanksgiving holiday: intensifying globalization. Products flooding into the US from all over the world. Some cheap, some better than what is made locally. Some awesome. Some completely unnecessary. It’s a land of plenty. And yet, does it make us happy? My kid enjoyed playing with an empty toilet paper roll just as much as a Furby. And loved the original Xbox just as much as the Switch. I personally need less and to be honest want less as I get older. And yet I still find myself getting roped into spending too much on people at the holidays.

Maybe we should create “experience Sunday” where instead of buying material goods, we facilitate free experiences for our loved ones. Because I’m pretty sure they’d rather have that than another ugly pair of holiday socks. Actually, that reminds me: I have some of those in my cart on Amazon so I should wrap this up as they can deliver it tonight if I hurry up.

So this Thanksgiving I’m thankful that I and my family are healthy and happy. I’m thankful to be able to do things I love. I’m thankful for my friends. And I’m thankful to all of you for staying with us as we turn another page into the 2022 year. I hope you have a lovely holiday season and have plenty to be thankful for as well. Because you deserve it.


An Abridged History of Free And Open Source Software

     11/24/2021

In the previous episodes, we looked at the rise of patents and software and their impact on the nascent computer industry. But a copyright is a right. And that right can be given to others in whole or in part. We have all benefited from software where the right to copy was waved and it’s shaped the computing industry as much, if not more, than proprietary software.

The term Free and Open Source Software (FOSS for short) is a blanket term to describe software that’s free and/or whose source code is distributed for varying degrees of tinkeration. It’s a movement and a choice. Programmers can commercialize our software. But we can also distribute it free of copy protections. And there are about as many licenses as there are opinions about what is unique, types of software, underlying components, etc. But given that many choose to commercialize their work products, how did a movement arise that specifically didn’t?

The early computers were custom-built to perform various tasks. Then computers and software were bought as a bundle and organizations could edit the source code. But as operating systems and languages evolved and businesses wanted their own custom logic, a cottage industry for software started to emerge. We see this in every industry - as an innovation becomes more mainstream, the expectations and needs of customers progress at an accelerated rate.

That evolution took about 20 years to happen following World War II and by 1969, the software industry had evolved to the point that IBM faced antitrust charges for bundling software with hardware. And after that, the world of software would never be the same.

The knock-on effect was that in the 1970s, Bell Labs pushed away from MULTICS and developed Unix, which AT&T then gave away as compiled code to researchers. And so proprietary software was a growing industry, which AT&T began charging for commercial licenses as the bushy hair and sideburns of the 70s were traded for the yuppy culture of the 80s. In the meantime, software had become copyrightable due to the findings of CONTU and the codifying of the Copyright Act of 1976.

Bill Gates sent his infamous “Open Letter to Hobbyists” in 1976 as well, defending the right to charge for software in an exploding hobbyist market. And then Apple v Franklin led to the ability to copyright compiled code in 1983. There was a growing divide between those who’d been accustomed to being able to copy software freely and edit source code and those who in an up-market sense just needed supported software that worked - and were willing to pay for it, seeing the benefits that automation was having on the capabilities to scale an organization.

And yet there were plenty who considered copyright software immoral. One of the best remembered is Richard Stallman, or RMS for short. Steven Levy described Stallman as “The Last of the True Hackers” in his epic book “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.” In the book, he describes the MIT Stallman joined where there weren’t passwords and we didn’t yet pay for software and then goes through the emergence of the LISP language and the divide that formed between Richard Greenblatt, who wanted to keep The Hacker Ethic alive and those who wanted to commercialize LISP. The Hacker Ethic was born from the young MIT students who freely shared information and ideas with one another and help push forward computing in an era they thought was purer in a way, as though it hadn’t yet been commercialized.

The schism saw the death of the hacker culture and two projects came out of Stallman’s technical work: emacs, which is a text editor that is still included freely in most modern Unix variants and the GNU project. Here’s the thing, MIT was sitting on patents for things like core memory and thrived in part due to the commercialization or weaponization of the technology they were producing. The industry was maturing and since the days when kings granted patents, maturing technology would be commercialized using that system.

And so Stallman’s nostalgia gave us the GNU project, born from an idea that the industry moved faster in the days when information was freely shared and that knowledge was meant to be set free. For example, he wanted the source code for a printer driver so he could fix it and was told it was protected by an NDAQ and so couldn’t have it. A couple of years later he announced GNU, a recursive acronym for GNU’s Not Unix. The next year he built a compiler called GCC and the next year released the GNU Manifesto, launching the Free Software Foundation, often considered the charter of the free and open source software movement.

Over the next few years as he worked on GNU, he found emacs had a license, GCC had a license, and the rising tide of free software was all distributed with unique licenses. And so the GNU General Public License was born in 1989 - allowing organizations and individuals to copy, distribute, and modify software covered under the license but with a small change, that if someone modified the source, they had to release that with any binaries they distributed as well.

The University of California, Berkley had benefited from a lot of research grants over the years and many of their works could be put into the public domain. They had brought Unix in from Bell Labs in the 70s and Sun cofounder and Java author Bill Joy worked under professor Fabry, who brought Unix in. After working on a Pascal compiler that Unix coauthor Ken Thompson left for Berkeley, Joy and others started working on what would become BSD, not exactly a clone of Unix but with interchangeable parts. They bolted on the OSI model to get networking and through the 80s as Joy left for Sun and DEC got ahold of that source code there were variants and derivatives like FreeBSD, NetBSD, Darwin, and others. The licensing was pretty permissive and simple to understand:

Copyright (c) . All rights reserved.
Redistribution and use in source and binary forms are permitted provided that the above copyright notice and this paragraph are duplicated in all such forms and that any documentation, advertising materials, and other materials related to such distribution and use acknowledge that the software was developed by the . The name of the may not be used to endorse or promote products derived from this software without specific prior written permission.
THIS SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED ``AS IS AND WITHOUT ANY EXPRESS OR IMPLIED WARRANTIES, INCLUDING, WITHOUT LIMITATION, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.

By 1990 the Board of Regents at Berkley accepted a four clause BSD license that spawned a class of licenses. While it’s matured into other formats like a 0 clause license it’s one of my favorites as it is truest to the FOSS cause.

And the 90s gave us the Apache License, from the Apache Group, loosely based on the BSD License and then in 2004 leaning away from that with the release of the Apache License 2 that was more compatible with the GPL license. Given the modding nature of Apache they didn’t require derivative works to also be open sourced but did require leaving the license in place for unmodified parts of the original work.

GNU never really caught on as an OS in the mainstream, although a collection of tools did. The main reason the OS didn’t go far is probably because Linus Torvalds started releasing prototypes of his Linux operating system in 1991. Torvalds used The GNU General Public License v2, or GPLv2 to license his kernel, having been inspired by a talk given by Stallman. GPL 2 had been released in 1991 and something else was happening as we turned into the 1990s: the Internet. Suddenly the software projects being worked on weren’t just distributed on paper tape or floppy disks; they could be downloaded. The rise of Linux and Apache coincided and so many a web server and site ran that LAMP stack with MySQL and PHP added in there. All open source in varying flavors of what open source was at the time.

And collaboration in the industry was at an all-time high. We got the rise of teams of developers who would edit and contribute to projects. One of these was a tool for another aspect of the Internet, email. It was called popclient, Here Eric S Raymond, or ESR for short, picked it up and renamed it to fetchmail, releasing it as an open source project.

Raymond presented on his work at the Linux Congress in 1997, expanded that work into an essay and then the essay into “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” where bazaar is meant to be like an open market. That inspired many to open source their own works, including the Netscape team, which resulted in Mozilla and so Firefox - and another book called “Freeing the Source: The Story of Mozilla” from O’Reilly.

By then, Tim O’Reilly was a huge proponent of this free or source code available type of software as it was known. And companies like VA Linux were growing fast. And many wanted to congeal around some common themes. So in 1998, Christine Peterson came up with the term “open source” in a meeting with Raymond, Todd Anderson, Larry Augustin, Sam Ockman, and Jon “Maddog” Hall, author of the first book I read on Linux. Free software it may or may not be but open source as a term quickly proliferated throughout the lands.

By 1998 there was this funny little company called Tivo that was doing a public beta of a little box with a Linux kernel running on it that bootstrapped a pretty GUI to record TV shows on a hard drive on the box and play them back. You remember when we had to wait for a TV show, right? Or back when some super-fancy VCRs could record a show at a specific time to VHS (but mostly failed for one reason or another)? Well, Tivo meant to fix that. We did an episode on them a couple of years ago but we skipped the term Tivoization and the impact they had on GPL.

As the 90s came to a close, VA Linux and Red Hat went through great IPOs, bringing about an era where open source could mean big business. And true to the cause, they shared enough stock with Linus Torvalds to make him a millionaire as well. And IBM pumped a billion dollars into open source, with Sun moving to open source openoffice.org. Now, what really happened there might be that by then Microsoft had become too big for anyone to effectively compete with and so they all tried to pivot around to find a niche, but it still benefited the world and open source in general.

By Y2K there was a rapidly growing number of vendors out there putting Linux kernels onto embedded devices. TiVo happened to be one of the most visible. Some in the Linux community felt like they were being taken advantage of because suddenly you had a vendor making changes to the kernel but their changes only worked on their hardware and they blocked users from modifying the software. So The Free Software Foundation updated GPL, bundling in some other minor changes and we got the GNU General Public License (Version 3) in 2006.

There was a lot more in GPL 3, given that so many organizations were involved in open source software by then. Here, the full license text and original copyright notice had to be included along with a statement of significant changes and making source code available with binaries. And commercial Unix variants struggled with SGI going bankrupt in 2006 and use of AIX and HP-UX

Many of these open source projects flourished because of version control systems and the web. SourceForge was created by VA Software in 1999 and is a free service that can be used to host open source projects. Concurrent Versions System, or CVS had been written by Dick Grune back in 1986 and quickly became a popular way to have multiple developers work on projects, merging diffs of code repositories. That gave way to git in the hearts of many a programmer after Linus Torvalds wrote a new versioning system called git in 2005. GitHub came along in 2008 and was bought by Microsoft in 2018 for 2018.

Seeing a need for people to ask questions about coding, Stack Overflow was created by Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky in 2008. Now, we could trade projects on one of the versioning tools, get help with projects or find smaller snippets of sample code on Stack Overflow, or even Google random things (and often find answers on Stack Overflow). And so social coding became a large part of many a programmers day. As did dependency management, given how many tools are used to compile a modern web app or app. I often wonder how much of the code in many of our favorite tools is actually original.

Another thought is that in an industry dominated by white males, it’s no surprise that we often gloss over previous contributions. It was actually Grace Hopper’s A-2 compiler that was the first software that was released freely with source for all the world to adapt. Sure, you needed a UNIVAC to run it, and so it might fall into the mainframe era and with the emergence of minicomputers we got Digital Equipment’s DECUS for sharing software, leading in part to the PDP-inspired need for source that Stallman was so adamant about. General Motors developed SHARE Operating System for the IBM 701 and made it available through the IBM user group called SHARE. The ARPAnet was free if you could get to it. TeX from Donald Knuth was free. The BASIC distribution from Dartmouth was academic and yet Microsoft sold it for up to $100,000 a license (see Commodore ). So it’s no surprise that people avoided paying upstarts like Microsoft for their software or that it took until the late 70s to get copyright legislation and common law.

But Hopper’s contributions were kinda’ like open source v1, the work from RMS to Linux was kinda’ like open source v2, and once the term was coined and we got the rise of a name and more social coding platforms from SourceForge to git, we moved into a third version of the FOSS movement. Today, some tools are free, some are open source, some are free as in beer (as you find in many a gist), some are proprietary. All are valid.

Today there are also about as many licenses as there are programmers putting software out there. And here’s the thing, they’re all valid. You see, every creator has the right to restrict the ability to copy their software. After all, it’s their intellectual property. Anyone who chooses to charge for their software is well within their rights. Anyone choosing to eschew commercialization also has that right. And every derivative in between. I wouldn’t judge anyone based on any model those choose. Just as those who distribute proprietary software shouldn’t be judged for retaining their rights to do so.

Why not just post things we want to make free? Patents, copyrights, and trademarks are all a part of intellectual property - but as developers of tools we also need to limit our liability as we’re probably not out there buying large errors and omissions insurance policies for every script or project we make freely available. Also, we might want to limit the abuse of our marks. For example, Linus Torvalds monitors the use of the Linux mark through the Linux Mark Institute. Apparently some William Dell Croce Jr tried to register the Linux trademark in 1995 and Torvalds had to sue to get it back. He provides use of the mark using a free and perpetual global sublicense. Given that his wife won the Finnish karate championship six times I wouldn’t be messing with his trademarks.

Thank you to all the creators out there. Thank you for your contributions. And thank you for tuning in to this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. Have a great day.


Perl, Larry Wall, and Camels

     11/21/2021

Perl was started by Larry Wall in 1987. Unisys had just released the 2200 series and only a few years stopped using the name UNIVAC for any of their mainframes. They merged with Burroughs the year before to form Unisys. The 2200 was a continuation of the 36-bit UNIVAC 1107, which went all the way back to 1962. Wall was one of the 100,000 employees that helped bring in over 10 and a half billion in revenues, making Unisys the second largest computing company in the world at the time.

They merged just in time for the mainframe market to start contracting.

Wall had grown up in LA and Washington and went to grad school at the University of California at Berkeley. He went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory after Grad School and then landed at System Development Corporation, which had spun out of the SAGE missile air defense system in 1955 and merged into Burroughs in 1986, becoming Unisys Defense Systems.

The Cold War had been good to Burroughs after SDC built the timesharing components of the AN/FSQ-32 and the JOVIAL programming language. But changes were coming. Unix System V had been released in 1983 and by 1986 there was a rivalry with BSD, which had been spun out of UC - Berkeley where Wall went to school. And by then AT&T had built up the Unix System Development Laboratory, so Unix was no longer just a language for academics.

Wall had some complicated text manipulation to program on these new Unix system and as many of us have run into, when we exceed a certain amount of code, awk becomes unwieldy - both from a sheer amount of impossible to read code and from a runtime perspective. Others were running into the same thing and so he got started on a new language he named Practical Extraction And Report Language, or Perl for short. Or maybe it stands for Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister. Only Wall could know.

The rise of personal computers gave way to the rise of newsgroups, and NNTP went to the IETF to become an Internet Draft in RFC 977. People were posting tools to this new medium and Wall posted his little Perl project to comp.sources.unix in 1988, quickly iterating to Perl 2 where he added the languages form of regular expressions. This is when Perl became one of the best programming languages for text processing and regular expressions available at the time.

Another quick iteration came when more and more people were trying to write arbitrary data into objects with the rise of byte-oriented binary streams. This allowed us to not only read data from text streams, terminated by newline characters, but to read and write with any old characters we wanted to. And so the era of socket-based client-server technologies was upon us. And yet, Perl would become even more influential in the next wave of technology as it matured alongside the web.

In the meantime, adoption was increasing and the only real resource to learn Perl was a the manual, or man, page. So Wall worked with Randal Schwartz to write Programming Perl for O’Reilly press in 1991. O’Reilly has always put animals on the front of their books and this one came with a Camel on it. And so it became known as “the pink camel” due to the fact that the art was pink and later the art was blue and so became just “the Camel book”. The book became the primary reference for Perl programmers and by then the web was on the rise. Yet perl was still more of a programming language for text manipulation. And yet most of what we did as programmers at the time was text manipulation.

Linux came around in 1991 as well. Those working on these projects probably had no clue what kind of storm was coming with the web, written in 1990, Linux, written in 1991, php in 1994, and mysql written in 1995. It was an era of new languages to support new ways of programming. But this is about Perl - whose fate is somewhat intertwined.

Perl 4 came in 1993. It was modular, so you could pull in external libraries of code. And so CPAN came along that year as well. It’s a repository of modules written in Perl and then dropped into a location on a file system that was set at the time perl was compiled, like /usr/lib/perl5. CPAN covers far more libraries than just perl, but there are now over a quarter million packages available, with mirrors on every continent except Antartica.

That second edition coincided with the release of Perl 5 and was published in 1996. The changes to the language had slowed down for a bit, but Perl 5 saw the addition of packages, objects, references, and the authors added Tom Christiansen to help with the ever-growing camel book. Perl 5 also brought the extension system we think of today - somewhat based off the module system in Linux. That meant we could load the base perl into memory and call those extensions.

Meanwhile, the web had been on the rise and one aspect of the power of the web was that while there were front-ends that were stateless, cookies had come along to maintain a user state. Given the variety of systems html was able to talk to mod_perl came along in 1996, from Gisle Was and others started working on ways to embed perl into pages.

Ken Coar chaired a working group in 1997 to formalize the concept of the Common Gateway Interface. Here, we’d have a common way to call external programs from web servers. The era of web interactivity was upon us. Pages that were constructed on the fly could call scripts. And much of what was being done was text manipulation.

One of the powerful aspects of Perl was that you didn’t have to compile. It was interpreted and yet dynamic. This meant a source control system could push changes to a site without uploading a new jar - as had to be done with a language like Java. And yet, object-oriented programming is weird in perl. We bless an object and then invoke them with arrow syntax, which is how Perl locates subroutines. That got fixed in Perl 6, but maybe 20 years too late to use a dot notation as is the case in Java and Python.

Perl 5.6 was released in 2000 and the team rewrote the camel book from the ground up in the 3rd edition, adding Jon Orwant to the team. This is also when they began the design process for Perl 6. By then the web was huge and those mod_perl servlets or CGI scripts were, along with PHP and other ways of developing interactive sites, becoming common. And because of CGI, we didn’t have to give the web server daemons access to too many local resources and could swap languages in and out. There are more modern ways now, but nearly every site needed CGI enabled back then.

Perl wasn’t just used in web programming. I’ve piped a lot of shell scripts out to perl over the years and used perl to do complicated regular expressions. Linux, Mac OS X, and other variants that followed Unix System V supported using perl in scripting and as an interpreter for stand-alone scripts. But I do that less and less these days as well.

The rapid rise of the web mean that a lot of languages slowed in their development. There was too much going on, too much code being developed, too few developers to work on the open source or open standards for a project like Perl. Or is it that Python came along and represented a different approach with modules in python created to do much of what Perl had done before?

Perl saw small slow changes. Python moved much more quickly. More modules came faster, and object-oriented programming techniques hadn’t been retrofitted into the language. As the 2010s came to a close, machine learning was on the rise and many more modules were being developed for Python than for Perl.

Either way, the fourth edition of the Camel Book came in 2012, when Unicode and multi-threading was added to Perl. Now with Brian Foy as a co-author. And yet, Perl 6 sat in a “it’s coming so soon” or “it’s right around the corner” or “it’s imminent” for over a decade.

Then 2019 saw Perl 6 finally released. It was renamed to Raku - given how big a change was involved. They’d opened up requests for comments all the way back in 2000. The aim was to remove what they considered historical warts, that the rest of us might call technical debt. Rather than a camel, they gave it a mascot called Camelia, the Raku Bug.

Thing is, Perl had a solid 10% market share for languages around 20 years ago. It was a niche langue maybe, but that popularity has slowly fizzled out and appears to be on a short resurgence with the introduction of 6 - but one that might just be temporary.

One aspect I’ve always loved about programming is the second we’re done with anything, we think of it as technical debt. Maybe the language or server matures. Maybe the business logic matures. Maybe it’s just our own skills. This means we’re always rebuilding little pieces of our code - constantly refining as we go. If we’re looking at Perl 6 today we have to look at whether we want to try and do something in Python 3 or another language - or try and just update Perl. If Perl isn’t being used in very many micro-services then given the compliance requirements to use each tool in our stack, it becomes somewhat costly to think of improving our craft with Perl rather than looking to use possibly more expensive solutions at runtime, but less expensive to maintain.

I hope Perl 6 grows and thrives and is everything we wanted it to be back in the early 2000s. It helped so much in an era and we owe the team that built it and all those modules so much. I’ll certainly be watching adoption with fingers crossed that it doesn’t fade away. Especially since I still have a few perl-based lamda functions out there that I’d have to rewrite. And I’d like to keep using Perl for them!


The Von Neumann Architecture

     11/12/2021

John Von Neumann was born in Hungary at the tail end of the Astro-Hungarian Empire. The family was made a part of the nobility and as a young prodigy in Budapest, He learned languages and by 8 years old was doing calculus. By 17 he was writing papers on polynomials. He wrote his dissertation in 1925 he added to set theory with the axiom of foundation and the notion of class, or properties shared by members of a set. He worked on the minimax theorem in 1928, the proof of which established zero-sum games and started another discipline within math, game theory. By 1929 he published the axiom system that led to Von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory.

And by 1932 he’d developed foundational work on ergodic theory which would evolve into a branch of math that looks at the states of dynamical systems, where functions can describe a points time dependence in space. And so he of course penned a book on quantum mechanics the same year.

Did we mention he was smart and given the way his brain worked it made sense that he would eventually gravitate into computing. He went to the best schools with other brilliant scholars who would go on to be called the Martians. They were all researching new areas that required more and more computing - then still done by hand or a combination of hand and mechanical calculators.

The Martians included De Hevesy, who won a Nobel prize for Chemistry. Von Kármán got the National Medal of Science and a Franklin Award. Polanyl developed the theory of knowledge and the philosophy of science. Paul Erdős was a brilliant mathematician who published over 1,500 articles. Edward Teller is known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, working on nuclear energy throughout his life and lobbying for the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars.

Dennis Gabor wrote Inventing the Future and won a Nobel Prize in Physics. Eugene Wigner also took home a Nobel Prize in Physics and a National Medal of Science. Leo Szilard took home an Albert Einstein award for his work on nuclear chain reactions and joined in the Manhattan Project as a patent holder for a nuclear reactor. Physicists and brilliant scientists. And here’s a key component to the explosion in science following World War II: many of them fled to the United States and other western powers because they were Jewish, to get away from the Nazis, or to avoid communists controlling science.

And then there was Harsanyl, Halmos, Goldmark, Franz Alexander, Orowan, and John Kemeny who gave us BASIC. They all contributed to the world we live in today - but von Neumann sometimes hid how smart he was, preferring to not show just how much arithmetic computed through his head.

He was married twice and loved fast cars, fine food, bad jokes, and was an engaging and enigmatic figure. He studied measure theory and broke dimension theory into algebraic operators. He studied topological groups, operator algebra, spectral theory, functional analysis and abstract Hilbert space. Geometry and Lattice theory. As with other great thinkers, some of his work has stood the test of time and some has had gaps filled with other theories. And then came the Manhattan project. Here, he helped develop explosive lenses - a key component to the nuclear bomb.

Along the way he worked on economics and fluid mechanics. And of course, he theorized and worked out the engineering principals for really big explosions. He was a commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission and at the height of the Cold War after working out game theory, developed the concept of mutually assured destruction - giving the world hydrogen bombs and ICBMs and reducing the missile gap. Hard to imagine but at the times the Soviets actually had a technical lead over the US, which was proven true when they launched Sputnik. As with the other Martians, he fought Communism and Fasciscm until his death - which won him a Medal of Freedom from then president Eisenhower.

His friend Stanislaw Ulam developed the modern Markov Chain Monte Carlo method and Von Neumann got involved in computing to work out those calculations. This combined with where his research lay landed him as an early power user of ENIAC. He actually heard about the machine at a station while waiting for a train. He’d just gotten home from England and while we will never know if he knew of the work Turing was doing on Colossus at Bletchley Park, we do know that he offered Turing a job at the Institute for Advanced Study that he was running in Princeton before World War II and had read Turing’s papers, including “On Computable Numbers” and understood the basic concepts of stored programs - and breaking down the logic into zeros and ones.

He discussed using ENIAC to compute over 333 calculations per second. He could do a lot in his head, but he wasn’t that good of a computer. His input was taken and when Eckert and Mauchly went from ENIAC to EDVAC, or the Electronic Discrete Variable Calculator, the findings were published in a paper called “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” - a foundational paper in computing for a number of reasons.

One is that Mauchly and Eckert had an entrepreneurial spirit and felt that not only should their names have been on the paper but that it was probably premature and so they quickly filed a patent in 1945, even though some of what they told him that went into the paper helped to invalidate the patent later. They considered these trade secrets and didn’t share in von Neumann’s idea that information must be set free.

In the paper lies an important contribution, Von Neumann broke down the parts of a modern computer. He set the information for how these would work free. He broke down the logical blocks of how a computer works into the modern era. How once we strip away the electromechanical computers that a fully digital machine works. Inputs go into a Central Processing Unit, which has an instruction register, a clock to keep operations and data flow in sync, and a counter - it does the math. It then uses quick-access memory, which we’d call Random Access Memory, or RAM today, to make processing data instructions faster. And it would use long-term memory for operations that didn’t need to be as highly available to the CPU. This should sound like a pretty familiar way to architect devices at this point.

The result would be sent to an output device. Think of a modern Swift app for an iPhone - the whole of what the computer did could be moved into a single wafer once humanity worked out how first transistors and then multiple transistors on a single chip worked.

Yet another outcome of the paper was to inspire Turing and others to work on computers after the war. Turing named his ACE or Automatic Computing Engine out of respect to Charles Babbage. That led to the addition of storage to computers. After all, punched tape was used for Colossus during the war and and punched cards and tape had been around for awhile. It’s ironic that we think of memory as ephemeral data storage and storage as more long-term storage. But that’s likely more to do with the order these scientific papers came out than anything - and homage to the impact each had.

He’d write The Computer and the Brain, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, Continuous Geometry, and other books. He also studied DNA and cognition and weather systems, inferring we could predict the results of climate change and possibly even turn back global warming - which by 1950 when he was working on it was already acknowledged by scientists. As with many of the early researchers in nuclear physics, he died of cancer - invoking Pascal’s wager on his deathbed. He died in 1957 - just a few years too early to get a Nobel Prize in one of any number of fields.

One of my favorite aspects of Von Neumann was that he was a lifelong lover of history. He was a hacker - bouncing around between subjects. And he believed in human freedom. So much so that this wealthy and charismatic pseudo-aristocrat would dedicate his life to the study of knowledge and public service. So thank you for the Von Neumann Architecture and breaking computing down into ways that it couldn’t be wholesale patented too early to gain wide adoption. And thank you for helping keep the mutually assured destruction from happening and for inspiring generations of scientists in so many fields. I’m stoked to be alive and not some pile of nuclear dust. And to be gainfully employed in computing. He had a considerable impact in both.


Getting Fit With Fitbit

     11/5/2021

Fitbit was founded in 2007, originally as Healthy Metrics Research, Inc, by James Park and Eric Friedman. They had a goal to bring fitness trackers to market. They didn’t invent the pedometer and in fact wanted to go far further. That prize goes to Abraham-Louis Perrelet of Switzerland in 1780 or possibly back to da Vinci. And there are stories of calculating the distance armies moved using various mechanisms that used automations based on steps or the spinning of wagon wheels.

The era of wearables arguably began in 1953 when the transistor radio showed up and Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka started Sony. People started to get accustomed to carrying around technology. 1961 and Claude Shannon and Edward Thorp build a small computer to time when balls would land in roulette. Which they put in a shoe. Meanwhile sensors that could detect motion and the other chips to essentially create a small computer in a watch-sized package were coming down in price.

Apple had already released the Nike+iPod Sports Kit the year before, with a little sensor that went in my running shoes. And Fitbit capitalized on an exploding market for tracking fitness. Apple effectively proved the concept was ready for higher end customers. But remember that while the iPod was incredibly popular at the time, what about everyone else?

Park and Friedman raised $400,000 on the idea in a pre-seed round and built a prototype. No, it wasn’t actually a wearable, it was a bunch of sensors in a wooden box. That enabled them to shop around for more investors to actually finish a marketable device. By 2008 they were ready to take the idea to TechCrunch 50 and Tim O’Reilly and other panelists from TechCrunch loved it. And they picked up a whopping 2,000 pre-release orders.

Only problem is they weren’t exactly ready to take that kind of volume. So they toured suppliers around Asia for months and worked overtime in hotel rooms fixing design and architecture issues. And in 2009 they were finally ready and took 25,000 orders, shipping about one fifth of them.

That device was called the Fitbit Tracker and took on a goal of 10,000 steps that became a popular goal in Japan in the 1960s. It’s a little money-clip sized device with just one button that shows the status towards that 10,000 step goal. And once synchronized we could not only see tons of information about how many calories we burned and other statistics but we could also see

Those first orders were sold directly through the web site. The next batch would be much different, going through Best Buy. The margins selling directly were much better and so they needed to tune those production lines. They went to four stores, then ten times that, then 15 times that.

They announced the Fitbit Ultra in 2011. Here we got a screen that showed a clock but also came with a stopwatch. That would evolve into the Fitbit One in 2012. Bluetooth now allowed us to sync with our phones. That original device would over time evolve to the Zip and then the Inspire Clip.

They grew fast in those first few years and enjoyed a large swathe of the market initially, but any time one vendor proves a market others are quick to fast-follow. The Nike Fuelband came along in 2012. There were also dozens of cheap $15 knock-offs in stores like Fry’s. But those didn’t have nearly as awesome an experience.

A simple experience was the Fitbit Flex, released in 2013. The Fitbit could now be worn on the wrist. It looked more like the original tracker but a little smaller so it could slide in and out of a wristband. It could vibrate so could wake us up and remind us to get up and move. And the Fitbit Force came out that year, which could scroll through information on the screen, like our current step count. But that got some bad press for the nickel used on the device so the Charge came out the next year, doing much of the same stuff. And here we see the price slowly going up from below a hundred dollars to $130 as new models with better accelerometers came along.

In 2014 they released a mobile app for all the major mobile platforms that allowed us to track devices through Bluetooth and opened up a ton of options to show other people our information. Chuck Schumer was concerned about privacy but the options for fitness tracking were about to explode in the other direction, becoming even less private. That’s the same year the LG G Watch came out, sporting a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip. The ocean was getting redder and devices were becoming more like miniature computers that happened to do tracking as well. After Android Wear was released in 2014, now called Wear OS, the ocean was bound to get much, much redder.

And yet, they continued to grow and thrive. They did an IPO, or Initial Public Offering, in 2015 on the back of selling over 21 million devices. They were ready to reach a larger market. Devices were now in stores like Walmart and Target, and they had badges. It was an era of gamification and they were one of the best in the market at that. Walk enough steps to have circumnavigated the sun? There’s a badge for that. Walk the distance of the Nile? There’s a badge for that. Do a round trip to the moon and back? Yup, there’s a badge for that as well.

And we could add friends in the app. Now we could compete to see who got more steps on the day. And of course some people cheated. Once I was wearing a Fitbit on my wrist I got 60,000 steps one day as I painted the kitchen. So we sometimes didn’t even mean to cheat. And an ecosystem had sprung up around Fitbit. Like Fitstar, a personal training coach, which got acquired by Fitbit and rebranded as Fitbit Coach.

2015 was also when the Apple Watch was released. The Apple Watch added many of the same features like badges and similar statistics. By then there were models of the Fitbit that could show who was calling our phone or display a text message we got. And that was certainly part of the Wear OS for of Android. But those other devices were more expensive and Fitbit was still able to own the less expensive part of the market and spend on R&D to still compete at the higher end.

They were flush with cash by 2016 so while selling 22 million more devices, they bought Coin and Pebble that year, taking in technology developed through crowdfunding sources and helping mass market it. That’s the same year we got the Fitbit Alta, effectively merging the Charge and Alta and we got HR models of some devices, which stands for Heart Rate. Yup, they could now track that too.

They bought Vector Watch SRL in 2017, the same year they released the Ionic smartwatch, based somewhat on the technology acquired from Pebble. But the stock took a nosedive, and the market capitalization was cut in half. They added weather to the Ionic and merged that tech with that from the Blaze, released the year before. Here, we see technology changing quickly - Pebble was merged with Blaze but Wear OS from Google and Watch OS from Apple were forcing changes all the faster. The apps on other platforms were a clear gap as were the sensors baked into so many different integrated circuit packages.

But Fitbit could still compete. In 2018 they released a cheaper version of the smartwatch called the Versa. They also released an API that allowed for a considerable amount of third party development, as well as Fitbit OS 3. They also bought Twine Health in 2018

Partnered with Adidas in 2018 for the ionic. Partnered with Blue Cross Blue Shield to reduce insurance rates

2018 released the Charge 3 with oxygen saturation sensors and a 40% larger screen than the Charge 2. From there the products got even more difficult to keep track of, as they poked at every different corner of the market. The Inspire, Inspire HR, Versa 2, Versa Lite, Charge 4, Versa 3, Sense, Inspire 2, Luxe. I wasn’t sure if they were going to figure out the killer device or not when Fitbit was acquired by Google in 2021.

And that’s where their story ends and the story of the ubiquitous ecosystem of Google begins. Maybe they continue with their own kernels or maybe they’re moving all of their devices to WearOS. Maybe Google figures out how to pull together all of their home automation and personal tracking devices into one compelling offer. Now they get to compete with Amazon who now has the Halo to help attack the bottom of the market. Or maybe Google leaves the Fitbit team alone to do what they do.

Fitbit has sold over 100 million devices and sports well over 25 million active users. The Apple Watch surpassed that number and blew right past it. WearOS lives in a much more distributed environment where companies like Asus, Samsung, and LG sell products but it appears to have a similar installation base. And it’s a market still growing and likely looking for a leader, as it’s easy to imagine a day when most people have a smart watch.

But the world has certainly changed since Mark Weiser was the Chief Technologist at the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or Xerox Parc in 1988 when he coined the term "ubiquitous computing.” Technology hadn’t entered every aspect of our lives at the time like it has now.

The team at Fitbit didn’t invent wearables. George Atwood invented them in 1783. That was mostly pulleys and mechanics. Per V. Brüel first commercialized the piezoelectric accelerometer in 1943. It certainly took a long time to get packaged into an integrated circuit and from there it took plenty of time to end up on my belt loop. But from there it took less than a few years to go on my wrist and then once there were apps for all the things true innovation came way faster. Because it turns out that once we open up a bunch of APIs, we have no idea the amazing things people use with what then go from devices to platforms. But none of that would have happened had Fitbit not helped prove the market was ready for Weiser’s ubiquitous computing.

And now we get to wrestle with the fallout while innovation is moving even faster. Because telemetry is the opposite of privacy. And if we forget to protect just one of those API endpoints, like not implementing rate throttling or messing up the permissions, or leaving a micro-service open to all the things, we can certainly end up telling the world all about things. Because the world is watching, whether we think we’re important enough to watch or not.


Our Friend, The Commodore Amiga

     10/28/2021

Jay Miner was born in 1932 in Arizona. He got his Bachelor of Science at the University of California at Berkeley and helped design calculators that used the fancy new MOS chips where he cut his teeth doing microprocessor design, which put him working on the MOS 6500 series chips.

Atari decided to use those in the VCS gaming console and so he ended up going to work for Atari. Things were fine under Bushnell but once he was off to do Chuck E Cheese and Time-Warner was running Atari things started to change. There he worked on chip designs that would go into the Atari 400 and 800 computers, which were finally released in 1979. But by then, Miner was gone after he couldn’t get in step with the direction Atari was taking. So he floated around for a hot minute doing chip design for other companies until Larry Kaplan called.

Kaplan had been at Atari and founded Activision in 1979. He had half a dozen games under his belt by then, but was ready for something different by 1982. He and Doug Neubauer saw the Nintendo NES was still using the MOS 6502 core, although now a Ricoh 2A03. They knew they could do better. Miner’s company didn’t want in on it, so they struck out on their own.

Together they started a company called Hi-Toro, which they quickly renamed to Amiga. They originally wanted to build a new game console based on the Motorola 68000 chips, which were falling in price. They’d seen what Apple could do with the MOS 6502 chips and what Tandy did with the Z-80. These new chips were faster and had more options. Everyone knew Apple was working on the Lisa using the chips and they were slowly coming down in price.

They pulled in $6 million in funding and started to build a game console, codenamed Lorraine. But to get cash flow, they worked on joysticks and various input devices for other gaming platforms. But development was expensive and they were burning through cash. So they went to Atari and signed a contract to give them exclusive access to the chips they were creating. And of course, then came the video game crash of 1983. Amazing timing.

That created a shakeup around the industry. Jack Tramiel was out at Commodore, the company he founded originally to create calculators at the dawn of MOS chip technology. And Tramiel bought Atari from Time Warner. The console they were supposed to give Atari wasn’t done yet. Meanwhile Tramiel had cut most of the Atari team and was bringing in his trusted people from Commodore, so seeing they’d have to contend with a titan like Tramiel, the team at Amiga went looking for investors. That’s when Commodore bought Amiga to become their new technical team and next thing you know, Tramiel sues Commodore and that drags on from 1983 to 1987.

Meanwhile, the nerds worked away. And by CES of 1984 they were able to show off the power of the graphics with a complex animation of a ball spinning and bouncing and shadows rendered on the ball. Even if the OS wasn’t quite done yet, there was a buzz. By 1985, they announced The Amiga from Commodore - what we now know as the Amiga 1000. The computer was prone to crash, they had very little marketing behind them, but they were getting sales into the high thousands per month.

Not only was Amiga competing with the rest of the computer industry, but they were competing with the PET and VIC-20, which Commodore was still selling. So they finally killed off those lines and created a strategy where they would produce a high end machine and a low end machine. These would become the Amiga 2000 and 500. Then the Amiga 3000 and 500 Plus, and finally the 4000 and 1200 lines. The original chips evolved into the ECS then AGA chipsets but after selling nearly 5,000,000 machines, they just couldn’t keep up with missteps from Commodore after Irving Gould outside yet another CEO.

But those Amiga machines. They were powerful and some of the first machines that could truly crunch the graphics and audio. And those higher end markets responded with tooling built specifically for the Amiga. Artists like Andy Warhol flocked to the platform. We got LightWave used on shows like Max Headroom. I can still remember that Money For Nothing video from Dire Straits. And who could forget Dev. The graphics might not have aged well but they were cutting edge at the time.

When I toured colleges in that era, nearly every art department had a lab of Amigas doing amazing things. And while artists like Calvin Harris might have started out on an Amiga, many slowly moved to the Mac over the ensuing years. Commodore had emerged from a race to the bottom in price and bought themselves a few years in the wake of Jack Tramiel’s exit. But the platform wars were raging with Microsoft DOS and then Windows rising out of the ashes of the IBM PC and IBM-compatible clone makers were standardizing. Yet Amiga stuck with the Motorola chips, even as Apple was first in line to buy them from the assembly line.

Amiga had designed many of their own chips and couldn’t compete with the clone makers at the lower end of the market or the Mac at the higher end. Nor the specialty systems running variants of Unix that were also on the rise. And while the platform had promised to sell a lot of games, the sales were a fourth or less of the other platforms and so game makers slowly stopped porting to the Amiga.

They even tried to build early set-top machines, with the CDTV model, which they thought would help them merge the coming set-top television control and the game market using CD-based games. They saw MPEG coming but just couldn’t cash in on the market. We were entering into an era of computing where it was becoming clear that the platform that could attract the most software titles would be the most popular, despite the great chipsets.

The operating system had started slow. Amiga had a preemptive multitasking kernel and the first version looked like a DOS windowing screen when it showed up iii 1985. Unlike the Mac or Windows 1 it had a blue background with oranges interspersed. It wasn’t awesome but it did the trick for a bit. But Workbench 2 was released for the Amiga 3000. They didn’t have a lot of APIs so developers were often having to write their own tools where other operating systems gave them APIs. It was far more object-oriented than many of its competitors at the time though, and even gave support for multiple languages and hypertext schemes and browsers. Workbench 3 came in 1992, along with the A4000. There were some spiffy updates but by then there were less and less people working on the project. And the tech debt piled up. Like a lack of memory protection in the Exec kernel meant any old task could crash the operating system.

By then, Miner was long gone. He again clashed with management at the company he founded, which had been purchased. Without the technical geniuses around, as happens with many companies when the founders move on, they seemed almost listless. They famously only built features people asked for. Unlike Apple, who guided the industry. Miner passed away in 1994.

Less than two years later, Commodore went bankrupt in 1996. The Amiga brand was bought and sold to a number of organizations but nothing more ever became of them. Having defeated Amiga, the Tramiel family sold off Atari in 1996 as well. The age of game consoles by American firms would be over until Microsoft released the Xbox in 2001. IBM had pivoted out of computers and the web, which had been created in 1989 was on the way in full force by then. The era of hacking computers together was officially over.


All About Amdahl

     10/24/2021

Gene Amdahl grew up in South Dakota and as with many during the early days of computing went into the Navy during World War II. He got his degree from South Dakota State in 1948 and went on to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for his PhD, where he got the bug for computers in 1952, joining the ranks of IBM that year.

At IBM he worked on the iconic 704 and then the 7030 but found it too bureaucratic. And yet he came back to become the Chief Architect of the IBM S/360 project. They pushed the boundaries of what was possible with transistorized computing and along the way, Amdahl gave us Amdahl’s Law, which is an important aspect of parallel computing - how much latency tasks take when split across different CPUs. Think of it like the law of diminishing returns applied to processing. Contrast this with Fred Brook’s Brook’s Law - which says that adding incremental engineers don’t make projects happen faster by the same increment, or that it can cause a project to take even more time.

As with Seymour Cray, Amdahl had ideas for supercomputers and left IBM again in 1970 when they didn’t want to pursue them - ironically just a few years after Thomas Watson Jr admitted that just 34 people at CDC had kicked IBM out of their leadership position in the market.

First he needed to be able to build a computer, then move into supercomputers. Fully transistorized computing had somewhat cleared the playing field. So he developed the Amdahl 470V/6 - more reliable, more pluggable, and so cheaper than the IBM S/370. He also used virtual machine technology so customers could simulate a 370 and so run existing workloads cheaper. The first went to NASA and the second to the University of Michigan. During the rise of transistorized computing they just kept selling more and more machines.

The company grew fast, taking nearly a quart of the market share. As we saw in the CDC episode, the IBM antitrust case was again giving a boon to other companies. Amdahl was able to leverage the fact that IBM software was getting unbundled with the hardware as a big growth hack. As with Cray at the time, Amdahl wanted to keep to one CPU per workload and developed chips and electronics with Fujitsu to enable doing so.

By the end of the 70s they had grown to 6,000 employees on the back of a billion dollars in sales. And having built a bureaucratic organization like the one he just left, he left his namesake company much as Seymour Cray had left CDC after helping build it (and would later leave Cray to start yet another Cray). That would be Trilogy systems, which failed shortly after an IPO. I guess we can’t always bet on the name. Then Andor International. Then Commercial Data Servers, now a part of Xbridge systems.

Meanwhile the 1980s weren’t kind to the company with his name on the masthead. The rise of Unix and first minicomputers then standard servers meant people were building all kinds of new devices. Amdahl started selling servers, given the new smaller and pluggable form factors. They sold storage. They sold software to make software, like IDEs. The rapid proliferation of networking and open standards let them sell networking products.

Fujitsu ended up growing faster and when Gene Amdahl was gone, in the face of mounting competition with IBM, Amdahl tried to merge with Storage Technology Corporation, or StorageTek as it might be considered today. CDC had pushed some of its technology to StorageTek during their demise and StorageTek in the face of this new competition ended up filing Chapter 11 and getting picked up by Sun for just over $4 billion.

But Amdahl was hemorrhaging money as we moved into the 90s. They sold off half the shares to Fujitsu, laid off over a third of their now 10,000 plus workforce, and by the year 2000 had been lapped by IBM on the high end market. They sold off their software division, and Fujitsu acquired the rest of the shares. Many of the customers then moved to the then-new IBM Z series servers that were coming out with 64 bit G3 and G4 chips. As opposed to the 31-bit chips Amdahl, now Fujitsu under the GlobalServer mainframe brand, sells.

Amdahl came out of the blue, or Big Blue. On the back of Gene Amdahl’s name and a good strategy to attack that S/360 market, they took 8% of the mainframe market from IBM at one point. But they sold to big customers and eventually disappeared as the market shifted to smaller machines and a more standardized lineup of chips. They were able to last for awhile on the revenues they’d put together but ultimately without someone at the top with a vision for the future of the industry, they just couldn’t make it as a standalone company.

The High Performance Computing server revenues steadily continue to rise at Fujitsu though - hitting $1.3 billion in 2020. In fact, in a sign of the times, the 20 million Euro PRIMEHPC FX700 that’s going to the Minho Advanced Computing Centre in Portugal is a petascale computer built on an ARM plus x86 architecture. My how the times have changed. But as components get smaller, more precise, faster, and more mass producible we see the same types of issues with companies being too large to pivot quickly from the PC to the post-PC era. Although at this point, it’s doubtful they’ll have a generations worth of runway from a patron like Fujitsu to be able to continue in business. Or maybe a patron who sees the benefits downmarket from the new technology that emerges from projects like this and takes on what amounts to nation-building to pivot a company like that. Only time will tell.


The Dartmouth Time Sharing System and Time Sharing

     10/14/2021

DTSS, or The Dartmouth Time Sharing System, began at Dartmouth College in 1963. That was the same year Project MAC started at MIT, which is where we got Multics, which inspired Unix. Both contributed in their own way to the rise of the Time Sharing movement, an era in computing when people logged into computers over teletype devices and ran computing tasks - treating the large mainframes of the era like a utility.

The notion had been kicking around in 1959 but then John McCarthy at MIT started a project on an IBM 704 mainframe. And PLATO was doing something similar over at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. 1959 is also when John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz at Dartmouth College bought Librascope General Purpose computer, then being made in partnership with the Royal Typewriter Company and Librascope - whichwould later be sold off to Lockheed Martin.

Librascope had Stan Frankel - who had worked on both the Manhattan Project and the ENIAC. And he architected the LGP-30 in 1956, which ended up at Dartmouth. At this point, the computer looked like a desk with a built-in typewriter.

Kurtz had four students that were trying to program in ALGOL 58. And they ended up writing a language called DOPE in the early 60s. But they wanted everyone on campus to have access to computing - and John McCarthy said why not try this new time sharing concept. So they went to the National Science Foundation and got funding for a new computer, which to the chagrin of the local IBM salesman, ended up being a GE-225.

This baby was transistorized. It sported 10,0000 transistors and double that number of diodes. It could do floating-point arithmetic, used a 20-bit word, and came with 186,000 magnetic cores for memory. It was so space aged that one of the developers, Arnold Spielberg, would father one of the greatest film directors of all time. Likely straight out of those diodes.

Dartmouth also picked up a front-end processor called a DATANET-30 from GE. This only had an 18-bit word size but could do 4k to 16k words and supported hooking up 128 terminals that could transfer data to and from the system at 3,000 bits a second using the Bell 103 modem. Security wasn’t a thing yet, so these things had direct memory access to the 225, which was a 235 by the time they received the computer.

They got to work in 1963, installing the equipment and writing the code. The DATANET-30 received commands from the terminals and routed them to the mainframe. They scanned for commands 110 times per second from the terminals and ran them when the return key was pressed on a terminal. If the return key was a command they queued it up to run, taking into account routine tasks the computer might be doing in the background.

Keep in mind, the actual CPU was only doing one task at a time, but it seemed like it was multi-tasking! Another aspect of democratizing computing across campus was to write a language that was more approachable than a language like Algol. And so they released BASIC in 1964, picking up where DOPE left off, and picking up a more marketable name.

Here we saw a dozen undergraduates develop a language that was as approachable as the name implies. Some of the students went to Phoenix, where the GE computers were built. And the powers at GE saw the future.

After seeing what Dartmouth had done, GE ended up packaging the DATANET-30 and GE-235 as one machine, which they marketed as the GE-265 the next year. And here we got the first commercially viable time-sharing system, which started a movement. One so successful that GE decided to get out of making computers and focus instead on selling access to time sharing systems. By 1968 they actually ended up shooting up to 40% of the market of the day.

Dartmouth picked up a GE Mark II in 1966 and got to work on DTSS version 2. Here, they added some of the concepts coming out of the Multics project that was part of Project MAC at MIT and built on previous experiences. They added pipes and communication files to promote inter-process communications - thus getting closer to the multiple user conferencing like what was being done on PLATO with Notes.

Things got more efficient and they could handle more and more concurrent sessions. This is when they went from just wanting to offer computing as a basic right on campus to opening up to schools in the area. Nearby Hanover High School started first and by 1967 they had over a dozen. Using further grants from NSF they added another dozen schools to what by then they were calling the Kiewit Network. Then added other smaller colleges and by 1971 supported a whopping 30,000 users. And by 73 supported leased line connections all the way to Ohio, Michigan, New York, and even Montreal.

The system continued on in one form or another, allowing students to code in FORTRAN, COBOL, LISP, and yes… BASIC. It became less of a thing as Personal Computers started to show up here and there. But BASIC didn’t. Every computer needed a BASIC. But people still liked to connect on the system and share information. At least, until the project was finally shut down in 1999. Turns out we didn’t need time sharing once the Internet came along.

Following the early work done by pioneers, companies like Tymshare and CompuServe were born. Tymshare came out of two of the GE team, Thomas O’Rourke and David Schmidt. They ran on SDS hardware and by 1970 had over 100 people, focused on time sharing with their Tymnet system and spreading into Europe by the mid-70s, selling time on their systems until the cost of personal computing caught up and they were acquired by McDonnell Douglas in 1984.

CompuServe began on a PDP-10 and began similarly but by the time they were acquired by H&R Block had successfully pivoted into a dial-up online services company and over time focused on selling access to the Internet. And they survived through to an era when they migrated their own proprietary tooling to HTML in the late 90s - although they were eventually merged into AOL and are now a part of Verizon media. So the pivot bought them an extra decade or so.

Time sharing and BASIC proliferated across the country and then the world from Dartmouth. Much of this - and a lot of personal stories from the people involved can be found in Dr Joy Rankin’s “A People’s History of Computing in the United States.” Published in 2018, it’s a fantastic read that digs in deep on the ways that many of these systems evolved. There are other works, but she does a phenomenal job tying events into one another.

One consistent point across her book is around societal impact. These pioneers democratized access to computing. Many of those who built businesses around time sharing missed the rapidly falling price of chips and the ready access to personal computers that were coming. They also missed that BASIC would be monetized by companies like Microsoft. But they brought computing to high schools in the area, established blueprints for teaching that are used through to this day, and as Grace Hopper did a generation before - made us think of even more ways to make programming more accessible to a new generation with BASIC.

One other author of note here is John Kemeny. His book “Man and the computer” is a must read. He didn’t have the knowledge of the upcoming personal computing - but far more prophetic than not around cloud operations as we get back to a time sharing-esque model of computing. And we do owe him, Kurtz, and everyone else involved a huge debt for their work. Many others pushed the boundaries of what was possible with computers. They pushed the boundaries of what was possible with accessibility. And now we have ubiquity.

So when we see something complicated. Something that doesn’t seem all that approachable. Maybe we should just wonder if - by some stretch - we can make it a bit more BASIC. Like they did.


eBay, Pez, and Immigration

     10/7/2021

We talk about a lot of immigrants in this podcast. There’s the Hungarian mathemeticians and scientists that helped usher in the nuclear age and were pivotal in the early days of computing. There are the Germans who found a safe haven in the US following World War II. There are a number of Jewish immigrants who fled persecution, like Jack Tramiel - a Holocaust survivor who founded Commodore and later took the helm at Atari. An Wang immigrated from China to attend Harvard and stayed. And the list goes on and on. Georges Doriot, the father of venture capital came to the US from France in 1899, also to go to Harvard.

We could even go back further and look at great thinkers like Nikolai Tesla who emigrated from the former Austrian empire. And then there’s the fact that many Americans, and most of the greats in computer science, are immigrants if we go a generation or four back.

Pierre Omidyar’s parents were Iranian. They moved to Paris so his mom could get a doctorate in linguistics at the famous Sorbonne. While in Paris, his dad became a surgeon, and they had a son. They didn’t move to the US to flee oppression but found opportunity in the new land, with his dad becoming a urologist at Johns Hopkins.

He learned to program in high school and got paid to do it at a whopping 6 bucks an hour. Omidyar would go on to Tufts, where he wrote shareware to manage memory on a Mac. And then the University of California, Berkeley before going to work on the MacDraw team at Apple.

He started a pen-computing company, then a little e-commerce company called eShop, which Microsoft bought. And then he ended up at General Magic in 1994. We did a dedicated episode on them - but supporting developers at a day job let him have a little side hustle building these newish web page things.

In 1995, his girlfriend, who would become his wife, wanted to auction off (and buy) Pez dispensers online. So Omidyar, who’d been experimenting with e-commerce since eShop, built a little auction site. He called it auction web. But that was a little boring. They lived in the Bay Area around San Francisco and so he changed it to electronic Bay, or eBay for short. The first sale was a broken laser printer he had laying around that he originally posted for a dollar and after a week, went for $14.83.

The site was hosted out of his house and when people started using the site, he needed to upgrade the plan. It was gonna’ cost 8 times the original $30. So he started to charge a nominal fee to those running auctions. More people continued to sell things and he had to hire his first employee, Chris Agarpao.

Within just a year they were doing millions of dollars of business. And this is when they hired Jeffrey Skoll to be the president of the company. By the end of 1997 they’d already done 2 million auctions and took $6.7 million in venture capital from Benchmark Capital. More people, more weird stuff. But no guns, drugs, booze, Nazi paraphernalia, or legal documents. And nothing that was against the law.

They were growing fast and by 1998 brought in veteran executive Meg Whitman to be the CEO. She had been a VP of strategy at Disney, then the CEO of FTD, then a GM for Playskool before that. By then, eBay was making $4.7 million a year with 30 employees.

Then came Beanie Babies. And excellent management. They perfected the online auction model, with new vendors coming into their space all the time, but never managing to unseat the giant.

Over the years they made onboarding fast and secure. It took minutes to be able to sell and the sellers are the ones where the money is made with a transaction fee being charged per sale, in addition to a nominal percentage of the transaction. Executives flowed in from Disney, Pepsi, GM, and anywhere they were looking to expand.

Under Whitman’s tenure they weathered the storm of the dot com bubble bursting, grew from 30 to 15,000 employees, took the company to an IPO, bought PayPal, bought StubHub, and scaled the company up to handle over $8 billion in revenue. The IPO made Omidyar a billionaire.

John Donahoe replaced Whitman in 2008 when she decided to make a run at politics, working on Romney and then McCain’s campaigns. She then ran for the governor of California and lost. She came back to the corporate world taking on the CEO position at Hewlett-Packard.

Under Donahoe they bought Skype, then sold it off. They bought part of Craigslist, then tried to develop a competing product. And finally sold off PayPal, which is now a public entity of its own right.

Over the years since, revenues have gone up and down. Sometimes due to selling off companies like they did with PayPal and later with StubHub in 2019. They now sit at nearly $11 billion in revenues, over 13,000 employees, and are a mature business. There are still over 300,000 listings for Beanie Babies. And to the original inspiration over 50,000 listings for the word Pez.

Omidyar has done well, growing his fortune to what Forbes estimated to be just over $13 billion dollars. Much of which he’s pledged to give away during his lifetime, having joined the Bill Gates and Warren Buffet giving pledge. So far, he’s given away well over a billion with a focus in education, governance, and citizen engagement. Oh and this will come as no surprise, helping fund consumer and mobile access to the Internet. Much of this giving is funneled through the Omidyar Network.

The US just evacuated over 65,000 Afghans following the collapse of that government. Many an oppressive government runs off the educated, those who are sometimes capable of the most impactful dissent. Some of the best and most highly skilled of an entire society leaves a vacuum in regions that further causes a collapse. And yet finding a home in societies known for inclusion and opportunity, and being surrounded by inspiring stories of other immigrants who made a home and took advantage of opportunity. Or whose children could. Those melting pots in the history of science are when diversity of human and discipline combine to make society for everyone better. Even in the places they left behind. Anyone who’s been to Hungary or Poland or Germany - places where people once fled - can see it in the street every time people touch a mobile device and are allowed to be whomever they want to be.

Thank you to the immigrants, past and future, for joining us to create a better world. I look forward to welcoming the next wave with open arms.


Ross Perot For President

     9/30/2021

Ross Perot built two powerhouse companies and changed the way politicians communicate with their constituents. Perot was an Eagle Scout who went on to join the US Naval Academy in 1949, and served in the Navy until the late 1950s. He then joined the IBM sales organization and one year ended up meeting his quota in the second week of the year. He had all kinds of ideas for new things to do and sell, but no one was interested.

So he left and formed a new company called Electronic Data Systems, or EDS, in 1962. You see, these IBM mainframes weren’t being used for time sharing so most of the time they were just sitting idle. So he could sell the unused time from one company to another. Perot learned from the best. As with IBM he maintained a strict dress code. Suits, no facial hair, and a high and tight crew cut as you’d find him still sporting years after his Navy days.

And over time they figured out many of these companies didn’t have anyone capable of running these machines in the first place, so they could also step in and become a technology outsourcer, doing maintenance and servicing machines. Not only that, but they were perfectly situated to help process all the data from the new Medicare and Medicaid programs that were just starting up. States had a lot of new paperwork to process and that meant computers.

He hired Morton Meyerson out at Bell Helicopter in 1966, who would become the president and effectively created the outsourcing concept in computing. Meyerson would become the president of EDS before leaving to take a series of executive roles at other organizations, including the CTO at General Motors in the 1980s before retiring.

EDS went public in 1968. He’d taken $1,000 in seed money from his wife Margot to start the company, and his stake was now worth $350 million, which would rise sharply in the ensuing years as the company grew. By the 1970s they were practically printing cash. They were the biggest insurance data provider and added credit unions then financial markets and were perfectly positioned to help build the data networks that ATMs and point of sale systems would use. By the start of 1980 they were sitting on a quarter billion dollars in revenues and 8,000 employees. They continued to expand into new industries with more transactional needs, adding airlines and travel.

He sold in 1984 to General Motors for $2.5 billion and Perot got $700 million personally. Meyerson stayed on to run the company and by 1990 their revenues topped $5 billion and neared 50,000 employees.

Perot just couldn’t be done in business. He was good at it. So in 1988 he started another firm, Perot Systems. The company grew quickly. Perot knew how to sell, how to build sales teams, and how to listen to customers and build services products they wanted. Perot again looked for an effective leader and tapped Meyerson yet again, who became the CEO of Perot Systems from 1992 to 1998. Perot’s son Ross Jr took over the company.

In 2008, EDS and their 170,000 employees was sold to Hewlett-Packard for $13.9 billion and in 2009 Perot Systems was sold to Dell for $3.9 billion. Keep in mind that Morton Meyerson was a mentor to Michael Dell. When they were sold, Perot Systems had 23,000 employees and $2.8 billion in revenues. That’s roughly a 1.4x multiple of revenues, which isn’t as good as the roughly 2x multiple Perot got off EDS - but none too shabby given that by then multiples were down for outsourcers.

Based on his work and that of others, they’d built two companies worth nearly $20 billion - before 2010, employing nearly 200,000 people.

Along the way, Perot had some interesting impacts other than just building so many jobs for so many humans. He passed on an opportunity to invest in this little company called Microsoft. So when Steve Jobs left Apple and looked for investors he jumped on board, pumping $20 million into NeXT Computer, and getting a nice exit when the company went to Apple for nearly half a billion.

Perot was philanthropic. He helped a lot of people coming home from various armed services in his lifetime. He was good to those he loved. He gave $10 million to have his friend Morton Meyerson’s name put on the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Center. And he was interested in no BS politics. Yet politics had been increasingly polarized since Nixon.

So Perot also ran for president of the US in 1992, against George Bush and Bill Clinton. He didn’t win but he flooded the airwaves with common sense arguments about government inefficiency and a declining market for doing business. He showed computer graphics with all the charts and graphs you can imagine. And while he didn’t get even one vote in the electoral college did manage to get 19 percent of the vote. His message was one of populism. Take the country back, stop deficit spending just like he ran his companies, and that persists with various wings of especially the Republican Party to this day. Especially in Perot’s home state of Texas. He didn’t win, but he effectively helped define the Contract with America that that Newt Gingrich and the 90s era of oversized suit jacket Republicans used to as a strategy.

He argued for things to help the common people - not politicians. Ironically, those that took much of his content actually did just the opposite, slowed down the political machine by polarizing the public. And allowed deficit spending to increase on their watch. He ran again in 1996 but this time got far less votes and didn’t end up running for office again.

He had a similar impact on IBM. Around 30 years after leaving the company, his success in services was one of the many inspirations for IBM pivoting into services as well. By then the services industry was big enough for plenty of companies to thrive and while sales could be competitive they all did well as personal computing put devices on desks across the world and those devices needed support.

Perot died in 2019, one of the couple hundred richest people in the US. Navy Lieutenant. Founder. Philanthropist. Texan. Father. Husband. His impact on the technology industry was primarily around seeing waste. Wasted computing time. Wasted staffing where more efficient outsourcing paradigms were possible. He inspired massive shifts in the industry that persist to this day.


The Osborne Effect

     9/26/2021

The Osborne Effect isn’t an episode about Spider-Man that covers turning green or orange and throwing bombs off little hoverboards. Instead it’s about the impact of The Osborne 1 computer on the history of computers. Although many might find discussing the Green Goblin or Hobgoblin much more interesting.

The Osborne 1 has an important place in the history of computing because when it was released in 1981, it was the first portable computer that found commercial success. Before the Osborne, there were portable teletype machines for sure, but computers were just starting to get small enough that a fully functional machine could be taken on an airplane.

It ran 2.2 of the CP/M operating system and came with a pretty substantial bundle of software. Keep in mind, there weren’t internal hard drives in machines like this yet but instead CP/M was a set of floppies. It came with MBASIC from Microsoft, dBASE II from Ashton-Tate, the WordStar word processor, SuperCalc for spreadsheets, the Grammatik grammar checker, the Adventure game, early ledger tools from PeachTree Software, and tons of other software. By bundling so many titles, they created a climate where other vendors did the same thing, like Kaypro. After all, nothing breeds competitors like the commercial success of a given vendor.

The Osborne was before flat panel screens so had a built-in CRT screen. This and the power supply and the heavy case meant it weighed almost 25 pounds and came in at just shy of $1,800. Imagine two disk drives with a 5 inch screen in the middle. The keyboard, complete with a full 10-key pad, was built into a cover that could be pulled off and used to interface with the computer. The whole thing could fit under a seat on an airplane. Airplane seats were quite a bit larger than they are today back then!

We think of this as a luggable rather than a portable because of that and because computers didn’t have batteries yet. Instead it pulled up to 37 watts of power. All that in a 20 inch wide case that stood 9 inches tall.

The two people most commonly associated with the Osborne are Adam Osborne and Lee Felsenstein. Osborne got his PhD from the University of Delaware in 1968 and went to work in chemicals before he moved to the Bay Area and started writing books about computers and started a company called Osborne and Associates to write computer books. He sold that to McGraw-Hill in 1979.

By then he’d been hanging around the Homebrew Computer Club for a few years and there were some pretty wild ideas floating around. He saw Jobs and Wozniak demo the Apple I and watched their rise. Founders and engineers from Cromemco, IMSAI, Tiny BASIC, and Atari were also involved there - mostly before any of those products were built. So with the money from McGraw-Hill and sales of some of his books like An Introduction To Microcomputers, he set about thinking through what he could build.

Lee Felsenstein was another guy from that group who’d gotten his degree in Computer Science at Berkeley before co-creating Community Memory, a project to build an early bulletin board system on top of a SDS 940 timesharing mainframe with links to terminals like a Teletype Model 33 sitting at Leopold’s Records in Berkeley. That had started up back in 1973 when Doug Englebart donated his machine from The Mother of All Demos and eventually moved to minicomputers as those became more available.

Having seen the world go from a mainframe the size of a few refrigerators to minicomputers and then to early microcomputers like the Altair, when a hardware hacker like Felsenstein paired up with someone with a little seed money like Osborne, magic was bound to happen. The design was similar to the NoteTaker that Alan Kay had built at Xerox in the 70s - but hacked together from parts they could find. Like 5 inch Fujitsu floppy drives.

They made 10 prototypes with metal cases and quickly moved to injection molded plastic cases, taking them to the 1981 West Coast Computer Faire and getting a ton of interest immediately. Some thought the screen was a bit too small but at the time the price justified the software alone. By the end of 1981 they’d had months where they did a million dollars in sales and they fired up the assembly line. People bought modems to hook to the RS-232 compatible serial port and printers to hook to the parallel port. Even external displays.

Sales were great. They were selling over 10,000 computers a month and Osborne was lining up more software vendors, offering stock in the Osborne Computer Corporation. By 1983 they were preparing to go public and developing a new line of computers, one of which was the Osborne Executive. That machine would come with more memory, a slightly larger screen, an expansion slot and of course more software using sweetheart licensing deals that accompanied stock in the company to keep the per-unit cost down. He also announced the Vixen - same chipset but lighter and cheaper.

Only issue is this created a problem, which we now call the Osborne Effect. People didn’t want the Osborne 1 any more. Seeing something new was on the way, people cancelled their orders in order to wait for the Executive. Sales disappeared almost overnight. At the time, computer dealers pushed a lot of hardware and the dealers didn’t want to have all that stock of an outdated model. Revenue disappeared and this came at a terrible time.

The market was changing. IBM showed up with a PC, Apple had the Lisa and were starting to talk about the Mac. KayPro had come along as a fierce competitor. Other companies had clued in on the software bundling idea. The Compaq portable wasn’t far away. The company ended up cancelling the IPO and instead filing for bankruptcy. They tried to raise money to build a luggable or portable IBM clone - and if they had done so maybe they’d be what Compaq is today - a part of HP.

The Osborne 1 was cannibalized by the Osborne Executive that never actually shipped. Other companies would learn the same lesson as the Osborne Effect throughout history.

And yet the Osborne opened our minds to this weird idea of having machines we could take with us on airplanes. Even if they were a bit heavy and had pretty small screens. And while the timing of announcements is only one aspect of the downfall of the company, the Osborne Effect is a good reminder to be deliberate about how we talk about future products. Especially for hardware but we also have to be careful not to sell features that don’t exist yet in software.


Chess Throughout The History Of Computers

     9/16/2021

Chess is a game that came out of 7th century India, originally called chaturanga. It evolved over time, perfecting the rules - and spread to the Persians from there. It then followed the Moorish conquerers from Northern Africa to Spain and from there spread through Europe. It also spread from there up into Russia and across the Silk Road to China. It’s had many rule formations over the centuries but few variations since computers learned to play the game. Thus, computers learning chess is a pivotal time in the history of the game.

Part of chess is thinking through every possible move on the board and planning a strategy. Based on the move of each player, we can review the board, compare the moves to known strategies, and base our next move on either blocking the strategy of our opponent or carrying out a strategy of our own to get a king into checkmate.

An important moment in the history of computers is when computers got to the point that they could beat a chess grandmaster. That story goes back to an inspiration from the 1760s where Wolfgang von Kempelen built a machine called The Turk to impress Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. The Turk was a mechanical chess playing robot with a Turkish head in Ottoman robes that moved pieces.

The Turk was a maze of cogs and wheals and moved the pieces during play. It travelled through Europe, beating the great Napoleon Bonaparte and then the young United States, also besting Benjamin Franklin. It had many owners and they all kept the secret of the Turk. Countless thinkers wrote about theories about how it worked, including Edgar Allen Poe. But eventually it was consumed by fire and the last owner told the secret. There had been a person in the box moving the pieces the whole time.

All those moving parts were an illusion. And still in 1868 a knockoff of a knockoff called Ajeeb was built by a cabinet maker named Charles Hooper. Again, people like Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Houdini were bested, along with thousands of onlookers.

Charles Gumpel built another in 1876 - this time going from a person hiding in a box to using a remote control. These machines inspired people to think about what was possible. And one of those people was Leonardo Torres y Quevedo who built a board that also had electomagnets move pieces and light bulbs to let you know when the king was in check or mate. Like all good computer games it also had sound.

He started the project in 1910 and by 1914 it could play a king and rook endgame, or a game where there are two kings and a rook and the party with the rook tries to get the other king into checkmate. At the time even a simplified set of instructions was revolutionary and he showed his invention off at the Paris where notable other thinkers were at a conference, including Norbert Weiner who later described how minimax search could be used to play chess in his book Cybernetics.

Quevedo had built an analytical machine based on Babbage’s works in 1920 but adding electromagnets for memory and would continue building mechanical or analog calculating machines throughout his career. Mikhail Botvinnik was 9 at that point and the Russian revolution wound down in 1923 when the Soviet Union was founded following the fall of the Romanovs. He would become the first Russian Grandmaster in 1950, in the early days of the Cold War. That was the same year Claude Shannon wrote his seminal work, “Programming a Computer for Playing Chess.” The next year Alan Turing actually did publish executable code to play on a Ferranti Mark I but sadly never got to see it complete before his death. The prize to actually play a game would go to Paul Stein and Mark Wells in 1956 working on the MANIAC. Due to the capacity of computers at the time, the board was smaller but the computer beat an actual human.

But the Russians were really into chess in the years that followed the crowing of their first grandmaster. In fact it became a sign of the superior Communist politic. Botvinnik also happened to be interested in electronics, and went to school in Leningrad University's Mathematics Department. He wanted to teach computers to play a full game of chess. He focused on selective searches which never got too far as the Soviet machines of the era weren’t that powerful. Still the BESM managed to ship a working computer that could play a full game in 1957.

Meanwhile John McCarthy at MIT introduced the idea of an alpha-beta search algorithm to minimize the number of nodes to be traversed in a search and he and Alan Kotok shipped A Chess Playing Program for the IBM 7090 Computer, which would be updated by Richard Greenblatt when moving from the IBM mainframes to a DEC PDP-6 in 1965, as a side project for his work on Project MAC while at MIT. Here we see two things happening. One we are building better and better search algorithms to allow for computers to think more moves ahead in smarter ways. The other thing happening was that computers were getting better. Faster certainly, but more space to work with in memory, and with the move to a PDP, truly interactive rather than batch processed.

Mac Hack VI as Greenblatt’s program would eventually would be called, added transposition tables - to show lots of previous games and outcomes. He tuned the algorithms, what we would call machine learning today, and in 1967 became the first computer program to defeat a person at the tournament level and get a chess rating. For his work, Greenblatt would become an honorary member of the US Chess Federation.

By 1970 there were enough computers playing chess to have the North American Computer Chess Championships and colleges around the world started holding competitions. By 1971 Ken Thompson of Bell Labs, in a sign of the times, wrote a computer chess game for Unix. And within just 5 years we got the first chess game for the personal computer, called Microchess. From there computers got incrementally better at playing chess. Computer games that played chess shipped to regular humans, dedicated physical games, little cheep electronics knockoffs. By the 80s regular old computers could evaluate thousands of moves.

Ken Thompson kept at it, developing Belle from 1972 and it continued on to 1983. He and others added move generators, special circuits, dedicated memory for the transposition table, and refined the alpha-beta algorithm started by McCarthy, getting to the point where it could evaluate nearly 200,000 moves a second. He even got the computer to the rank of master but the gains became much more incremental. And then came IBM to the party.

Deep Blue began with researcher Feng-hsiung Hsu, as a project called ChipTest at Carnegie Mellon University. IBM Research asked Hsu and Thomas Anantharamanto complete a project they started to build a computer program that could take out a world champion. He started with Thompson’s Belle. But with IBM’s backing he had all the memory and CPU power he could ask for.

Arthur Hoane and Murray Campell joined and Jerry Brody from IBM led the team to sprint towards taking their device, Deep Thought, to a match where reigning World Champion Gary Kasparov beat the machine in 1989. They went back to work and built Deep Blue, which beat Kasparov in their third attempt in 1997. Deep Blue was comprised of 32 RS/6000s running 200 MHz chips, split across two racks, and running IBM AIX - with a whopping 11.38 gigaflops of speed. And chess can be pretty much unbeatable today on an M1 MacBook Air, which comes pretty darn close to running at a teraflop.

Chess gives us an unobstructed view at the emergence of computing in an almost linear fashion. From the human powered codification of electromechanical foundations of the industry to the emergence of computational thinking with Shannon and cybernetics to MIT on IBM servers when Artificial Intelligence was young to Project MAC with Greenblatt to Bell Labs with a front seat view of Unix to college competitions to racks of IBM servers. It even has little misdirections with pre-World War II research from Konrad Zuse, who wrote chess algorithms. And the mechanical Turk concept even lives on with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk services where we can hire people to do things that are still easier for humans than machines.


Sage: The Semi-Automatic Ground Environment Air Defense

     9/9/2021

The Soviet Union detonated their first nuclear bomb in 1949, releasing 20 kilotons worth of an explosion and sparking the nuclear arms race. A weather reconnaissance mission confirmed that the Soviets did so and Klaus Fuchs was arrested for espionage, after passing blueprints for the Fat Man bomb that had been dropped on Japan. A common name in the podcast is Vannevar Bush. At this point he was the president of the Carnegie Institute and put together a panel to verify the findings.

The Soviets were catching up to American science. Not only did they have a bomb but they also had new aircraft that were capable of dropping a bomb. People built bomb shelters, schools ran drills to teach students how to survive a nuclear blast and within a few years we’d moved on to the hydrogen bomb. And so the world lived in fear of nuclear fall-out.

Radar had come along during World War II and we’d developed Ground Control of Intercept, an early radar network. But that wouldn’t be enough to protect against this new threat. If one of these Soviet bombers, like the Tupolev 16 “Badger” were to come into American airspace, the prevailing thought was that we needed to shoot it down before the payload could be delivered.

The Department of Defense started simulating what a nuclear war would look like. And they asked the Air Force to develop an air defense system. Given the great work done at MIT, much under the careful eye of Vannevar Bush, they reached out to George Valley, a professor in the Physics Department who had studied nuclear weapons. He also sat on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, and toured some of the existing sites and took a survey of the US assets.

He sent his findings and they eventually made their way to General Vandenberg, who assigned General Fairchild to assemble a committee which would become the Valley Committee, or more officially the Air Defense Systems Engineering Committee, or ADSEC.

ADSEC dug in deeper and decided that we needed a large number of radar stations with a computer that could aggregate and then analyze data to detect enemy aircraft in real time. John Harrington had worked out how to convert radar into code and could send that over telephone lines. They just needed a computer that could crunch the data as it was received. And yet none of the computer companies at the time were able to do this kind of real time operation. We were still in a batch processing mainframe world.

Jay Forrester at MIT was working on the idea of real-time computing. Just one problem, the Servomechanisms lab where he was working on Project Whirlwind for the Navy for flight simulation was over budget and while they’d developed plenty of ground-breaking technology, they needed more funding. So Forrester was added to ADSEC and added the ability to process the digital radar information. By the end of 1950, the team was able to complete successful tests of sending radar information to Whirlwind over the phone lines.

Now it was time to get funding, which was proposed at $2 million a year to fund a lab. Given that Valley and Forrester were both at MIT, they decided it should be at MIT. Here, they saw a way to help push the electronics industry forward and the Navy’s Chief Scientist Louis Ridenour knew that wherever that lab was built would become a the next scientific hotspot. The president at MIT at the time, James Killian, wasn’t exactly jumping on the idea of MIT becoming an arm of the department of defense so put together 28 scientists to review the plans from ADSEC, which became Project Charles and threw their support to forming the new lab.

They had measured twice and were ready to cut. There were already projects being run by the military during the arms buildup named after other places surrounding MIT so they picked Project Lincoln for the name of the project to Project Lincoln. They appointed F Wheeler Loomis as the director with a mission to design a defense system. As with all big projects, they broke it up into five small projects, or divisions; things like digital computers, aircraft control and warning, and communications. A sixth did the business administration for the five technical divisions and another delivered technical services as needed.

They grew to over 300 people by the end of 1951 and over 1,300 in 1952. They moved offsite and built a new campus - thus establishing Lincoln Lab. By the end of 1953 they had written a memo called A Proposal for Air Defense System Evolution: The Technical Phase. This called for a net of radars to be set up that would track the trajectory of all aircraft in the US airspace and beyond. And to build communications to deploy the weapons that could destroy those aircraft.

The Manhattan project had brought in the nuclear age but this project grew to be larger as now we had to protect ourselves from the potential devastation we wrought. We were firmly in the Cold War with America testing the hydrogen bomb in 52 and the Soviets doing so in 55. That was the same year the prototype of the AN/FSQ-7 to replace Whirlwind.

To protect the nation from these bombs they would need 100s of radars, 24 centers to receive data, and 3 combat centers. They planned for direction centers to have a pair of AN/FSQ-7 computers, which were the Whirlwind evolved. That meant half a million lines of code which was by far the most ambitious software ever written. Forrester had developed magnetic-core memory for Whirlwind. That doubled the speed of the computer. They hired IBM to build the AN/FSQ-7 computers and from there we started to see commercial applications as well when IBM added it to the 704 mainframe in 1955.

Stalin was running labor camps and purges. An estimated nine million people died in Gulags or from hunger. Chairman Mao visited Moscow in 1957, sparking the Great Leap Forward policy that saw 45 million people die. All in the name of building a utopian paradise. Americans were scared. And Stalin was distrustful of computers for any applications beyond scientific computing for the arms race. By contrast, people like Ken Olsen from Lincoln Lab left to found Digital Equipment Corporation and sell modular mini-computers on the mass market, with DEC eventually rising to be the number two computing company in the world.

The project also needed software and so that was farmed out to Rand who would have over 500 programmers work on it. And a special display to watch planes as they were flying, which began as a Stromberg-Carlson Charactron cathode ray tube. IBM got to work building the 24 FSQ-7s, with each coming in at a whopping 250 tons and nearly 50,000 vacuum tubes - and of course that magnetic core memory.

All this wasn’t just theoretical. Given the proximity, they deployed the first net of around a dozen radars around Cape Cod as a prototype. They ran dedicated phone lines from Cambridge and built the first direction center, equipping it with an interactive display console that showed an x for each object being tracked, adding labels and then Robert Everett came up with the idea of a light gun that could be used as a pointing device, along with a keyboard, to control the computers from a terminal.

They tested the Cape Cod installation in 1953 and added long range radars in Maine and New York by the end of 1954, working out bugs as they went. The Suffolk County Airfield in Long Island was added so Strategic Air Command could start running exercises for response teams. By the end of 1955 they put the system to the test and it passed all requirements from the Air Force. The radars detected the aircraft and were able to then control manned antiaircraft operations.

By 1957 they were adding logic and capacity to the system, having fine tuned over a number of test runs until they got to a 100 percent interception rate. They were ready to build out the direction centers. The research and development phase was done - now it was time to produce an operational system. Western Electric built a network of radar and communication systems across Northern Canada that became known as the DEW line, short for Distant Early Warning.

They added increasingly complicated radar, layers of protection, like Buckminster Fuller joining for a bit to develop a geodesic dome to protect the radars using fiberglass. They added radar to what looked like oil rigs around Texas, experimented with radar on planes and ships, and how to connect those back to the main system. By the end of 1957 the system was ready to move into production and integration with live weapons into the code and connections.

This is where MIT was calling it done for their part of the program. Only problem is when the Air Force looked around for companies willing to take on such a large project, no one could. So MITRE corporation was spun out of Lincoln Labs pulling in people from a variety of other government contractors and continues on to this day working on national security, GPS, election integrity, and health care.

They took the McChord airfare online as DC-12 in 1957, then Syracuse New York in 1958 and started phasing in automated response. Andrews, Dobbins, Geiger Field, Los Angeles Air Defense Sector, and others went online over the course of the next few years. The DEW line went operational in 1962, extending from Iceland to the Aleutians. By 1963, NORAD had a Combined Operations Center where the war room became reality.

Burroughs eventually won a contract to deploy new D825 computers to form a system called BUIC II and with the rapidly changing release of new solid state technology those got replaced with a Hughes AN/TSQ-51. With the rise of Airborn Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), the ground systems started to slowly get dismantled in 1980, being phased out completely in 1984, the year after WarGames was released.

In WarGames, Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, a young hacker who happens upon a game. One Jon Von Neumann himself might have written as he applied Game Theory to the nuclear threat. Lightman almost starts World War III when he tries to play Global Thermonuclear War. He raises the level of DEFCON and so inspires a generation of hackers who founded conferences like DEFCON and to this day war dial, or war drive, or war whatever.

The US spent countless tax money on advancing technology in the buildup for World War II and the years after. The Manhattan Project, Project Whirlwind, SAGE, and countless others saw increasing expenditures. Kennedy continued the trend in 1961 when he started the process of putting humans on the moon. And the unpopularity of the Vietnam war, which US soldiers had been dying in since 1959, caused a rollback of spending.

The legacy of these massive projects was huge spending to advance the sciences required to produce each. The need for these computers in SAGE and other critical infrastructure to withstand a nuclear war led to ARPANET, which over time evolved into the Internet. The subsequent privatization of these projects, the rapid advancement in making chips, and the drop in costs while frequent doubling of speeds based on findings from each discipline finding their way into others then gave us personal computing and the modern era of PCs then mobile devices. But it all goes back to projects like ENIAC, Whirlwind, and SAGE. Here, we can see generations of computing evolve with each project.

I’m frequently asked what’s next in our field. It’s impossible to know exactly. But we can look to mega projects, many of which are transportation related - and we can look at grants from the NSF. And DARPA and many major universities. Many of these produce new standards so we can also watch for new RFCs from the IETF. But the coolest tech is probably classified, so ask again in a few years!

And we can look to what inspires - sometimes that’s a perceived need, like thwarting nuclear war. Sometimes mapping human genomes isn’t a need until we need to rapidly develop a vaccine. And sometimes, well… sometimes it’s just returning to some sense of normalcy. Because we’re all about ready for that. That might mean not being afraid of nuclear war as a society any longer. Or not being afraid to leave our homes. Or whatever the world throws at us next.


IBM Pivots To Services In The 90s

     9/6/2021

IBM is the company with nine lives. They began out of the era of mechanical and electro-mechanical punch card computing. They helped bring the mainframe era to the commercial market. They played their part during World War II. They helped make the transistorized computer mainstream with the S360. They helped bring the PC into the home. We’ve covered a number of lost decades - and moving into the 90s, IBM was in one.

One that was largely created by an influx of revenues with the personal computer business. That revenue gave IBM a shot in the arm. But one that was temporary.

By the early 90s the computer business was under assault by the clone makers. They had been out-maneuvered by Microsoft and the writing was on the wall that Big Blue was in trouble. The CEO who presided during the fall of the hardware empire was John Akers. At the time, IBM had their fingers in every cookie jar. They were involved with instigating the Internet. They made mainframes. They made PCs. They made CPUs. They made printers. They provided services. How could they be in financial trouble? Because their core business, making computers, was becoming a commodity and quickly becoming obsolete.

IBM loves to own an industry. But they didn’t own PCs any more. They never owned PCs in the home after the PC Jr flopped. And mainframes were quickly going out of style. John Akers had been a lifer at IBM and by then there was generations of mature culture and its byproduct bureaucracy to contend with. Akers simply couldn’t move the company fast enough.

The answer was to get rid of John Akers and bring in a visionary. The visionaries in the computing field didn’t want IBM. CEOs like John Sculley at Apple and Bill Gates at Microsoft turned them down. That’s when someone at a big customer came up. Louis Gerstner. He had been the CEO of American Express and Nabisco. He had connections to IBM, with his brother having run the PC division for a time. And he was the first person brought in from the outside to run the now-nearly 100 year old company. And the first of a wave of CEOs paid big money. Commonplace today.

Starting in 1993, he moved from an IBM incapable of making decisions because of competing visions to one where execution and simplification was key. He made few changes in the beginning. At the time, competitor CDC was being split up into smaller companies and lines of business were being spun down as they faced huge financial losses. John Akers had let each division run itself - Gerstner saw the need for services given all this off-the-shelf tech being deployed in the 90s. The industry was standardizing, making it ripe for re-usable code that could run on this standardized hardware but then sold with a lot of services to customize it for each customer. In other words, it was time for IBM to become an integrator. One that could deliver a full stack of solutions.

This meant keeping the company as one powerhouse rather than breaking it up. You see, buy IBM kit, have IBM supply a service, and then IBM could use that as a wedge to sell more and more automation services into the companies. Each aspect on its own wasn’t hugely profitable, but combined - much larger deal sizes. And given IBMs piece of the internet, it was time for e-commerce. Let that Gates kid have the operating system market and the clone makers have the personal computing market in their races to the bottom. He’d take the enterprise - where IBM was known and trusted and in many sectors loved.

And he’d take what he called e-business, which we’d call eCommerce today. He brought in Irving Wladowsky-Berger and they spent six years pivoting one of the biggest companies in the world into this new strategy. The strategy also meant streamlining various operations. Each division previously had the autonomy to pick their own agency. He centralized with Ogilvy & Mather. One brand. One message.

Unlike Akers he didn’t have much loyalty to the old ways. Yes, OS/2 was made at IBM but by the time Windows 3.11 shipped, IBM was outmaneuvered and in so one of his first moves was to stop development of OS/2 in 1994. They didn’t own the operating system market so they let it go.

Cutting divisions meant there were a lot of people who didn’t fit in with the new IBM any longer. IBM had always hired people for life. Not any more. Over the course of his tenure over 100,000 people were laid off. According to Gerstner they’d grown lazy because performance didn’t really matter. And the high performers complained about the complacency. So those first two years came as a shock. But he managed to stop hemorrhaging cash and start the company back on a growth track.

Let’s put this perspective. His 9 years saw the companies market cap nearly quintuple. This in a company that was founded in 1911 so by then 72 years old. Microsoft, Dell, and so many others grew as well. But a rising tide lifts all boats. Gerstner brought ibm back. But withdrew from categories that would take over the internet. He was paid hundreds of millions of dollars for his work.

There were innovative new products in his tenure. The Simon Personal Communicator in 1994. This was one of the earliest mobile devices. Batteries and cellular technology weren’t where they needed to be just yet but it certainly represented a harbinger of things to come.

IBM introduced the PC Jr all the way back in 1983 and killed it off within two years. But they’d been selling into retail the whole time. So he killed that off and by 2005 IBM pulled out of PCs entirely, selling the division off to Lenovo.

A point I don’t think I’ve ever seen made is that Akers inherited a company embroiled in an anti-trust case. The Justice Department filed the case in 1975 and it ran until 1982 eating up thousands of hours of testimony across nearly a thousand witnesses. Akers took over in 1985 and by then IBM was putting clauses in every contract that allowed companies like Microsoft, Sierra Online, and everyone else involved with PCs to sell their software, services, and hardware to other vendors. This opened the door for the clone makers to take the market away after IBM had effectively built the ecosystem and standardized the hardware and form factors that would be used for decades.

Unlike Akers, Gerstner inherited an IBM in turmoil - and yet with some of the brightest minds in the world. They had their fingers in everything from the emerging public internet to mobile devices to mainframes to personal computers. He gave management bonuses when they did well and wasn’t afraid to cut divisions, which in his book he says that only an outsider could do. This formalized into three “personal business commitments” that contributed to IBM strategies.

He represented a shift not only at IBM but across the industry. The computer business didn’t require PhD CEOs as the previous generations had. Companies could manage the market and change cultures. Companies could focus on doing less and sell assets (like lines of business) off to raise cash to focus. Companies didn’t have to break up, as CDC had done - but instead could re-orient around a full stack of solutions for a unified enterprise. An enterprise that has been good to IBM and others who understand what they need ever since.

The IBM turnaround out of yet another lost decade showed us options for large megalith organizations that maybe previously thought different divisions had to run with more independence. Some should - not all. Most importantly though, the turnaround showed us that a culture can change. It’s one of the hardest things to do. Part of that was getting rid of the dress code and anti-alcohol policy. Part of that was performance-based comp. Part of that was to show leaders that consensus was slow and decisions needed to be made. Leaders couldn’t be perfect but a fast decision was better than one that held up business.

As with the turnaround after Apple’s lost decade, the turnaround was largely attributable to one powerful personality.

Gerstner often shied away from the media. Yet he wrote a book about his experiences called Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance. Following his time at IBM he became the chairman of the private equity firm The Carlyle Group, where he helped grow them into a powerhouse in leveraged buyouts, bringing in Hertz, Kinder Morgan, Freescale Semiconductor, Nielson Corporation, and so many others. One of the only personal tidbits you get about him in his book is that he really hates to lose. We’re all lucky he turned the company around as since he got there IBM has filed more patents than any other company for 28 consecutive years. These help push the collective conscious forward from 2,300 AI patents to 3,000 cloud patents to 1,400 security patents to laser eye surgery to quantum computing and beyond. 150,000 patents in the storied history of the company.

That’s a lot of work to bring computing into companies and increase productivity at scale. Not at the hardware level, with the constant downward pricing pressures - but at the software + services layer. The enduring legacy of the changes Gerstner made at IBM.


Spam Spam Spam!

     8/26/2021

Today's episode on spam is read by the illustrious Joel Rennich.

Spam is irrelevant or inappropriate and unsolicited messages usually sent to a large number of recipients through electronic means. And while we probably think of spam as something new today, it’s worth noting that the first documented piece of spam was sent in 1864 - through the telegraph. With the advent of new technologies like the fax machine and telephone, messages and unsolicited calls were quick to show up.

Ray Tomlinson is widely accepted as the inventor of email, developing the first mail application in 1971 for the ARPANET. It took longer than one might expect to get abused, likely because it was mostly researchers and people from the military industrial research community. Then in 1978, Gary Thuerk at Digital Equipment Corporation decided to send out a message about the new VAX computer being released by Digital. At the time, there were 2,600 email accounts on ARPANET and his message found its way to 400 of them. That’s a little over 15% of the Internet at the time. Can you imagine sending a message to 15% of the Internet today? That would be nearly 600 million people.

But it worked. Supposedly he closed $12 million in deals despite rampant complaints back to the Defense Department. But it was too late; the damage was done. He proved that unsolicited junk mail would be a way to sell products. Others caught on. Like Dave Rhodes who popularized MAKE MONEY FAST chains in the 1988. Maybe not a real name but pyramid schemes probably go back to the pyramids so we might as well have them on the Internets.

By 1993 unsolicited email was enough of an issue that we started calling it spam. That came from the Monty Python skit where Vikings in a cafe and spam was on everything on the menu. That spam was in reference to canned meat made of pork, sugar, water, salt, potato starch, and sodium nitrate that was originally developed by Jay Hormel in 1937 and due to how cheap and easy it was found itself part of a cultural shift in America. Spam came out of Austin, Minnesota. Jay’s dad George incorporated Hormel in 1901 to process hogs and beef and developed canned lunchmeat that evolved into what we think of as Spam today. It was spiced ham, thus spam.

During World War II, Spam would find its way to GIs fighting the war and Spam found its way to England and countries the war was being fought in. It was durable and could sit on a shelf for moths. From there it ended up in school lunches, and after fishing sanctions on Japanese-Americans in Hawaii restricted the foods they could haul in, spam found its way there and some countries grew to rely on it due to displaced residents following the war. And yet, it remains a point of scorn in some cases. As the Monty Python sketch mentions, spam was ubiquitous, unavoidable, and repetitive.

Same with spam through our email. We rely on email. We need it. Email was the first real, killer app for the Internet. We communicate through it constantly. Despite the gelatinous meat we sometimes get when we expect we’re about to land that big deal when we hear the chime that our email client got a new message. It’s just unavoidable. That’s why a repetitive poster on a list had his messages called spam and the use just grew from there.

Spam isn’t exclusive to email. Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel sent the first commercial Usenet spam in the “Green Card” just after the NSF allowed commercial activities on the Internet. It was a simple Perl script to sell people on the idea of paying a fee to have them enroll people into the green card lottery. They made over $100,000 and even went so far as to publish a book on guerrilla marketing on the Internet. Canter got disbarred for illegal advertising in 1997.

Over the years new ways have come about to try and combat spam. RBLs, or using DNS blacklists to mark hosts as unable to send blacklists and thus having port 25 blocked emerged in 1996 from the Mail Abuse Prevention System, or MAPS. Developed by Dave Rand and Paul Vixie, the list of IP addresses helped for a bit. That is, until spammers realized they could just send from a different IP. Vixie also mentioned the idea of of matching a sender claim to a mail server a message came from as a means of limiting spam, a concept that would later come up again and evolve into the Sender Policy Framework, or SPF for short. That’s around the same time Steve Linford founded Spamhaus to block anyone that knowingly spams or provides services to spammers. If you have a cable modem and try to setup an email server on it you’ve probably had to first get them to unblock your address from their Don’t Route list.

The next year Mark Jeftovic created a tool called filter.plx to help filter out spam and that project got picked up by Justin Mason who uploaded his new filter to SourceForge in 2001. A filter he called SpamAssassin. Because ninjas are cooler than pirates.

Paul Graham, the co-creator of Y Combinator (and author a LISP-like programming language) wrote a paper he called “A Plan for Spam” in 2002. He proposed using a Bayesian filter as antivirus software vendors used to combat spam. That would be embraced and is one of the more common methods still used to block spam. In the paper he would go into detail around how scoring of various words would work and probabilities that compared to the rest of his email that a spam would get flagged.

That Bayesian filter would be added to SpamAssassin and others the next year. Dana Valerie Reese came up with the idea for matching sender claims independently and she and Vixie both sparked a conversation and the creation of the Anti-Spam Research Group in the IETF.

The European Parliament released the Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications in the EU criminalizing spam. Australia and Canada followed suit.

2003 also saw the first laws in the US regarding spam. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 was signed by President George Bush in 2003 and allowed the FTC to regulate unsolicited commercial emails. Here we got the double-opt-in to receive commercial messages and it didn’t take long before the new law was used to prosecute spammers with Nicholas Tombros getting the dubious honor of being the first spammer convicted. What was his spam selling? Porn. He got a $10,000 fine and six months of house arrest.

Fighting spam with laws turned international. Christopher Pierson was charged with malicious communication after he sent hoax emails. And even though spammers were getting fined and put in jail all the time, the amount of spam continued to increase.

We had pattern filters, Bayesian filters, and even the threat of legal action. But the IETF Anti-Spam Research Group specifications were merged by Meng Weng Wong and by 2006 W. Schlitt joined the paper to form a new Internet standard called the Sender Policy Framework which lives on in RFC 7208. There are a lot of moving parts but at the heart of it, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP, allows sending mail from any connection over port 25 (or others if it’s SSL-enabled) and allowing a message to pass requiring very little information - although the sender or sending claim is a requirement.

A common troubleshooting technique used to be simply telnetting into port 25 and sending a message from an address to a mailbox on a mail server. Theoretically one could take the MX record, or the DNS record that lists the mail server to deliver mail bound for a domain to and force all outgoing mail to match that. However, due to so much spam, some companies have dedicated outbound mail servers that are different than their MX record and block outgoing mail like people might send if they’re using personal mail at work. In order not to disrupt a lot of valid use cases for mail, SPF had administrators create TXT records in DNS that listed which servers could send mail on their behalf. Now a filter could check the header for the SMTP server of a given message and know that it didn’t match a server that was allowed to send mail. And so a large chunk of spam was blocked.

Yet people still get spam for a variety of reasons. One is that new servers go up all the time just to send junk mail. Another is that email accounts get compromised and used to send mail. Another is that mail servers get compromised. We have filters and even Bayesian and more advanced forms of machine learning. Heck, sometimes we even sign up for a list by giving our email out when buying something from a reputable site or retail vendor.

Spam accounts for over 90% of the total email traffic on the Internet. This is despite blacklists, SPF, and filters. And despite the laws and threats spam continues. And it pays well. We mentioned Canter & Sigel. Shane Atkinson was sending 100 million emails per day in 2003. That doesn’t happen for free. Nathan Blecharczyk, a co-founder of Airbnb paid his way through Harvard on the back of spam.

Some spam sells legitimate products in illegitimate ways, as we saw with early IoT standard X10. Some is used to spread hate and disinformation, going back to Sender Argic, known for denying the Armenian genocide through newsgroups in 1994. Long before infowars existed. Peter Francis-Macrae sent spam to solicit buying domains he didn’t own. He was convicted after resorting to blackmail and threats. Jody Michael Smith sold replica watches and served almost a year in prison after he got caught.

Some spam is sent to get hosts loaded with malware so they could be controlled as happened with Peter Levashov, the Russian czar of the Kelihos botnet. Oleg Nikolaenko was arrested by the FBI in 2010 for spamming to get hosts in his Mega-D botnet. The Russians are good at this; they even registered the Russian Business Network as a website in 2006 to promote running an ISP for phishing, spam, and the Storm botnet. Maybe Flyman is connected to the Russian oligarchs and so continues to be allowed to operate under the radar. They remain one of the more prolific spammers.

Much is sent by a small number of spammers. Khan C. Smith sent a quarter of the spam in the world until he got caught in 2001 and fined $25 million.

Again, spam isn’t limited to just email. It showed up on Usenet in the early days. And AOL sued Chris “Rizler” Smith for over $5M for his spam on their network. Adam Guerbuez was fined over $800 million dollars for spamming Facebook. And LinkedIn allows people to send me unsolicited messages if they pay extra, probably why Microsoft payed $26 billion for the social network.

Spam has been with us since the telegraph; it isn’t going anywhere. But we can’t allow it to run unchecked. The legitimate organizations that use unsolicited messages to drive business help obfuscate the illegitimate acts where people are looking to steal identities or worse. Gary Thuerk opened a Pandora’s box that would have been opened if hadn’t of done so. The rise of the commercial Internet and the co-opting of the emerging cyberspace as a place where privacy and so anonymity trump verification hit a global audience of people who are not equal. Inequality breeds crime. And so we continually have to rethink the answers to the question of sovereignty versus the common good. Think about that next time an IRS agent with a thick foreign accent calls asking for your social security number - and remember (if you’re old enough) that we used to show our social security cards to grocery store clerks when we wrote checks. Can you imagine?!?!


Do You Yahoo!?

     8/20/2021

The simple story of Yahoo! Is that they were an Internet search company that came out of Stanford during the early days of the web. They weren’t the first nor the last. But they represent a defining moment in the rise of the web as we know it today, when there was enough content out there that there needed to be an easily searchable catalog of content.

And that’s what Stanford PhD students David Philo and Jerry Yang built. As with many of those early companies it began as a side project called “Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web.” And grew into a company that at one time rivaled any in the world. At the time there were other search engines and they all started adding portal aspects to the site growing fast until the dot-com bubble burst. They slowly faded until being merged with another 90s giant, AOL, in 2017 to form Oath, which got renamed to Verizon Media in 2019 and then effectively sold to investment management firm Apollo Global Management in 2021.

Those early years were wild. Yang moved to San Jose in the 70s from Taiwan, and earned a bachelors then a masters at Stanford - where he met David Filo in 1989. Filo is a Wisconsin kid who moved to Stanford and got his masters in 1990. The two went to Japan in 1992 on an exchange program and came home to work on their PhDs. That’s when they started surfing the web. Within two years they started their Internet directory in 1994. As it grew they hosted the database on Yang’s student computer called akebono and the search engine on konishiki, which was Filo’s.

They renamed it to Yahoo, short for Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle - after all they maybe considered themselves Yahoos at the time. And so Yahoo began life as akebono.stanford.edu/~yahoo. Word spread fast and they’d already had a million hits by the end of 1994. It was time to move out of Stanford.

Mark Andreesen offered to let them move into Netscape. They bought a domain in 1995 and incorporated the company, getting funding from Sequoia Capital raising $3,000,000. They tinkered with selling ads on the site to fund buying more servers but there was a lot of businessing. They decided that they would bring in Tim Koogle (which ironically rhymes with Google) to be CEO who brought in Jeff Mallett from Novell’s consumer division to be the COO. They were the suits and got revenues up to a million dollars.

The idea of the college kids striking gold fueled the rise of other companies and Yang and Filo became poster children. Applications from all over the world for others looking to make their mark started streaming in to Stanford - a trend that continues today. Yet another generation was about to flow into Silicon Valley. First the chip makers, then the PC hobbyists turned businesses, and now the web revolution.

But at the core of the business were Koogle and Mallett, bringing in advertisers and investors. And the next year needing more and more servers and employees to fuel further expansion, they went public, selling over two and a half million shares at $13 to raise nearly $34 million. That’s just one year after a gangbuster IPO from Netscape. The Internet was here. Revenues shot up to $20 million.

A concept we repeatedly look at is the technological determinism that industries go through. At this point it’s easy to look in the rear view mirror and see change coming at us. First we document information - like Jerry and David building a directory. Then we move it to a database so we can connect that data. Thus a search engine. Given that Yahoo! was a search engine they were already on the Internet. But the next step in the deterministic application of modern technology is to replace human effort with increasingly sophisticated automation. You know, like applying basic natural language processing, classification, and polarity scoring algorithms to enrich the human experience.

Yahoo! hired “surfers” to do these tasks. They curated the web. Yes, they added feeds for news, sports, finance, and created content. Their primary business model was to sell banner ads. And they pioneered the field. Banner ads mean people need to be on the site to see them. So adding weather, maps, shopping, classifieds, personal ads, and even celebrity chats were natural adjacencies given that mental model. Search itself was almost a competitor, sending people to other parts of the web that they weren’t making money off eyeballs. And they were pushing traffic to over 65 million pages worth of data a day.

They weren’t the only ones. This was the portal era of search and companies like Lycos, Excite, and InfoSeek were following the same model. They created local directories and people and companies could customize the look and feel. Their first designer, David Shen, takes us through the user experience journey in his book Takeover! The Inside Story the Yahoo Ad Revolution. They didn’t invent pay-per-clic advertising but did help to make it common practice and proved that money could be made on this whole new weird Internet thing everyone was talking about.

The first ad they sold was for MCI and from there they were practically printing money. Every company wanted in on the action - and sales just kept going up. Bill Clinton gave them a spot in the Internet Village during his 1997 inauguration and they were for a time seemingly synonymous with the Internet.

The Internet was growing fast. Cataloging the Internet and creating content for the Internet became a larger and larger manual task. As did selling ads, which was a manual transaction requiring a larger and larger sales force. As with other rising internet properties, people dressed how they wanted, they’d stay up late building code or content and crash at the desk. They ran funny cheeky ads with that yodel - becoming a brand that people knew and many equated to the Internet. We can thank San Francisco’s Black Rocket ad agency for that.

They grew fast. The founders made several strategic acquisitions and gobbled up nearly every category of the Internet that has each grown to billions of dollars. They bought Four 11 for $95 million in their first probably best acquisition, and used them to create Yahoo! Mail in 1997 and a calendar in 1998. They had over 12 million Yahoo! Email users by he end of the year, inching their way to the same number of AOL users out there.

There were other tools like Yahoo Briefcase, to upload files to the web. Now common with cloud storage providers like Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and even Office 365. And contacts and Messenger - a service that would run until 2018. Think of all the messaging apps that have come with their own spin on the service since.

1998 also saw the acquisition of Viaweb, founded by the team that would later create Y Combinator. It was just shy of a $50M acquisition that brought the Yahoo! Store - which was similar to the Shopify of today. They got a $250 million investment from Softbank, bought Yoyodyne, and launched AT&T’s WorldNet service to move towards AOL’s dialup services. By the end of the year they were closing in on 100 million page views a day. That’s a lot of banners shown to visitors. But Microsoft was out there, with their MSN portal at the height of the browser wars.

Yahoo! bought Broadcast.com in 1999 saddling the world with Mark Cuban. They dropped $5.7 billion for 300 employees and little more than an ISDN line. Here, they paid over a 100x multiple of annual revenues and failed to transition sellers into their culture. Sales cures all. In his book We Were Yahoo! Jeremy Ring describes the lays much of the blame of the failure to capitalize on the acquisition as not understanding the different selling motion. I don’t remember him outright saying it was hubris, but he certainly indicates that it should have worked out and that broadcast.com was could have been what YouTube would become. Another market lost in a failed attempt at Yahoo TV. And yet many of these were trends started by AOL.

They also bought GeoCities in 99 for $3.7 billion. Others have tried to allow for fast and easy site development - the no code wysiwyg web. GeoCities lasted until 2009 - a year after Google launched Google Sites. And we have Wix, Squarespace, WordPress, and so many others offering similar services today.

As they grew some of the other 130+ search engines at the time folded. The new products continued. The Yahoo Notebook came before Evernote. Imagine your notes accessible to any device you could log into. The more banners shown, the more clicks. Advertisers could experiment in ways they’d never been able to before. They also inked distribution deals, pushing traffic to other site that did things they didn’t.

The growth of the Internet had been fast, with nearly 100 million people armed with Internet access - and yet it was thought to triple in just the next three years. And even still many felt a bubble was forming. Some, like Google, had conserved cash - others like Yahoo! Had spent big on acquisitions they couldn’t monetize into truly adjacent cash flow generating opportunities. And meanwhile they were alienating web properties by leaning into every space that kept eyeballs on the site.

By 2000 their stock traded at $118.75 and they were the most valuable internet company at $125 billion. Then as customers folded when the dot-com bubble burst, the stock fell to $8.11 the next year. One concept we talk about in this podcast is a lost decade. Arguably they’d entered into theirs around the time the dot-com bubble burst. They decided to lean into being a media company even further. Again, showing banners to eyeballs was the central product they sold.

They brought in Terry Semel in 2001 using over $100 million in stock options to entice him. And the culture problems came fast. Semel flew in a fancy jet, launched television shows on Yahoo! and alienated programmers, effectively creating an us vs them and de-valuing the work done on the portal and search. Work that could have made them competitive with Google Adwords that while only a year old was already starting to eat away at profits. But media.

They bought a company called LaunchCast in 2001, charging a monthly fee to listen to music. Yahoo Music came before Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and even though it was the same year the iPod was released, they let us listen to up to 1,000 songs for free or pony up a few bucks a month to get rid of ads and allow for skips. A model that has been copied by many over the years.

By then they knew that paid search was becoming a money-maker over at Google. Overture had actually been first to that market and so Yahoo! Bought them for $1.6 billion in 2003. But again, they didn’t integrate the team and in a classic “not built here” moment started Project Panama where they’d spend three years building their own search advertising platform. By the time that shipped the search war was over and executives and great programmers were flowing into other companies all over the world.

And by then they were all over the world. 2005 saw them invest $1 billion in a little company called Alibaba. An investment that would accelerate Alibaba to become the crown jewel in Yahoo’s empire and as they dwindled away, a key aspect of what led to their final demise.

They bought Flickr in 2005 for $25M. User generated content was a thing. And Flickr was almost what Instagram is today. Instead we’d have to wait until 2010 for Instagram because Flickr ended up yet another of the failed acquisitions. And here’s something wild to thin about - Stewart Butterfield and Cal Henderson started another company after they sold Flickr. Slack sold to Salesforce for over $27 billion. Not only is that a great team who could have turned Flickr into something truly special, but if they’d been retained and allowed to flourish at Yahoo! they could have continued building cooler stuff. Yikes. Additionally, Flickr was planning a pivot into social networking, right before a time when Facebook would take over that market.

If fact, they tried to buy Facebook for just over a billion dollars in 2006. But Zuckerberg walked away when the price went down after the stock fell. They almost bought YouTube and considered buying Apple, which is wild to think about today. Missed opportunities. And Semmel was the first of many CEOs who lacked vision and the capacity to listen to the technologists - in a technology company.

These years saw Comcast bring us weather.com, the rise of espn online taking eyeballs away from Yahoo! Sports, Gmail and other mail services reducing reliance on Yahoo! Mail. Facebook, LinkedIn, and other web properties rose to take ad placements away. Even though Yahoo Finance is still a great portal even sites like Bloomberg took eyeballs away from them. And then there was the rise of user generated content - a blog for pretty much everything. Jerry Yang came back to run the show in 2007 then Carol Bartz from 2009 to 2011 then Scott Thompson in 2012. None managed to turn things around after so much lost inertia - and make no mistake, inertia is the one thing that can’t be bought in this world.

Wisconsin’s Marissa Mayer joined Yahoo! In 2012. She was Google’s 20th employee who’d risen through the ranks from writing code to leading teams to product manager to running web products and managing not only the layout of that famous homepage but also helped deliver Google AdWords and then maps. She had the pedigree and managerial experience - and had been involved in M&A. There was an immediate buzz that Yahoo! was back after years of steady decline due to incoherent strategies and mismanaged acquisitions.

She pivoted the business more into mobile technology. She brought remote employees back into the office. She implemented a bell curve employee ranking system like Microsoft did during their lost decade. They bought Tumblr in 2013 for $1.1 billion. But key executives continued to leave - Tumbler’s value dropped, and the stock continued to drop. Profits were up, revenues were down.

Investing in the rapidly growing China market became all the rage. The Alibaba investment was now worth more than Yahoo! itself. Half the shares had been sold back to Alibaba in 2012 to fund Yahoo! pursuing the Mayer initiatives. And then there was Yahoo Japan, which continued to do well. After years of attempts, activist investors finally got Yahoo! to spin off their holdings. They moved most of the shares to a holding company which would end up getting sold back to Alibaba for tens of billions of dollars. More missed opportunities for Yahoo!

And so in the end, they would get merged with AOL - the two combined companies worth nearly half a trillion dollars at one point to become Oath in 2017. Mayer stepped down and the two sold for less than $5 billion dollars. A roller coaster that went up really fast and down really slow. An empire that crumbled and fragmented.

Arguably, the end began in 1998 when another couple of grad students at Stanford approached Yahoo to buy Google for $1M. Not only did Filo tell them to try it alone but he also introduced them to Michael Moritz of Sequoia - the same guy who’d initially funded Yahoo!. That wasn’t where things really got screwed up though. It was early in a big change in how search would be monetized. But they got a second chance to buy Google in 2002. By then I’d switched to using Google and never looked back. But the CEO at the time, Terry Semel, was willing to put in $3B to buy Google - who decided to hold out for $5B. They are around a $1.8T company today.

Again, the core product was selling advertising. And Microsoft tried to buy Yahoo! In 2008 for over 44 billion dollars to become Bing. Down from the $125 billion height of the market cap during the dot com bubble. And yet they eventually sold for less than four and a half billion in 2016 and went down in value from there. Growth stocks trade at high multiples but when revenues go down the crash is hard and fast.

Yahoo! lost track of the core business - just as the model was changing. And yet never iterated it because it just made too much money. They were too big to pivot from banners when Google showed up with a smaller, more bite-sized advertising model that companies could grow into.

Along the way, they tried to do too much. They invested over and over in acquisitions that didn’t work because they ran off the innovative founders in an increasingly corporate company that was actually trying to pretend not to be. We have to own who we are and become. And we have to understand that we don’t know anything about the customers of acquired companies and actually listen - and I mean really listen - when we’re being told what those customers want. After all, that’s why we paid for the company in the first place.

We also have to avoid allowing the market to dictate a perceived growth mentality. Sure a growth stock needs to hit a certain number of revenue increase to stay considered a growth stock and thus enjoy the kind of multiples for market capitalization. But that can drive short term decisions that don’t see us investing in areas that don’t effectively manipulate stocks. Decisions like trying to keep eyeballs on pages with our own content rather than investing in the user generated content that drove the Web 2.0 revolution.

The Internet can be a powerful medium to find information, allow humans to do more with less, and have more meaningful experiences in this life. But just as Yahoo! was engineering ways to keep eyeballs on their pages, the modern Web 2.0 era has engineered ways to keep eyeballs on our devices. And yet what people really want is those meaningful experiences, which happen more when we aren’t staring at our screens than when we are. As I look around at all the alerts on my phone and watch, I can’t help but wonder if another wave of technology is coming that disrupts that model. Some apps are engineered to help us lead healthier lifestyles and take a short digital detoxification break.

Bush’s Memex in “As We May Think” was arguably an Apple taken from the tree of knowledge. If we aren’t careful, rather than the dream of computers helping humanity do more and free our minds to think more deeply we are simply left with less and less capacity to think and less and less meaning. The Memex came and Yahoo! helped connect us to any content we might want in the world. And yet, like so many others, they stalled in the phase they were at in that deterministic structure that technologies follow. Too slow to augment human labor with machine learning like Google did - but instead too quick to try and do everything for everyone with no real vision other than be everything to everyone. And so the cuts went on slowly for a long time, leaving employees constantly in fear of losing their jobs.

As you listen to this if I were to leave a single parting thought - it would be that companies should always be willing to cannibalize their own businesses. And yet we have to have a vision that our teams rally behind for how that revenue gets replaced. We can’t fracture a company and just sprawl to become everything for everyone but instead need to be targeted and more precise. And to continue to innovate each product beyond the basic machine learning and into deep learning and beyond. And when we see those who lack that focus, don’t get annoyed but instead get stoked - that’s called a disruptive opportunity.

And if there’s someone with 1,000 developers in a space, Nicholas Carlson in his book “Marissa Mayer and the Fight To Save Yahoo!” points out that one great developer is worth a thousand average ones. And even the best organizations can easily turn great developers into average ones for a variety of reason. Again, we can call these opportunities.

Yahoo! helped legitimize the Internet. For that we owe them a huge thanks. And we can fast follow their adjacent expansions to find a slew of great and innovative ideas that increased the productivity of humankind. We owe them a huge thanks for that as well. Now what opportunities do we see out there to propel us further yet again?


The Innovations Of Bell Labs

     8/15/2021

What is the nature of innovation? Is it overhearing a conversation as with Morse and the telegraph? Working with the deaf as with Bell? Divine inspiration? Necessity? Science fiction? Or given that the answer to all of these is yes, is it really more the intersectionality between them and multiple basic and applied sciences with deeper understandings in each domain? Or is it being given the freedom to research? Or being directed to research? Few have as storied a history of innovation as Bell Labs and few have had anything close to the impact.

Bell Labs gave us 9 Nobel Prizes and 5 Turing awards. Their alumni have even more, but those were the ones earned while at Bell. And along the way they gave us 26,000 patents. They researched, automated, and built systems that connected practically every human around the world - moving us all into an era of instant communication. It’s a rich history that goes back in time from the 2018 Ashkin Nobel for applied optical tweezers and 2018 Turing award for Deep Learning to an almost steampunk era of tophats and the dawn of the electrification of the world.

Those late 1800s saw a flurry of applied and basic research. One reason was that governments were starting to fund that research. Alessandro Volta had come along and given us the battery and it was starting to change the world. So Napolean’s nephew, Napoleon III, during the second French Empire gave us the Volta Prize in 1852.

One of those great researchers to receive the Volta Prize was Alexander Graham Bell. He invented the telephone in 1876 and was awarded the Volta Prize, getting 50,000 francs. He used the money to establish the Volta Laboratory, which would evolve or be a precursor to a research lab that would be called Bell Labs. He also formed the Bell Patent Association in 1876. They would research sound. Recording, transmission, and analysis - so science.

There was a flurry of business happening in preparation to put a phone in every home in the world. We got the Bell System, The Bell Telephone Company, American Bell Telephone Company patent disputes with Elisha Gray over the telephone (and so the acquisition of Western Electric), and finally American Telephone and Telegraph, or AT&T. Think of all this as Ma’ Bell. Not Pa’ Bell mind you - as Graham Bell gave all of his shares except 10 to his new wife when they were married in 1877. And her dad ended up helping build the company and later creating National Geographic, even going international with International Bell Telephone Company. Bell’s assistant Thomas Watson sold his shares off to become a millionaire in the 1800s, and embarking on a life as a Shakespearean actor.

But Bell wasn’t done contributing. He still wanted to research all the things. Hackers gotta’ hack. And the company needed him to - keep in mind, they were a cutting edge technology company (then as in now). That thirst for research would infuse AT&T - with Bell Labs paying homage to the founder’s contribution to the modern day. Over the years they’d be on West Street in New York and expand to have locations around the US. Think about this: it was becoming clear that automation would be able to replace human efforts where electricity is concerned. The next few decades gave us the vacuum tube, flip flop circuits, mass deployment of radio. The world was becoming ever so slightly interconnected. And Bell Labs was researching all of it. From physics to the applied sciences.

By the 1920s, they were doing sound synchronized with motion and shooting that over long distances and calculating the noise loss. They were researching encryption. Because people wanted their calls to be private. That began with things like one-time pad cyphers but would evolve into speech synthesizers and even SIGSALY, the first encrypted (or scrambled) speech transmission that led to the invention of the first computer modem. They had engineers like Harry Nyquist, whose name is on dozens of theories, frequencies, even noise. He arrived in 1917 and stayed until he retired in 1954. One of his most important contributions was to move beyond printing telegraph to paper tape and to helping transmit pictures over electricity - and Herbert Ives from there sent color photos, thus the fax was born (although it would be Xerox who commercialized the modern fax machine in the 1960s).

Nyquist and others like Ralph Hartley worked on making audio better, able to transmit over longer lines, reducing feedback, or noise. While there, Hartley gave us the oscillator, developed radio receivers, parametric amplifiers, and then got into servomechanisms before retiring from Bell Labs in 1950. The scientists who’d been in their prime between the two world wars were titans and left behind commercializable products, even if they didn’t necessarily always mean to.

By the 40s a new generation was there and building on the shoulders of these giants. Nyquist’s work was extended by Claude Shannon, who we devoted an entire episode to. He did a lot of mathematical analysis like writing “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” to birth Information Theory as a science.

They were researching radio because secretly I think they all knew those leased lines would some day become 5G. But also because the tech giants of the era included radio and many could see a day coming when radio, telephony, and aThey were researching how electrons diffracted, leading to George Paget Thomson receiving the Nobel Prize and beginning the race for solid state storage.

Much of the work being done was statistical in nature. And they had William Edwards Deming there, whose work on statistical analysis when he was in Japan following World War II inspired a global quality movement that continues to this day in the form of frameworks like Six Sigma and TQM. Imagine a time when Japanese manufacturing was of such low quality that he couldn’t stay on a phone call for a few minutes or use a product for a time. His work in Japan’s reconstruction paired with dedicated founders like Akio Morita, who co-founded Sony, led to one of the greatest productivity increases, without sacrificing quality, of any time in the world. Deming would change the way Ford worked, giving us the “quality culture.”

Their scientists had built mechanical calculators going back to the 30s (Shannon had built a differential analyzer while still at MIT) - first for calculating the numbers they needed to science better then for ballistic trajectories, then with the Model V in 1946, general computing. But these were slow; electromechanical at best.

Mary Torrey was another statistician of the era who along with Harold Hodge gave us the theory of acceptance sampling and thus quality control for electronics. And basic electronics research to do flip-flop circuits fast enough to establish a call across a number of different relays was where much of this was leading. We couldn’t use mechanical computers for that, and tubes were too slow. And so in 1947 John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley invented the transistor at Bell Labs, which be paired with Shannon’s work to give us the early era of computers as we began to weave Boolean logic in ways that allowed us to skip moving parts and move to a purely transistorized world of computing.

In fact, they all knew one day soon, everything that monster ENIAC and its bastard stepchild UNIVAC was doing would be done on a single wafer of silicon. But there was more basic research to get there. The types of wires we could use, the Marnaugh map from Maurice Karnaugh, zone melting so we could do level doping. And by 1959 Mohamed Atalla and Dawon Kahng gave us metal-oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors, or MOSFETs - which was a step on the way to large-scale integration, or LSI chips. Oh, and they’d started selling those computer modems as the Bell 101 after perfecting the tech for the SAGE air-defense system.

And the research to get there gave us the basic science for the solar cell, electronic music, and lasers - just in the 1950s. The 1960s saw further work work on microphones and communication satellites like Telstar, which saw Bell Labs outsource launching satellites to NASA. Those transistors were coming in handy, as were the solar panels. The 14 watts produced certainly couldn’t have moved a mechanical computer wheel. Blaise Pascal and would be proud of the research his countries funds inspired and Volta would have been perfectly happy to have his name still on the lab I’m sure. Again, shoulders and giants. Telstar relayed its first television signal in 1962. The era of satellites was born later that year when Cronkite televised coverage of Kennedy manipulating world markets on this new medium for the first time and IBM 1401 computers encrypted and decrypted messages, ushering in an era of encrypted satellite communications. Sputnik may heave heated the US into orbit but the Telstar program has been an enduring system through to the Telstar 19V launched in 2018 - now outsourced to a Falcon 9 rocket from Space X.

It might seem like Bell Labs had done enough for the world. But they still had a lot of the basic wireless research to bring us into the cellular age. In fact, they’d plotted out what the cellular age would look like all the way back in 1947!

The increasing use of computers to do the all the acoustics and physics meant they were working closely with research universities during the rise of computing. They were involved in a failed experiment to create an operating system in the late 60s. Multics influenced so much but wasn’t what we might consider a commercial success. It was the result of yet another of DARPA’s J.C.R. Licklider’s wild ideas in the form of Project MAC, which had Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy. Big names in the scientific community collided with cooperation and GE, Bell Labs and Multics would end up inspiring many a feature of a modern operating system.

The crew at Bell Labs knew they could do better and so set out to take the best of Multics and implement a lighter, easier operating system. So they got to work on Uniplexed Information and Computing Service, or Unics, which was a pun on Multics. Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, Doug McIllroy, Joe Assana, Brian Kernigan, and many others wrote Unix originally in assembly and then rewrote it in C once Dennis Ritchie wrote that to replace B. Along the way, Alfred Aho, Peter Weinber, and Kernighan gave us AWSK and with all this code they needed a way to keep the source under control so Marc Rochkind gave us the SCCS, or Course Code Control System, first written for an IBM S/3370 and then ported to C - which would be how most environments maintained source code until CVS came along in 1986. And Robert Fourer, David Gay, and Brian Kernighan wrote A Mathematical Programming Language, or AMPL, while there.

Unix began as a bit of a shadow project but would eventually go to market as Research Unix when Don Gillies left Bell to go to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. From there it spread and after it fragmented in System V led to the rise of IBM’s AIX, HP-UX, SunOS/Solaris, BSD, and many other variants - including those that have evolved into the macOS through Darwin, and Android through Linux. But Unix wasn’t all they worked on - it was a tool to enable other projects. They gave us the charge-coupled device, which resulted in yet another Nobel Prize. That is an image sensor built on the MOS technologies. While fiber optics goes back to the 1800s, they gave us attenuation over fiber and thus could stretch cables to only need repeaters every few dozen miles - again reducing the cost to run the ever-growing phone company.

All of this electronics allowed them to finally start reducing their reliance on electromechanical and human-based relays to transistor-to-transistor logic and less mechanical meant less energy, less labor to repair, and faster service. Decades of innovation gave way to decades of profit - in part because of automation. The 5ESS was a switching system that went online in 1982 and some of what it did - its descendants still do today. Long distance billing, switching modules, digital line trunk units, line cards - the grid could run with less infrastructure because the computer managed distributed switching. The world was ready for packet switching.

5ESS was 100 million lines of code, mostly written in C. All that source was managed with SCCS. Bell continued with innovations. They produced that modem up into the 70s but allowed Hayes, Rockewell, and others to take it to a larger market - coming back in from time to time to help improve things like when Bell Labs, branded as Lucent after the breakup of AT&T, helped bring the 56k modem to market.

The presidents of Bell Labs were as integral to the success and innovation as the researchers. Frank Baldwin Jewett from 1925 to 1940, Oliver Buckley from 40 to 51, the great Mervin Kelly from 51 to 59, James Fisk from 59 to 73, William Oliver Baker from 73 to 79, and a few others since gave people like Bishnu Atal the space to develop speech processing algorithms and predictive coding and thus codecs. And they let Bjarne Stroustrup create C++, and Eric Schmidt who would go on to become a CEO of Google and the list goes on. Nearly every aspect of technology today is touched by the work they did.

All of this research. Jon Gerstner wrote a book called The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. He chronicles the journey of multiple generations of adventurers from Germany, Ohio, Iowa, Japan, and all over the world to the Bell campuses. The growth and contraction of the basic and applied research and the amazing minds that walked the halls. It’s a great book and a short episode like this couldn’t touch the aspects he covers. He doesn’t end the book as hopeful as I remain about the future of technology, though.

But since he wrote the book, plenty has happened. After the hangover from the breakup of Ma Bell they’re now back to being called Nokia Bell Labs - following a $16.6 billion acquisition by Nokia. I sometimes wonder if the world has the stomach for the same level of basic research. And then Alfred Aho and Jeffrey Ullman from Bell end up sharing the Turing Award for their work on compilers. And other researchers hit a terabit a second speeds. A storied history that will be a challenge for Marcus Weldon’s successor. He was there as a post-doc there in 1995 and rose to lead the labs and become the CTO of Nokia - he said the next regeneration of a Doctor Who doctor would come in after him. We hope they are as good of stewards as those who came before them.

The world is looking around after these decades of getting used to the technology they helped give us. We’re used to constant change. We’re accustomed to speed increases from 110 bits a second to now terabits. The nature of innovation isn’t likely to be something their scientists can uncover. My guess is Prometheus is guarding that secret - if only to keep others from suffering the same fate after giving us the fire that sparked our imaginations. For more on that, maybe check out Hesiod’s Theogony.

In the meantime, think about the places where various sciences and disciplines intersect and think about the wellspring of each and the vast supporting casts that gave us our modern life. It’s pretty phenomenal when ya’ think about it.


VisiCalc, Excel, and The Rise Of The Spreadsheet

     8/8/2021

Once upon a time, people were computers. It’s probably hard to imagine teams of people spending their entire day toiling in large grids of paper, writing numbers and calculating numbers by hand or with mechanical calculators, and then writing more numbers and then repeating that. But that’s the way it was before the 1979. 

The term spreadsheet comes from back when a spread, like a magazine spread, of ledger cells for bookkeeping. There’s a great scene in the Netflix show Halston where a new guy is brought in to run the company and he’s flying through an electro-mechanical calculator. Halston just shuts the door. Ugh. Imagine doing what we do in a spreadsheet in minutes today by hand. Even really large companies jump over into a spreadsheet to do financial projections today - and with trendlines, tweaking this small variable or that, and even having different algorithms to project the future contents of a cell - the computerized spreadsheet is one of the most valuable business tools ever built. It’s that instant change we see when we change one set of numbers and can see the impact down the line. 

Even with the advent of mainframe computers accounting and finance teams had armies of people who calculated spreadsheets by hand, building complicated financial projections. If the formulas changed then it could take days or weeks to re-calculate and update every cell in a workbook. People didn’t experiment with formulas. Computers up to this point had been able to calculate changes and provided all the formulas were accurate could output results onto punch cards or printers. But the cost had been in the millions before Digital Equipment and Data Nova came along and had dropped into the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars 

The first computerized spreadsheets weren’t instant. Richard Mattessich developed an electronic, batch spreadsheet in 1961. He’d go on to write a book called “Simulation of the Firm Through a Budget Computer Program.” His work was more theoretical in nature, but IBM developed the Business Computer Language, or BCL the next year. What IBM did got copied by their seven dwarves. former GE employees Leroy Ellison, Harry Cantrell, and Russell Edwards developed AutoPlan/AutoTab, another scripting language for spreadsheets, following along delimited files of numbers. And in 1970 we got LANPAR which opened up more than reading files in from sequential, delimited sources.

But then everything began to change. Harvard student Dan Bricklin graduated from MIT and went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation to work on an early word processor called WPS-8. We were now in the age of interactive computing on minicomputers. He then went to work for FasFax in 1976 for a year, getting exposure to calculating numbers. And then he went off to Harvard in 1977 to get his MBA. But while he was at Harvard he started working on one of the timesharing programs to help do spreadsheet analysis and wrote his own tool that could do five columns and 20 rows. Then he met Bob Frankston and they added Dan Fylstra, who thought it should be able to run on an Apple - and so they started Software Arts Corporation.

Frankston got the programming bug while sitting in on a class during junior high. He then got his undergrad and Masters at MIT, where he spent 9 years in school and working on a number of projects with CSAIL, including Multics. He’d been consulting and working at various companies for awhile in the Boston area, which at the time was probably the major hub.

Frankston and Bricklin would build a visible calculator using 16k of space and that could fit on a floppy. They used a time sharing system and because they were paying for time, they worked at nights when time was cheaper, to save money. They founded a company called Software Arts and named their Visual Calculator VisiCalc. Along comes the Apple II. And computers were affordable. They ported the software to the platform and it was an instant success. It grew fast.

Competitors sprung up. SuperCalc in 1980, bundled with the Osborne. The IBM PC came in 1981 and the spreadsheet appeared in Fortune for the first time. Then the cover of Inc Magazine in 1982. Publicity is great for sales and inspiring competitors. Lotus 1-2-3 came in 1982 and even Boeing Computer Services got in the game with Boeing Calc in 1985. They extended the ledger metaphor to add sheets to the spreadsheet, which we think of as tabs today.

Quattro Pro from Borland copied that feature and despite having their offices effectively destroyed during an earthquake just before release, came to market in 1989. Ironically they got the idea after someone falsely claimed they were making a spreadsheet a few years earlier.

And so other companies were building Visible Calculators and adding new features to improve on the spreadsheet concept. Microsoft was one who really didn’t make a dent in sales at first. They released an early spreadsheet tool called Multiple in 1982. But Lotus 1-2-3 was the first killer application for the PC. 

It was more user friendly and didn’t have all the bugs that had come up in VisiCalc as it was ported to run on platform after platform. Lotus was started by Mitch Kapor who brought Jonathan Sachs in to develop the spreadsheet software. Kapor’s marketing prowess would effectively obsolete VisiCalc in a number of environments. They made TV commercials so you know they were big time! And they were written natively in the x86 assembly so it was fast. They added the ability to add bar charts, pie charts, and line charts. They added color and printing. One could even spread their sheet across multiple monitors like in a magazine.

It was 1- spreadsheets, 2 - charts and graphs and 3 - basic database functions. Heck, one could even change the size of cells and use it as a text editor. Oh, and macros would become a standard in spreadsheets after Lotus.

And because VisiCalc had been around so long, Lotus of course was immediately capable of reading a VisiCalc file when released in 1983. As could Microsoft Excel, when it came along in 1985. And even Boeing Calc could read Lotus 1-2-3 files. After all, the concept went back to those mainframe delimited files and to this day we can import and export to tab or comma delimited files.

VisiCalc had sold about a million copies but that would cease production the same year Excel was released, although the final release had come in 1983. Lotus had eaten their shorts in the market, and Borland had watched. Microsoft was about to eat both of theirs. Why? Visi was about to build a windowing system called Visi-On. And Steve Jobs needed a different vendor to turn to. He looked to Lotus who built a tool called Jazz that was too basic. But Microsoft had gone public in 1985 and raised plenty of money, some of which they used to complete Excel for the Mac that year. Their final release in 1983 began to fade away

And so Excel began on the Mac and that first version was the first graphical spreadsheet. The other developers didn’t think that a GUI was gonna’ be much of a thing. Maybe graphical interfaces were a novelty! Version two was released for the PC in 1987 along with Windows 2.0. Sales were slow at first. But then came Windows 3. Add Microsoft Word to form Microsoft Office and by the time Windows 95 was released Microsoft became the de facto market leader in documents and spreadsheets. That’s the same year IBM bought Lotus and they continued to sell the product until 2013, with sales steadily declining.

And so without a lot of competition for Microsoft Excel, spreadsheets kinda’ sat for a hot minute. Computers became ubiquitous. Microsoft released new versions for Mac and Windows but they went into that infamous lost decade until… competition. And there were always competitors, but real competition with something new to add to the mix. Google bought a company called 2Web Technologies in 2006, who made a web-based spreadsheet called XL2WEB. That would become Google Sheets. Google bought DocVerse in 2010 and we could suddenly have multiple people editing a sheet concurrently - and the files were compatible with Excel.

By 2015 there were a couple million users of Google Workspace, growing to over 5 million in 2019 and another million in 2020. In the years since, Microsoft released Office 365, starting to move many of their offerings onto the web. That involved 60 million people in 2015 and has since grown to over 250 million. The statistics can be funny here, because it’s hard to nail down how many free vs paid Google and Microsoft users there are. Statista lists Google as having a nearly 60% market share but Microsoft is clearly making more from their products. And there are smaller competitors all over the place taking on lots of niche areas.

There are a few interesting tidbits here. One is that the tools that there’s a clean line of evolution in features. Each new tool worked better, added features, and they all worked with previous file formats to ease the transition into their product. Another is how much we’ve all matured in our understanding of data structures. I mean we have rows and columns. And sometimes multiple sheets - kinda’ like multiple tables in a database. Our financial modeling and even scientific modeling has grown in acumen by leaps and bounds. 

Many still used those electro-mechanical calculators in the 70s when you could buy calculator kits and build your own calculator. Those personal computers that flowed out in the next few years gave every business the chance to first track basic inventory and calculate simple information, like how much we might expect in revenue from inventory in stock to now thousands of pre-built formulas that are supported across most spreadsheet tooling. Despite expensive tools and apps to do specific business functions, the spreadsheet is still one of the most enduring and useful tools we have. Even for programmers, where we’re often just getting our data in a format we can dump into other tools!

So think about this. What tools out there have common file types where new tools can sit on top of them? Which of those haven’t been innovated on in a hot minute? And of course, what is that next bold evolution? Is it moving the spreadsheet from a book to a batch process? Or from a batch process to real-time? Or from real-time to relational with new tabs? Or to add a GUI? Or adding online collaboration? Or like some big data companies using machine learning to analyze the large data sets and look for patterns automatically? 

Not only does the spreadsheet help us do the maths - it also helps us map the technological determinism we see repeated through nearly every single tool for any vertical or horizontal market. Those stuck need disruptive competitors if only to push them off the laurels they’ve been resting on. 


Microsoft's Lost Decade

     8/4/2021

Microsoft went from a fledgeling purveyor of a BASIC for the Altair to a force to be reckoned with. The biggest growth hack was when they teamed up with IBM to usher in the rise of the personal computer. They released apps and an operating system and by licensing DOS to anyone (not just IBM) and then becoming the dominant OS they allowed clone makers to rise and thus broke the hold IBM had on the computing industry since the days the big 8 mainframe companies were referred to as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

They were young and bold and grew fast. They were aggressive, taking on industry leaders in different segments, effectively putting CP/M out of business, taking out Lotus, VisiCalc, Novell, Netscape, `and many, many other companies.  

Windows 95 and Microsoft Office helped the personal computer become ubiquitous in homes and offices. The team knew about the technical debt they were accruing in order to grow fast. So they began work on projects that would become Windows NT and that kernel would evolve into Windows 2000, phasing out the legacy operating systems. They released Windows Server, Microsoft Exchange, Flight Simulators, maps, and seemed for a time to be poised to take over the world. They even seemed to be about to conquer the weird new smart phone world.

And then something strange happened. They entered into what we can now call a lost decade. Actually there’s nothing strange about it. This happens to nearly every company.

Innovation dropped off. Releases of Windows got buggy. The market share of their mobile operating system fell away. Apple and Android basically took the market away entirely. They let Google take the search market and after they failed to buy Yahoo! they released an uninspired Bing. The MSN subscriptions that once competed with AOL fell away. Google Docs came and was a breath of fresh air. Windows Servers started moving into cloud solutions where Box or Dropbox were replacing filers and Sharepoint became a difficult story to tell. 

They copied features from other companies. But were followers - not leaders. And the stock barely moved for a decade, while Apple more than doubled the market cap of Microsoft for a time. What exactly happened here? Some have blamed Steve Ballmer, who replaced Bill Gates who had led the company since 1975 and if we want to include Traf-O-Data - since 1972.

They grew fast and by Y2K there were memes about how rich Bill Gates was. Then a lot changed over the next decade. Windows XP was released in 2001, the same year the first Xbox was released. They launched the Windows Mobile operating system in 2003, planning to continue the whole “rule the operating system” approach. Vista comes along in 2007. Bill Gates retires in 2008. Later that year, Google launches Chrome - which would eat market share away from Microsoft over time. Windows 7 launches in 2009. Microsoft releases Bing in 2009 and Azure in 2010. The Windows phone comes in 2010 as well, and they would buy Skype for $8.5 billion dollars the next year. The tablet Microsoft Surface coming in 2012, the same year the iPad was released.

And yet, there were market forces operating to work against what Microsoft was doing. Google had come roaring out of the dot com bubble bursting and proved how money could be made with search. Yahoo! was slow to respond. As Google’s aspirations became clear by 2008, Ballmer moved to buy them for $20 billion eventually growing the bid to nearly $45 billion - a move that was thwarted but helped to take the attention of the Yahoo! team away from the idea of making money.  That was the same year Android and Chrome was released. Meanwhile, Apple released the iPhone in 2007 and were shipping the 3G in 2008, taking the mobile market by storm. By 2010, slow sales of the Windows phone were already spelling the end for Ballmer. 

Microsoft had launched Windows CE in 1996, held the smaller Handheld PC market for a time. They took over and owned the operating system market for personal computers and productivity software. They were able to seize a weakened and lumbering IBM to do so.  And yet they turned into that lumbering juggernaut of a company. All those products and all the revenues being generated, Microsoft looked unstoppable by the end of the millennium. Then they got big. Like really big. And organizations can be big and stay lean - but they weren’t. 

Leaders fought leaders, programmers fled, and the fiefdoms caused them to be slow to jump into new opportunities. Bill Gates had been an intense leader - but the Department of Justice filed an anti-trust case against Microsoft and between that and just managing hyper-growth along the way they lost a focus on customers and instead focused inward. And so by all accounts, the lost decade began in 2001. Vista was supposed to ship in 2003 but pushed all the way back to 2007. Bing was a dud, losing billions out of the gate. By 2011 Google released Chrome OS - an operating system that was basically a web browser bootstrapped on Linux and effectively what Netscape founder Marc Andreesen foreshadowed in a Time piece in the early days of the browser wars.

Kurt Eichenwald of Vanity Fair wrote an article called MICROSOFT’S LOST DECADE in 2012, looking at what led to the lost decade. He pointed out the arrogance and the products that, even though they were initially developed at Microsoft, would be launched by others first. It was Bill Gates who turned down releasing the ebook, which would evolve into the tablet. The article explained that moving timelines around pushed developing new products back in the list of priorities. The Windows and Office divisions were making so much money for the company that they had all the power to make the decisions - even when the industry was moving in another direction. 

The original employees got rich when the company went public and much of the spunk left with them. The focus shifted to pushing up the stock price. Ballmer is infamously not a product guy and he became the president of the company in 1998 and moved to CEO in 2000. But Gates stayed on in product. As we see with companies when their stock price starts to fall, the finger pointing begins. Cost cutting begins. The more talented developers can work anywhere - and so companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple were able to fill their ranks with great developers. 

When organizations in a larger organization argue, new bureaucracies get formed. Those slow things down by replacing common sense with process. That is good to a point. Like really good to a point. Measure twice, cut once. Maybe even measure three times and cut once. But software doesn’t get built by committees, it gets built by humans. The closer engineers are to humans the more empathy will go into the code. We can almost feel it when we use tools that developers don’t fully understand. And further, developers write less code when they’re in more meetings. Some are good but when there are tiers of supervisors and managers and directors and VPs and Jr and Sr of each, their need to justify their existence leads to more meetings.

The Vanity Fair piece also points out that times changed. He called the earlier employees “young hotshots from the 1980s” who by then were later career professionals and as personal computers became pervasive the way people use them changed. And a generation of people who grew up with computers now interacted with them differently. People were increasingly always online. Managers who don’t understand their users need to release control of products to those who do. 

They made the Zune 5 years after the iPod was released and had lit a fire at Apple. Less than two months later, Apple released the iPhone and the Zune was dead in the water, never eclipsing over 5 percent of the market and finally being discontinued in 2012. Ballmer had predicted that all of these Apple products would fail and in a quote from a source in the Vanity Fair article, a former manager at Microsoft said “he is hopelessly out of touch with reality or not listening to the tech staff around him”.

One aspect the article doesn’t go into is the sheer number of products Microsoft was producing. They were competing with practically every big name in technology, from Apple to Oracle to Google to Facebook to Amazon to Salesforce. They’d gobbled up so many companies to compete in so many spaces that it was hard to say what Microsoft really was - and yet the Windows and Office divisions made the lions’ share of the money. They thought they needed to own every part of the ecosystem when Apple went a different route and opened a store to entice developers to go direct to market, making more margin with no acquisition cost to build a great ecosystem. 

The Vanity Fair piece ends with a cue from the Steve Jobs biography and to sum it up, Jobs said that Microsoft ended up being run by sales people because they moved the revenue needle - just as he watched it happen with Sculley at Apple. Jobs went on to say Microsoft would continue the course as long as Ballmer was at the helm. Back when they couldn’t ship Vista they were a 60,000 person company. By 2011 when the Steve Jobs biography was published, they were at 90,000 and had just rebounded from layoffs.

By the end of 2012, the iPhone had overtaken Microsoft in sales. Steve Ballmer left as the CEO of Microsoft in 2014 and Satya Nadella replaces him. Under his leadership, half the company would be moved into research later that year. Nadella wrote a book about his experience turning things around called Hit Refresh. Just as the book Microsoft Rebooted told the story of how Ballmer was going to turn things around in 2004 - except Hit Refresh was actually a pretty good book.

And the things seemed to work. The stock price had risen a little in 2014 but since then it’s shot up six times what it was. And all of the pivots to a more cloud-oriented company and many other moves seem to have been started under Ballmer’s regime, just as the bloated company they became started under the Gates regime. Each arguably did what was needed at the time. Let’s not forget the dot com bubble burst at the beginning of the Ballmer era and he had the 2008 financial crises. There be dragons that are micro-economic forces outside anyones control. 

But Nadella ran R&D and cloud offerings. He emphasized research - which means innovation. He changed the mission statement to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” He laid out a few strategies, to reinvent productivity and collaboration, power those with Microsoft’s cloud platform, and expand on Windows and gaming. And all of those things have been gangbusters ever since. They bought Mojang in 2014 and so are now the makers of Minecraft. They bought LinkedIn. They finally got Skype better integrated with the company so Teams could compete more effectively with Slack.

Here’s the thing. I knew a lot of people who worked, and many who still work at Microsoft during that Lost Decade. And I think every one of them is really just top-notch. Looking at things as they’re unfolding you just see a weekly “patch Tuesday” increment. Everyone wanted to innovate - wanted to be their best self. And across every company we look at in this podcast, nearly every one has had to go through a phase of a lost few years or lost decade. The ones who don’t pull through can never turn the tide on culture and innovation. The two are linked.

A bloated company with more layers of management inspires a sense of controlling managers who stifle innovation. At face value, the micro-aggressions seem plausible, especially to those younger in their career. We hear phrases like “we need to justify or analyze the market for each expense/initiative” and that’s true or you become a Xerox PARC or Digital Research where so many innovations never get to market effectively. We hear phrases like “we’re too big to do things like that any more” and yup, people running amuck can be dangerous - turns out move fast and break things doesn’t always work out. 

We hear “that requires approval” or “I’m their bosses bosses boss” or “you need to be a team player and run this by other leaders” or “we need more process” or “we need a center of excellence for that because too many teams are doing their own thing” or “we need to have routine meetings about this” or “how does that connect to the corporate strategy” or “we’re a public company now so no” or “we don’t have the resources to think about moon shots” or “we need a new committee for that” or “who said you could do that” and all of these taken as isolated comments would be fine here or there. But the aggregate of so many micro-aggressions comes from a place of control, often stemming from fear of change or being left behind and they come at the cost of innovation. 

Charles Simonyi didn’t leave Xerox PARC and go to Microsoft to write Microsoft Word to become a cog in a wheel that’s focused on revenue and not changing the world. Microsoft simply got out-innovated due to being crushed under the weight of too many layers of management and so overly exerting control over those capable of building cool stuff. I’ve watched those who stayed be allowed speak publicly again, engage with communities, take feedback, be humble, admit mistakes, and humanize the company. It’s a privilege to get to work with them and I’ve seen results like a change to a graphAPI endpoint one night when I needed a new piece of data. 

They aren’t running amuck. They are precise, targeted, and allowed to do what needs to be done. And it’s amazing how a chief molds the way a senior leadership team acts and they mold the way directors direct and they mold the way managers manage and down the line. An aspect of culture is a mission - another is values - and another is behaviors, which make up the culture. And these days I gotta’ say I’m glad to have witnessed a turnaround like they’ve had and every time I talk to a leader or an individual contributor at Microsoft I’m glad to feel their culture coming through.

So here’s where I’d like to leave this. We can all help shape a great culture. Leaders aren’t the only ones who have an impact. We can all innovate. An innovative company isn’t one that builds a great innovative product (although that helps) but instead one who becomes an unstoppable force due to lots of small innovations at every level of the organization. Where are we allowing politics or a need for control and over-centralization stifle others? Let’s change that.


Babbage to Bush: An Unbroken Line Of Computing

     7/29/2021

The amount published in scientific journals has exploded over the past few hundred years. This helps in putting together a history of how various sciences evolved. And sometimes helps us revisit areas for improvement - or predict what’s on the horizon. The rise of computers often begins with stories of Babbage. As we’ve covered a lot came before him and those of the era were often looking to automate calculating increasingly complex mathematic tables.

Charles Babbage was a true Victorian era polymath. A lot was happening as the world awoke to a more scientific era and scientific publications grew in number and size. Born in London, Babbage loved math from an early age and went away to Trinity College in Cambridge in 1810. There he helped form the Analytical Society with John Herschel - a pioneer of early photography and a chemist and invented of the blueprint. And George Peacock, who established the British arm of algebraic logic, which when picked up by George Boole would go on to form part of Boolean algebra, ushering in the idea that everything can be reduced to a zero or a one.

Babbage graduated from Cambridge and went on to become a Fellow of the Royal Society and helped found the Royal Astronomical Society. He published works with Herschel on electrodynamics that went on to be used by Michael Faraday later and even dabbled in actuarial tables - possibly to create a data driven insurance company. His father passed away in 1827, leaving him a sizable estate. And after applying multiple times he finally became a professor at Cambridge in 1828.

He and the others from the Analytical Society were tinkering with things like generalized polynomials and what we think of today as a formal power series, all of which an be incredibly tedious and time consuming. Because it’s iterative. Pascal and Leibnitz had pushed math forward and had worked on the engineering to automate various tasks, applying some of their science. This gave us Pascal’s calculator and Leibnitz’s work on information theory and his calculus ratiocinator added a stepped reckoner, now called the Leibniz wheel where he was able to perform all four basic arithmetic operations. 

Meanwhile, Babbage continued to bounce around between society, politics, science, mathematics, and even coining a book on manufacturing where he looked at rational design and profit sharing. He also looked at how tasks were handled and made observations about the skill level of each task and the human capital involved in carrying them out. Marx even picked up where Babbage left off and looked further into profitability as a motivator. He also invented the pilot for trains and was involved with lots of learned people of the day.

Yet Babbage is best known for being the old, crusty gramps of the computer. Or more specifically the difference engine, which is different from a differential analyzer. A difference engine was a mechanical calculator that could perform polynomial functions. A differential analyzer on the other hand solves differential equations using wheels and disks. 

Babbage expanded on the ideas of Pascal and Leibniz and added to mechanical computing, making the difference engine, the inspiration of many a steampunk work of fiction. Babbage started work on the difference engine in 1819. Multiple engineers built different components for the engine and it was powered by a crank that spun a series of wheels, not unlike various clockworks available at the time. The project was paid for by the British Government who hoped it could save time calculating complex tables. Imagine doing all the work in spreadsheets manually. Each cell could take a fair amount of time and any mistake could be disastrous. 

But it was just a little before its time. The plans have been built and worked and while he did produce a prototype capable of raising numbers to the third power and perform some quadratic equations the project was abandoned in 1833. We’ll talk about precision in a future episode.

Again, the math involved in solving differential equations at the time was considerable and the time-intensive nature was holding back progress. So Babbage wasn’t the only one working on such ideas. Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis, known for the Coriolis effect, was studying the collisions of spheres and became a professor of mechanics in Paris. To aid in his works, he designed the first mechanical device to integrate differential equations in 1836. 

After Babbage scrapped his first, he moved on to the analytical engine, adding conditional branching, loops, and memory  - and further complicating the machine. The engine borrowed the punchcard tech from the Jacquard loom and applied that same logic, along with the work of Leibniz, to math. The inputs would be formulas, much as Turing later described when concocting some of what we now call Artificial Intelligence. Essentially all problems could be solved given a formula and the output would be a printer. The analytical machine had 1,000 numbers worth of memory and a logic processor or arithmetic unit that he called a mill, which we’d call a CPU today. He even planned on a programming language which we might think of as assembly today. All of this brings us to the fact that while never built, it would have been a Turing-complete in that the simulation of those formulas was a Turing machine. 

Ada Lovelace contributed the concept of Bernoulli numbers in algorithms giving us a glimpse into what an open source collaboration might some day look like. And she was in many ways the first programmer - and daughter of Lord Byron and Anne Millbanke, a math whiz. She became fascinated with the engine and ended up becoming an expert at creating a set of instructions to punch on cards, thus the first programmer of the analytical engine and far before her time. In fact, there would be no programmer for 100 years with her depth of understanding. Not to make you feel inadequate, but she was 27 in 1843. Luigi Menabrea took the idea to France. And yet by the time Babbage died in 1871 without a working model. 

During those years, Per Georg Scheutz built a number of difference engines based on Babbage’s published works - also funded by the government and would evolve to become the first calculator that could print. Martin Wiberg picked up from there and was able to move to 20 digit processing. George Grant at Harvard developed calculating machines and published his designs by 1876, starting a number of companies to fabricate gears along the way. 

James Thomson built a differential analyzer in 1876 to predict tides. And that’s when his work on fluid dynamics and other technology seemed to be the connection between these machines and the military. Thomson’s work would Joe added to work done by Arthur Pollen and we got our first automated fire-control systems. 

Percy Ludgate and Leonardo Torres wrote about Babbages work in the early years the 1900s and other branches of math needed other types of mechanical computing. Burroughs built a difference engine in 1912 and another in 1929.

The differential analyzer was picked up by a number of scientists in those early years. But Vaneevar Bush was perhaps one of the most important. He, with Harold Locke Hazen built one at MIT and published an article on it in 1931. Here’s where everything changes. The information was out there in academic journals. Bush published another in 1936 connecting his work to Babbage’s.

Bush’s designs get used by a number of universities and picked up by the the Balistic Research Lab in the US. One of those installations was in the same basement ENIAC would be built in. Bush did more than inspire other mathematicians. Sometimes he paid them. His research assistant was Claude Shannon, who built the General Purpose Analog Computer in 1941 and went on to become founder of the whole concept of information theory, down to the bits to bytes. Shannon’s computer was important as it came shortly after Alan Turing’s work on Turing machines and so has been seen as a means to get to this concept of general, programmable computing - basically revisiting the Babbage concept of a thinking, or analytical machine.

And Howard Aiken went a step further than mechanical computing and into electromechanical computing with he Mark I, where he referenced Babbage’s work as well. Then we got the Atanasoff-Berry Computer in 1942. By then, our friend Bush had gone on to chair the National Defense Research Committee where he would serve under Roosevelt and Truman and help develop radar and the Manhattan Project as an administrator where he helped coordinate over 5,000 research scientists. Some helped with ENIAC, which was completed in 1945, thus beginning the era of programmable, digital, general purpose computers.

Seeing how computers helped break Enigma machine encryption and solve the equations, blow up targets better, and solve problems that held science back was one thing - but  unleashing such massive and instantaneous violence as the nuclear bomb caused Bush to write an article for The Atlantic called As We May Think, that inspired generations of computer scientists. Here he laid out the concept of a Memex, or a general purpose computer that every knowledge worker could have. And thus began the era of computing. 

What we wanted to look at in this episode is how Babbage wasn’t an anomaly. Just as Konrad Zuse wasn’t. People published works, added to the works they read about, cited works, pulled in concepts from other fields, and we have unbroken chains in our understanding of how science evolves. Some,  like Konrad Zuse, might have been operating outside of this peer reviewing process - but he eventually got around to publishing as well.

 


How Venture Capital Funded The Computing Industry

     7/24/2021

Investors have pumped capital into emerging markets since the beginning of civilization. Egyptians explored basic mathematics and used their findings to build larger structures and even granaries to allow merchants to store food and serve larger and larger cities. Greek philosophers expanded on those learnings and applied math to learn the orbits of planets, the size of the moon, and the size of the earth. Their merchants used the astrolabe to expand trade routes. They studied engineering and so learned how to leverage the six simple machines to automate human effort, developing mills and cranes to construct even larger buildings. The Romans developed modern plumbing and aqueducts and gave us concrete and arches and radiant heating and bound books and the postal system. 

Some of these discoveries were state sponsored; others from wealthy financiers. Many an early investment was into trade routes, which fueled humanities ability to understand the world beyond their little piece of it and improve the flow of knowledge and mix found knowledge from culture to culture. 

As we covered in the episode on clockworks and the series on science through the ages, many a scientific breakthrough was funded by religion as a means of wowing the people. And then autocrats and families who’d made their wealth from those trade routes. Over the centuries of civilizations we got institutions who could help finance industry. 

Banks loan money using an interest rate that matches the risk of their investment. It’s illegal, going back to the Bible to overcharge on interest. That’s called usury, something the Romans realized during their own cycles of too many goods driving down costs and too few fueling inflation. And yet, innovation is an engine of economic growth - and so needs to be nurtured. 

The rise of capitalism meant more and more research was done privately and so needed to be funded. And the rise of intellectual property as a good. Yet banks have never embraced startups. 

The early days of the British Royal Academy were filled with researchers from the elite. They could self-fund their research and the more doing research, the more discoveries we made as a society. Early American inventors tinkered in their spare time as well. But the pace of innovation has advanced because of financiers as much as the hard work and long hours. Companies like DuPont helped fuel the rise of plastics with dedicated research teams. Railroads were built by raising funds. Trade grew. Markets grew. And people like JP Morgan knew those markets when they invested in new fields and were able to grow wealth and inspire new generations of investors. And emerging industries ended up dominating the places that merchants once held in the public financial markets. 

Going back to the Venetians, public markets have required regulation. As banking became more a necessity for scalable societies it too required regulation - especially after the Great Depression. And yet we needed new companies willing to take risks to keep innovation moving ahead., as we do today And so the emergence of the modern venture capital market came in those years with a few people willing to take on the risk of investing in the future.

John Hay “Jock” Whitney was an old money type who also started a firm. We might think of it more as a family office these days but he had acquired 15% in Technicolor and then went on to get more professional and invest. Jock’s partner in the adventure was fellow Delta Kappa Epsilon from out at the University of Texas chapter, Benno Schmidt. Schmidt coined the term venture capital and they helped pivot Spencer Chemicals from a musicians plant to fertilizer - they’re both nitrates, right? They helped bring us Minute Maid. and more recently have been in and out of Herbalife, Joe’s Crab Shack, Igloo coolers, and many others. But again it was mostly Whitney money and while we tend to think of venture capital funds as having more than one investor funding new and enterprising companies. 

And one of those venture capitalists stands out above the rest. Georges Doriot moved to the United States from France to get his MBA from Harvard. He became a professor at Harvard and a shrewd business mind led to him being tapped as the Director of the Military Planning Division for the Quartermaster General. He would be promoted to brigadier general following a number of massive successes in the research and development as part of the pre-World War II military industrial academic buildup. 

After the war Doriot created the American Research and Development Corporation or ARDC with the former president of MIT, Karl Compton, and engineer-turned Senator Ralph Flanders - all of them wrote books about finance, banking, and innovation. They proved that the R&D for innovation could be capitalized to great return. The best example of their success was Digital Equipment Corporation, who they invested $70,000 in in 1957 and turned that into over $350 million in 1968 when DEC went public, netting over 100% a year of return. Unlike Whitney, ARDC took outside money and so Doriot became known as the first true venture capitalist.

Those post-war years led to a level of patriotism we arguably haven’t seen since. John D. Rockefeller had inherited a fortune from his father, who built Standard Oil. To oversimplify, that company was broken up into a variety of companies including what we now think of as Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, and Chevron. But the family was one of the wealthiest in the world and the five brothers who survived John Jr built an investment firm they called the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

We might think of the fund as a social good investment fund these days. Following the war in 1951, John D Rockefeller Jr endowed the fund with $58 million and in 1956, deep in the Cold War, the fund president Nelson Rockefeller financed a study and hired Henry Kissinger to dig into the challenges of the United States. And then came Sputnik in 1957 and a failed run for the presidency of the United States by Nelson in 1960. 

Meanwhile, the fund was helping do a lot of good but also helping to research companies Venrock would capitalize. The family had been investing since the 30s but Laurance Rockefeller had setup Venrock, a mashup of venture and Rockefeller. In Venrock, the five brothers, their sister, MIT’s Ted Walkowicz, and Harper Woodward banded together to sprinkle funding into now over 400 companies that include Apple, Intel, PGP, CheckPoint, 3Com, DoubleClick and the list goes on. Over 125 public companies have come out of the fund today with an unimaginable amount of progress pushing the world forward.

The government was still doing a lot of basic research in those post-war years that led to standards and patents and pushing innovation forward in private industry. ARDC caught the attention of a number of other people who had money they needed to put to work. Some were family offices increasingly willing to make aggressive investments. Some were started by ARDC alumni such as Charlie Waite and Bill Elfers who with Dan Gregory founded Greylock Partners. Greylock has invested in everyone from Red Hat to Staples to LinkedIn to Workday to Palo Alto Networks to Drobo to Facebook to Zipcar to Nextdoor to OpenDNS to Redfin to ServiceNow to Airbnb to Groupon to Tumblr to Zenprise to Dropbox to IFTTT to Instagram to Firebase to Wandera to Sumo Logic to Okta to Arista to Wealthfront to Domo to Lookout to SmartThings to Docker to Medium to GoFundMe to Discord to Houseparty to Roblox to Figma. Going on 800 investments just since the 90s they are arguably one of the greatest venture capital firms of all time. 

Other firms came out of pure security analyst work. Hayden, Stone, & Co was co-founded by another MIT grad, Charles Hayden, who made his name mining copper to help wire up the world in what he expected to be an increasingly electrified world. Stone was a Wall Street tycoon and the two of them founded a firm that employed Joe Kennedy, the family patriarch, Frank Zarb, a Chairman of the NASDAQ and they gave us one of the great venture capitalists to fund technology companies, Arthur Rock. 

Rock has often been portrayed as the bad guy in Steve Jobs movies but was the one who helped the “Traitorous 8” leave Shockley Semiconductor and after their dad (who had an account at Hayden Stone) mentioned they needed funding, got serial entrepreneur Sherman Fairchild to fund Fairchild Semiconductor. He developed tech for the Apollo missions, flashes, spy satellite photography - but that semiconductor business grew to 12,000 people and was a bedrock of forming what we now call Silicon Valley. Rock ended up moving to the area and investing. Parlaying success in an investment in Fairchild to invest in Intel when Moore and Noyce left Fairchild to co-found it. 

Venture Capital firms raise money from institutional investors that we call limited partners and invest that money. After moving to San Francisco, Rock setup Davis and Rock, got some limited partners, including friends from his time at Harvard and invested in 15 companies, including Teledyne and Scientific Data Systems, which got acquired by Xerox, taking their $257,000 investment to a $4.6 million dollar valuation in 1970 and got him on the board of Xerox. He dialed for dollars for Intel and raised another $2.5 million in a couple of hours, and became the first chair of their board. He made all of his LPs a lot of money.

One of those Intel employees who became a millionaire retired young. Mike Markulla invested some of his money and Rock put in $57,000 - growing it to $14 million and went on to launch or invest in companies and make billions of dollars in the process. 

Another firm that came out of the Fairchild Semiconductor days was Kleiner Perkins. They started in 1972, by founding partners Eugene Kleiner, Tom Perkins, Frank Caufield, and Brook Byers. Kleiner was the leader of those Traitorous 8 who left William Shockley and founded Fairchild Semiconductor. He later hooked up with former HP head of Research and Development and yet another MIT and Harvard grad, Bill Perkins. Perkins would help Corning, Philips, Compaq, and Genentech - serving on boards and helping them grow. 

Caufield came out of West Point and got his MBA from Harvard as well. He’d go on to work with Quantum, AOL, Wyse, Verifone, Time Warner, and others.  Byers came to the firm shortly after getting his MBA from Stanford and started four biotech companies that were incubated at Kleiner Perkins - netting the firm over $8 Billion dollars. And they taught future generations of venture capitalists. People like John Doerr - who was a great seller at Intel but by 1980 graduated into venture capital bringing in deals with Sun, Netscape, Amazon, Intuit, Macromedia, and one of the best gambles of all time - Google. And his reward is a net worth of over $11 billion dollars. But more importantly to help drive innovation and shape the world we live in today. 

Kleiner Perkins was the first to move into Sand Hill Road. From there, they’ve invested in nearly a thousand companies that include pretty much every household name in technology. From there, we got the rise of the dot coms and sky-high rent, on par with Manhattan. Why? Because dozens of venture capital firms opened offices on that road, including Lightspeed, Highland, Blackstone, Accel-KKR, Silver Lake, Redpoint, Sequoia, and Andreesen Horowitz.

Sequoia also started in the 70s, by Don Valentine and then acquired by Doug Leone and Michael Moritz in the 90s. Valentine did sales for Raytheon before joining National Semiconductor, which had been founded by a few Sperry Rand traitors and brought in some execs from Fairchild. They were venture backed and his background in sales helped propel some of their earlier investments in Apple, Atari, Electronic Arts, LSI, Cisco, and Oracle to success. And that allowed them to invest in a thousand other companies including Yahoo!, PayPal, GitHub, Nvidia, Instagram, Google, YouTube, Zoom, and many others. 

So far, most of the firms have been in the US. But venture capital is a global trend. 

Masayoshi Son founded Softbank in 1981 to sell software and then published some magazines and grew the circulation to the point that they were Japan’s largest technology publisher by the end of the 80s and then went public in 1994. They bought Ziff Davis publishing, COMDEX, and seeing so much technology and the money in technology, Son inked a deal with Yahoo! to create Yahoo! Japan. They pumped $20 million into Alibaba in 2000 and by 2014 that investment was worth $60 billion. In that time they became more aggressive with where they put their money to work. They bought Vodafone Japan, took over competitors, and then the big one - they bought Sprint, which they merged with T-Mobile and now own a quarter of the combined companies. An important aspect of venture capital and private equity is multiple expansion. The market capitalization of Sprint more than doubled with shares shooting up over 10%. They bought Arm Limited, the semiconductor company that designs the chips in so many a modern phone, IoT device, tablet and even computer now.

As with other financial firms, not all investments can go great. SoftBank pumped nearly $5 billion into WeWork. Wag failed. 2020 saw many in staff reductions. They had to sell tens of billions in assets  to weather the pandemic. And yet with some high profile losses, they sold ARM for a huge profit, Coupang went public and investors in their Vision Funds are seeing phenomenal returns across over 200 companies in the portfolios.

Most of the venture capitalists we mentioned so far invested as early as possible and stuck with the company until an exit - be it an IPO, acquisition, or even a move into private equity. Most got a seat on the board in exchange for not only their seed capital, or the money to take products to market, but also their advice. In many a company the advice was worth more than the funding. For example, Randy Komisar, now at Kleiner Perkins, famously recommended TiVo sell monthly subscriptions, the growth hack they needed to get profitable.

As the venture capital industry grew and more and more money was being pumped into fueling innovation, different accredited and institutional investors emerged to have different tolerances for risk and different skills to bring to the table. Someone who built an enterprise SaaS company and sold within three years might be better served to invest in and advise another company doing the same thing. Just as someone who had spent 20 years running companies that were at later stages and taking them to IPO was better at advising later stage startups who maybe weren’t startups any more.

Here’s a fairly common startup story. After finishing a book on Lisp, Paul Graham decides to found a company with Robert Morris. That was Viaweb in 1995 and one of the earliest SaaS startups that hosted online stores - similar to a Shopify today. Viaweb had an investor named Julian Weber, who invested $10,000 in exchange for 10% of the company. Weber gave them invaluable advice and they were acquired by Yahoo! for about $50 million in stock in 1998, becoming the Yahoo Store. 

Here’s where the story gets different. 2005 and Graham decides to start doing seed funding for startups, following the model that Weber had established with Viaweb. He and Viaweb co-founders Robert Morris (the guy that wrote the Morris worm) and Trevor Blackwell start Y Combinator, along with Jessica Livingston. They put in $200,000 to invest in companies and with successful investments grew to a few dozen companies a year. They’re different because they pick a lot of technical founders (like themselves) and help the founders find product market fit, finish their solutions, and launch. And doing so helped them bring us Airbnb, Doordash, Reddit, Stripe, Dropbox and countless others.

Notice that many of these firms have funded the same companies. This is because multiple funds investing in the same company helps distribute risk. But also because in an era where we’ve put everything from cars to education to healthcare to innovation on an assembly line, we have an assembly line in companies. We have thousands of angel investors, or humans who put capital to work by investing in companies they find through friends, family, and now portals that connect angels with companies. 

We also have incubators, a trend that began in the late 50s in New York when Jo Mancuso opened a warehouse up for small tenants after buying a warehouse to help the town of Batavia. The Batavia Industrial Center provided office supplies, equipment, secretaries, a line of credit, and most importantly advice on building a business. They had made plenty of money on chicken coops and though that maybe helping companies start was a lot like incubating chickens and so incubators were born. 

Others started incubating. The concept expanded from local entrepreneurs helping other entrepreneurs and now cities, think tanks, companies, and even universities, offer incubation in their walls. Keep in mind many a University owns a lot of patents developed there and plenty of companies have sprung up to commercialize the intellectual property incubated there. Seeing that and how technology companies needed to move faster we got  accelerators like Techstars, founded by David Cohen, Brad Feld, David Brown, and Jared Polis in 2006 out of Boulder, Colorado. They have worked with over 2,500 companies and run a couple of dozen programs. Some of the companies fail by the end of their cohort and yet many like Outreach and Sendgrid grow and become great organizations or get acquired.

The line between incubator and accelerator can be pretty slim today. Many of the earlier companies mentioned are now the more mature venture capital firms. Many have moved to a focus on later stage companies with YC and Techstars investing earlier. They attend the demos of companies being accelerated and invest. And the fact that founding companies and innovating is now on an assembly line, the companies that invest in an A round of funding, which might come after an accelerator, will look to exit in a B round, C round, etc. Or may elect to continue their risk all the way to an acquisition or IPO. 

And we have a bevy of investing companies focusing on the much later stages. We have private equity firms and family offices that look to outright own, expand, and either harvest dividends from or sell an asset, or company. We have traditional institutional lenders who provide capital but also invest in companies. We have hedge funds who hedge puts and calls or other derivatives on a variety of asset classes. Each has their sweet spot even if most will opportunistically invest in diverse assets.

Think of the investments made as horizons. The Angel investor might have their shares acquired in order to clean up the cap table, or who owns which parts of a company, in later rounds. This simplifies the shareholder structure as the company is taking on larger institutional investors to sprint towards and IPO or an acquisition.

People like Arthur Rock, Tommy Davis, Tom Perkins, Eugene Kleiner, Doerr, Masayoshi Son, and so many other has proven that they could pick winners. Or did they prove they could help build winners? Let’s remember that investing knowledge and operating experience were as valuable as their capital. Especially when the investments were adjacent to other successes they’d found.

Venture capitalists invested more than $10 billion in 1997. $600 million of that found its way to early-stage startups. But most went to preparing a startup with a product to take it to mass market. Today we pump more money than ever into R&D - and our tax systems support doing so more than ever. And so more than ever, venture money plays a critical role in the life cycle of innovation. Or does venture money play a critical role in the commercialization of innovation? Seed accelerators, startup studios, venture builders, public incubators, venture capital firms, hedge funds, banks - they’d all have a different answer. And they should. Few would stick with an investment like Digital Equipment for as long as ARDC did. And yet few provide over 100% annualized returns like they did. 

As we said in the beginning of this episode, wealthy patrons from Pharaohs to governments to industrialists to now venture capitalists have long helped to propel innovation, technology, trade, and intellectual property. We often focus on the technology itself in computing - but without the money the innovation either wouldn’t have been developed or if developed wouldn’t have made it to the mass market and so wouldn’t have had an impact into our productivity or quality of life. 

The knowledge that comes with those who provide the money can be seen with irreverence. Taking an innovation to market means market-ing. And sales. Most generations see the previous generations as almost comedic, as we can see in the HBO show Silicon Valley when the cookie cutter industrialized approach goes too far. We can also end up with founders who learn to sell to investors rather than raising capital in the best way possible, selling to paying customers.

But there’s wisdom from previous generations when offered and taken appropriately. A coachable founder with a vision that matches the coaching and a great product that can scale is the best investment that can be made. Because that’s where innovation can change the world.


Albert Cory Talks About His New Book, Inventing The Future

     7/16/2021

Author Albert Cory joins the podcast in this episode to talk about his new book, Inventing the Future. Inventing the Future was a breath of fresh air from an inspirational time and person. Other books have told the story of how the big names in computing were able to commercialize many of the innovations that came out of Xerox PARC. But Inventing the Future adds a really personal layer that ties in the culture of the day (music, food, geography, and even interpersonal relationships) to what was happening in computing - that within a couple of decades would wildly change how we live our lives. 

We’re lucky he made the time to discuss his take on a big evolution in modern technology through the lens of historical fiction. I would absolutely recommend the book to academics and geeks and just anyone looking to expand their minds. And we look forward to having him on again!


Where Fast Food Meets Point of Sale, Automation, and Computing

     7/16/2021

Roy Allen opened his first root beer stand in 1919, in Lodi, California. He’d bought a recipe for root beer and boy, it sure was a hit. He brought in people to help. One was Frank Wright, who would become a partner in the endeavor and they’d change the name to A&W Root Beer, for their names, and open a restaurant in 1923 in Sacramento, California. Allen bought Wright back out in 1925, but kept the name. Having paid for the root beer license he decided to franchise out the use of that - but let’s not call that the first fast food chain just yet. After all, it was just a license to make root beer just like he’d bought the recipe all those years ago. 

A&W’s Allen sold the company in 1950 to retire. The franchise agreements moved from a cash payment to royalties. But after Allen the ownership of the company bounced around until it landed with United Fruit which would become United Brands, who took A&W to the masses and the root beer company was split from the restaurant chain with the chain eventually owned by Yum! Brands now nearly 1,000 locations and over $300M in revenues. 

White Castle 

As A&W franchised, some experimented with other franchising options or with not going that route at all. Around the same time Wright opened his first stand, Walt Anderson was running a few food stands around Witchita. He met up with Billy Ingram and in 1921 they opened the first White Castle, putting in $700 of their own money. By 1927 they expanded out to Indianapolis. As is often the case, the original cook with the concept sold out his part of the business in 1933 when they moved their headquarters to Columbus, Ohio and the Ingram family expanded all over the United States. Many a fast food chain is franchised but White Castle has stayed family owned and operates profitably not taking on debt to grow. 

Kentucky Fried Chicken 

KFC îs fried chicken. They sell some other stuff I guess. They were started by Harland Sanders in 1930 but as we see with a lot of these they didn’t start franchising until after the war. His big hack was to realize he needed to cook chicken faster to serve more customers and so he converted a pressure cooker into a pressure fryer, completely revolutionizing how food is fried. 

He perfected his original recipe in 1940 and by 1952 was able to parlay the success of his early success into franchising out what is now the second largest fast food chain in the world. But the largest is McDonald’s. 

McDonalds

1940 comes around and Richard and Maurice McDonald open a little restaurant called McDonalds. It was a drive-up barbecue joint in San Bernadino. But drive-in restaurants were getting competitive and while looking back at the business, they realized that four fifths of the sales were hamburgers. So they shut down for a bit and got rid of the car hops that were popular at the time, simplified the menu and trimmed out everything they could - getting down to less than 10 items on the menu. 

They were able to get prices down to 15 cent hamburgers using something they called the Speedee Service System. That was an assembly-line of food preparation that became the standard in the fast food industry over the next few decades. They also looked at industrial equipment and used that to add french fries and shakes, which finally unlocked an explosion of sales and profits doubled. 

But then the milkshake mixer salesman payed a visit to them in San Bernadino to see why the brothers need 8 of his mixers and was amazed to find they were, in fact, cranking out 48 shakes at a time with them. The assembly-line opened his eyes and he bought the rights to franchise the McDonalds concept opening his first one in Des Plaines, Illinois. One of the best growth hacks for any company is just to have an amazing sales and marketing arm. OK, so not a hack but just good business. And Ray Kroc will go down as one of the greatest. From those humble beginnings selling milkshake mixers he moved from licensing to buying the company outright for $2.7 million dollars in 1961. 

Another growth hack was to realize, thanks to a former VP at Tastee-Freez, that owning the real estate brought yet another revenue stream. A low deposit and a 20% or higher increase in the monthly spend would grow into a nearly 38 billion dollar revenue stream. 

The highway system was paying dividends to the economy. People were moving out to the suburbs. Cars were shipping in the highest volumes ever. They added the filet-o-fish and were exploding internationally in the 60s and 70s and now sitting on over 39,000 stores with about a $175 billion market cap with over $5 billion dollars in revenue.

Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives

Those post-war years were good to fast food. Anyone that’s been to a 50s themed restaurant can see the car culture on display and drive-ins were certainly a part of that. People were living their lives at a new pace to match the speed of those cars and it was a golden age of growth in the United States. The computer industry was growing right along with those diners, drive-ins, and dives. 

One company that started before World War II and grew fast was Dairy Queen, started in 1940 by John Fremont McCullough. He’d invented soft-serve ice cream in 1938 and opened the first Dairy Queen in Joliet, Illinois with his friend Sherb Noble, who’d been selling his soft-serve ice cream out of his shop for a couple of years. During those post-war 1950s explosive years they introduced the Dilly Bar and have now expanded to 6,800 locations around the world. 

William Rosenberg opened a little coffee shop in in Quincy, Massachusetts. As with the others in this story, he parlayed quick successes and started to sell franchises in 1955 and Dunkin’ Donuts grew to 12,400 locations. 

In-N-Out Burger started in 1948 as well, by Harry and Esther Snyder and while they’ve only expanded around the west coast of the US, they’ve grown to around 350 locations and stay family owned. 

Pizza Hut was started in 1958 in Wichita, Kanas. While it was more of a restaurant for a long time, it’s now owned by Yum! Brands and operates well over 18,000 locations. Yum! Also owns KFC and Taco Bell. Glen Bell served as a cook in World War II and moved to San Bernardino to open a drive-in hot dog stand in 1948. He sold it and started a taco stand, selling them for 19 cents a piece, expanding to three locations by 1955 and went serial entrepreneur - selling those locations and opening four new ones he called El Tacos down in Long Beach. He sold that to his partner in 1962 and started his first Taco Bell, finally ready to start selling franchises in 1964 and grew it to 100 restaurants by 1967. 

They took Taco Bell public in 1970 when they had 325 locations. And Pepsi bought the 868 location in 1978 for $125 million in stock, eventually spinning the food business off to what is now called Yum! Brands and co-branding with cousin restaurants in that portfolio - Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s. I haven’t been to a Long John Silver’s since I was a kid but they still have over a thousand locations and date back to a hamburger stand started in 1929 that over the years pivoted to a roast beef sandwich shop and pivoting many times until landing on the fish and chips concept in 1969. 

The Impact of Computing

It’s hard to imagine that any of these companies could have grown the way they did without more than an assembly-line of human automation. Mechanical cash registers had been around since the Civil War in the United States, with early patents filed in 1883 by Charles Kettering and James Ritty. Arguably the abacus and counting frame goes back way further but the Ritty Model I patent was sparked the interest of Jacob Eckert who bought the patent, added some features and took on $10,000 in debt to take the cash register to market, forming National Manufacturing Company. That became National Cash Register still a more than 6 billion dollar market cap company.

But the growth of IBM and other computing companies, the release of semiconductors, and the miniaturization and dropping costs of printed circuit boards helped lead to the advent of electronic cash registers. After all those are just purpose-built computers. IBM introduced the first point of sale system in 1973, bringing that cash register into the digital age. Suddenly a cash register could be in the front as a simplified terminal to send print outs or information to a screen in the back. 

Those IBM 3650s evolved to the first use of peer-to-peer client-server technology and ended up in Dillard’s in 1974. That same year McDonald’s had William Brobeck and Associates develop a microprocessor-based terminal. It was based on the Intel 8008 chip and used a simple push-button device to allow cashiers to enter orders. This gave us a queue of orders being sent by terminals in the front. And we got touchscreens registers in 1986, running on the Atari 520ST, with IBM introducing a 486-based system running on FlexOS. 

Credit Cards

As we moved into the 90s, fast food chains were spreading fast and the way we payed for goods was starting to change. All these electronic registers could suddenly send the amount owed over an electronic link to a credit card processing machine. 

John Biggins launched the Charg-it card in 1946 and it spread to Franklin National Bank a few years later. Diners Club Card picked up on the trend and launched the Diners Club Card in 1950, growing to 20,000 cardholders in 1951. American Express came along in 1958 with their card and in just five years grew to a million cards. Bank of America released their BankAmericard in 1958, which became the first general-purpose credit card. They started in California and went national in the first ten years. That would evolve into Visa by 1966 and by 1966 we got MasterCard as well. THat’s also the same year the Barclaycard brought credit cards outside the US for the first time, showing up first in England. Then Carte bleue in 67 in France and the Eurocard as a collaboration between the Wallenberg family and Interbank in 1968 to serve the rest of Europe.

Those spread and by the 90s we had enough people using them to reach a critical mass where fast food needed to take them as well. Whataburger and Carl’s Jr added the option in 1989, Arby’s in 1990,  and while slower to adopt taking cards, McDonald’s finally did so in 2002. We were well on our way to becoming a cashless society.

And the rise of the PC led to POS systems moving a little down-market and systems from and others like Aloha, designed in 1998 (now owned by NCR). And lots of other brands of devices as well as home-brewed tooling from large vendors.  

And computers helped revolutionize the entire organization. Chains could automate supply lines to stores with computerized supply chain management. Desktop computers also led to management functions being computerized in the back office, like scheduling and time clocks and so less managers were needed. That was happening all over post-War America by the 90s.

Post-War America 

In that era after World War II people were fascinated with having the same experiences over and over - and having them be identical. Think about it, before the war life was slower and every meal required work. After it was fast and the food always came out hot and felt like a suburban life, wherever you were. Even when that white flight was destroying city centers and the homogeneity leading to further centralized organizations dividing communities. 

People flocked to open these restaurants. They could make money, it was easier to get a loan to open a store with a known brand, there were high profit margins, and in a lot of cases, there was a higher chance of success than many other industries. This leads to even more homogeneity. That rang true for other types of franchising on the rise as well. Fast food became a harbinger of things to come and indicative of other business trends as well.

These days we think of high fructose corn syrup, fried food, and GMOs when we think of fast food. And that certainly led to the rise. People who eat fast food want that. Following the first wave of fast food we got other brands rising as well. Arby’s was founded in 1964, Subway in 1965, Wendy’s in 1969, Jack in the Box in 1961, Chick-fil-A in 1946, just a few miles from where I was born. And newer chains like Quiznos in 1981, Jimmy John’s in 1983, and Chipotle in 1993. These touch other areas of the market focusing on hotter, faster, or spicier. 

From the burger craze to the drive-in craze to just plain fast, fast food has been with us since long before anyone listening to this episode was born and is likely to continue on long after we’re gone. Love it or hate it, it’s a common go-to when we’re working on systems - especially far from home. 

And the industry continues to evolve. A barrier to opening any type of retail chain was once the point of sale system. Another was finding a way to accept credit cards. Stripe emerged to help with the credit cards and a cadre of tablet and app-based solutions for the iPhone, Android, and tablets emerged to help make taking credit cards simple for new businesses. A lot of the development was once put into upmarket solutions but these days downmarket is so much more approachable. And various fraud prevention machine learning algorithms and chip and pin technologies makes taking a credit card for a simple transaction safer than ever. 

The Future

The fast food and retail in general continues to evolve. The next evolution seems to be self-service. This is well underway but a number of companies are looking at kiosks to take orders and all those cashiers might find RFID tags as another threat to their jobs. If a machine can see what’s in a cart on the way out of a store there’s no need for cashiers. Here, we see the digitization as one wave of technology but given the inexpensive cost of labor we are just now seeing the cost of the technology come down to where it’s cheaper. Much as the cost of clockworks and then industrialization caused first the displacement of Roman slave labor and then workers in factories. Been to a parking ramp recently? That’s a controlled enough environment where the people were some of the first to be replaced with simple computers that processed first magnetic stripes and now license plates using simple character recognition technology.

Another revolution that has already begun is how we get the food. Grubhub launched in 2004, we got Postmates in 2011, and DoorDash came in 2013 to make it where we don’t even have to leave the house to get our burger fix. We can just open an app, use our finger print to check out, and have items show up at our homes often in less time than if we’d of gone to pick it up. And given that they have a lot of drivers and know exactly where they are, Uber attempted to merge with DoorDash in 2019, but that’s fine because they’d already launched Uber Eats in 2014. But DoorDash has about half that market at $2.9 billion in revenues for 2020 and that’s just with 18 million users - still less than 10% of US households. I guess that’s why DoorDash enjoys a nearly $60 billion market cap. We are in an era of technology empires.

And yet McDonald’s is only worth about three times what DoorDash is worth and guess which one is growing faster.

Empires come and go. 

The ability to manage an empire that scales larger than the technology and communications capabilities allows for was a downfall of many an empire - from Rome to Poland to the Russian Czarist empire. Each was profoundly changed by splitting up the empire as with Rome, becoming a pawn between neighboring empires, or even the development of an entirely new system of governance, as with Russia. Fast food employs four and a half million people in the US today, with another almost 10 million people employed globally. About half of those are adults. An industry that’s grown from revenues of just $6 billion to a half trillion dollar industry since just 1970. And those employees often make minimum wage. Think about this, that’s over twice the number of slaves as there were in the Roman Empire. Many of whom rose up to conquer the empire.

And the name of the game is automation. Has been since that McDonald’s Speedee Service System that enthralled Ray Kroc. But the human labor will some day soon be drastically cut. Just as the McDonald brothers cut car hops from their roster all those years ago. And that domino will knock down others in every establishment we walk into to pay for goods. Probably not in the next 5 years, but certainly in my lifetime. Job displacement due to technology is nothing new. It goes back past the Romans. But it is accelerating faster than at other points in history. And you have to wonder what kinds of socio, political, and economical repercussions we’ll have. Add in other changes around the world and the next few decades will be interesting to watch. 


A broad overview of how the Internet happened

     7/12/2021

The Internet is not a simple story to tell. In fact, every sentence here is worthy of an episode if not a few. 

Many would claim the Internet began back in 1969 when the first node of the ARPAnet went online. That was the year we got the first color pictures of earthen from Apollo 10 and the year Nixon announced the US was leaving Vietnam. It was also the year of Stonewall, the moon landing, the Manson murders, and Woodstock. A lot was about to change.

But maybe the story of the Internet starts before that, when the basic research to network computers began as a means of networking nuclear missile sites with fault-tolerant connections in the event of, well, nuclear war. Or the Internet began when a T3 backbone was built to host all the datas. Or the Internet began with the telegraph, when the first data was sent over electronic current. Or maybe the Internet began when the Chinese used fires to send messages across the Great Wall of China. Or maybe the Internet began when drums sent messages over long distances in ancient Africa, like early forms of packets flowing over Wi-Fi-esque sound waves. 

We need to make complex stories simpler in order to teach them, so if the first node of the ARPAnet in 1969 is where this journey should end, feel free to stop here. To dig in a little deeper, though, that ARPAnet was just one of many networks that would merge into an interconnected network of networks. We had dialup providers like CompuServe, America Online, and even The WELL. We had regional timesharing networks like the DTSS out of Dartmouth University and PLATO out of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. We had corporate time sharing networks and systems. Each competed or coexisted or took time from others or pushed more people to others through their evolutions. Many used their own custom protocols for connectivity. But most were walled gardens, unable to communicate with the others. 

So if the story is more complicated than that the ARPAnet was the ancestor to the Internet, why is that the story we hear? Let’s start that journey with a memo that we did an episode on called “Memorandum For Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network” sent by JCR Licklider in 1963 and can be considered the allspark that lit the bonfire called The ARPANet. Which isn’t exactly the Internet but isn’t not. In that memo, Lick proposed a network of computers available to research scientists of the early 60s. Scientists from computing centers that would evolve into supercomputing centers and then a network open to the world, even our phones, televisions, and watches.

It took a few years, but eventually ARPA brought in Larry Roberts, and by late 1968 ARPA awarded an RFQ to build a network to a company called Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) who would build Interface Message Processors, or IMPs. The IMPS were computers that connected a number of sites and routed traffic. The first IMP, which might be thought of more as a network interface card today, went online at UCLA in 1969 with additional sites coming on frequently over the next few years. That system would become ARPANET.

The first node of ARPAnet went online at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA for short). It grew as leased lines and more IMPs became more available. As they grew, the early computer scientists realized that each site had different computers running various and random stacks of applications and different operating systems. So we needed to standardize certain aspects connectivity between different computers. 

Given that UCLA was the first site to come online, Steve Crocker from there began organizing notes about protocols and how systems connected with one another in what they called RFCs, or Request for Comments. That series of notes was then managed by a team that included Elizabeth (Jake) Feinler from Stanford once Doug Engelbart’s project on the “Augmentation of Human Intellect” at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) became the second node to go online. SRI developed a Network Information Center, where Feinler maintained a list of host names (which evolved into the hosts file) and a list of address mappings which would later evolve into the functions of Internic which would be turned over to the US Department of Commerce when the number of devices connected to the Internet exploded. Feinler and Jon Postel from UCLA would maintain those though, until his death 28 years later and those RFCs include everything from opening terminal connections into machines to file sharing to addressing and now any place where the networking needs to become a standard. 

The development of many of those early protocols that made computers useful over a network were also being funded by ARPA. They funded a number of projects to build tools that enabled the sharing of data, like file sharing and some advancements were loosely connected by people just doing things to make them useful and so by 1971 we also had email. But all those protocols needed to flow over a common form of connectivity that was scalable. Leonard Kleinrock, Paul Baran, and Donald Davies were independently investigating packet switching and Roberts brought Kleinrock into the project as he was at UCLA. Bob Kahn entered the picture in 1972. He would team up with Vint Cerf from Stanford who came up with encapsulation and so they would define the protocol that underlies the Internet, TCP/IP. By 1974 Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn wrote RFC 675 where they coined the term internet as shorthand for internetwork. The number of RFCs was exploding as was the number of nodes. The University of California Santa Barbara then the University of Utah to connect Ivan Sutherland’s work. The network was national when BBN connected to it in 1970. Now there were 13 IMPs and by 1971, 18, then 29 in 72 and 40 in 73. Once the need arose, Kleinrock would go on to work with Farouk Kamoun to develop the hierarchical routing theories in the late 70s.

By 1976, ARPA became DARPA. The network grew to 213 hosts in 1981 and by 1982, TCP/IP became the standard for the US DOD and in 1983, ARPANET moved fully over to TCP/IP. And so TCP/IP, or Transport Control Protocol/Internet Protocol is the most dominant networking protocol on the planet. It was written to help improve performance on the ARPAnet with the ingenious idea to encapsulate traffic. But in the 80s, it was just for researchers still. That is, until NSFNet was launched by the National Science Foundation in 1986. 

And it was international, with the University College of London connecting in 1971, which would go on to inspire a British research network called JANET that built their own set of protocols called the Colored Book protocols. And the Norwegian Seismic Array connected over satellite in 1973. So networks were forming all over the place, often just time sharing networks where people dialed into a single computer.

Another networking project going on at the time that was also getting funding from ARPA as well as the Air Force was PLATO. Out of the University of Illinois, was meant for teaching and began on a mainframe in 1960. But by the time ARPAnet was growing PLATO was on version IV and running on a CDC Cyber. The time sharing system hosted a number of courses, as they referred to programs. These included actual courseware, games, convent with audio and video, message boards, instant messaging, custom touch screen plasma displays, and the ability to dial into the system over lines, making the system another early network. In fact, there were multiple CDC Cybers that could communicate with one another. And many on ARPAnet also used PLATO, cross pollinating non-defense backed academia with a number of academic institutions. 

The defense backing couldn’t last forever. The Mansfield Amendment in 1973 banned general research by defense agencies. This meant that ARPA funding started to dry up and the scientists working on those projects needed a new place to fund their playtime. Bob Taylor split to go work at Xerox, where he was able to pick the best of the scientists he’d helped fund at ARPA. He helped bring in people from Stanford Research Institute, where they had been working on the oNLineSystem, or NLS and people like Bob Metcalfe who brought us Ethernet and better collusion detection. Metcalfe would go on to found 3Com a great switch and network interface company during the rise of the Internet.

But there were plenty of people who could see the productivity gains from ARPAnet and didn’t want it to disappear. And the National Science Foundation (NSF) was flush with cash. And the ARPA crew was increasingly aware of non-defense oriented use of the system. So the NSF started up a little project called CSNET in 1981 so the growing number of supercomputers could be shared between all the research universities. It was free for universities that could get connected and from 1985 to 1993 NSFNET, surged from 2,000 users to 2,000,000 users. Paul Mockapetris made the Internet easier than when it was an academic-only network by developing the Domain Name System, or DNS, in 1983. That’s how we can call up remote computers by names rather than IP addresses. And of course DNS was yet another of the protocols in Postel at UCLAs list of protocol standards, which by 1986 after the selection of TCP/IP for NSFnet, would become the standardization body known as the IETF, or Internet Engineering Task Force for short. Maintaining a set of protocols that all vendors needed to work with was one of the best growth hacks ever. No vendor could have kept up with demand with a 1,000x growth in such a small number of years.

NSFNet started with six nodes in 1985, connected by LSI-11 Fuzzball routers and quickly outgrew that backbone. They put it out to bid and Merit Network won out in a partnership between MCI, the State of Michigan, and IBM. Merit had begun before the first ARPAnet connections went online as a collaborative effort by Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and the University of Michigan. They’d been connecting their own machines since 1971 and had implemented TCP/IP and bridged to ARPANET. The money was getting bigger, they got $39 million from NSF to build what would emerge as the commercial Internet. 

They launched in 1987 with 13 sites over 14 lines. By 1988 they’d gone nationwide going from a 56k backbone to a T1 and then 14 T1s. But the growth was too fast for even that. They re-engineered and by 1990 planned to add T3 lines running in parallel with the T1s for a time. By 1991 there were 16 backbones with traffic and users growing by an astounding 20% per month. 

Vint Cerf ended up at MCI where he helped lobby for the privatization of the internet and helped found the Internet Society in 1988. The lobby worked and led to the the Scientific and Advanced-Technology Act in 1992. Before that, use of NSFNET was supposed to be for research and now it could expand to non-research and education uses. This allowed NSF to bring on even more nodes. And so by 1993 it was clear that this was growing beyond what a governmental institution whose charge was science could justify as “research” for any longer. 

By 1994, Vent Cerf was designing the architecture and building the teams that would build the commercial internet backbone at MCI. And so NSFNET began the process of unloading the backbone and helped the world develop the commercial Internet by sprinkling a little money and know-how throughout the telecommunications industry, which was about to explode. NSFNET went offline in 1995 but by then there were networks in England, South Korea, Japan, Africa, and CERN was connected to NSFNET over TCP/IP. And Cisco was selling routers that would fuel an explosion internationally. There was a war of standards and yet over time we settled on TCP/IP as THE standard. 

And those were just some of the nets. The Internet is really not just NSFNET or ARPANET but a combination of a lot of nets. At the time there were a lot of time sharing computers that people could dial into and following the release of the Altair, there was a rapidly growing personal computer market with modems becoming more and more approachable towards the end of the 1970s. You see, we talked about these larger networks but not hardware. 

The first modulator demodulator, or modem, was the Bell 101 dataset, which had been invented all the way back in 1958, loosely based on a previous model developed to manage SAGE computers. But the transfer rate, or baud, had stopped being improved upon at 300 for almost 20 years and not much had changed. That is, until Hayes Hayes Microcomputer Products released a modem designed to run on the Altair 8800 S-100 bus in 1978. Personal computers could talk to one another. 

And one of those Altair owners was Ward Christensen met Randy Suess at the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists’ Exchange and the two of them had this weird idea. Have a computer host a bulletin board on one of their computers. People could dial into it and discuss their Altair computers when it snowed too much to meet in person for their club. They started writing a little code and before you know it we had a tool they called Computerized Bulletin Board System software, or CBBS. The software and more importantly, the idea of a BBS spread like wildfire right along with the Atari, TRS-80, Commodores and Apple computers that were igniting the personal computing revolution.

The number of nodes grew and as people started playing games, the speed of those modems jumped up with the v.32 standard hitting 9600 baud in 84, and over 25k in the early 90s. By the early 1980s, we got Fidonet, which was a network of Bulletin Board Systems and by the early 90s we had 25,000 BBS’s. And other nets had been on the rise. And these were commercial ventures.

The largest of those dial-up providers was America Online, or AOL. AOL began in 1985 and like most of the other dial-up providers of the day were there to connect people to a computer they hosted, like a timesharing system, and give access to fun things. Games, news, stocks, movie reviews, chatting with your friends, etc. There was also CompuServe, The Well, PSINet, Netcom, Usenet, Alternate, and many others. Some started to communicate with one another with the rise of the Metropolitan Area Exchanges who got an NSF grant to establish switched ethernet exchanges and the Commercial Internet Exchange in 1991, established by PSINet, UUNet, and CERFnet out of California. 

Those slowly moved over to the Internet and even AOL got connected to the Internet in 1989 and thus the dial-up providers went from effectively being timesharing systems to Internet Service Providers as more and more people expanded their horizons away from the walled garden of the time sharing world and towards the Internet. The number of BBS systems started to wind down. All these IP addresses couldn’t be managed easily and so IANA evolved out of being managed by contracts from research universities to DARPA and then to IANA as a part of ICANN and eventually the development of Regional Internet Registries so AFRINIC could serve Africa, ARIN could serve Antarctica, Canada, the Caribbean, and the US, APNIC could serve South, East, and Southeast Asia as well as Oceania LACNIC could serve Latin America and RIPE NCC could serve Europe, Central Asia, and West Asia. By the 90s the Cold War was winding down (temporarily at least) so they even added Russia to RIPE NCC.

And so using tools like WinSOCK any old person could get on the Internet by dialing up. Modems for dial-ups transitioned to DSL and cable modems. We got the emergence of fiber with regional centers and even national FiOS connections. And because of all the hard work of all of these people and the money dumped into it by the various governments and research agencies, life is pretty darn good. 

When we think of the Internet today we think of this interconnected web of endpoints and content that is all available. Much of that was made possible by the development of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee in in 1991 at CERN, and Mosaic came out of the National Center for Supercomputing applications, or NCSA at the University of Illinois, quickly becoming the browser everyone wanted to use until Mark Andreeson left to form Netscape. Netscape’s IPO is probably one of the most pivotal moments where investors from around the world realized that all of this research and tech was built on standards and while there were some patents, the standards were freely useable by anyone. 

Those standards let to an explosion of companies like Yahoo! from a couple of Stanford grad students and Amazon, started by a young hedge fund Vice President named Jeff Bezos who noticed all the money pouring into these companies and went off to do his own thing in 1994. The companies that arose to create and commercialize content and ideas to bring every industry online was ferocious. 

And there were the researchers still writing the standards and even commercial interests helping with that. And there were open source contributors who helped make some of those standards easier to implement by regular old humans. And tools for those who build tools. And from there the Internet became what we think of today. Quicker and quicker connections and more and more productivity gains, a better quality of life, better telemetry into all aspects of our lives and with the miniaturization of devices to support wearables that even extends to our bodies. Yet still sitting on the same fundamental building blocks as before. The IANA functions to manage IP addressing has moved to the private sector as have many an onramp to the Internet. Especially as internet access has become more ubiquitous and we are entering into the era of 5g connectivity. 

And it continues to evolve as we pivot due to new needs and threats a globally connected world represent. IPv6, various secure DNS options, options for spam and phishing, and dealing with the equality gaps  surfaced by our new online world. We have disinformation so sometimes we might wonder what’s real and what isn’t. After all, any old person can create a web site that looks legit and put whatever they want on it. Who’s to say what reality is other than what we want it to be. This was pretty much what Morpheus was offering with his choices of pills in the Matrix. But underneath it all, there’s history. And it’s a history as complicated as unraveling the meaning of an increasingly digital world. And it is wonderful and frightening and lovely and dangerous and true and false and destroying the world and saving the world all at the same time. 

This episode is pretty simplistic and many of the aspects we cover have entire episodes of the podcast dedicated to them. From the history of Amazon to Bob Taylor to AOL to the IETF to DNS and even Network Time Protocol. It’s a story that leaves people out necessarily; otherwise scope creep would go all the way back to to include Volta and the constant electrical current humanity received with the battery. But hey, we also have an episode on that! And many an advance has plenty of books and scholarly works dedicated to it - all the way back to the first known computer (in the form of clockwork), the Antikythera Device out of Ancient Greece. Heck even Louis Gerschner deserves a mention for selling IBM’s stake in all this to focus on things that kept the company going, not moonshots. 

But I’d like to dedicate this episode to everyone not mentioned due to trying to tell a story of emergent networks. Just because they were growing fast and our modern infrastructure was becoming more and more deterministic doesn’t mean that whether it was writing a text editor or helping fund or pushing paper or writing specs or selling network services or getting zapped while trying to figure out how to move current that there aren’t so, so, so many people that are a part of this story. Each with their own story to be told. As we round the corner into the third season of the podcast we’ll start having more guests. If you have a story and would like to join us use the email button on thehistoryofcomputing.net to drop us a line. We’d love to chat!


The History of Plastics in Computing

     7/5/2021

Nearly everything is fine in moderation. Plastics exploded as an industry in the post World War II boom of the 50s and on - but goes back far further. A plastic is a category of materials called a polymer. These are materials comprised of long chains of molecules that can be easily found in nature because cellulose, the cellular walls of plants, comes in many forms. But while the word plastics comes from easily pliable materials, we don’t usually think of plant-based products as plastics. Instead, we think of the synthetic polymers.

But documented uses go back thousands of years, especially with early uses of natural rubbers, milk proteins, gums, and shellacs. But as we rounded the corner into the mid-1800s with the rise of chemistry things picked up steam. That’s when Charles Goodyear wanted to keep tires from popping and so discovered vulcanization as a means to treat rubber. Vulcanization is when rubber is heated and mixed with other chemicals like sulphur.

Then in 1869 John Wesley Hyatt looked for an alternative to natural ivory for things like billiards. He found that cotton fibers could be treated with camphor, which came from the waxy wood of camphor laurels. The substance could be shaped, dried, and then come off as most anything nature produced. When Wesley innovated plastics most camphor was extracted from trees, but today most camphor is synthetically produced from petroleum-based products, further freeing humans from needing natural materials to produce goods. Not only could we skip killing elephants but we could avoid chopping down forests to meet our needs for goods.

Leo Baekeland gave us Bakelite in 1907. By then we were using other materials and the hunt was on for all kinds of materials. Shellac had been used as a moisture sealant for centuries and came from the female lac bugs in trees around India but could also be used to insulate electrical components. Baekeland created a phenol and formaldehyde solution he called Novolak but as with the advent of steel realized that he could change the temperature and how much pressure was applied to the solution that he could make it harder and more moldable - thus Bakelite became the first fully synthetic polymer.

Hermann Staudinger started doing more of the academic research to explain why these reactions were happening. In 1920, he wrote a paper that looked at rubber, starch, and other polymers, explaining how their long chains of molecular units were linked by covalent bonds. Thus their high molecular weights. He would go on to collaborate with his wife Magda Voita, who was a bonanist and his polymer theories proven. And so plastics went from experimentation to science. 

Scientists and experimenters alike continued to investigate uses and by 1925 there was even a magazine called Plastics. They could add filler to Bakelite and create colored plastics for all kinds of uses and started molding jewelry, gears, and other trinkets. They could heat it to 300 degrees and then inject it into molds. And so plastic manufacturing was born. As with many of the things we interact with in our modern world, use grew through the decades and there were other industries that started to merge, evolve, and diverge. 

Éleuthère Irénée du Pont had worked with gunpowder in France and his family immigrated to the United States after the French Revolution. He’d worked with chemist Antoine Lavoisier while a student and started producing gunpowder in the early 1800s. That company, which evolved into the modern DuPont, always excelled in various materials sciences and through the 1920s also focused on a number of polymers. One of their employees, Wallace Carothers, invented neoprene and so gave us our first super polymer in 1928. He would go on to invent nylon as a synthetic form of silk in 1935. DuPont also brought us Teflon and insecticides in 1935.

Acrylic acid went back to the mid-1800s but as people were experimenting with combining chemicals around the same time we saw British chemists John Crawford and Rowland Hill and independently German Otto Röhm develop products based on polymathy methacrylate. Here, they were creating clear, hard plastic to be used like glass. The Brits called theirs Perspex and the Germans called theirs Plexiglas when they went to market, with our friends back at DuPont creating yet another called Lucite. 

The period between World War I and World War II saw advancements in nearly every science - from mechanical computing to early electrical switching and of course, plastics. The Great Depression saw a slow-down in the advancements but World War II and some of the basic research happening around the world caused an explosion as governments dumped money into build-ups. That’s when DuPont cranked out parachutes and tires and even got involved in building the Savannah Hanford plutonium plant as a part of the Manhattan Project. This took them away from things like nylon, which led to riots. We were clearly in the era of synthetics used in clothing. 

Leading up to the war and beyond, every supply chain of natural goods got constrained. And so synthetic replacements for these were being heavily researched and new uses were being discovered all over the place. Add in assembly lines and we were pumping out things to bring joy or improve lives at a constant clip. BASF had been making dyes since the 1860s but chemicals are chemicals and had developed polystyrene in the 1930s and continued to grow and benefit from both licensing and developing other materials like Styropor insulating foam. 

 

Dow Chemical had been founded in the 1800s by Herbert Henry Dow, but became an important part of the supply chain for the growing synthetics businesses, working with Corning to produce silicones and producing styrene and magnesium for light parts for aircraft. They too would help in nuclear developments, managing the Rocky Flats plutonium triggers plant and then napalm, Agent Orange, breast implants, plastic bottles, and anything else we could mix chemicals with. Expanded polystyrene led to plastics in cups, packaging, and anything else.

By the 60s we were fully in a synthetic world. A great quote from 1967’s “The Graduate” was “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” The future was here. And much of that future involved injection molding machines, now more and more common. Many a mainframe was encased in metal but with hard plastics we could build faceplates out of plastic. The IBM mainframes had lots of blinking lights recessed into holes in plastic with metal switches sticking out. Turns out people get shocked less when the whole thing isn’t metal. 

The minicomputers were smaller but by the time of the PDP-11 there were plastic toggles and a plastic front on the chassis. The Altair 8800 ended up looking a lot like that, but bringing that technology to the hobbyist. By the time the personal computer started to go mainstream, the full case was made of injection molding.

The things that went inside computers were increasingly plastic as well. Going back to the early days of mechanical computing, gears were made out of metal. But tubes were often mounted on circuits screwed to wooden boards. Albert Hanson had worked on foil conductors that were laminated to insulating boards going back to 1903 but Charles Ducas patented electroplating circuit patterns in 1927 and Austrian Paul Eisler invented printed circuits for radio sets in the mid-1930s. John Sargrove then figured out he could spray metal onto plastic boards made of Bakelite in the late 1930s and uses expanded to proximity fuzes in World War II and then Motorola helped bring them into broader consumer electronics in the early 1950s.

Printed circuit boards then moved to screen printing metallic paint onto various surfaces and Harry Rubinstein patented printing components, which helped pave the way for integrated circuits. Board lamination and etching was added to the process and conductive inks used in the creation might be etched copper, plated substrates or even silver inks as are used in RFID tags. We’ve learned over time to make things easier and with more precise machinery we were able to build smaller and smaller boards, chips, and eventually 3d printed electronics - even the Circuit Scribe to draw circuits.

Doug Engelbart’s first mouse was wood but by the time Steve Jobs insisted they be mass produceable they’d been plastic for Englebart and then the Alto. Computer keyboards had evolved out of the flexowriter and so become plastic as well. Even the springs that caused keys to bounce back up eventually replaced with plastic and rubberized materials in different configurations. 

Plastic is great for insulating electronics, they are poor conductors of heat, they’re light, they’re easy to mold, they’re hardy, synthetics require less than 5% of the oil we use, and they’re recyclable. Silicone, another polymer, is a term coined by the English chemist F.S. Kipping in 1901. His academic work while at University College, Nottingham would kickstart the synthetic rubber and silicone lubricant industries. But that’s not silicon. That’s an element and a tetravalent metalloid at that. Silicon was discovered in 1787 by Antoine Lavoisier. Yup the same guy that taught Du Pont. While William Shockley started off with germanium and silicon when he was inventing the transistor, it was Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce who realized how well it acted as an insulator or a semiconductor it ended up used in what we now think of as the microchip. But again, that’s not a plastic…

Plastic of course has its drawbacks. Especially since we don’t consume plastics in moderation. It takes 400 to a thousand years do decompose many plastics. The rampant use in every aspect of our lives has led to animals dying after eating plastic, or getting caught in islands of it as plastic is all over the oceans and other waterways around the world. That’s 5 and a quarter trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean that weighs a combined 270,000 tons with another 8 million pieces flowing in there each and every day. In short, the overuse of plastics is hurting our environment. Or at least our inability to control our rampant consumerism is leading to their overuse. They do melt at low temperatures, which can work as a good or bad thing. When they do, they can release hazardous fumes like PCBs and dioxins. Due to many of the chemical compounds they often rely on fossil fuels and so are derived from non-renewable resources. But they’re affordable and represent a trillion dollar industry. And we can all do better at recycling - which of course requires energy and those bonds break down over time so we can’t recycle forever. Oh and the byproducts from the creation of products is downright toxic.

We could argue that plastic is one of the most important discoveries in the history of humanity. That guy from The Graduate certainly would. We could argue it’s one of the worst. But we also just have to realize that our modern lives, and especially all those devices we carry around, wouldn’t be possible without plastics and other synthetic polymers. There’s a future where instead of running out to the store for certain items, we just 3d print them. Maybe we even make filament from printed materials we no longer need. The move to recyclable materials for packaging helps reduce the negative impacts of plastics. But so does just consuming less. Except devices. We obviously need the latest and greatest of each of those all the time! 

Here’s the thing, half of plastics are single-purpose. Much of it is packaging like containers and wrappers. But can you imagine life without the 380 million tons of plastics the world produces a year? Just look around right now. Couldn’t tell you how many parts of this microphone, computer, and all the cables and adapters are made of it. How many couldn’t be made by anything else. There was a world without plastics for thousands of years of human civilization. We’ll look at one of those single-purpose plastic-heavy industries called fast food in an episode soon. But it’s not the plastics that are such a problem. It’s the wasteful rampant consumerism. When I take out my recycling I can’t help but think that what goes in the recycling versus compost versus garbage is as much a symbol of who I want to be as what I actually end up eating and relying on to live. And yet, I remain hopeful for the world in that these discoveries can actually end up bringing us back into harmony with the world around us without reverting to luddites and walking back all of these amazing developments like we see in the science fiction dystopian futures.


The Laws And Court Cases That Shaped The Software Industry

     6/13/2021

The largest global power during the rise of intellectual property was England, so the world adopted her philosophies. The US had the same impact on software law.

Most case law that shaped the software industry is based on copyright law. Our first real software laws appeared in the 1970s and now have 50 years of jurisprudence to help guide us. This episode looks at the laws, supreme court cases, and some circuit appeals cases that shaped the software industry.

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In our previous episode we went through a brief review of how the modern intellectual property laws came to be. Patent laws flowed from inventors in Venice in the 1400s, royals gave privileges to own a monopoly to inventors throughout the rest of Europe over the next couple of centuries, transferred to panels and academies during and after the Age of Revolutions, and slowly matured for each industry as technology progressed. 

Copyright laws formed similarly, although they were a little behind patent laws due to the fact that they weren’t really necessary until we got the printing press. But when it came to data on a device, we had a case in 1908 we covered in the previous episode that led Congress to enact the 1909 Copyright Act. 

Mechanical music boxes evolved into mechanical forms of data storage and computing evolved from mechanical to digital. Following World War II there was an explosion in new technologies, with those in computing funded heavily by US government. Or at least, until we got ourselves tangled up in a very unpopular asymmetrical war in Vietnam. The Mansfield Amendment of 1969, was a small bill in the 1970 Military Authorization Act that ended the US military from funding research that didn’t have a direct relationship to a specific military function. Money could still flow from ARPA into a program like the ARPAnet because we wanted to keep those missiles flying in case of nuclear war. But over time the impact was that a lot of those dollars the military had pumped into computing to help develop the underlying basic sciences behind things like radar and digital computing was about to dry up. This is a turning point: it was time to take the computing industry commercial. And that means lawyers.

And so we got the first laws pertaining to software shortly after the software industry emerged from more and more custom requirements for these mainframes and then minicomputers and the growing collection of computer programmers. The Copyright Act of 1976 was the first major overhaul to the copyright laws since the 1909 Copyright Act. Since then, the US had become a true world power and much as the rest of the world followed the British laws from the Statute of Anne in 1709 as a template for copyright protections, the world looked on as the US developed their laws. Many nations had joined the Berne Convention for international copyright protections, but the publishing industry had exploded. We had magazines, so many newspapers, so many book publishers. And we had this whole weird new thing to deal with: software. 

Congress didn’t explicitly protect software in the Copyright Act of 1976. But did add cards and tape as mediums and Congress knew this was an exploding new thing that would work itself out in the courts if they didn’t step in. And of course executives from the new software industry were asking their representatives to get in front of things rather than have the unpredictable courts adjudicate a weird copyright mess in places where technology meets copy protection. So in section 117, Congress appointed the National Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works, or CONTU) to provide a report about software and added a placeholder in the act that empaneled them.

CONTU held hearings. They went beyond just software as there was another newish technology changing the world: photocopying. They presented their findings in 1978 and recommended we define a computer program as a set of statements or instructions to be used directly or indirectly in a computer in order to bring about a certain result. They also recommended that copies be allowed if required to use the program and that those be destroyed when the user no longer has rights to the software. This is important because this is an era where we could write software into memory or start installing compiled code onto a computer and then hand the media used to install it off to someone else. 

At the time the hobbyist industry was just about to evolve into the PC industry, but hard disks were years out for most of those machines. It was all about floppies. But up-market there was all kinds of storage and the righting was on the wall about what was about to come. Install software onto a computer, copy and sell the disk, move on. People would of course do that, but not legally. 

Companies could still sign away their copyright protections as part of a sales agreement but the right to copy was under the creator’s control. But things like End User License Agreements were still far away. Imagine how ludicrous the idea that a piece of software if a piece of software went bad that it could put a company out of business in the 1970s. That would come as we needed to protect liability and not just restrict the right to copy to those who, well, had the right to do so. Further, we hadn’t yet standardized on computer languages. And yet companies were building complicated logic to automate business and needed to be able to adapt works for other computers and so congress looked to provide that right at the direction of CONTU as well, if only to the company doing the customizations and not allowing the software to then be resold. These were all hashed out and put into law in 1980.

And that’s an important moment as suddenly the party who owned a copy was the rightful owner of a piece of software. Many of the provisions read as though we were dealing with book sellers selling a copy of a book, not dealing with the intricate details of the technology, but with technology those can change so quickly and those who make laws aren’t exactly technologists, so that’s to be expected. 

Source code versus compiled code also got tested. In 1982 Williams Electronics v Artic International explored a video game that was in a ROM (which is how games were distributed before disks and cassette tapes. Here, the Third Circuit weighed in on whether if the ROM was built into the machine, if it could be copied as it was utilitarian and therefore not covered under copyright. The source code was protected but what about what amounts to compiled code sitting on the ROM. They of course found that it was indeed protected. 

They again weighed in on Apple v Franklin in 1983. Here, Franklin Computer was cloning Apple computers and claimed it couldn’t clone the computer without copying what was in the ROMs, which at the time was a remedial version of what we think of as an operating system today.  Franklin claimed the OS was in fact a process or method of operation and Apple claimed it was novel. At the time the OS was converted to a binary language at runtime and that object code was a task called AppleSoft but it was still a program and thus still protected. One and two years later respectively, we got Mac OS 1 and Windows 1.

1986 saw Whelan Associates v Jaslow. Here, Elaine Whelan created a management system for a dental lab on the IBM Series One, in EDL. That was a minicomputer and when the personal computer came along she sued Jaslow because he took a BASIC version to market for the PC. He argued it was a different language and the set of commands was therefore different. But the programs looked structurally similar. She won, as while some literal elements were the same, “the copyrights of computer programs can be infringed even absent copying of the literal elements of the program.” This is where it’s simple to identify literal copying of software code when it’s done verbatim but difficult to identify non-literal copyright infringement. 

But this was all professional software. What about those silly video games all the kids wanted? Well, Atari applied for a copyright for one of their games, Breakout. Here, Register of Copyrights, Ralph Oman chose not to Register the copyright. And so Atari sued, winning in the appeal.

There were certainly other dental management packages on the market at the time. But the court found that “copyrights do not protect ideas – only expressions of ideas.” Many found fault with the decision and  the Second Circuit heard Computer Associates v Altai in 1992. Here, the court applied a three-step test of Abstraction-Filtration-Comparison to determine how similar products were and held that Altai's rewritten code did not meet the necessary requirements for copyright infringement.

There were other types of litigation surrounding the emerging digital sphere at the time as well. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act came along in 1986 and would be amended in 89, 94, 96, and 2001. Here, a number of criminal offenses were defined - not copyright but they have come up to criminalize activities that should have otherwise been copyright cases. And the Copyright Act of 1976 along with the CONTU findings were amended to cover the rental market came to be (much as happened with VHS tapes and Congress established provisions to cover that in 1990. Keep in mind that time sharing was just ending by then but we could rent video games over dial-up and of course VHS rentals were huge at the time.

Here’s a fun one, Atari infringed on Nintendo’s copyright by claiming they were a defendant in a case and applying to the Copyright Office to get a copy of the 10NES program so they could actually infringe on their copyright. They tried to claim they couldn’t infringe because they couldn’t make games unless they reverse engineered the systems. Atari lost that one. But Sega won a similar one soon thereafter because playing more games on a Sega was fair use. Sony tried to sue Connectix in a similar case where you booted the PlayStation console using a BIOS provided by Connectix. And again, that was reverse engineering for the sake of fair use of a PlayStation people payed for. Kinda’ like jailbreaking an iPhone, right? Yup, apps that help jailbreak, like Cydia, are legal on an iPhone. But Apple moves the cheese so much in terms of what’s required to make it work so far that it’s a bigger pain to jailbreak than it’s worth. Much better than suing everyone. 

Laws are created and then refined in the courts. MAI Systems Corp. v. Peak Computer made it to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1993. This involved Eric Francis leaving MAI and joining Peak. He then loaded MAI’s diagnostics tools onto computers. MAI thought they should have a license per computer, but yet Peak used the same disk in multiple computers. The crucial change here was that the copy made, while ephemeral, was decided to be a copy of the software and so violated the copyright. We said we’d bring up that EULA though. In 1996, the Seventh Circuit found in ProCD v Zeidenberg, that the license preempted copyright thus allowing companies to use either copyright law or a license when seeking damages and giving lawyers yet another reason to answer any and all questions with “it depends.”

One thing was certain, the digital world was coming fast in those Clinton years. I mean, the White House would have a Gopher page and Yahoo! would be on display at his second inauguration. So in 1998 we got the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Here, Congress added to Section 117 to allow for software copies if the software was required for maintenance of a computer. And yet software was still just a set of statements, like instructions in a book, that led the computer to a given result. The DMCA did have provisions to provide treatment to content providers and e-commerce providers. It also implemented two international treaties and provided remedies for anti-circumvention of copy-prevention systems since by then cracking was becoming a bigger thing. There was more packed in here. We got MAI Systems v Peak Computer reversed by law, refinement to how the Copyright Office works, modernizing audio and movie rights, and provisions to facilitate distance education. And of course the DMCA protected boat hull designs because, you know, might as well cram some stuff into a digital copyright act. 

In addition to the cases we covered earlier, we had Mazer v Stein, Dymow v Bolton, and even Computer Associates v Altai, which cemented the AFC method as the means most courts determine copyright protection as it extends to non-literal components such as dialogue and images. Time and time again, courts have weighed in on what fair use is because the boundaries are constantly shifting, in part due to technology, but also in part due to shifting business models. 

One of those shifting business models was ripping songs and movies. RealDVD got sued by the MPAA for allowing people to rip DVDs. YouTube would later get sued by Viacom but courts found no punitive damages could be awarded. Still, many online portals started to scan for and filter out works they could know were copy protected, especially given the rise of machine learning to aid in the process. But those were big, major companies at the time. IO Group, Inc sued Veoh for uploaded video content and the judge found Veoh was protected by safe harbor. 

Safe Harbor mostly refers to the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act, or OCILLA for short, which shields online portals and internet service providers from copyright infringement. This would be separate from Section 230, which protects those same organizations from being sued for 3rd party content uploaded on their sites. That’s the law Trump wanted overturned during his final year in office but given that the EU has Directive 2000/31/EC, Australia has the Defamation Act of 2005, Italy has the Electronic Commerce Directive 2000, and lots of other countries like England and Germany have had courts find similarly, it is now part of being an Internet company. Although the future of “big tech” cases (and the damage many claim is being done to democracy) may find it refined or limited.

In 2016, Cisco sued Arista for allegedly copying the command line interfaces to manage switches. Cisco lost but had claimed more than $300 million in damages. Here, the existing Cisco command structure allowed Arista to recruit seasoned Cisco administrators to the cause. Cisco had done the mental modeling to evolve those commands for decades and it seemed like those commands would have been their intellectual property. But, Arista hadn’t copied the code. 

Then in 2017, in ZeniMax vs Oculus, ZeniMax wan a half billion dollar case against Oculus for copying their software architecture. 

And we continue to struggle with what copyright means as far as code goes. Just in 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in Google v Oracle America that using application programming interfaces (APIs) including representative source code can be transformative and fall within fair use, though did not rule if such APIs are copyrightable. I’m sure the CP/M team, who once practically owned the operating system market would have something to say about that after Microsoft swooped in with and recreated much of the work they had done. But that’s for another episode.

And traditional media cases continue. ABS Entertainment vs CBS looked at whether digitally remastering works extended copyright. BMG vs Cox Communications challenged peer-to-peer file-sharing in safe harbor cases (not to mention the whole Napster testifying before congress thing). You certainly can’t resell mp3 files the way you could drop off a few dozen CDs at Tower Records, right? Capitol Records vs ReDigi said nope. Perfect 10 v Amazon, Goldman v Breitbart, and so many more cases continued to narrow down who and how audio, images, text, and other works could have the right to copy restricted by creators. But sometimes it’s confusing. Dr. Seuss vs ComicMix found that merging Star Trek and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” was enough transformativeness to break the copyright of Dr Seuss, or was that the Fair Use Doctrine? Sometimes I find conflicting lines in opinions. Speaking of conflict…

Is the government immune from copyright? Allen v Cooper, Governor of North Carolina made it to the Supreme Court, where they applied blanket copyright protections. Now, this was a shipwreck case but extended to digital works and the Supreme Court seemed to begrudgingly find for the state, and looked to a law as remedy rather than awarding damages. In other words, the “digital Blackbeards” of a state could pirate software at will. Guess I won’t be writing any software for the state of North Carolina any time soon!

But what about content created by a state? Well, the state of Georgia makes various works available behind a paywall. That paywall might be run by a third party in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. So Public.Resource goes after anything where the edict of a government isn’t public domain. In other words, court decision, laws, and statutes should be free to all who wish to access them. The “government edicts doctrine” won in the end and so access to the laws of the nation continue to be free.

What about algorithms? That’s more patent territory when they are actually copyrightable, which is rare. Gottschalk v. Benson was denied a patent for a new way to convert binary-coded decimals to numerals while Diamond v Diehr saw an algorithm to run a rubber molding machine was patentable. And companies like Intel and Broadcom hold thousands of patents for microcode for chips.

What about the emergence of open source software and the laws surrounding social coding? We’ll get to the emergence of open source and the consequences in future episodes!

One final note, most have never heard of the names in early cases. Most have heard of the organizations listed in later cases. Settling issues in the courts has gotten really, really expensive. And it doesn’t always go the way we want. So these days, whether it’s Apple v Samsung or other tech giants, the law seems to be reserved for those who can pay for it. Sure, there’s the Erin Brockovich cases of the world. And lady justice is still blind. We can still represent ourselves, case and notes are free. But money can win cases by having attorneys with deep knowledge (which doesn’t come cheap). And these cases drag on for years and given the startup assembly line often halts with pending legal actions, not many can withstand the latency incurred. This isn’t a “big tech is evil” comment as much as “I see it and don’t know a better rubric but it’s still a thing” kinda’ comment.

Here’s something better that we’d love to have a listener take away from this episode. Technology is always changing. Laws usually lag behind technology change as (like us) they’re reactive to innovation. When those changes come, there is opportunity. Not only has the technological advancement gotten substantial enough to warrant lawmaker time, but the changes often create new gaps in markets that new entrants can leverage. Either leaders in markets adapt quickly or see those upstarts swoop in, having no technical debt and being able to pivot faster than those who previously might have enjoyed a first user advantage. What laws are out there being hashed out, just waiting to disrupt some part of the software market today?


Origins of the Modern Patent And Copyright Systems

     6/7/2021

Once upon a time, the right to copy text wasn’t really necessary. If one had a book, one could copy the contents of the book by hiring scribes to labor away at the process and books were expensive. Then came the printing press. Now, the printer of a work would put a book out and another printer could set their press up to reproduce the same text. More people learned to read and information flowed from the presses at the fastest pace in history. 

The printing press spread from Gutenberg’s workshop in the 1440s throughout Germany and then to the rest of Europe and appearing in England when William Caxton built the first press there in 1476. It was a time of great change, causing England to retreat into protectionism, and Henry VIII tried to restrict what could be printed in the 1500s. But Parliament needed to legislate further. 

England was first to establish copyright when Parliament passed the Licensing of the Press Act in 1662, which regulated what could be printed. This was more to prevent printing scandalous materials and basically gave a monopoly to The Stationers’ Company to register, print, copy, and publish books. They could enter another printer and destroy their presses. That went on for a few decades until the act was allowed to lapse in 1694 but began the 350 year journey of refining what copyright and censorship means to a modern society. 

The next big step came in England when the Statute of Anne was passed in 1710. It was named for the reigning last Queen of the House of Stuart. While previously a publisher could appeal to have a work censored by others because the publisher had created it, this statute took a page out of the patent laws and granted a right of protection against copying a work for 14 years. Reading through the law and further amendments it is clear that lawmakers were thinking far more deeply about the balance between protecting the license holder of a work and how to get more books to more people. They’d clearly become less protectionist and more concerned about a literate society. 

There are examples in history of granting exclusive rights to an invention from the Greeks to the Romans to Papal Bulls. These granted land titles, various rights, or a status to people. Edward the Confessor started the process of establishing the Close Rolls in England in the 1050s, where a central copy of all those granted was kept. But they could also be used to grant a monopoly, with the first that’s been found being granted by Edward III to John Kempe of Flanders as a means of helping the cloth industry in England to flourish. 

Still, this wasn’t exactly an exclusive right but instead a right to emigrate. And the letters were personal and so letters patent evolved to royal grants, which Queen Elizabeth was providing in the late 1500s. That emerged out of the need for patent laws proven by Venicians in the late 1400s, when they started granting exclusive rights by law to inventions for 10 years. King Henry II of France established a royal patent system in France and over time the French Academy of Sciences was put in charge of patent right review.

English law evolved and perpetual patents granted by monarchs were stifling progress. Monarchs might grant patents to raise money and so allow a specific industry to turn into a monopoly to raise funds for the royal family. James I was forced to revoke the previous patents, but a system was needed. And so the patent system was more formalized and those for inventions got limited to 14 years when the Statue of Monopolies was passed in England in 1624. The evolution over the next few decades is when we started seeing drawings added to patent requests and sometimes even required. We saw forks in industries and so the addition of medical patents, and an explosion in various types of patents requested. 

They weren’t just in England. The mid-1600s saw the British Colonies issuing their own patents. Patent law was evolving outside of England as well. The French system was becoming larger with more discoveries. By 1729 there were digests of patents being printed in Paris and we still keep open listings of them so they’re easily proven in court. Given the maturation of the Age of Enlightenment, that clashed with the financial protectionism of patent laws and intellectual property as a concept emerged but borrowed from the patent institutions bringing us right back to the Statute of Anne, which established the modern Copyright system. That and the Statue of Monopolies is where the British Empire established the modern copyright and patent systems respectively, which we use globally today. Apparently they were worth keeping throughout the Age of Revolution, mostly probably because they’d long been removed from the monarchal control and handed to various public institutions.

The American Revolution came and went. The French Revolution came and went. The Latin American wars of independence, revolutions throughout the 1820s , the end of Feudalism, Napoleon. But the wars settled down and a world order of sorts came during the late 1800s. One aspect of that world order was the Berne Convention, which was signed in 1886. This  established the bilateral recognition of copyrights among sovereign nations that signed onto the treaty, rather than have various nations enter into pacts between one another. Now, the right to copy works were automatically in force at creation, so authors no longer had to register their mark in Berne Convention countries.

Following the Age of Revolutions, there was also an explosion of inventions around the world. Some ended up putting copyrighted materials onto reproducible forms. Early data storage. Previously we could copyright sheet music but the introduction of the player piano led to the need to determine the copyright ability of piano rolls in White-Smith Music v. Apollo in 1908. Here we saw the US Supreme Court find that these were not copies as interpreted in the US Copyright Act because only a machine could read them and they basically told congress to change the law. So Congress did.

The Copyright Act of 1909 then specified that even if only a machine can use information that’s protected by copyright, the copyright protection remains. And so things sat for a hot minute as we learned first mechanical computing, which is patentable under the old rules and then electronic computing which was also patentable. Jacquard patented his punch cards in 1801. But by the time Babbage and Lovelace used them in his engines that patent had expired. And the first digital computer to get a patent was the Eckert-Mauchly ENIAC, which was filed in 1947, granted in 1964, and because there was a prior unpatented work, overturned in 1973. Dynamic RAM was patented in 1968. But these were for physical inventions.

Software took a little longer to become a legitimate legal quandary. The time it took to reproduce punch cards and the lack of really mass produced software didn’t become an issue until after the advent of transistorized computers with Whirlwind, the DEC PDP, and the IBM S/360.

Inventions didn’t need a lot of protections when they were complicated and it took years to build one. I doubt the inventor of the Antikythera Device in Ancient Greece thought to protect their intellectual property because they’d of likely been delighted if anyone else in the world would have thought to or been capable of creating what they created. Over time, the capabilities of others rises and our intellectual property becomes more valuable because progress moves faster with each generation. Those Venetians saw how technology and automation was changing the world and allowed the protection of inventions to provide a financial incentive to invent. Licensing the commercialization of inventions then allows us to begin the slow process of putting ideas on a commercialization assembly line. 

Books didn’t need copyright until they could be mass produced and were commercially viable. That came with mass production. A writer writes, or creates intellectual property and a publisher prints and distributes. Thus we put the commercialization of literature and thoughts and ideas on an assembly line. And we began doing so far before the Industrial Revolution. 

Once there were more inventions and some became capable of mass producing the registered intellectual property of others, we saw a clash in copyrights and patents. And so we got the Copyright Act of 1909. But with digital computers we suddenly had software emerging as an entire industry. IBM had customized software for customers for decades but computer languages like FORTRAN and mass storage devices that could be moved between computers allowed software to be moved between computers and sometimes entire segments of business logic moved between companies based on that software. By the 1960s, companies were marketing computer programs as a cottage industry. 

The first computer program was deposited at the US Copyright Office in 1961. It was a simple thing. A tape with a computer program that had been filed by North American Aviation. Imagine the examiners looking at it with their heads cocked to the side a bit. “What do we do with this?” They hadn’t even figured it out when they got three more from General Dynamics and two more programs showed up from a student at Columbia Law. 

A punched tape held a bunch of punched cards. A magnetic tape just held more punched tape that went faster. This was pretty much what those piano rolls from the 1909 law had on them. Registration was added for all five in 1964. And thus software copyright was born. But of course it wasn’t just a metallic roll that had impressions for when a player piano struck a hammer. If someone found a roll on the ground, they could put it into another piano and hit play. But the likelihood that they could put reproduce the piano roll was low. The ability to reproduce punch cards had been there. But while it likely didn’t take the same amount of time it took to reproduce a copy Plato’s Republic before the advent of the printing press, the occurrences weren’t frequent enough to encounter a likely need for adjudication. That changed with high speed punch devices and then the ability to copy magnetic tape.

Contracts (which we might think of as EULAs today in a way) provided a license for a company to use software, but new questions were starting to form around who was bound to the contract and how protection was extended based on a number of factors. Thus the LA, or License Agreement part of EULA rather than just a contract when buying a piece of software. 

And this brings us to the forming of the modern software legal system. That’s almost a longer story than the written history we have of early intellectual property law, so we’ll pick that up in the next episode of the podcast!


A History Of Text Messages In A Few More Than 160 Characters

     5/16/2021

Texts are sent and received using SMS, or Short Message Service. Due to the amount of bandwidth available on second generation networks, they were limited to 160 characters initially. You know the 140 character max from Twitter, we are so glad you chose to join us on this journey where we weave our way from the topmast of the 1800s to the skinny jeans of San Francisco with Twitter.

What we want you to think about through this episode is the fact that this technology has changed our lives. Before texting we had answering machines, we wrote letters, we sent more emails but didn’t have an expectation of immediate response. Maybe someone got back to us the next day, maybe not. But now, we rely on texting to coordinate gatherings, pick up the kids, get a pin on a map, provide technical support, send links, send memes, convey feelings in ways that we didn’t do when writing letters. I mean including an animated gif in a letter meant melty peanut butter. Wait, that’s jif. Sorry.

And few technologies have sprung into our every day use so quickly in the history of technology. It took generations if not 1,500 years for bronze working to migrate out of the Vinča Culture and bring an end to the Stone Age. It took a few generations if not a couple of hundred years for electricity to spread throughout the world. The rise of computing took a few generations to spread from first mechanical then to digital and then to personal computing and now to ubiquitous computing. And we’re still struggling to come to terms with job displacement and the productivity gains that have shifted humanity more rapidly than any other time including the collapse of the Bronze Age. 

But the rise of cellular phones and then the digitization of them combined with globalization has put instantaneous communication in the hands of everyday people around the world. We’ve decreased our reliance on paper and transporting paper and moved more rapidly into a digital, even post-PC era. And we’re still struggling to figure out what some of this means. But did it happen as quickly as we identify? Let’s look at how we got here.

Bell Telephone introduced the push button phone in 1963 to replace the rotary dial telephone that had been invented in 1891 and become a standard. And it was only a matter of time before we’d find a way to associate letters to it. Once we could send bits over devices instead of just opening up a voice channel it was only a matter of time before we’d start sending data as well. Some of those early bits we sent were things like typing our social security number or some other identifier for early forms of call routing. Heck the fax machine was invented all the way back in 1843 by a Scottish inventor called Alexander Bain. 

So given that we were sending different types of data over permanent and leased lines it was only a matter of time before we started doing so over cell phones. 

The first cellular networks were analog in what we now think of as first generation, or 1G. GSM, or Global System for Mobile Communications is a standard that came out of the European Telecommunications Standards Institue and started getting deployed in 1991. That became what we now think of as 2G and paved the way for new types of technologies to get rolled out.

The first text message simply said “Merry Christmas” and was sent on December 3rd, 1992. It was sent to Richard Jarvis at Vodafone by Neil Papworth. As with a lot of technology it was actually thought up eight years earlier by Bernard Ghillabaert and Friedhelm Hillebrand. From there, the use cases moved to simply alerting devices of various statuses, like when there was a voice mail. These days we mostly use push notification services for that. 

To support using SMS for that, carriers started building out SMS gateways and by 1993 Nokia was the first cell phone maker to actually support end-users sending text messages. Texting was expensive at first, but adoption slowly increased. We could text in the US by 1995 but cell phone subscribers were sending less than 6 texts a year on average. But as networks grew and costs came down, adoption increased up to a little over one a day by the year 2000. 

Another reason adoption was slow was because using multi-tap to send a message sucked. Multi-tap was where we had to use the 10-key pad on a device to type out messages. You know, ABC are on a 2 key so the first type you tap two it’s the number the next time it’s an A, the next a B, the next a C. And the 3 key is D, E, and F. The 4 is G, H, and I and the 5 is J, K, and L. The 6 is M, N, and O and the 7 is P, Q, R, and S. The 8 is T, U, and V and the 9 is W, X, Y, and Z. This layout goes back to old bell phones that had those letters printed under the numbers. That way if we needed to call 1-800-PODCAST we could map which letters went to what. 

A small company called Research in Motion introduced an Inter@active Pager in 1996 to do two-way paging. Paging services went back decades. My first was a SkyTel, which has its roots in Mississippi when John N Palmer bought a 300 person paging company using an old-school radio paging service. That FCC license he picked up evolved to more acquisitions through Alabama, Loisiana, New York and by the mid-80s growing nationally to 30,000 subscribers in 1989 and over 200,000 less than four years later. A market validated, RIM introduced the BlackBerry on the DataTAC network in 2002, expanding from just text to email, mobile phone services, faxing, and now web browsing. We got the Treo the same year. But that now iconic Blackberry keyboard. Nokia was the first cellular device maker to make a full keyboard for their Nokia 9000i Communicator in 1997, so it wasn’t an entirely new idea.

But by now, more and more people were thinking of what the future of Mobility would look like. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project, or 3GPP was formed in 1998 to dig into next generation networks. They began as an initiative at Nortel and AT&T but grew to include NTT DoCoMo, British Telecom, BellSouth, Ericsson, Telnor, Telecom Italia, and France Telecom - a truly global footprint. With a standards body in place, we could move faster and they began planning the roadmap for 3G and beyond (at this point we’re on 5G). 

Faster data transfer rates let us do more. We weren’t just sending texts any more. MMS, or Multimedia Messaging Service was then introduced and use grow to billions and then hundreds of millions of photos sent encoded using technology like what we do with MIME for multimedia content on websites. At this point, people were paying a fee for every x number of messages and ever MMS. Phones had cameras now so in a pre-Instagram world this was how we were to share them. Granted they were blurry by modern standards, but progress. Devices became more and more connected as data plans expanded to eventually often be unlimited.

But SMS was still slow to evolve in a number of ways. For example, group chat was not really much of a thing. That is, until 2006 when a little company called Twitter came along to make it easy for people to post a message to their friends. Initially it worked over text message until they moved to an app. And texting was used by some apps to let users know there was data waiting for them. Until it wasn’t. Twilio was founded in 2008 to make it easy for developers to add texting to their software. Now every possible form of text integration was as simple as importing a framework.

Apple introduced the Apple Push Notification service, or APNs in 2009. By then devices were always connected to the Internet and the send and receive for email and other apps that were fine on desktops were destroying battery life. APNs then allowed developers to build apps that could only establish a communication channel when they had data. Initially we used 256 bytes in push notifications but due to the popularity and different implementation needs, notifications could grow to 2 kilobytes in 2015 and moved to an HTTP/2 interface and a 4k payload in 2015. This is important because it paved the way for iChat, now called iMessage or just Messages - and then other similar services for various platforms that moved instant messaging off SMS and over to the vendor who builds a device rather than using SMS or MMS messaging. 

Facebook Messenger came along in 2011, and now the kids use Instagram messaging, Snapchat, Signal or any number of other messaging apps. Or they just text. It’s one of a billion communications tools that also include Discord, Slack, Teams, LinkedIn, or even the in-game options in many a game. Kinda’ makes restricting communications a bit of a challenge at this point and restricting spam. 

My kid finishes track practice early. She can just text me. My dad can’t make it to dinner. He can just text me. And of course I can get spam through texts. And everyone can message me on one of about 10 other apps on my phone. And email. On any given day I receive upwards of 300 messages, so sometimes it seems like I could just sit and respond to messages all day every day and still never be caught up. And get this - we’re better for it all. We’re more productive, we’re more well connected, and we’re more organized. Sure, we need to get better at having more meaningful reactions when we’re together in person. We need to figure out what a smaller, closer knit group of friends is like and how to be better at being there for them rather than just sending a sad face in a thread where they’re indicating their pain. 

But there’s always a transition where we figure out how to embrace these advances in technology. There are always opportunities in the advancements and there are always new evolutions built atop previous evolutions. The rate of change is increasing. The reach of change is increasing. And the speed changes propagate are unparalleled today. Some will rebel against changes, seeking solace in older ways. It’s always been like that - the Amish can often be seen on a buggy pulled by a horse so a television or phone capable of texting would certainly be out of the question. Others embrace technology faster than some of us are ready for. Like when I realized some people had moved away from talking on phones and were pretty exclusively texting. Spectrums.

I can still remember picking up the phone and hearing a neighbor on with a friend. Party lines were still a thing in Dahlonega, Georgia when I was a kid. I can remember the first dedicated line and getting in trouble for running up a big long distance bill. I can remember getting our first answering machine and changing messages on it to be funny. Most of that was technology that moved down market but had been around for a long time. The rise of messaging on the cell phone then smart phone though - that was a turning point that started going to market in 1993 and within 20 years truly revolutionized human communication. How can we get messages faster than instant? Who knows, but I look forward to finding out. 


Project Xanadu

     5/13/2021

Java, Ruby, PHP, Go. These are web applications that dynamically generate code then interpreted as a file by a web browser. That file is rarely static these days and the power of the web is that an app or browser can reach out and obtain some data, get back some xml or json or yaml, and provide an experience to a computer, mobile device, or even embedded system. The web is arguably the most powerful, transformational technology in the history of technology.

But the story of the web begins in philosophies that far predate its inception. It goes back to a file, which we can think of as a document, on a computer that another computer reaches out to and interprets. A file comprised of hypertext. Ted Nelson coined the term hypertext. Plenty of others put the concepts of linking objects into the mainstream of computing. But he coined the term that he’s barely connected to in the minds of many.  Why is that?

Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. Elizabeth Feinler developed a registry of names that would evolve into DNS so we could find computers online and so access those web sites without typing in impossible to remember numbers. Bob Kahn and Leonard Kleinrock were instrumental in the Internet Protocol, which allowed all those computers to be connected together, providing the schemes for those numbers. Some will know these names; most will not. 

But a name that probably doesn’t come up enough is Ted Nelson. His tale is one of brilliance and the early days of computing and the spread of BASIC and an urge to do more. It’s a tale of the hacker ethic. And yet, it’s also a tale of irreverence - to be used as a warning for those with aspirations to be remembered for something great. Or is it?

Steve Jobs famously said “real artists ship.” Ted Nelson did ship. Until he didn’t. Let’s go all the way back to 1960, when he started Project Xanadu. Actually, let’s go a little further back first. 

Nelson was born to TV directory Ralph Nelson and Celeste Holm, who won an Academy Award for her role in Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947 and took home another pair of nominations through her career, and for being the original Ado Annie in Oklahoma. His dad worked on The Twilight Zone - so of course he majored in philosophy at Swarthmore College and then went off to the University of Chicago and then Harvard for graduate school, taking a stab at film after he graduated. But he was meant for an industry that didn’t exist yet but would some day eclipse the film industry: software.

 While in school he got exposed to computers and started to think about this idea of a repository of all the world’s knowledge. And it’s easy to imagine a group of computing aficionados sitting in a drum circle, smoking whatever they were smoking, and having their minds blown by that very concept. And yet, it’s hard to imagine anyone in that context doing much more. And yet he did.

Nelson created Project Xanadu in 1960. As we’ll cover, he did a lot of projects during the remainder of his career. The Journey is what is so important, even if we never get to the destination. Because sometimes we influence the people who get there. And the history of technology is as much about failed or incomplete evolutions as it is about those that become ubiquitous. 

It began with a project while he was enrolled in Harvard grad school. Other word processors were at the dawn of their existence. But he began thinking through and influencing how they would handle information storage and retrieval. 

Xanadu was supposed to be a computer network that connected humans to one another. It was supposed to be simple and a scheme for world-wide electronic publishing. Unlike the web, which would come nearly three decades later, it was supposed to be bilateral, with broken links self-repairing, much as nodes on the ARPAnet did. His initial proposal was a program in machine language that could store and display documents. Being before the advent of Markdown, ePub, XML, PDF, RTF, or any of the other common open formats we use today, it was rudimentary and would evolve over time. Keep in mind. It was for documents and as Nelson would say later, the web - which began as a document tool, was a fork of the project. 

The term Xanadu was borrowed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, itself written after some opium fueled dreams about a garden in Kublai Khan’s Shangdu, or Xanadu.In his biography, Coleridge explained the rivers in the poem supply “a natural connection to the parts and unity to the whole” and he said a “stream, traced from its source in the hills among the yellow-red moss and conical glass-shaped tufts of bent, to the first break or fall, where its drops become audible, and it begins to form a channel.” 

Connecting all the things was the goal and so Xanadu was the name. He gave a talk and presented a paper called “A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing and the Indeterminate” at the Association for Computing Machinery in 1965 that laid out his vision. This was the dawn of interactivity in computing. Digital Equipment had launched just a few years earlier and brought the PDP-8 to market that same year. The smell of change was in the air and Nelson was right there. 

After that, he started to see all these developments around the world. He worked on a project at Brown University to develop a word processor with many of his ideas in it. But the output of that project, as with most word processors since - was to get things printed. He believed content was meant to be created and live its entire lifecycle in the digital form. This would provide perfect forward and reverse citations, text enrichment, and change management. And maybe if we all stand on the shoulders of giants, it would allow us the ability to avoid rewriting or paraphrasing the works of others to include them in own own writings. We could do more without that tedious regurgitation. 

He furthered his counter-culture credentials by going to Woodstock in 1969. Probably not for that reason, but it happened nonetheless. And he traveled and worked with more and more people and companies, learning and engaging and enriching his ideas. And then he shared them. 

Computer Lib/Dream Machines was a paperback book. Or two. It had a cover on each side. Originally published in 1974, it was one of the most important texts of the computer revolution. Steven Levy called it an epic. It’s rare to find it for less than a hundred bucks on eBay at this point because of how influential it was and what an amazing snapshot in time it represents. 

Xanadu was to be a hypertext publishing system in the form of Xanadocs, or files that could be linked to from other files. A Xanadoc used Xanalinks to embed content from other documents into a given document. These spans of text would become transclusions and change in the document that included the content when they changed in the live document. The iterations towards working code were slow and the years ticked by. That talk in 1965 gave way to the 1970s, then 80s. Some thought him brilliant. Others didn’t know what to make of it all. But many knew of his ideas for hypertext and once known it became deterministic.

Byte Magazine published many of his thoughts in 1988 called “Managing Immense Storage” and by then the personal computer revolution had come in full force. Tim Berners-Lee put the first node of the World Wide Web online the next year, using a protocol they called Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or http. Yes, the hypertext philosophy was almost a means of paying homage to the hard work and deep thinking Nelson had put in over the decades. But not everyone saw it as though Nelson had made great contributions to computing. 

“The Curse of Xanadu” was an article published in Wired Magazine in 1995. In the article, the author points out the fact that the web had come along using many of the ideas Nelson and his teams had worked on over the years but actually shipped - whereas Nelson hadn’t. Once shipped, the web rose in popularity becoming the ubiquitous technology it is today. The article looked at Xanadu as vaporware. But there is a deeper, much more important meaning to Xanadu in the history of computing. 

Perhaps inspired by the Wired article, the group released an incomplete version of Xanadu in 1998. But by then, other formats - including PDF which was invented in 1993 and .doc for Microsoft Word, were the primary mechanisms we stored documents and first gopher and then the web were spreading to interconnect humans with content.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72M5kcnAL-4

The Xanadu story isn’t a tragedy. Would we have had hypertext as a part of Douglas Engelbart’s oNLine System without it? Would we have object-oriented programming or later the World Wide Web without it? The very word hypertext is almost an homage, even if they don’t know it, to Nelson’s work. And the look and feel of his work lives on in places like GitHub, whether directly influenced or not, where we can see changes in code side-by-side with actual production code, changes that are stored and perhaps rolled back forever.

Larry Tessler coined the term Cut and Paste. While Nelson calls him a friend in Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, he also points out that Tessler’s term is flawed. And I think this is where we as technologists have to sometimes trim down our expectations of how fast evolutions occur. We take tiny steps because as humans we can’t keep pace with the rapid rate of technological change. We can look back and see a two steps forward and one step back approach since the dawn of written history. Nelson still doesn’t think the metaphors that harken back to paper have any place in the online written word. 

Here’s another important trend in the history of computing. As we’ve transitioned to more and more content living online exclusively, the content has become diluted. One publisher I wrote online pieces for asked that they all be +/- 700 words and asked that paragraphs be no more than 4 sentences long (preferably 3) and the sentences should be written at about a 5th or 6th grade level. Maybe Nelson would claim that this de-evolution of writing is due to search engine optimization gamifying the entirety of human knowledge and that a tool like Xanadu would have been the fix. After all, if we could borrow the great works of others we wouldn’t have to paraphrase them. But I think as with most things, it’s much more nuanced than that. 

Our always online, always connected brains can only accept smaller snippets. So that’s what we gravitate towards. Actually, we have plenty of capacity for whatever we actually choose to immerse ourselves into. But we have more options than ever before and we of course immerse ourselves into video games or other less literary pursuits. Or are they more literary? Some generations thought books to be dangerous. As do all oppressors. So who am I to judge where people choose to acquire knowledge or what kind they indulge themselves in. Knowledge is power and I’m just happy they have it. And they have it in part because others were willing to water own the concepts to ship a product. Because the history of technology is about evolutions, not revolutions. And those often take generations. And Nelson is responsible for some of the evolutions that brought us the ht in http or html. And for that we are truly grateful!

As with the great journey from Lord of the Rings, rarely is greatness found alone. The Xanadu adventuring party included Cal Daniels, Roger Gregory, Mark Miller, Stuart Greene, Dean Tribble, Ravi Pandya, became a part of Autodesk in the 80s, got rewritten in Smalltalk, was considered a rival to the web, but really is more of an evolutionary step on that journey. If anything it’s a divergence then convergence to and from Vannevar Bush’s Memex.

So let me ask this as a parting thought? Are the places you are not willing to sacrifice any of your core designs or beliefs worth the price being paid? Are they worth someone else ending up with a place in the history books where (like with this podcast) we oversimplify complex topics to make them digestible? Sometimes it’s worth it. In no way am I in a place to judge the choices of others. Only history can really do that - but when it happens it’s usually an oversimplification anyways… So the building blocks of the web lie in irreverence - in hypertext. And while some grew out of irreverence and diluted their vision after an event like Woodstock, others like Nelson and his friend Douglas Englebart forged on. And their visions didn’t come with commercial success. But as an integral building block to the modern connected world today they represent as great a mind as practically anyone else in computing. 


An Abridged History Of Instagram

     4/24/2021

This was a hard episode to do. Because telling the story of Instagram is different than explaining the meaning behind it. You see, on the face of it - Instagram is an app to share photos. But underneath that it’s much more. It’s a window into the soul of the Internet-powered culture of the world. Middle schoolers have always been stressed about what their friends think. It’s amplified on Instagram. People have always been obsessed with and copied celebrities - going back to the ages of kings. That too is on Instagram. We love dogs and cute little weird animals. So does Instagram. 

Before Instagram, we had photo sharing apps. Like Hipstamatic. Before Instagram, we had social networks - like Twitter and Facebook. How could Instagram do something different and yet, so similar? How could it offer that window into the world when the lens photos are snapped with are as though through rose colored glasses? Do they show us reality or what we want reality to be? Could it be that the food we throw away or the clothes we donate tell us more about us as humans than what we eat or keep? Is the illusion worth billions of dollars a year in advertising revenue while the reality represents our repressed shame?

Think about that as we go through this story.

If you build it, they will come. Everyone who builds an app just kinda’ automatically assumes that throngs of people will flock to the App Store, download the app, and they will be loved and adored and maybe even become rich. OK, not everyone thinks such things - and with the number of apps on the stores these days, the chances are probably getting closer to those that a high school quarterback will play in the NFL. But in todays story, that is exactly what happened. 

And Kevin Systrom had already seen it happen. He was offered a job as one of the first employees at Facebook while still going to Stanford. That’ll never be a thing. Then while on an internship he was asked to be one of the first Twitter employees. That’ll never be a thing either. But they were things, obviously!

So in 2010, Systrom started working on an app he called Burbn and within two years sold the company, then called Instagram for one billion dollars. In doing so he and his co-founder Mike Krieger helped forever changing the deal landscape for mergers and acquisitions of apps, and more profoundly giving humanity lenses with which to see a world we want to see - if not reality.

Systrom didn’t have a degree in computer science. In fact, he taught himself to code after working hours, then during working hours, and by osmosis through working with some well-known founders. 

Burbn was an app to check in and post plans and photos. It was written in HTML5 and in a Cinderella story, he was able to raise half a million dollars in funding from Baseline Ventures and Andreesen Horowitz, bringing in Mike Krieger as a co-founder. 

At the time, Hipstamatic was the top photo manipulation and filtering app. Given that the iPhone came with a camera on-par (if not better) than most digital point and shoots at the time, the pair re-evaluated the concept and instead leaned further into photo sharing, while still maintaining the location tagging.

The original idea was to swipe right and left, as we do in apps like Tinder. But instead they chose to show photos in chronological order and used a now iconic 1:1 aspect ratio, or the photos were square, so there was room on the screen to show metadata and a taste of the next photo - to keep us streaming. The camera was simple, like the Holga camera Systrom had been given while stying abroad when at Stanford. That camera made pictures a little blurry and in an almost filtered way made them loo almost artistic. 

After System graduated from Stanford in 2006, he worked at Google, then NextStop, and then got the bug to make his own app. And boy did he. One thing though, even his wife Nicole didn’t think she could take good photos having seen those from a friend of Systrom’s. He said the photos were so good because the filters. And so we got the first filter, X-Pro 2, so she could take great photos on the iPhone 3G. 

Krieger shared the first post on Instagram on July 16, 2010 and Systrom followed up within a few hours with a picture of a dog. The first of probably a billion dog photos (including a few of my own). And they officially published Instagram on the App Store in October of 2010.

After adding more and more filters, Systrom and Krieger closed in on one of the greatest growth hacks of any app: they integrated with Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare so you could take the photo in Instagram and shoot it out to one of those apps - or all three.

At the time Facebook was more of a browser tool. Few people used the mobile app. And for those that did try and post photos on Facebook, doing so was laborious, using a mobile camera roll in the app and taking more steps than needed. Instagram became the perfect glue to stitch other apps together. And rather than always needing to come up with something witty to say like on Twitter, we could just point the camera on our phone at something and hit a button. 

The posts had links back to the photo on Instagram. They hit 100,000 users in the first week and a million users by the end of the year. Their next growth hack was to borrow the hashtag concept from Twitter and other apps, which they added in January of 2011.

Remember how Systrom interned at Odeo and turned down the offer to go straight to Twitter after college? Twitter didn’t have photo sharing at the time, but Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey had showed System plenty of programming techniques and the two stayed in touch. He became an angel investor in a $7 million Series A and the first real influencer on the platform, sending that link to every photo to all of his Twitter followers every time he posted. The growth continued. June, 2011 they hit 5 million users, and doubled to 10 million by September of 2011. I was one of those users, posting the first photo to @krypted in the fall - being a nerd it was of the iOS 5.0.1 update screen and according to the lone comment on the photo my buddy @acidprime apparently took the same photo. 

They spent the next few months just trying to keep the servers up and running and released an Android of the app in April of 2012, just a couple of days before taking on $50 million dollars in venture capital. But that didn’t need to last long - they sold the company to Facebook for a billion dollars a few days later, effectively doubling each investor in that last round of funding and shooting up to 50 million users by the end of the month. 

At 13 employees, that’s nearly $77 million dollars per employee. Granted, much of that went to Systrom and the investors. The Facebook acquisition seemed great at first. Instagram got access to bigger resources than even a few more rounds of funding would have provided. 

Facebook helped them scale up to 100 million users within a year and following Facebook TV, and the brief but impactful release of Vine at Twitter, Instagram added video sharing, photo tagging, and the ability to add links in 2013.  Looking at a history of their feature releases, they’re slow and steady and probably the most user-centered releases I’ve seen. And in 2013, they grew to 150 million users, proving the types of rewards that come from doing so. 

With that kind of growth it might seem that it can’t last forever - and yet on the back of new editing tools, a growing team, and advertising tools, they managed to hit a staggering 300 million users in 2014.

While they released thoughtful, direct, human sold advertising before, they opened up the ability to buy ads to all advertisers, piggy backing on the Facebook ad selling platform in 2015. That’s the same year they introduced Boomerang, which looped photos in forward and reverse. It was cute for a hot minute. 

2016 saw the introduction of analytics that included demographics, impressions, likes, reach, and other tools for businesses to track performance not only of ads, but of posts. As with many tools, it was built for the famous influencers that had the ear of the founders and management team - and made available to anyone. They also introduced Instagram Stories, which was a huge development effort and they owned that they copied it from Snapchat - a surprising and truly authentic move for a Silicon Valley startup. And we could barely call them a startup any longer, shooting over half a billion users by the middle of the year and 600 million by the end of the year. 

That year, they also brought us live video, a Windows client, and one of my favorite aspects with a lot of people posting in different languages, they could automatically translate posts. 

But something else happened in 2016. Donald Trump was elected to the White House. This is not a podcast about politics but it’s safe to say that it was one of the most divisive elections in recent US history. And one of the first where social media is reported to have potentially changed the outcome. Disinformation campaigns from foreign actors combined with data illegally obtained via Cambridge Analytica on the Facebook network, combined with increasingly insular personal networks and machine learning-driven doubling down on only seeing things that appealed to our world view led to many being able to point at networks like Facebook and Twitter as having been party to whatever they thought the “other side” in an election had done wrong. 

Yet Instagram was just a photo sharing site. They put the users at the center of their decisions. They promoted the good things in life. While Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook couldn’t have helped change any outcomes and that Facebook was just an innocent platform that amplified human thoughts - Systrom openly backed Hillary Clinton. And yet, even with disinformation spreading on Instagram, they seemed immune from accusations and having to go to Capital Hill to be grilled following the election. Being good to users apparently has its benefits. 

However, some regulation needed to happen. 2017, the Federal Trade Commission steps in to force influencers to be transparent about their relationship with advertisers - Instagram responded by giving us the ability to mark a post as sponsored. Still, Instagram revenue spiked over 3 and a half billion dollars in 2017.

Instagram revenue grew past 6 billion dollars in 2018. Systrom and Krieger stepped away from Instagram that year. It was now on autopilot.  Although I think all chief executives have a 

Instagram revenue shot over 9 billion dollars in 2019. In those years they released IGTV and tried to get more resources from Facebook, contributing far more to the bottom line than they took. 

2020 saw Instagram ad revenue close in on 13.86 billion dollars with projected 2021 revenues growing past 18 billion.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray from 1890, Lord Henry describes the impact of influence as destroying our genuine and true identity, taking away our authentic motivations, and as Shakespeare would have put it - making us servile to the influencer. Some are famous and so become influencers on the product naturally, like musicians, politicians, athletes, and even the Pope. . Others become famous due to getting showcased by the @instagram feed or some other prominent person. These influencers often stage a beautiful life and to be honest, sometimes we just need that as a little mind candy. But other times it can become too much, forcing us to constantly compare our skin to doctored skin, our lifestyle to those who staged their own, and our number of friends to those who might just have bought theirs. And seeing this obvious manipulation gives some of us even more independence than we might have felt before. We have a choice: to be or not to be. 

The Instagram story is one with depth. Those influencers are one of the more visible aspects, going back to the first that posted sponsored photos from Snoop Dogg. And when Mark Zuckerberg decided to buy the company for a billion dollars, many thought he was crazy. But once they turned on the ad revenue machine, which he insisted Systrom wait on until the company had enough users, it was easy to go from 3 to 6 to 9 to over 13 and now likely over 18 billion dollars. That’s a greater than 30:1 return on investment, helping to prove that such lofty acquisitions aren’t crazy. 

It’s also a story of monopoly, or at least of suspected monopolies. Twitter tried to buy Instagram and Systrom claims to have never seen a term sheet with a legitimate offer. Then Facebook swooped in and helped fast-track regulatory approval of the acquisition. With the acquisition of WhatsApp, Facebook owns four of the top 6 social media sites, with Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram all over a billion users and YouTube arguably being more of a video site than a true social network. And they tried to buy Snapchat - only the 17th ranked network. 

More than 50 billion photos have been shared through Instagram. That’s about a thousand a second. Many are beautiful...


Before the iPhone Was Apple's Digital Hub Strategy

     3/29/2021

Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996. At the time, most people had a digital camera, like the Canon Elph that was released that year and maybe a digital video camera and probably a computer and about 16% of Americans had a cell phone at the time. Some had a voice recorder, a Diskman, some in the audio world had a four track machine. Many had CD players and maybe even a laser disk player. 

But all of this was changing. Small, cheap microprocessors were leading to more and more digital products. The MP3 was starting to trickle around after being patented in the US that year. Netflix would be founded the next year, as DVDs started to spring up around the world. Ricoh, Polaroid, Sony, and most other electronics makers released digital video cameras. There were early e-readers, personal digital assistants, and even research into digital video recorders that could record your favorite shows so you could watch them when you wanted. In other words we were just waking up to a new, digital lifestyle. But the industries were fragmented. 

Jobs and the team continued the work begun under Gil Amelio to reduce the number of products down from 350 to about a dozen. They made products that were pretty and functional and revitalized Apple. But there was a strategy that had been coming together in their minds and it centered around digital media and the digital lifestyle. We take this for granted today, but mostly because Apple made it ubiquitous. 

Apple saw the iMac as the centerpiece for a whole new strategy. But all this new type of media and the massive files needed a fast bus to carry all those bits. That had been created back in 1986 and slowly improved on one the next few years in the form of IEEE 1394, or Firewire. Apple started it - Toshiba, Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi, and others helped bring it to device they made. Firewire could connect 63 peripherals at 100 megabits, later increased to 200 and then 400 before increasing to 3200. Plenty fast enough to transfer those videos, songs, and whatever else we wanted.

iMovie was the first of the applications that fit into the digital hub strategy. It was originally released in 1999 for the iMac DV, the first iMac to come with built-in firewire. I’d worked on Avid and SGI machines dedicated to video editing at the time but this was the first time I felt like I was actually able to edit video. It was simple, could import video straight from the camera, allow me to drag clips into a timeline and then add some rudimentary effects. Simple, clean, and with a product that looked cool. And here’s the thing, within a year Apple made it free. One catch. You needed a Mac.

This whole Digital Hub Strategy idea was coming together. Now as Steve Jobs would point out in a presentation about the Digital Hub Strategy at Macworld 2001, up to that point, personal computers had mainly been about productivity. Automating first the tasks of scientists, then with the advent of the spreadsheet and databases, moving into automating business and personal functions. A common theme in this podcast is that what drives computing is productivity, telemetry, and quality of life. The telemetry gains came with connecting humanity through the rise of the internet in the later 1990s. But these new digital devices were what was going to improve our quality of life. And for anyone that could get their hands on an iMac they were now doing so. But it still felt like a little bit of a closed ecosystem. 

Apple released a tool for making DVDs in 2001 for the Mac G4, which came with a SuperDrive, or Apple’s version of an optical drive that could read and write CDs and DVDs. iDVD gave us the ability to add menus, slideshows (later easily imported as Keynote presentations when that was released in 2003), images as backgrounds, and more. Now we could take those videos we made and make DVDs that we could pop into our DVD player and watch. Families all over the world could make their vacation look a little less like a bunch of kids fighting and a lot more like bliss. And for anyone that needed more, Apple had DVD Studio Pro - which many a film studio used to make the menus for movies for years.

They knew video was going to be a thing because going back to the 90s, Jobs had tried to get Adobe to release Premiere for the iMac. But they’d turned him down, something he’d never forget. Instead, Jobs was able to sway Randy Ubillos to bring a product that a Macromedia board member had convinced him to work on called Key Grip, which they’d renamed to Final Cut. Apple acquired the source code and development team and released it as Final Cut Pro in 1999. And iMovie for the consumer and Final Cut Pro for the professional turned out to be a home run. But another piece of the puzzle was coming together at about the same time.

Jeff Robbin, Bill Kincaid, and Dave Heller built a tool called SoundJam in 1998. They had worked on the failed Copeland project to build a new OS at Apple and afterwards, Robbin made a great old tool (that we might need again with the way extensions are going) called Conflict Catcher while Kincaid worked on the drivers for a MP3 player called the Diamond Rio. He saw these cool new MP3 things and tools like Winamp, which had been released in 1997, so decided to meet back up with Robbin for a new tool, which they called SoundJam and sold for $50. 

Just so happens that I’ve never met anyone at Apple that didn’t love music. Going back to Jobs and Wozniak. So of course they would want to do something in digital music. So in 2000, Apple acquired SoundJam and the team immediately got to work stripping out features that were unnecessary. They wanted a simple aesthetic. iMovie-esque, brushed metal, easy to use. That product was released in 2001 as iTunes.

iTunes didn’t change the way we consumed music.That revolution was already underway.  And that team didn’t just add brushed metal to the rest of the operating system. It had begun with QuickTime in 1991 but it was iTunes through SoundJam that had sparked brushed metal. 

SoundJam gave the Mac music visualizers as well. You know, those visuals on the screen that were generated by sound waves from music we were listening to. And while we didn’t know it yet, would be the end of software coming in physical boxes. But something else big. There was another device coming in the digital hub strategy. iTunes became the de facto tool used to manage what songs would go on the iPod, released in 2001 as well. That’s worthy of its own episode which we’ll do soon. 

You see, another aspect about SoundJam is that users could rip music off of CDs and into MP3s. The deep engineering work done to get the codec into the system survives here and there in the form of codecs accessible using APIs in the OS. And when combined with spotlight to find music it all became more powerful to build playlists, embed metadata, and listen more insightfully to growing music libraries. But Apple didn’t want to just allow people to rip, find, sort, and listen to music. They also wanted to enable users to create music. So in 2002, Apple also acquired a company called Emagic. Emagic would become Logic Pro and Gerhard Lengeling would in 2004 release a much simpler audio engineering tool called Garage Band. 

Digital video and video cameras were one thing. But cheap digital point and shoot cameras were everwhere all of a sudden. iPhoto was the next tool in the strategy, dropping in 2002 Here, we got a tool that could import all those photos from our cameras into a single library. Now called Photos, Apple gave us a taste of the machine learning to come by automatically finding faces in photos so we could easily make albums. Special services popped up to print books of our favorite photos. At the time most cameras had their own software to manage photos that had been developed as an after-thought. iPhoto was easy, worked with most cameras, and was very much not an after-thought. 

Keynote came in 2003, making it easy to drop photos into a presentation and maybe even iDVD. Anyone who has seen a Steve Jobs presentation understands why Keynote had to happen and if you look at the difference between many a Power Point and Keynote presentation it makes sense why it’s in a way a bridge between the making work better and doing so in ways we made home better. 

That was the same year that Apple released the iTunes Music Store. This seemed like the final step in a move to get songs onto devices. Here, Jobs worked with music company executives to be able to sell music through iTunes - a strategy that would evolve over time to include podcasts, which the moves effectively created, news, and even apps - as explored on the episode on the App Store. And ushering in an era of creative single-purpose apps that drove down the cost and made so much functionality approachable for so many. 

iTunes, iPhoto, and iMovie were made to live together in a consumer ecosystem. So in 2003, Apple reached that point in the digital hub strategy where they were able to take our digital life and wrap them up in a pretty bow. They called that product iLife - which was more a bundle of these services, along with iDVD and Garage Band. Now these apps are free but at the time the bundle would set you back a nice, easy, approachable $49. 

All this content creation from the consumer to the prosumer to the professional workgroup meant we needed more and more storage. According to the codec, we could be running at hundreds of megabytes per second of content. So Apple licensed the StorNext File System in 2004 to rescue a company called ADIC and release a 64-bit clustered file system over fibre channel. Suddenly all that new high end creative content could be shared in larger and larger environments. We could finally have someone cutting a movie in Final Cut then hand it off to someone else to cut without unplugging a firewire drive to do it. Professional workflows in a pure-Apple ecosystem were a thing. 

Now you just needed a way to distribute all this content. So iWeb in 2004, which allowed us to build websites quickly and bring all this creative content in. Sites could be hosted on MobileMe or files uploaded to a web host via FTP. Apple had dabbled in web services since the 80s with AppleLink then eWorld then iTools, .Mac, and MobileMe, the culmination of the evolutions of these services now referred to as iCloud. 

And iCloud now syncs documents and more. Pages came in 2005, Numbers came in 2007, and they were bundled with Keynote to become Apple iWork, allowing for a competitor of sorts to Microsoft Office. Later made free and ported to iOS as well. iCloud is a half-hearted attempt at keeping these synchronized between all of our devices. 

Apple had been attacking the creative space from the bottom with the tools in iLife but at the top as well. Competing with tools like Avid’s Media Composer, which had been around for the Mac going back to 1989, Apple bundled the professional video products into a single suite called Final Cut Studio. Here, Final Cut Pro, Motion, DVD Studio Pro, Soundtrack Pro, Color (obtained when Apple acquired SiliconColor and renamed it from FinalTouch), Compressor, Cinema Tools, and Qmaster for distributing the processing power for the above tools came in one big old box. iMovie and Garage Band for the consumer market and Final Cut Studio and Logic for the prosumer to professional market. And suddenly I was running around the world deploying Xsan’s into video shops, corporate taking head editing studios, and ad agencies

Another place where this happened was with photos. Aperture was released in 2005 and  offered the professional photographer tools to manage their large collection of images. And that represented the final pieces of the strategy. It continued to evolve and get better over the years. But this was one of the last aspects of the Digital Hub Strategy. 

Because there was a new strategy underway. That’s the year Apple began the development of the iPhone. And this represents a shift in the strategy. Released in 2007, then followed up with the first iPad in 2010, we saw a shift from the growth of new products in the digital hub strategy to migrating them to the mobile platforms, making them stand-alone apps that could be sold on App Stores, integrated with iCloud, and killing off those that appealed to more specific needs in higher-end creative environments, like Aperture, which went ended in 2014, and integrating some into other products, like Color becoming a part of Final Cut Pro. But the income from those products has now been eclipsed by mobile devices. Because when we see the returns from one strategy begin to crest - you know, like when the entire creative industry loves you, it’s time to move to another, bolder strategy. And that mobile strategy opened our eyes to always online (or frequently online) synchronization between products and integration with products, like we get with Handoff and other technologies today. 

In 2009 Apple acquired a company called Lala, which would later be added to iCloud - but the impact to the Digital Hub Strategy was that it paved the way for iTunes Match, a  cloud service that allowed for syncing music from a local library to other Apple devices. It was a subscription and more of a stop-gap for moving people to a subscription to license music than a lasting stand-alone product. And other acquisitions would come over time and get woven in, such as Redmatia, Beats, and Swell. 

Steve Jobs said exactly what Apple was going to do in 2001. In one of the most impressive implementations of a strategy, Apple had slowly introduced quality products that tactically ushered in a digital lifestyle since the late 90s and over the next few years. iMovie, iPhoto, iTunes, iDVD, iLife, and in a sign of the changing times - iPod, iPhone, iCloud. To signal the end of that era because it was by then ubiquitous. - then came the iPad. And the professional apps won over the creative industries. Until the strategy had been played out and Apple began laying the groundwork for the next strategy in 2005. 

That mobile revolution was built in part on the creative influences of Apple. Tools that came after, like Instagram, made it even easier to take great photos, connect with friends in a way iWeb couldn’t - because we got to the point where “there’s an app for that”. And as the tools weren’t needed, Apple cancelled some one-by-one, or even let Adobe Premiere eclipse Final Cut in many ways. Because you know, sales of the iMac DV were enough to warrant building the product on the Apple platform and eventually Adobe decided to do that. Apple built many of these because there was a need and there weren’t great alternatives. Once there were great alternatives, Apple let those limited quantities of software engineers go work on other things they needed done. Like building frameworks to enable a new generation of engineers to build amazing tools for the platform!

I’ve always considered the release of the iPad to be the end of era where Apple was introducing more and more software. From the increased services on the server platform to tools that do anything and everything. But 2010 is just when we could notice what Jobs was doing. In fact, looking at it, we can easily see that the strategy shifted about 5 years before that. Because Apple was busy ushering in the next revolution in computing. 

So think about this. Take an Apple, a Microsoft, or a Google. The developers of nearly every single operating system we use today. What changes did they put in place 5 years ago that are just coming to fruition today. While the product lifecycles are annual releases now, that doesn’t mean that when they have billions of devices out there that the strategies don’t unfold much, much slower. You see, by peering into the evolutions over the past few years, we can see where they’re taking computing in the next few years. Who did they acquire? What products will they release? What gaps does that create? How can we take those gaps and build products that get in front of them? This is where magic happens. Not when we’re too early like a General Magic was. But when we’re right on time. Unless we help set strategy upstream. Or, is it all chaos and not in the least bit predictable? Feel free to send me your thoughts!

And thank you…


The WELL, an Early Internet Community

     3/12/2021

The Whole Earth ‘lectronic Link, or WELL, was started by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985, and is still available at well.com. We did an episode on Stewart Brand: Godfather of the Interwebs and he was a larger than life presence amongst many of the 1980s former hippies that were shaping our digital age. From his assistance producing The Mother Of All Demos to the Whole Earth Catalog inspiring Steve Jobs and many others to his work with Ted Nelson, there’s probably only a few degrees separating him from anyone else in computing. 

Larry Brilliant is another counter-culture hero. He did work as a medical professional for the World Health Organization to eradicate smallpox and came home to teach at the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan had been working on networked conferencing since the 70s when Bob Parnes wrote CONFER, which would be used at Wayne State where Brilliant got his MD. But CONFER was a bit of a resource hog.

PicoSpan was written by Marcus Watts in 1983. Pico is a small text editor in many a UNIX variant and network is network. Why small, well, modems that dialed into bulletin boards were pretty slow back then. 

Marcus worked at NETI, who then bought the rights for PicoSpan to take to market. So Brilliant was the chairman of NETI at the time and approached Brand about starting up a bulletin-board system (BBS). Brilliant proposed NETI would supply the gear and software and that Brand would use his, uh, brand - and Whole Earth following, to fill the ranks. Brand’s non-profit The Point Foundation would own half and NETI would own the other half. 

It became an early online community outside of academia, and an important part of the rise of the splinter-nets and a holdout to the Internet. For a time, at least. 

PicoSpan gave users conferences. These were similar to PLATO Notes files, where a user could create a conversation thread and people could respond. These were (and still are) linear and threaded conversations. Rather than call them Notes like PLATO did, PicSpan referred to them as “conferences” as “online conferencing” was a common term used to describe meeting online for discussions at the time. EIES had been around going back to the 1970s, so Brand had some ideas abut what an online community could be - having used it. Given the sharp drop in the cost of storage there was something new PicoSpan could give people: the posts could last forever. Keep in mind, the Mac still didn’t ship with a hard drive in 1984. But they were on the rise. 

And those bits that were preserved were manifested in words. Brand brought a simple mantra: You Own Your Own Words. This kept the hands of the organization clean and devoid of liability for what was said on The WELL - but also harkened back to an almost libertarian bent that many in technology had at the time. Part of me feels like libertarianism meant something different in that era. But that’s a digression. Whole Earth Review editor Art Kleiner flew up to Michigan to get the specifics drawn up. NETI’s investment had about a quarter million dollar cash value. Brand stayed home and came up with a name. The Whole Earth ‘lectronic Link, or WELL. 

The WELL was not the best technology, even at the time. The VAX was woefully underpowered for as many users as The WELL would grow to, and other services to dial into and have discussions were springing up. But it was one of the most influential of the time. And not because they recreated the extremely influential Whole Earth catalog in digital form like Brilliant wanted, which would have been similar to what Amazon reviews are like now probably. But instead, the draw was the people. 

The community was fostered first by Matthew McClure, the initial director who was a former typesetter for the Whole Earth Catalog. He’d spent 12 years on a commune called The Farm and was just getting back to society. They worked out that they needed to charge $8 a month and another couple bucks an hour to make minimal a profit. 

So McClure worked with NETI to get the Fax up and they created the first conference, General. Kevin Kelly from the Whole Earth Review and Brand would start discussions and Brand mentioned The WELL in some of his writings. A few people joined, and then a few more. 

Others from The Farm would join him. Cliff Figallo, known as Cliff, was user 19 and John Coate, who went by Tex, came in to run marketing. In those first few years they started to build up a base of users.

It started with hackers and journalists, who got free accounts. And from there great thinkers joined up. People like Tom Mandel from Stanford Research Institute, or SRI. He would go on to become the editor of Time Online. His partner Nana. Howard Rheingold, who would go on to write a book called The Virtual Community. And they attracted more. Especially Dead Heads, who helped spread the word across the country during the heyday of the Grateful Dead. 

Plenty of UNIX hackers also joined. After all, the community was finding a nexus in the Bay Area at the time. They added email in 1987 and it was one of those places you could get on at least one part of this whole new internet thing. And need help with your modem? There’s a conference for that. Need to talk about calling your birth mom who you’ve never met because you were adopted? There’s a conference for that as well. Want to talk sexuality with a minister? Yup, there’s a community for that. It was one of the first times that anyone could just reach out and talk to people. And the community that was forming also met in person from time to time at office parties, furthering the cohesion. 

We take Facebook groups, Slack channels, and message boards for granted today. We can be us or make up a whole new version of us. We can be anonymous and just there to stir up conflict like on 4Chan or we can network with people in our industry like on LinkedIn. We can chat real time, which is similar to the Send option on The WELL. Or we can post threaded responses to other comments. But the social norms and trends were proving as true then as now. Communities grow, they fragment, people create problems, people come, people go. And sometimes, as we grow, we inspire. 

Those early adopters of The WELL inspired Craig Newmark of Craigslist to the growing power of the Internet. And future developers of Apple. Hippies versus nerds but not really versus, but coming to terms with going from “computers are part of the military industrial complex keeping us down” philosophy to more of a free libertarian information superhighway that persisted for decades. The thought that the computer would set us free and connect the world into a new nation, as John Perry Barlow would sum up perfectly in “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”.

By 1990 people like Barlow could make a post on The WELL from Wyoming and have Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus, makers of Lotus 1-2-3 show up at his house after reading the post - and they could join forces with the 5th employee of Sun Microsystems and GNU Debugging Cypherpunk John Gilmore to found the Electronic Foundation. And as a sign of the times that’s the same year The WELL got fully connected to the Internet.

By 1991 they had grown to 5,000 subscribers. That was the year Bruce Katz bought NETI’s half of the well for $175,000. Katz had pioneered the casual shoe market, changing the name of his families shoe business to Rockport and selling it to Reebok for over $118 million. 

The WELL had posted a profit a couple of times but by and large was growing slower than competitors. Although I’m not sure any o the members cared about that. It was a smaller community than many others but they could meet in person and they seemed to congeal in ways that other communities didn’t. But they would keep increasing in size over the next few years. In that time Fig replaced himself with Maurice Weitman, or Mo - who had been the first person to sign up for the service. And Tex soon left as well. 

Tex would go to become an early webmaster of The Gate, the community from the San Francisco Chronicle. Fig joined AOL’s GNN and then became director of community at Salon.

But AOL. You see, AOL was founded in the same year. And by 1994 AOL was up to 1.25 million subscribers with over a million logging in every day. CompuServe, Prodigy, Genie, Dephi were on the rise as well. And The WELL had thousands of posts a day by then but was losing money and not growing like the others. But I think the users of the service were just fine with that. The WELL was still growing slowly and yet for many, it was too big. Some of those left. Some stayed. Other communities, like The River, fragmented off. By then, The Point Foundation wanted out so sold their half of The WELL to Katz for $750,000 - leaving Katz as the first full owner of The WELL. 

I mean, they were an influential community because of some of the members, sure, but more because the quality of the discussions. Academics, drugs, and deeply personal information. And they had always complained about figtex or whomever was in charge - you know, the counter-culture is always mad at “The Management.” But Katz was not one of them. He honestly seems to have tried to improve things - but it seems like everything he tried blew up in his face. 

So Katz further alienated the members and fired Mo and brought on Maria Wilhelm, but they still weren’t hitting that hyper-growth, with membership getting up to around 10,000 - but by then AOL was jumping from 5,000,000 to 10,000,000. But again, I’ve not found anyone who felt like The WELL should have been going down that same path. The subscribers at The WELL were looking for an experience of a completely different sort. By 1995 Gail Williams allowed users to create their own topics and the unruly bunch just kinda’ ruled themselves in a way. There was staff and drama and emotions and hurt feelings and outrage and love and kindness and, well, community.

By the late 90s, the buzz word at many a company were all about building communities, and there were indeed plenty of communities growing. But none like The WELL. And given that some of the founders of Salon had been users of The WELL, Salon bought The WELL in 1999 and just kinda’ let it fly under the radar. The influence continued with various journalists as members. 

The web came. And the members of The WELL continued their community. Award winning but a snapshot in time in a way. Living in an increasingly secluded corner of cyberspace, a term that first began life in a present tense on The WELL, if you got it, you got it.

In 2012, after trying to sell The WELL to another company, Salon finally sold The WELL to a group of members who had put together enough money to buy it. And The WELL moved into the current, more modern form of existence.

To quote the site:

Welcome to a gathering that’s like no other. The WELL, launched back in 1985 as the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, continues to provide a cherished watering hole for articulate and playful thinkers from all walks of life.

For more about why conversation is so treasured on The WELL, and why members of the community banded together to buy the site in 2012, check out the story of The WELL.

If you like what you see, join us!

It sounds pretty inviting. And it’s member supported. Like National Public Radio kinda’. In what seems like an antiquated business model, it’s $15 per month to access the community. And make no mistake, it’s a community. 

You Own Your Own Words. If you pay to access a community, you don’t sign the ownership of your words away in a EULA. You don’t sign away rights to sell your data to advertisers along with having ads shown to you in increasing numbers in a hunt for ever more revenue. You own more than your words, you own your experience. You are sovereign. 

This episode doesn’t really have a lot of depth to it. Just as most online forums lack the kind of depth that could be found on the WELL. I am a child of a different generation, I suppose.

Through researching each episode of the podcast, I often read books, conduct interviews (a special thanks to Help A Reporter Out), lurk in conferences, and try to think about the connections, the evolution, and what the most important aspects of each are. There is a great little book from Katie Hafner called The Well: A Story Of Love, Death, & Real Life. I recommend it. There’s also Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community and John Seabrook’s Deeper: Adventures on the Net. Oh, and From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, And the Rise of Digital Utopianism from Fred Turner and Siberia by Douglas Rushkoff. At a minimum, I recommend reading Katie Hafner’s wired article and then her most excellent book!

Oh, and to hear about other ways the 60s Counterculture helped to shape the burgeoning technology industry, check out What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff. 

And The WELL comes up in nearly every book as one of the early commercial digital communities. It’s been written about in Wired, in The Atlantic, makes appearances in books like Broad Band by Claire Evans, and The Internet A Historical Encyclopedia. 

The business models out there to build and run  and grow a company have seemingly been reduced to a select few. Practically every online community has become free with advertising and data being the currency we parlay in exchange for a sense of engagement with others. 

As network effects set in and billionaires are created, others own our words. They think the lifestyle business is quaint - that if you aren’t outgrowing a market segment that you are shrinking. And a subscription site that charges a monthly access fee to cgi code with a user experience that predates the UX field on the outside might affirm that philosophy -especially since anyone can see your real name. But if we look deeper we see a far greater truth: that these barriers keep a small corner of cyberspace special - free from Russian troll farms and election stealing and spam bots. And without those distractions we find true engagement. We find real connections that go past the surface. We find depth. It’s not lost after all. 

Thank you for being part of this little community. We are so lucky to have you. Have a great day.


Tesla: From Startup To... Startup...

     3/9/2021

Tesla

 

Most early stage startups have, and so seemingly need, heroic efforts from brilliant innovators working long hours to accomplish impossible goals. Tesla certainly had plenty of these as an early stage startup and continues to - as do the other Elon Musk startups. He seems to truly understand and embrace that early stage startup world and those around him seem to as well.

 

As a company grows we have to trade those sprints of heroic output for steady streams of ideas and quality. We have to put development on an assembly line. Toyota famously put the ideas of Deming and other post-World War II process experts into their production lines and reaped big rewards - becoming the top car manufacturer in the process. 

 

Not since the Ford Model T birthed the assembly line had auto makers seen as large an increase in productivity. And make no mistake, technology innovation is about productivity increases. We forget this sometimes when young, innovative startups come along claiming to disrupt industries. Many of those do, backed by seemingly endless amounts of cash to get them to the next level in growth. And the story of Tesla is as much about productivity in production as it is about innovative and disruptive ideas. And the story is as much about a cult of personality as it is about massive valuations and quality manufacturing. 

 

The reason we’re covering Tesla in a podcast about the history of computers is at the heart of it, it’s a story about the startup culture clashing head-on with decades-old know-how in an established industry. This happens with nearly every new company: there are new ideas, an organization is formed to support the new ideas, and as the organization grows, the innovators are forced to come to terms with the fact that they have greatly oversimplified the world. 

Tesla realized this. Just as Paypal had realized it before. But it took a long time to get there. The journey began much further back. Rather than start with the discovery of the battery or the electric motor, let’s start with the GM Impact. It was initially shown off at the 1990 LA Auto Show. It’s important because Alan Cocconi was able to help take some of what GM learned from the 1987 World Solar Challenge race using the Sunraycer and start putting it into a car that they could roll off the assembly lines in the thousands. 

They needed to do this because the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, was about to require fleets to go 2% zero-emission, or powered by something other than fossil fuels, by 1998 with rates increasing every few years after that. And suddenly there was a rush to develop electric vehicles. GM may have decided that the Impact, later called the EV1, proved that the electric car just wasn’t ready for prime time, but the R&D was accelerating faster than it ever had before then. 

That was the same year that NuvoMedia was purchased by Gemstar-TVGuide International for $187 million. They’d made the Rocket eBook e-reader. That’s important because the co-founders of that company were Martin Eberhard, a University of Illinois Champaign Urbana grad, and Marc Tarpenning.

Alan Cocconi was able to take what he’d learned and form a new company, called AC Propulsion. He was able to put together a talented group and they built a couple of different cars, including the tZero. Many of the ideas that went into the first Tesla car came from the tZero, and Eberhard and Tarpenning tried to get Tom Gage and Cocconi to take their tZero into production. The tZero was a sleek sportscar that began life powered by lead-acid batteries that could get from zero to 60 in just over four seconds and run for 80-100 miles. They used similar regenerative braking that can be found in the Prius (to oversimplify it) and the car took about an hour to charge. The cars were made by hand and cost about $80,000 each. They had other projects so couldn’t focus on trying to mass produce the car. As Tesla would learn later, that takes a long time, focus, and a quality manufacturing process. 

While we think of Elon Musk as synonymous with Tesla Motors, it didn’t start that way. Tesla Motors was started in 2003 by Eberhard, who would serve as Tesla’s first chief executive officer (CEO) and Tarpenning, who would become the first chief financial officer (CFO), when AC Propulsion declined to take that tZero to market. Funding for the company was obtained from Elon Musk and others, but they weren’t that involved at first. Other than the instigation and support. It was a small shop, with a mission - to develop an electric car that could be mass produced. 

The good folks at AC Propulsion gave Eberhard and Tarpenning test drives in the tZero, and even agreed to license their EV Power System and reductive charging patents. And so Tesla would develop a motor and work on their own power train so as not to rely on the patents from AC Propulsion over time. But the opening Eberhard saw was in those batteries. The idea was to power a car with battery packs made of lithium ion cells, similar to those used in laptops and of course the Rocket eBooks that NuvoMedia had made before they sold the company. They would need funding though. So Gage was kind enough to put them in touch with a guy who’d just made a boatload of money and had also recommended commercializing the car - Elon Musk. 

This guy Musk, he’d started a space company in 2002. Not many people do that. And they’d been trying to buy ICBMs in Russia and recruiting rocket scientists. Wild. But hey, everyone used PayPal, where he’d made his money. So cool. Especially since Eberhard and Tarpenning had their own successful exit.

Musk signed on to provide $6.5 million in the Tesla Series A and they brought in another $1m to bring it to $7.5 million. Musk became the chairman of the board and they expanded to include Ian Wright during the fundraising and J.B. Straubel in 2004. Those five are considered the founding team of Tesla. 

They got to work building up a team to build a high-end electric sports car. Why? Because that’s one part of the Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan. That’s the title of a blog post Musk wrote in 2006.  You see, they were going to build a high-end hundred thousand dollar plus car. But the goal was to develop mass market electric vehicles that anyone could afford. They unveiled the prototype in 2006, selling out the first hundred in three weeks.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s cousins, Peter and Lyndon Rive started a company called SolarCity in 2006, which Musk also funded. They merged with Tesla in 2016 to provide solar roofs and other solar options for Tesla cars and charging stations. SolarCity, as with Tesla, was able to capitalize on government subsidies and growing to become the third most solar installations in homes with just a little over 6 percent of the market share. 

But we’re still in 2006. You see, they won a bunch of awards, got a lot of attention - now it was time to switch to general production. They worked with Lotus, a maker of beautiful cars that make up for issues with quality production in status, beauty, and luxury. They started with the Lotus Elise, increased the wheelbase and bolstered the chassis so it could hold the weight of the batteries. And they used a carbon fiber composite for the body to bring the weight back down. 

The process was slower than it seems anyone thought it would be. Everyone was working long hours, and they were burning through cash. By 2007, Eberhard stepped down as CEO. Michael Marks came in to run the company and later that year Ze’ev Drori was made CEO - he has been given the credit by many for tighting things up so they could get to the point that they could ship the Roadster. Tarpenning left in 2008. As did others, but the brain drain didn’t seem all that bad as they were able to ship their first car in 2008, after ten engineering prototypes.

The Roadster finally shipped in 2008, with the first car going to Musk. It could go for 245 miles a charge. 0 to 60 in less than 4 seconds. A sleek design language. But it was over $100,000. They were in inspiration and there was a buzz everywhere. The showmanship of Musk paired with the beautiful cars and the elites that bought them drew a lot of attention. As did the $1 million in revenue profit they earned in July of 2009, off 109 cars shipped. 

But again, burning through cash. They sold 10% of the company to Daimler AG and took a $465 million loan from the US Department of Energy. They were now almost too big to fail. 

They hit 1,000 cars sold in early 2010. They opened up to orders in Canada. They were growing. But they were still burning through cash. It was time to raise some serious capital. So Elon Musk took over as CEO, cut a quarter of the staff, and Tesla filed for an IPO in 2010, raising over $200 million. But there was something special in that S-1 (as there often is when a company opens the books to go public): They would cease production of the Roadster making way for the next big product.

Tesla cancelled the Roadster in 2012. By then they’d sold just shy of 2,500 Roadsters and been thinking through and developing the next thing, which they’d shown a prototype of in 2011. The Model S started at $76,000 and went into production in 2012. It could go 300 miles, was a beautiful car, came with a flashy tablet-inspired 17 inch display screen on the inside to replace buttons. It was like driving an iPad. Every time I’ve seen another GPS since using the one in a Model S, I feel like I’ve gotten in a time machine and gone back a decade. 

But it had been announced in 2007to ship in 2009. And then the ship date dropped back to 2011 and 2012. Let’s call that optimism and scope creep. But Tesla has always eventually gotten there. Even if the price goes up. Such is the lifecycle of all technology. More features, more cost. There are multiple embedded Ubuntu operating systems controlling various parts of car, connected on a network in the car. It’s a modern marvel and Tesla was rewarded with tons of awards and, well, sales.

Charging a car that runs on batteries is a thing. So Tesla released the Superchargers in 2012, shipping 7 that year and growing slowly until now shipping over 2,500 per quarter. Musk took some hits because it took longer than anticipated to ship them, then to increase production, then to add solar. But at this point, many are solar and I keep seeing panels popping up above the cars to provide shade and offset other forms of powering the chargers. The more ubiquitous chargers become, the more accepting people will be of the cars.

Tesla needed to produce products faster. The Nevada Gigafactory was begun in 2013, to mass produce battery packs and components. Here’s one of the many reason for the high-flying valuation Tesla enjoys: it would take dozens if not a hundred factories like this to transition to sustanable energy sources. But it started with a co-investment between Tesla and Panasonic, with the two dumping billions into building a truly modern factory that’s now pumping out close tot he goal set back in 2014. As need increased, Gigafactories started to crop up with Gigafactory 5 being built to supposedly go into production in 2021 to build the Semi, Cybertruck (which should begin production in 2021) and Model Y. Musk first mentioned the truck in 2012 and projected a 2018 or 2019 start time for production. Close enough. 

Another aspect of all that software is that they can get updates over the air. Tesla released Autopilot in 2014. Similar to other attempts to slowly push towards self-driving cars, Autopilot requires the driver to stay alert, but can take on a lot of the driving - staying within the lines on the freeway, parking itself, traffic-aware cruise control, and navigation. But it’s still the early days for self-driving cars and while we make think that because the number of integrated circuits doubles every year that it paves the way to pretty much anything, no machine learning project I’ve ever seen has gone as fast as we want because it takes years to build the appropriate algorithms and then rethink industries based on the impact of those. But Tesla, Google through Waymo, and  many others have been working on it for a long time (hundreds of years in startup-land) and it continues to evolve.

By 2015, Tesla had sold over 100,000 cars in the life of the company. They released the Model X that year, also in 2015. This was their first chance to harness the power of the platform - which in the auto industry is when there are multiple cars of similar size and build. Franz von Holzhausen designed it and it is a beautiful car, with falcon-wing doors, up to a 370 mile range on the battery and again with the Autopilot. But harnessing the power of the platform was a challenge. You see, with a platform of cars you want most of the parts to be shared - the differences are often mostly cosmetic. But the Model X only shared a little less than a third of the parts of the Model S. 

But it’s yet another technological marvel, with All Wheel Drive as an option, that beautiful screen, and check this out - a towing capacity of 5,000 pounds - for an electric automobile!

By the end of 2016, they’d sold over 25,000. To a larger automaker that might seem like nothing, but they’d sell over 10,000 in every quarter after that. And it would also become the platform for a mini-bus. Because why not. So they’d gone lateral in the secret plan but it was time to get back at it. This is where the Model 3 comes in. 

The Model 3 was released in 2017 and is now the best-selling electric car in the history of the electric car. The Model 3 was first shown off in 2016 and within a week, Tesla had taken over 300,000 reservations. Everyone I talked to seemed to want in on an electric car that came in at $35,000. This was the secret plan. That $35,000 model wouldn’t be available until 2019 but they started cranking them out. Production was a challenge with Musk famously claiming Tesla was in “Production Hell” and sleeping on an air mattress at the factory to oversee the many bottlenecks that came. Musk thought they could introduce more robotics than they could and so they’ slowly increased production to first a few hundred per week then a few thousand until finally almost hitting that half a million mark in 2020.

This required buying Grohmann Engineering in 2017, now called Tesla Advanced Automation Germany - pumping billions into production. But Tesla added the Model Y in 2020, launching a crossover on the Model 3 platform, producing over 450,000 of them. And then of course they decided to the Tesla Semi, selling for between $150,000 and $200,000. And what’s better than a Supercharger to charge those things? A Megacharger. As is often the case with ambitious projects at Tesla, it didn’t ship in 2020 as projected but is now supposed to ship, um, later.

Tesla also changed their name from Tesla Motors to Tesla, Inc. And if you check out their website today, solar roofs and solar panels share the top bar with the Models S, 3, X, and Y. SolarCity and batteries, right?

Big money brings big attention. Some good. Some bad. Some warranted. Some not. Musk’s online and sometimes nerd-rockstar persona was one of the most valuable assets at Tesla - at least in the fundraising, stock pumping popularity contest that is the startup world. But on August 7, 2018, he tweeted “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” The SEC would sue him for that, causing him to step down as chairman for a time and limit his Twitter account. But hey, the stock jumped up for a bit. 

But Tesla kept keeping on, slowly improving things and finally hit about the half million cars per year mark in 2020. Producing cars has been about quality for a long time. And it needs to be with people zipping around as fast as we drive - especially on modern freeways. Small batches of cars are fairly straight-forward. Although I could never build one. 

The electric car is good for the environment, but the cost to offset carbon for Tesla is still far greater than, I don’t know, making a home more energy efficient. But the improvements in the technology continue to increase rapidly with all this money and focus being put on them. And the innovative designs that Tesla has deployed has inspired others, which often coincides with the rethinking of entire industries. 

But there are tons of other reasons to want electric cars. The average automobile manufactured these days has about 30,000 parts. Teslas have less than a third of that. One hopes that will some day be seen in faster and higher quality production. 

They managed to go from producing just over 18,000 cars in 2015 to over 26,000 in 2016 to over 50,000 in 2017 to the 190,000s in 2018 and 2019 to a whopping 293,000 in 2020. But they sold nearly 500,000 cars in 2020 and seem to be growing at a fantastic clip. Here’s the thing, though. Ford exceeded half a million cars in 1916. It took Henry Ford from 1901 to 1911 to get to producing 34,000 cars a year but only 5 more years to hit half a million. I read a lot of good and a lot of bad things about Tesla. Ford currently has a little over a 46 and a half billion dollar market cap. Tesla’s crested at nearly $850 billion and has since dropped to just shy of 600.

Around 64 million cars are sold each year. Volkswagen is the top, followed by Toyota. Combined, they are worth less than Tesla on paper despite selling over 20 times the number of cars. If Tesla was moving faster, that might make more sense. But here’s the thing. Tesla is about to get besieged by competitors at every side. Nearly every category of car has an electric alternative with Audi, BMW, Volvo, and Mercedes releasing cars at the higher ends and on multiple platforms. Other manufacturers are releasing cars to compete with the upper and lower tiers of each model Tesla has made available. And miniature cars, scooters, bikes, air taxis, and other modes of transportation are causing us to rethink the car. And multi-tenancy of automobiles using ride sharing apps and the potential that self driving cars can have on that are causing us to rethink automobile ownership. 

All of this will lead some to rethink that valuation Tesla enjoyed. But watching the moves Tesla makes and scratching my head over some certainly makes me think to never under, or over-estimate Tesla or Musk. I don’t want anything to do with Tesla Stock. Far too weird for me to grok. But I do wish them the best. I highly doubt the state of electric vehicles and the coming generational shifts in transportation in general would be where they are today if Tesla hadn’t done all the good and bad that they’ve done. They deserve a place in the history books when we start looking back at the massive shifts to come. In the meantime, I’l’ just call this episode part 1 and wait to see if Tesla matches Ford production levels some day, crashes and burns, gets acquired by another company, or who knows, packs up and heads to Mars. 


PayPal Was Just The Beginning

     3/6/2021

We can look around at distributed banking, crypto-currencies, Special Purpose Acquisition Companies, and so many other innovative business strategies as new and exciting and innovative. And they are. But paving the way for them was simplifying online payments to what I’ve heard Elon Musk call just some rows in a database. 

Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, and former Netscaper Luke Nosek had this idea in 1998. Levchin and Nosek has worked together on a startup called SponsorNet New Media while at the University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana where PLATO and Mosaic had come out of. And SponsorNet was supposed to sell online banner ads but would instead be one of four failed startups before zeroing in on this new thing, where they would enable digital payments for businesses and make it simple for consumers to buy things online. They called the company Confinity and setup shop in beautiful Mountain View, California.

It was an era when a number of organizations were doing things in taking payments online that weren’t so great. Companies would cache credit card numbers on sites, many had weak security, and the rush to sell everything  in the bubble forming around dot-coms fueled a knack for speed over security, privacy, or even reliability. 

Confinity would store the private information in its own banking vaults, keep it secure, and provide access to vendors - taking a small charge per-transaction. Where large companies had been able to build systems to take online payments, now small businesses and emerging online stores could compete with the big boys. Thiel and Levchin had hit on something when they launched a service called PayPal, to provide a digital wallet and enable online transactions. They even accepted venture funding, taking $3 million from banks like Deutsche Bank over Palm Pilots. One of those funders was Nokia, investing in PayPal expanding into digital services for the growing mobile commerce market. And by 2000 they were up to 1,000,000 users. 

They saw an opening to make a purchase from a browser on a phone or a browser or app on a cell phone using one of those new smart phone ideas. And they were all rewarded with over 10 million people using the site in just three short years, processing a whopping $3 billion in transactions. 

Now this was the heart of the dot-com bubble. In that time, Elon Musk managed to sell his early startup Zip2, which made city guides on the early internet, to Compaq for around $300 million, pocketing $22 million for himself. He parlayed that payday into X.com, another online payment company. X.com exploded to over 200,000 customers quickly and as happens frequently with rapid acceleration, a young Musk found himself with a new boss - Bill Harris, the former CEO of Intuit. 

And they helped invent many of the ways we do business online at that time. One of my favorite of Levchin’s contributions to computing, the Gausebeck-Levchin test, is one of the earliest implementations of what we now call CAPTCHA - you know when you’re shown a series of letters and asked to type them in to eliminate bots. 

Harris helped the investors de-risk by merging with Confinity to form X.com. Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are larger than life minds in Silicon Valley. The two were substantially different. Musk took on the CEO role but Musk and Thiel were at heads. Thiel believed in a Linux ecosystem and Musk believed in a Windows ecosystem. Thiel wanted to focus on money transfers, similar to the PayPal of today. Given that those were just rows in a database, it was natural that that kind of business would become a red ocean and indeed today there are dozens of organizations focused on it. But Paypal remains the largest. So Musk also wanted to become a full online banking system - much more ambitious. Ultimately Thiel won and assumed the title of CEO. 

They remained a money transmitter and not a full bank. This means they keep funds that have been sent and not picked up, in an interest bearing account at a bank. 

They renamed the company to PayPal in 2001 and focused on taking the company public, with an IPO as PYPL in 2002. The stock shot up 50% in the first day of trading, closing at $20 per share. Yet another example of the survivors of the dot com bubble increasing the magnitude of valuations. By then, most eBay transactions accepted PayPal and seeing an opportunity, eBay acquired PayPal for $1.5 billion later in 2002. Suddenly PayPal was the default option for closed auctions and would continue their meteoric rise. Musk is widely reported to have made almost $200 million when eBay bought PayPal and Thiel is reported to have made over $50 million. 

Under eBay, PayPal would grow and as with most companies that IPO, see a red ocean form in their space. But they brought in people like Ken Howery, who serve as the VP of corporate development, would later cofound investment firm Founders Fund with Thiel, and then become the US Ambassador to Sweden under Trump. And he’s the first of what’s called the PayPal Mafia, a couple dozen extremely influential personalities in tech. 

By 2003, PayPal had become the largest payment processor for gambling websites. Yet they walked away from that business to avoid some of the complicated regulations until various countries that could verify a license for online gambling venues. 

In 2006 they added security keys and moved to sending codes to phones for a second factor of security validation. In 2008 they bought Fraud Sciences to gain access to better online risk management tools and Bill Me Later.

As the company grew, they setup a company in the UK and began doing business internationally. They moved their EU presence to Luxembourg 2007. They’ve often found themselves embroiled in politics, blocking the any political financing accounts, Alex Jones show InfoWars, and one of the more challenging for them, WikiLeaks in 2010. This led to them being attacked by members of Anonymous for a series of denial of service attacks that brought the PayPal site down.

OK, so that early CAPTCHA was just one way PayPal was keeping us secure. It turns out that moving money is complicated, even the $3 you paid for that special Golden Girls t-shirt you bought for a steal on eBay. For example, US States require reporting certain transactions, some countries require actual government approval to move money internationally, some require a data center in the country, like Turkey. So on a case-by-case basis PayPal has had to decide if it’s worth it to increase the complexity of the code and spend precious development cycles to support a given country. In some cases, they can step in and, for example, connect the Baidu wallet to PayPal merchants in support of connecting China to PayPal. 

They were spun back out of eBay in 2014 and acquired Xoom for $1 billion in 2015, iZettle for $2.2 billion, who also does point of sales systems. And surprisingly they bought online coupon aggregator Honey for $4B in 2019. But their best acquisition to many would be tiny app payment processor Venmo for $26 million. I say this because a friend claimed they prefer that to PayPal because they like the “little guy.”

Out of nowhere, just a little more than 20 years ago, the founders of PayPal and they and a number of their initial employees willed a now Fortune 500 company into existence. While they were growing, they had to learn about and understand so many capital markets and regulations. This sometimes showed them how they could better invest money. And many of those early employees went on to have substantial impacts in technology. That brain drain helped fuel the Web 2.0 companies that rose. 

One of the most substantial ways was with the investment activities. Thiel would go on to put $10 million of his money into Clarium Capital Management, a hedge fund, and Palantir, a big data AI company with a focus on the intelligence industry, who now has a $45 billion market cap. And he funded another organization who doesn’t at all use our big private data for anything, called Facebook. He put half a million into Facebook as an angel investor - an investment that has paid back billions. He’s also launched the Founders Fund, Valar Venture, and is a partner at Y Combinator, in capacities where he’s funded everyone from LinkedIn and Airbnb to Stripe to Yelp to Spotify, to SpaceX to Asana and the list goes on and on and on. 

Musk has helped take so many industries online. Why not just apply that startup modality to space - so launched SpaceX and to cars, so helped launch (and backed financially) Tesla and solar power, so launched Solar City and building tunnels so launched The Boring Company. He dabbles in Hyperloops (thus the need for tunnels) and OpenAI and well, whatever he wants. He’s even done cameos in movies like Iron Man. He’s certainly a personality. 

Max Levchin would remain the CTO and then co-found and become the CEO of Affirm, a public fintech company. 

David Sacks was the COO at PayPal and founded Yammer. Roelof Botha is the former CFO at PayPal who became a partner at Sequoia Capital, one of the top venture capital firms. Yishan Wong was an engineering manager at PayPal who became the CEO of Reddit.

Steve Chen left to join Facebook but hooked back up with Jawed Karim for a new project, who he studied computer science at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana with. They were joined by Chad Hurley, who had created the original PayPal logo, to found YouTube. They sold it to Google for $1.65 billion in 2006. Hurley now owns part of the Golden State Warriors, the MLS Los Angeles team, and Leeds United.

Reid Hoffman was another COO at PayPal, who Thiel termed the “firefighter-in-chief” and left to found LinkedIn. After selling LinkedIn to Microsoft for over $26 billion he become a partner at venture capital firm, Greylock Partners. 

Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons co-founded Yelp with $1 million in funding from Max Levchin, taking the company public in 2011. And the list goes on.

PayPal paved the way for small transactions on the Internet. A playbook repeated in different parts of the sector by the likes of Square, Stripe, Dwolla, Due, and many others - including Apple Pay, Amazon Payments, and Google Wallet. We live in an era now, where practically every industry has been taken online. Heck, even cars. In the next episode we’ll look at just that, exploring the next steps in Elon Musk’s career after leaving PayPal. 


Playing Games and E-Learning on PLATO: 1960 to 2015

     3/2/2021

PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) was an educational computer system that began at the University of Illinois Champaign Urbana in 1960 and ran into the 2010s in various flavors. 

Wait, that’s an oversimplification. PLATO seemed to develop on an island in the corn fields of Champaign Illinois, and sometimes precedes, sometimes symbolizes, and sometimes fast-follows what was happening in computing around the world in those decades.

To put this in perspective - PLATO began on ILLIAC in 1960 - a large classic vacuum tube mainframe. Short for the Illinois Automatic Computer, ILLIAC was built in 1952, around 7 years after ENIAC was first put into production. As with many early mainframe projects PLATO 1 began in response to a military need. We were looking for new ways to educate the masses of veterans using the GI Bill. We had to stretch the reach of college campuses beyond their existing infrastructures.

Computerized testing started with mechanical computing, got digitized with the introduction of Scantron by IBM in 1935, and a number of researchers were looking to improve the consistency of education and bring in new technology to help with quality teaching at scale. The post-World War II boom did this for industry as well. Problem is, following the launch of Sputnik by the USSR in 1957, many felt the US began lagging behind in education. So grant money to explore solutions flowed and CERL was able to capitalize on grants from the US Army, Navy, and Air Force. By 1959, physicists at Illinois began thinking of using that big ILLIAC machine they had access to. Daniel Alpert recruited Don Bitzer to run a project, after false starts with educators around the campus.

Bitzer shipped the first instance of PLATO 1 in 1960. They used a television to show images, stored images in Raytheon tubes, and a make-shift keyboard designed for PLATO so users could provide input in interactive menus and navigate. They experimented with slide projectors when they realized the tubes weren’t all that reliable and figured out how to do rudimentary time sharing, expanding to a second concurrent terminal with the release of PLATO II in 1961.

Bitzer was a classic Midwestern tinkerer. He solicited help from local clubs, faculty, high school students, and wherever he could cut a corner to build more cool stuff, he was happy to move money and resources to other important parts of the system. This was the age of hackers and they hacked away. He inspired but also allowed people to follow their own passions. Innovation must be decentralized to succeed.

They created an organization to support PLATO in 1966 - as part of the Graduate College. CERL stands for the Computer-Based Education Research Laboratory (CERL). Based on early successes, they got more and more funding at CERL. Now that we were beyond a 1:1 ratio of users to computers and officially into Time Sharing - it was time for Plato III.

There were a number of enhancements in PLATO III. For starters, the system was moved to a CDC 1604 that CEO of Control Data William Norris donated to the cause - and expanded to allow for 20 terminals. But it was complicated to create new content and the team realized that content would be what drove adoption. This was true with applications during the personal computer revolution and then apps in the era of the App Store as well. One of many lessons learned first on PLATO. 

Content was in the form of applications that they referred to as lessons. It was a teaching environment, after all. They emulated the ILLIAC for existing content but needed more. People were compiling applications in a complicated language. Professors had day jobs and needed a simpler way to build content. So Paul Tenczar on the team came up with a language specifically tailored to creating lessons. Similar in some ways to BASIC, it was called TUTOR. 

Tenczar released the manual for TUTOR in 1969 and with an easier way of getting content out, there was an explosion in new lessons, and new features and ideas would flourish. We would see simulations, games, and courseware that would lead to a revolution in ideas. In a revolutionary time.

The number of hours logged by students and course authors steadily increased. The team became ever more ambitious. And they met that ambition with lots of impressive achievements.

Now that they were comfortable with the CDC 1604 they new that the new content needed more firepower. CERL negotiated a contract with Control Data Corporation (CDC) in 1970 to provide equipment and financial support for PLATO. Here they ended up with a CDC Cyber 6400 mainframe, which became the foundation of the next iteration of PLATO, PLATO IV.

PLATO IV  was a huge leap forward on many levels. They had TUTOR but with more resources could produce even more interactive content and capabilities. The terminals were expensive and not so scalable. So in preparation for potentially thousands of terminals in PLATO IV they decided to develop their own. 

This might seem a bit space age for the early 1970s, but what they developed was a touch flat panel plasma display. It was 512x512 and rendered 60 lines per second at 1260 baud. The plasma had memory in it, which was made possible by the fact that they weren’t converting digital signals to analog, as is done on CRTs. Instead, it was a fully digital experience. The flat panel used infrared to see where a user was touching, allowing users some of their first exposure to touch screens. This was a grid of 16 by 16 rather than 512 but that was more than enough to take them over the next decade.

The system could render basic bitmaps but some lessons needed more rich, what we might call today, multimedia. The Raytheon tubes used in previous systems proved to be more of a CRT technology but also had plenty of drawbacks. So for newer machines they also included a microfiche machine that produced images onto the back of the screen. 

The terminals were a leap forward. There were other programs going on at about the same time during the innovative bursts of PLATO, like the Dartmouth Time Sharing System, or DTSS, project that gave us BASIC instead of TUTOR. Some of these systems also had rudimentary forms of forums, such as EIES and the emerging BBS Usenet culture that began in 1973. But PLATO represented a unique look into the splintered networks of the Time Sharing age.

Combined with the innovative lessons and newfound collaborative capabilities the PLATO team was about to bring about something special. Or lots of somethings that culminated in more. One of those was Notes.

Talkomatic was created by Doug Brown and David R. Woolley in 1973. Tenczar asked the 17-year old Woolley to write a tool that would allow users to report bugs with the system. There was a notes file that people could just delete. So they added the ability for a user to automatically get tagged in another file when updating and store notes. He expanded it to allow for 63 responses per note and when opened, it showed the most recent notes. People came up with other features and so a menu was driven, providing access to System Announcements, Help Notes, and General Notes. 

But the notes were just the start. In 1973, seeing the need for even more ways to communicate with other people using the system, Doug Brown wrote a prototype for Talkomatic. Talkomatic was a chat program that showed when people were typing. Woolley helped Brown and they added channels with up to five people per channel. Others could watch the chat as well. It would be expanded and officially supported as a tool called Term-Talk. That was entered by using the TERM key on a console, which allowed for a conversation between two people. You could TERM, or chat a person, and then they could respond or mark themselves as busy. 

Because the people writing this stuff were also the ones supporting users, they added another feature, the ability to monitor another user, or view their screen. And so programmers, or consultants, could respond to help requests and help get even more lessons going. And some at PLATO were using ARPANET, so it was only a matter of time before word of Ray Tomlinson’s work on electronic mail leaked over, leading to the 1974 addition of personal notes, a way to send private mail engineered by Kim Mast.

As PLATO grew, the amount of content exploded. They added categories to Notes in 1975 which led to Group Notes in 1976, and comments and linked notes and the ability to control access.

But one of the most important innovations PLATO will be remembered for is games. Anyone that has played an educational game will note that school lessons and games aren’t always all that different. Since Rick Blomme had ported Spacewar! to PLATO in 1969 and added a two-player option, multi-player games had been on the rise. They made leader boards for games like Dogfight so players could get early forms of game rankings. Games like airtight and airace and Galactic Attack would follow those.

MUDs were another form of games that came to PLATO. Collosal Cave Adventure had come in 1975 for the PDP, so again these things were happening in a vacuum but where there were influences and where innovations were deterministic and found in isolation is hard to say. But the crawlers exploded on PLATO. We got Moria, Oubliette by Jim Schwaiger, Pedit5, crypt, dungeon, avatar, and drygulch. We saw the rise of intense storytelling, different game mechanics that were mostly inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, As PLATO terminals found their way in high schools and other universities, the amount of games and amount of time spent on those games exploded, with estimates of 20% of time on PLATO being spent playing games. 

PLATO IV would grow to support thousands of terminals around the world in the 1970s. It was a utility. Schools (and even some parents) leased lines back to Champagne Urbana and many in computing thought that these timesharing systems would become the basis for a utility model in computing, similar to the cloud model we have today. But we had to go into the era of the microcomputer to boomerang back to timesharing first. 

That microcomputer revolution would catch many, who didn’t see the correlation between Moore’s Law and the growing number of factories and standardization that would lead to microcomputers, off guard. Control Data had bet big on the mainframe market - and PLATO. CDC would sell mainframes to other schools to host their own PLATO instance. This is where it went from a timesharing system to a network of computers that did timesharing. Like a star topology. 

Control Data looked to PLATO as one form of what the future of the company would be. Here, he saw this mainframe with thousands of connections as a way to lease time on the computers. CDC took PLATO to market as CDC Plato. Here, schools and companies alike could benefit from distance education. And for awhile it seemed to be working. Financial companies and airlines bought systems and the commercialization was on the rise, with over a hundred PLATO systems in use as we made our way to the middle of the 1980s. Even government agencies like the Depart of Defense used them for training. But this just happened to coincide with the advent of the microcomputer.

CDC made their own terminals that were often built with the same components that would be found in microcomputers but failed to capitalize on that market. Corporations didn’t embrace the collaboration features and often had these turned off. Social computing would move to bulletin boards And CDC would release versions of PLATO as micro-PLATO for the TRS-80, Texas Instruments TI-99, and even Atari computers. But the bureaucracy at CDC had slowed things down to the point that they couldn’t capitalize on the rapidly evolving PC industry. And prices were too high in a time when home computers were just moving from a hobbyist market to the mainstream. 

The University of Illinois spun PLATO out into its own organization called University Communications, Inc (or UCI for short) and closed CERL in 1994. That was the same year Marc Andreessen co-founded Mosaic Communications Corporation, makers of Netscape -successor to NCSA Mosaic. Because NCSA, or The National Center for Supercomputing Applications, had also benefited from National Science Foundation grants when it was started in 1982. And all those students who flocked to the University of Illinois because of programs like PLATO had brought with them more expertise.

UCI continued PLATO as NovaNet, which was acquired by National Computer Systems and then Pearson corporation, finally getting shut down in 2015 - 55 years after those original days on ILLIAC. It evolved from the vacuum tube-driven mainframe in a research institute with one terminal to two terminals, to a transistorized mainframe with hundreds and then over a thousand terminals connected from research and educational institutions around the world. It represented new ideas in programming and programming languages and inspired generations of innovations. 

That aftermath includes:

  • The ideas. PLATO developers met with people from Xerox PARC starting in the 70s and inspired some of the work done at Xerox. Yes, they seemed isolated at times but they were far from it. They also cross-pollinated ideas to Control Data. One way they did this was by trading some commercialization rights for more mainframe hardware. 
  • One of the easiest connections to draw from PLATO to the modern era is how the notes files evolved. Ray Ozzie graduated from Illinois in 1979 and went to work for Data General and then Software Arts, makers of VisiCalc. The corporate world had nothing like the culture that had evolved out of the notes files in PLATO Notes. Today we take collaboration tools for granted but when Ozzie was recruited by Lotus, the makers of 1-2-3, he joined only if they agreed to him funding a project to take that collaborative spirit that still seemed stuck in the splintered PLATO network. The Internet and networked computing in companies was growing, and he knew he could improve on the notes files in a way that companies could take use of it. He started Iris Associates in 1984 and shipped a tool in 1989. That would evolve into what is would be called Lotus Notes when the company was acquired by Lotus in 1994 and then when Lotus was acquired by IBM, would evolve into Domino - surviving to today as HCL Domino. Ozzie would go on to become a CTO and then the Chief Software Architect at Microsoft, helping spearhead the Microsoft Azure project.
  • Collaboration. Those notes files were also some of the earliest newsgroups. But they went further. Talkomatic introduced real time text chats. The very concept of a digital community and its norms and boundaries were being tested and challenges we still face like discrimination even manifesting themselves then. But it was inspiring and between stints at Microsoft, Ray Ozzie founded Talko in 2012 based on what he learned in the 70s, working with Talkomatic. That company was acquired by Microsoft and some of the features ported into Skype. 
  • Another way Microsoft benefited from the work done on PLATO was with Microsoft Flight Simulator. That was originally written by Bruce Artwick after leaving the university based on the flight games he’d played on PLATO. 
  • Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol was cloned from Avatar
  • Silas Warner was connected to PLATO from terminals at the University of Indiana. During and after school, he wrote software for companies but wrote Robot War for PLATO and then co-founded Muse Software where he wrote Escape!, a precursor for lots of other maze runners, and then Castle Wolfenstein. The name would get bought for $5,000 after his company went bankrupt and one of the early block-buster first-person shooters when released as Wolfenstein 3D. Then John Carmack and John Romero created Doom. But Warner would go on to work with some of the best in gaming, including Sid Meier.  
  • Paul Alfille built the game Freecell for PLATO and Control Data released it for all PLATO systems. Jim Horne played it from the PLATO terminals at the University of Alberta and eventually released it for DOS in 1988. Horn went to work for Microsoft who included it in the Microsoft Entertainment Pack, making it one of the most popular software titles played on early versions of Windows. He got 10 shares of Microsoft stock in return and it’s still part of Windows 10 using the Microsoft Solitaire Collection..
  • Robert wood head and Andrew Greenberg got onto PLATO from their terminals at Cornell University where they were able to play games like Oubliette and Emprie. They would write a game called Wizardry that took some of the best that the dungeon crawl multi-players had to offer and bring them into a single player computer then console game. I spent countless hours playing Wizardry on the Nintendo NES and have played many of the spin-offs, which came as late as 2014. Not only did the game inspire generations of developers to write dungeon games, but some of the mechanics inspired features in the Ultima series, Dragon Quest, Might and Magic, The Bard’s Tale, Dragon Warrior and countless Manga. Greenberg would go on to help with Q-Bert and other games before going on to work with the IEEE. Woodhead would go on to work on other games like Star Maze. I met Woodhead shortly after he wrote Virex, an early anti-virus program for the Mac that would later become McAfee VirusScan for the Mac.
  • Paul Tenczar was in charge of the software developers for PLATO. After that he founded Computer Teaching Corporation and introduced EnCORE, which was changed to Tencore. They grew to 56 employees by 1990 and ran until 2000. He returned to the University of Illinois to put RFID tags on bees, contributing to computing for nearly 5 decades and counting. 
  • Michael Allen used PLATO at Ohio State University before looking to create a new language. He was hired at CDC where he became a director in charge of Research and Development for education systems There, he developed the ideas for a new computer language authoring system, which became Authorware, one of the most popular authoring packages for the Mac. That would merge with Macro-Mind to become Macromedia, where bits and pieces got put into Dreamweaver and Shockwave as they released those. After Adobe acquired Macromedia, he would write a number of books and create even more e-learning software authoring tools. 

 

So PLATO gave us multi-player games, new programming languages, instant messaging, online and multiple choice testing, collaboration forums, message boards, multiple person chat rooms, early rudimentary remote screen sharing, their own brand of plasma display and all the research behind printing circuits on glass for that, and early research into touch sensitive displays. And as we’ve shown in just a few of the many people that contributed to computing after, they helped inspire an early generation of programmers and innovators. 

If you like this episode I strongly suggest checking out The Friendly Orange Glow from Brian Dear. It’s a lovely work with just the right mix of dry history and flourishes of prose. A short history like this can’t hold a candle to a detailed anthology like Dear’s book. 

Another well researched telling of the story can be found in a couple of chapters of A People’s History Of Computing In The United States, from Joy Rankin. She does a great job drawing a parallel (and sometimes direct line from) the Dartmouth Time Sharing System and others as early networks. And yes, terminals dialing into a mainframe and using resources over telephone and leased lines was certainly a form of bridging infrastructures and seemed like a network at the time. But no mainframe could have scaled to the ability to become a utility in the sense that all of humanity could access what was hosted on it. 

Instead, the ARPANET was put online and growing from 1969 to 1990 and working out the hard scientific and engineering principals behind networking protocols gave us TCP/IP. In her book, Rankin makes great points about the BASIC and TUTOR applications helping shape more of our modern world in how they inspired the future of how we used personal devices once connected to a network. The scientists behind ARPANET, then NSFnet and the Internet, did the work to connect us. You see, those dial-up connections were expensive over long distances. By 1974 there were 47 computers connected to the ARPANET and by 1983 we had TCP/IPv4.And much like Bitzer allowing games, they didn’t seem to care too much how people would use the technology but wanted to build the foundation - a playground for whatever people wanted to build on top of it.

So the administrative and programming team at CERL deserve a lot of credit. The people who wrote the system, the generations who built features and code only to see it become obsolete came and went - but the compounding impact of their contributions can be felt across the technology landscape today. Some of that is people rediscovering work done at CERL, some is directly inspired, and some has been lost only to probably be rediscovered in the future.  One thing is for certain, their contributions to e-learning are unparalleled with any other system out there. And their technical contributions, both in the form of those patented and those that were either unpatentable or where they didn’t think of patenting, are immense. 

Bitzer and the first high schoolers and then graduate students across the world helped to shape the digital world we live in today. More from an almost sociological aspect than technical. And the deep thought applied to the system lives on today in so many aspects of our modern world. Sometimes that’s a straight line and others it’s dotted or curved. Looking around, most universities have licensing offices now, to capitalize on the research done. Check out a university near you and see what they have available for license. You might be surprised. As I’m sure many in Champagne were after all those years. Just because CDC couldn’t capitalize on some great research doesn’t mean we can’t. 


So Long, Fry's Electronics

     2/27/2021

We’ve covered Radioshack but there are a few other retail stores I’d like to cover as well. CompUSA, CircuitCity, and Fry’s to name a few. Not only is there something to be learned from the move from brick and mortar electronic chains to Ecommerce but there’s plenty to be learned about how to treat people and how people perceived computers and what we need and when, as well. 

You see, Fry’s was one of the few places you could walk in, pick a CPU, find a compatible mother board, pick a sweet chassis to put it in, get a power supply, a video card, some memory, back then probably a network card, maybe some sweet fans, a cooling system for the CPU you were about to overclock, an SSD drive to boot a machine, a hard drive to store stuff, a DVD, a floppy just in case, pick up some velcro wrap to keep the cables at bay, get a TV, a cheap knockoff smart watch, a VR headset that would never work, maybe a safe since you already have a cart, a soundbar ‘cause you did just get a TV, some headphones for when you’ll keep everyone else up with the sounder, a couple of resistors for that other project, a fixed frequency video card for that one SGI in the basement, a couple smart plugs, a solar backpack, and a CCNA book that you realize is actually 2 versions out of date when you go to take the test. Yup, that was a great trip. And ya’ there’s also a big bag of chips and a 32 ounce of some weird soda gonna’ go in the front seat with me. Sweet. Now let’s just toss the cheap flashlight we just bought into the glove box in case we ever break down and we’re good to go home and figure out how to pay for all this junk on that new Fry’s Credit Card we just opened. 

But that was then and this is now. Fry’s announced it was closing all of its stores on February 24th, 2021. The week we’re recording this episode. To quote the final their website:

“After nearly 36 years in business as the one-stop-shop and online resource for high-tech professionals across nine states and 31 stores, Fry’s Electronics, Inc. (“Fry’s” or “Company”), has made the difficult decision to shut down its operations and close its business permanently as a result of changes in the retail industry and the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Company will implement the shut down through an orderly wind down process that it believes will be in the best interests of the Company, its creditors, and other stakeholders.

The Company ceased regular operations and began the wind-down process on February 24, 2021. It is hoped that undertaking the wind-down through this orderly process will reduce costs, avoid additional liabilities, minimize the impact on our customers, vendors, landlords and associates, and maximize the value of the Company’s assets for its creditors and other stakeholders.”

Wow. Just wow. I used to live a couple of miles from a Fry’s and it was a major part of furthering my understanding of arcane, bizarre, sometimes emergent, and definitely dingy areas of computing. And if those adjectives don’t seem to have been included lovingly, they most certainly are. You see every trip to Fry’s was strange. 

Donald Fry founded Fry’s Food and Drug in 1954. The store rose to prominence in the 50s and 60s until his brother Charles Fry sold it off in 1972. As a part of Kroger it still exists today, with 22,000 employees. But this isn’t the story of a supermarket chain. I guess I did initially think the two were linked because the logos look somewhat similar - but that’s where their connection ends. 

Instead, let’s cover what happened to the $14 million the family got from the sale of the chain. Charles Fry gave some to his sons John, Randy, and David. They added Kathryn Kolder and leased a location in Sunnyvale, California to open the first Fry’s Electronics store in 1985.

This was during the rise of the microcomputer. The computing industry had all these new players who were selling boards and printers and floppy drives. They put all this stuff in bins kinda’ like you would in a grocery store and became a one-stop shop for the hobbyist and the professional alike. Unlike groceries, the parts didn’t expire so they were able to still have things selling 5 or 10 years later, albeit a bit dusty. 

1985 was the era when many bought integrated circuits, mother boards, and soldering irons and built their own computers. They saw the rise of the microprocessor, the 80286 and x86s. And as we moved into an era of predominantly x86 clones of the IBM PC, the buses and cards became standard. Provided a power supply had a molex connector it was probably good to light up most mother boards and hard drives. The IDE became the standard then later SATA. But parts were pretty interchangeable.

Knowing groceries, they also sold those. Get some Oranges and a microprocessor. They stopped selling those but always sold snacks until the day they closed down. But services were always a thing at Fry’s. Those who didn’t want to spend hours putting spacers on a motherboard and puttin

They also sold other electronics. Sometimes the selection seemed totally random. I bought my first MP3 player at a Fry’s - the Diamond Rio. And funny LED lights for computer fans before that really became a thing. Screwdriver kits, thermal grease, RAM chips, unsoldered boards, weird little toys, train sets, coloring books, certification books for that MCSE test I took in 2002, and whatever else I could think of. 

The stores were kitchy. Some had walls painted like circuit boards. Some had alien motifs. Others were decorated like the old west. It’s like whatever they could find weird stuff to adorn the joint. People were increasingly going online. In 1997 they bought Frys.com. To help people get online, they started selling Internet access in 2000. But by then there were so many vendors to help people get online that it wasn’t going to be successful. People were increasingly shopping online so they bought Cyberian Outpost in 2001 and moved it to outpost.com - which later just pointed to Frys.com. 

The closing of a number of Radio Shack stores and Circuit City and CompUSA seemed to give them a shot in the arm for a bit. But you could buy computers at Gateway Country or through Dell. Building your own computer was becoming more and more a niche industry for gamers and others who needed specific builds. 

They grew to 34 stores at their height. Northern California stores in Campbell, Concord, Fremont, Roseville, Sacramento, San Jose, and that original Sunnyvale (now across the street from the old original Sunnyvale) and Southern California stores in Burbank, City of Industry, Fountain Valley, Manhattan Beach, Oxnard, San Diego, San Marcos, and the little one in Woodland Hills  - it seemed like everyone in California knew to go to Fry’s when you needed some doodad. In fact, they made the documentary about General Magic because they were constantly going back and forth to Fry’s to get parts to build their device. 

But they did expand out of California with 8 stores in Texas, two in Airizona, one in Illinois, one in Indiana, one in Nevada, one in Oregon, and another in Washington. In some ways it looked as though they were about to have a chain that could rival the supermarket chain their dad helped build. But it wasn’t meant to be. 

With the fall of Radio Shack, CompUSA, and Circuit City, I was always surprised Fry’s stayed around. Tandy started a concept similar called Incredible Universe but that didn’t last too long. But I loved them. The customer service wasn’t great. The stores were always a little dirty. But I never left empty-handed. Even when I didn’t find what I was looking for. 

Generations of computer enthusiasts bought everything from scanners to printers at Frys. They were sued over how they advertised, for sexual harassment, during divorce settlements, and over how they labeled equipment. They lost money in embezzlements, and as people increasingly turned to Amazon and other online vendors for the best price for that MSI motherboard or a screen for the iPhone - keeping such a massive inventory was putting them out of business. So in 2019 amidst rumors they were about to go out of business, they moved to stocking the stores via consignment. Not all vendors upstream could do that, leading to an increasingly strange selection and finding what you needed less and less. 

Then came COVID. They closed a few stores and between the last ditch effort of consignment and empty bins as hardware moved, they just couldn’t do it any more. As with the flashier and less selection but more complete systems Circuit City and CompUSA before them, they finally closed their doors in 2021, after 36 years. And so we live in an era where many computers, tablets, and phones are no longer serviceable or have parts that can be swapped out. We live in an era where when we can service a device with those parts, we often go online to source them. And we live in an era where if we need instant gratification to replace components there are plenty of retail chains like Target or Walmart that sell components and move far more than Fry’s so are more competitive on the price. We live in an era where we don’t need to go into a retailer for software and books, both sold at high margins. There are stores on the Apple and Microsoft and Google platforms for that. And of course 2020 was a year that many retail chains had to close their doors in order to keep their employees safe, losing millions in revenue. 

All of that eventually became too much for other computer stores as each slowly eroded the business. And now it’s become too much for Fry’s. I will always remember the countless hours I strolled around the dingy store, palming this adapter and that cable and trying to figure out what components might fit together so I can get the equivalent of an AlienWare computer for half the cost. And I’ll even fondly remember the usually sub-par customer service, because it forced me to learn more. And I’ll always be thankful that they had crap sitting around for a decade because I always learned something new about the history of computers in their bins of arcane bits and bytes sitting around.

And their closing reminds us, as the closings of former competitors and even other stores like Borders does, that an incredible opportunity lies ahead of us. These shifts in society also shift the supply chain. They used to get a 50% markup on software and a hefty markup on the books I wrote. Now I can publish software on the App Stores and pay less of my royalties to the retailers. Now I don’t need a box and manual for software. Now books don’t have to be printed and can even be self-published in those venues if I see fit to do so. And while Microsoft, Apple, and Google’s “Services” revenue or revenue from Target once belonged to stores like Fry’s, the opportunities have moved to linking and aggregating and adding machine learning and looking to fields that haven’t yet been brought into a more digital age - or even to harkening back to simpler times and providing a more small town white glove approach to life. Just as the dot com crash created a field where companies like Netflix and Google could become early unicorns, so every other rise and fall creates new, uncharted green fields and blue oceans. Thank you for your contributions - both past and future.


Apple 1997-2011: The Return Of Steve Jobs

     2/21/2021

Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985. He co-founded NeXT Computers and took Pixar public. He then returned to Apple as the interim CEO in 1997 at a salary of $1 per year. Some of the early accomplishments on his watch were started before he got there. But turning the company back around was squarely on him and his team. 

By the end of 1997, Apple moved to a build-to-order manufacturing powered by an online store built on WebObjects, the NeXT application server. They killed off a number of models, simplifying the lineup of products and also killed the clone deals, ending licensing of the operating system to other vendors who were at times building sub-par products.

And they were busy. You could feel the frenetic pace.  They were busy at work weaving the raw components from NeXT into an operating system that would be called Mac OS X. They announced a partnership that would see Microsoft invest $150 million into Apple to settle patent disputes but that Microsoft would get Internet Explorer bundled on the Mac and give a commitment to release Office for the Mac again. By then, Apple had $1.2 billion in cash reserves again, but armed with a streamlined company that was ready to move forward - but 1998 was a bottoming out of sorts, with Apple only doing just shy of $6 billion in revenue. To move forward, they took a little lesson from the past and released a new all-in-one computer. One that put the color back into that Apple logo. Or rather removed all the colors but Aqua blue from it. 

The return of Steve Jobs invigorated many, such as Johnny Ive who is reported to have had a resignation in his back pocket when he met Jobs. Their collaboration led to a number of innovations, with a furious pace starting with the iMac. The first iMacs were shaped like gumdrops and the color of candy as well. The original Bondi blue had commercials showing all the cords in a typical PC setup and then the new iMac, “as unPC as you can get.” The iMac was supposed to be to get on the Internet. But the ensuing upgrades allowed for far more than that. 

The iMac put style back into Apple and even computers. Subsequent releases came in candy colors like Lime, Strawberry, Blueberry, Grape, Tangerine, and later on Blue Dalmatian and Flower Power. The G3 chipset bled out into other more professional products like a blue and white G3 tower, which featured a slightly faster processor than the beige tower G3, but a much cooler look - and very easy to get into compared to any other machine on the market at the time. And the Clamshell laptops used the same design language. Playful, colorful, but mostly as fast as their traditional PowerBook counterparts. 

But the team had their eye on a new strategy entirely. Yes, people wanted to get online - but these computers could do so much more. Apple wanted to make the Mac the Digital Hub for content. This centered around a technology that had been codeveloped from Apple, Sony, Panasonic, and others called IEEE 1394. But that was kinda’ boring so we just called it Firewire.

Begun in 1986 and originally started by Apple, Firewire had become a port that was on most digital cameras at the time. USB wasn’t fast enough to load and unload a lot of newer content like audio and video from cameras to computers. But I can clearly remember that by the year 1999 we were all living as Jobs put it in a “new emerging digital lifestyle.”  This led to a number of releases from Apple. One was iMovie. Apple included it with the new iMac DV model for free. That model dumped the fan (which Jobs never liked even going back to the early days of Apple) as well as FireWire and the ability to add an AirPort card. Oh, and they released an AirPort base station in 1999 to help people get online easily. It is still one of the simplest router and wi-fi devices I’ve ever used. And was sleek with the new Graphite design language that would take Apple through for years on their professional devices.

iMovie was a single place to load all those digital videos and turn them into something else. And there was another format on the rise, MP3. Most everyone I’ve ever known at Apple love music. It’s in the DNA of the company, going back to Wozniak and Jobs and their love of musicians like Bob Dylan in the 1970s. The rise of the transistor radio and then the cassette and Walkman had opened our eyes to the democratization of what we could listen to as humans. But the MP3 format, which had been around since 1993, was on the rise. People were ripping and trading songs and Apple looked at a tool called Audion and another called SoundJam and decided that rather than Sherlock (or build that into the OS) that they would buy SoundJam in 2000. The new software, which they called iTunes, allowed users to rip and burn CDs easily. Apple then added iPhoto, iWeb, and iDVD. For photos, creating web sites, and making DVDs respectively. The digital hub was coming together.

But there was another very important part of that whole digital hub strategy. Now that we had music on our computers we needed something more portable to listen to that music on. There were MP3 players like the Diamond Rio out there, and there had been going back to the waning days of the Digital Equipment Research Lab - but they were either clunky or had poor design or just crappy and cheap. And mostly only held an album or two. I remember walking down that isle at Fry’s about once every other month waiting and hoping. But nothing good ever came. 

That is, until Jobs and the Apple hardware engineering lead Job Rubinstein found Tony Fadell. He had been at General Magic, you know, the company that ushered in mobility as an industry. And he’d built Windows CE mobile devices for Philips in the Velo and Nino. But when we got him working with Jobs, Rubinstein, and Johnny Ive on the industrial design front, we got one of the most iconic devices ever made: the iPod. 

And the iPod wasn’t all that different on the inside from a Newton. Blasphemy I know. It sported a pair of ARM chips and Ive harkened back to simpler times when he based the design on a transistor radio. Attention to detail and the lack thereof in the Sony Diskman propelled Apple to sell more than 400 million  iPods to this day. By the time the iPod was released in 2001, Apple revenues had jumped to just shy of $8 billion but dropped back down to $5.3. But everything was about to change. And part of that was that the iPod design language was about to leak out to the rest of the products with white iBooks, white Mac Minis, and other white devices as a design language of sorts. 

To sell all those iDevices, Apple embarked on a strategy that seemed crazy at the time. They opened retail stores. They hired Ron Johnson and opened two stores in 2001. They would grow to over 500 stores, and hit a billion in sales within three years. Johnson had been the VP of merchandising at Target and with the teams at Apple came up with the idea of taking payment without cash registers (after all you have an internet connected device you want to sell people) and the Genius Bar. 

And generations of devices came that led people back into the stores. The G4 came along - as did faster RAM. And while Apple was updating the classic Mac operating system, they were also hard at work preparing NeXT to go across the full line of computers. They had been working the bugs out in Rhapsody and then Mac OS X Server, but the client OS, Codenamed Kodiak, went into beta in 2000 and then was released as a dual-boot option in Cheetah, in 2001. And thus began a long line of big cats, going to Puma then Jaguar in 2002, Panther in 2003, Tiger in 2005, Leopard in 2007, Snow Leopard in 2009, Lion in 2011, Mountain Lion in 2012 before moving to the new naming scheme that uses famous places in California. 

Mac OS X finally provided a ground-up, modern, object-oriented operating system. They built the Aqua interface on top of it. Beautiful, modern, sleek. Even the backgrounds! The iMac would go from a gumdrop to a sleek flat panel on a metal stand, like a sunflower. Jobs and Ive are both named on the patents for this as well as many of the other inventions that came along in support of the rapid device rollouts of the day. 

Jaguar, or 10.2, would turn out to be a big update. They added Address Book, iChat - now called Messages, and after nearly two decades replaced the 8-bit Happy Mac with a grey Apple logo in 2002. Yet another sign they were no longer just a computer company. Some of these needed a server and storage so Apple released the Xserve in 2002 and the Xserve RAID in 2003. The pro devices also started to transition from the grey graphite look to brushed metal, which we still use today. 

Many wanted to step beyond just listening to music. There were expensive tools for creating music, like ProTools. And don’t get me wrong, you get what you pay for. It’s awesome. But democratizing the creation of media meant Apple wanted a piece of software to create digital audio - and released Garage Band in 2004. For this they again turned to an acquisition, EMagic, which had a tool called Logic Audio. I still use Logic to cut my podcasts. But with Garage Band they stripped it down to the essentials and released a tool that proved wildly popular, providing an on-ramp for many into the audio engineering space. 

Not every project worked out. Apple had ups and downs in revenue and sales in the early part of the millennium. The G4 Cube was released in 2000 and while it is hailed as one of the greatest designs by industrial designers it was discontinued in 2001 due to low sales. But Steve Jobs had been hard at work on something new. Those iPods that were becoming the cash cow at Apple and changing the world, turning people into white earbud-clad zombies spinning those click wheels were about to get an easier way to put media into iTunes and so on the device. 

The iTunes Store was released in 2003. Here, Jobs parlayed the success at Apple along with his own brand to twist the arms of executives from the big 5 record labels to finally allow digital music to be sold online. Each song was a dollar. Suddenly it was cheap enough that the music trading apps just couldn’t keep up. Today it seems like everyone just pays a streaming subscription but for a time, it gave a shot in the arm to music companies and gave us all this new-found expectation that we would always be able to have music that we wanted to hear on-demand. 

Apple revenue was back up to $8.25 billion in 2004. But Apple was just getting started. The next seven years would see that revenue climb from to $13.9 billion in 2005, $19.3 in 2006, $24 billion in 2007, $32.4 in 2008, $42.9 in 2009, $65.2 in 2010, and a staggering $108.2 in 2011.

After working with the PowerPC chipset, Apple transitioned new computers to Intel chips in 2005 and 2006. Keep in mind that most people used desktops at the time and just wanted fast. And it was the era where the Mac was really open source friendly so having the ability to load in the best the Linux and Unix worlds had to offer for software inside projects or on servers was made all the easier. But Intel could produce chips faster and were moving faster. That Intel transition also helped with what we call the “App Gap” where applications written for Windows could be virtualized for the Mac. This helped the Mac get much more adoption in businesses.

Again, the pace was frenetic. People had been almost begging Apple to release a phone for years. The Windows Mobile devices, the Blackberry, the flip phones, even the Palm Treo. They were all crap in Jobs’ mind. Even the Rockr that had iTunes in it was crap. So Apple released the iPhone in 2007 in a now-iconic  Jobs presentation. The early version didn’t have apps, but it was instantly one of the more saught-after gadgets. And in an era where people paid $100 to $200 for phones it changed the way we thought of the devices. In fact, the push notifications and app culture and always on fulfilled the General Magic dream that the Newton never could and truly moved us all into an always-on i (or Internet) culture.

The Apple TV was also released in 2007. I can still remember people talking about Apple releasing a television at the time. The same way they talk about Apple releasing a car. It wasn’t a television though, it was a small whitish box that resembled a Mac Mini - just with a different media-browsing type of Finder. Now it’s effectively an app to bootstrap the media apps on a Mac. 

It had been a blistering 10 years. We didn’t even get into Pages, FaceTime, They weren’t done just yet. The iPad was released in 2010. By then, Apple revenues exceeded those of Microsoft. The return and the comeback was truly complete. 

Similar technology used to build the Apple online store was also used to develop the iTunes Store and then the App Store in 2008. Here, rather than go to a site you might not trust and download an installer file with crazy levels of permissions.

One place where it’s still a work in progress to this day was iTools, released in 2000 and rebranded to .Mac or dot Mac in 2008, and now called MobileMe. Apple’s vision to sync all of our data between our myriad of devices wirelessly was a work in progress and never met the lofty goals set out. Some services, like Find My iPhone, work great. Others notsomuch. Jobs famously fired the team lead at one point. And while it’s better than it was it’s still not where it needs to be. 

Steve Jobs passed away in 2011 at 56 years old. His first act at Apple changed the world, ushering in first the personal computing revolution and then the graphical interface revolution. He left an Apple that meant something. He returned to a demoralized Apple and brought digital media, portable music players, the iPhone, the iPad, the Apple TV, the iMac, the online music store, the online App Store, and so much more. The world had changed in that time, so he left, well, one more thing. You see, when they started, privacy and security wasn’t much of a thing. Keep in mind, computers didn’t have hard drives. The early days of the Internet after his return was a fairly save I or Internet world. But by the time he passed away there there were some troubling trends. The data on our phones and computers could weave together nearly every bit of our life to an outsider. Not only could this lead to identity theft but with the growing advertising networks and machine learning capabilities, the consequences of privacy breaches on Apple products could be profound as a society. He left an ethos behind to build great products but not at the expense of those who buy them. One his successor Tim Cook has maintained. 

On the outside it may seem like the daunting 10 plus years of product releases has slowed. We still have the Macbook, the iMac, a tower, a mini, an iPhone, an iPad, an Apple TV. We now have HomeKit, a HomePod, new models of all those devices, Apple silicon, and some new headphones - but more importantly we’ve had to retreat a bit internally and direct some of those product development cycles to privacy, protecting users, shoring up the security model. Managing a vast portfolio of products in the largest company in the world means doing those things isn’t always altruistic. Big companies can mean big law suits when things go wrong. These will come up as we cover the history of the individual devices in greater detail.

The history of computing is full of stories of great innovators. Very few took a second act. Few, if any, had as impactful a first act as either that Steve Jobs had. It wasn’t just him in any of these. There are countless people from software developers to support representatives to product marketing gurus to the people that write the documentation. It was all of them, working with inspiring leadership and world class products that helped as much as any other organization in the history of computing, to shape the digital world we live in today. 


From Moveable Type To The Keyboard

     2/18/2021

QWERTY. It’s a funny word. Or not a word. But also not an acronym per se. Those are the  top six letters in a modern keyboard. Why? Because the frequency they’re used allows for hammers on a traditional typewriter to travel to and fro and the effort allows us to be more efficient with our time while typing. The concept of the keyboard goes back almost as far back as moveable type - but it took hundreds of years to standardize where we are today. 

Johannes Gutenberg is credited for developing the printing press in the 1450s. Printing using wooden blocks was brought to the Western world from China, which led him to replace the wood or clay characters with metal, thus giving us what we now think of as Moveable Type. This meant we were now arranging blocks of characters to print words onto paper. From there it was only a matter of time that we would realize that pressing a key could stamp a character onto paper as we went rather than developing a full page and then pressing ink to paper.

The first to get credit for pressing letters onto paper using a machine was Venetian Francesco Rampazzetto in 1575. But as with many innovations, this one needed to bounce around in the heads of inventors until the appropriate level of miniaturization and precision was ready. Henry Mill filed an English patent in 1714 for a machine that could type (or impress) letters progressively. By then, printed books were ubiquitous but we weren’t generating pages of printed text on the fly just yet. 

Others would develop similar devices but from 1801 to 1810, Pellegrino Turri in Italy developed carbon paper. Here, he coated one side of paper with carbon and the other side with wax. Why did he invent that, other than to give us an excuse to say carbon copy later (and thus the cc in an email)? 

Either he or Agostino Fantoni da Fivizzano invented a mechanical machine for pressing characters to paper for Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano, a blind friend of his. She would go on to send him letters written on the device, some of which exist to this day. More inventors tinkered with the idea of mechanical writing devices, often working in isolation from one another.

One was a surveyor, William Austin Burt. He found the handwritten documents of his field laborious and so gave us the typographer in 1829. Each letter was moved to where needed to print manually so it wasn’t all that much faster than the handwritten document, but the name would be hyphenated later to form type-writer. And with precision increasing and a lot of invention going on at the time there were other devices. But his patent was signed by Andrew Jackson. 

James Pratt introduced his Pterotype in an article in the Scientific American in 1867. It was a device that more closely resembles the keyboard layout we know today, with 4 rows of keys and a split in the middle for hands. Others saw the article and continued their own innovative additions. 

Frank Hall had worked on the telegraph before the Civil War and used his knowledge there to develop a Braille writer, which functioned similarly to a keyboard. He would move to Wisconsin, where he came in contact with another team developing a keyboard.

Christopher Latham Sholes saw the article in the Scientific American and along with Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule out of Milwaukee developed the QWERTY keyboard we know of as the standard keyboard layout today from 1867 to 1868. Around the same time, Danish pastor Rasmus Malling-Hansen introduced the writing ball in 1870. It could also type letters onto paper but with a much more complicated keyboard layout. It was actually the first typewriter to go into mass production - but at this point new inventions were starting to follow the QWERTY layout. Because asdfjkl;. Both though were looking to increase typing speed with Malling-Mansen’s layout putting constanents on the right side and vowels on the left - but Sholes and Glidden mixed keys up to help reduce the strain on hardware as it recoiled, thus splitting common characters in words between the sides. 

James Densmore encountered the Sholes work and jumped in to help. They had it relentlessly tested and iterated on the design, getting more and more productivity gains and making the device more and more hardy. When the others left the project, it was Densmore and Sholes carrying on. But Sholes was also a politician and editor of a newspaper, so had a lot going on. He sold his share of the patent for their layout for $12,000 and Densmore decided to go with royalties instead. 

By the 1880s, the invention had been floating around long enough and given a standardized keyboard it was finally ready to be mass produced. This began with the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer introduced in America in 1874. That was followed by the Caligraph. But it was Remington that would take the Sholes patent and create the Remington Typewriter, removing the hyphen from the word typewriter and going mainstream - netting Densmore a million and a half bucks in 1800s money for his royalties. And if you’ve seen anything typed on it, you’ll note that it supported one font: the monospaced sans serif Grotesque style.

Characters had always been upper case. Remington added a shift key to give us the ability to do both upper and lower case in 1878 with the Remington Model 2. This was also where we got the ampersand, parenthesis,  percent symbol, and question mark as shift characters for numbers. Remington also added tab and margins in 1897. Mark Twain was the first author to turn a manuscript in from a typewriter using what else but the Remington Typewriter. By then, we were experimenting with the sizes and spaces between characters, or kerning, to make typed content easier to read. Some companies moved to slab serif or Pica fonts and typefaces. You could really tell a lot about a company by that Olivetti with it’s modern, almost anti-Latin fonts. 

The Remington Typewriter Company would later merge with the Rand Kardex company to form Remington Rand, making typewriters, guns, and then in 1950, acquiring the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, who made ENIAC - arguably the first all-digital computer. Rand also acquired Engineering Research Associates (or ERA) and introduced the Univac. Electronics maker Sperry acquired them in 1955, and then merged with Burroughs to form Unisys in 1988, still a thriving company. But what’s important is that they knew typewriters. And keyboards.

But electronics had been improving in the same era that Remington took their typewriters mainstream, and before. Samuel Morse developed the recording telegraph in 1835 and David Hughes added the printed telegraph. Emile Baudot gave us a 5 bit code in the 1870s that enhanced that but those were still using keys similar to what you find on a piano. The typewriter hadn’t yet merged with digital communications just yet. Thomas Edison patented the electric typewriter in 1872 but didn’t produce a working model. And this was a great time of innovation. For example, Alexander Graham Bell was hard at work on patenting the telephone at the time. 

James Smathers then gave us the first electronic typewriter in 1920 and by the 1930s improved Baudot, or baud was combined with a QUERTY keyboard by Siemens and others to give us typing over the wire. The Teletype Corporation was founded in 1906 and would go from tape punch and readers to producing the teletypes that allowed users to dial into mainframes in the 1970s timesharing networks. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How did we eventually end up plugging a keyboard into a computer?

Herman Hollerith, the mind behind the original IBM punch cards for tabulating machines before his company got merged with others to form IBM, brought us text keypunches, which were later used to input data into early computers. The Binac computer used a similar representation with 8 keys and an electromechanical control was added to input data into the computer like a punch card might - for this think of a modern 10-key pad. Given that we had electronic typewriters for a couple of decades it was only a matter of time before a full keyboard worth of text was needed on a computer. That came in 1954 with the pioneering work done MIT. Here, Douglas Ross wanted to hookup a Flexowriter electric typewriter to a computer, which would be done the next year as yet another of the huge innovations coming out of the Whirlwind project at MIT. With the addition of core memory to computing that was the first time a real keyboard (and being able to write characters into a computer) was really useful. After nearly 400 years since the first attempts to build a moveable type machine and then and just shy of 100 years since the layout had been codified, the computer keyboard was born. 

The PLATO team in late 60s University of Illinois Champaign Urbana were one of many research teams that sought to develop cheaper input output mechanisms for their computer Illiac and prior to moving to standard keyboards they built custom devices with fewer keys to help students select multiple choice answers. But eventually they used teletype-esque systems. 

Those early keyboards were mechanical. They still made a heavy clanky sound when the keys were pressed. Not as much as when using a big mechanical typewriter, but not like the keyboards we use today. These used keys with springs inside them. Springs would be replaced with pressure pads in some machines, including the Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81. And the Timex Sinclair 1000. Given that there were less moving parts, they were cheap to make. They used conductive traces with a gate between two membranes. When a key was pressed electricity flowed through what amounted to a flip-flop. When the key was released the electricity stopped flowing. I never liked them because they just didn’t have that feel. In fact, they’re still used in devices like microwaves to provide for buttons under led lights that you can press. 

By the late 1970s, keyboards were becoming more and more common. The next advancement was in Chiclet keyboards, common on the TRS-80 and the IBM PCjr. These were were like membrane keyboards but used moulded rubber. Scissor switch keyboards became the standard for laptops - these involve a couple of pieces of plastic under each key, arranged like a scissor. And more and more keyboards were produced. 

With an explosion in the amount of time we spent on computers, we eventually got about as many designs of ergonomic keyboards as you can think of. Here, doctors or engineers or just random people would attempt to raise or lower hands or move hands apart or depress various keys or raise them. But as we moved from desktops to laptops or typing directly on screens as we do with tablets and phones, those sell less and less.

I wonder what Sholes would say if you showed him and the inventors he worked with what the QWERTY keyboard looks like on an iPhone today? I wonder how many people know that at least two of the steps in the story of the keyboard had to do with helping the blind communicate through the written word? I wonder how many know about the work Alexander Graham Bell did with the deaf and the impact that had on his understanding of the vibrations of sound and the emergence of phonautograph to record sound and how that would become acoustic telegraphy and then the telephone, which could later stream baud? Well, we’re out of time for today so that story will have to get tabled for a future episode.

In the meantime, look around for places where there’s no standard. Just like the keyboard layout took different inventors and iterations to find the right amount of productivity, any place where there’s not yet a standard just needs that same level of deep thinking and sometimes generations to get it perfected. But we still use the QWERTY layout today and so sometimes once we find the right mix, we’ve set in motion an innovative that can become a true game changer. And if it’s not ready, at least we’ve contributed to the evolutions that revolutionize the world. Even if we don’t use those inventions. Bell famously never had a phone installed in his office. Because distractions. Luckily I disabled notifications on my phone before recording this or it would never get out… 


Apple and NeXT Computer

     2/15/2021

Steve Jobs had an infamous split with the board of directors of Apple and left the company shortly after the release of the original Mac. He was an innovator who at 21 years old had started Apple in the garage with Steve Wozniak and at 30 years old while already plenty wealthy felt he still had more to give and do. We can say a lot of things about him but he was arguably one of the best product managers ever. 

He told Apple he’d be taking some “low-level staffers” and ended up taking Rich Page, Bud Tribble, Dan'l Lewin, George Crow, and Susan Barnes to be the CFO. They also took Susan Kare and Joanna Hoffman. had their eyes on a computer that was specifically targeting higher education. They wanted to build computers for researchers and universities. 

Companies like CDC and Data General had done well in Universities. The team knew there was a niche that could be carved out there. There were some gaps with the Mac that made it a hard sell in research environments. Computer scientists needed object-oriented programming and protected memory. Having seen the work at PARC on object-oriented languages, Jobs knew the power and future-proof approach. 

Unix System V had branched a number of times and it was a bit more of a red ocean than I think they realized. But Jobs put up $7 million of his own money to found NeXT Computer. He’d add another $5 million and Ross Perot would add another $20 million. The pay bands were one of the most straight-forward of any startup ever founded. The senior staff made $75,000 and everyone else got $50,000. Simple. 

Ironically, so soon after the 1984 Super Bowl ad where Jobs based IBM, they hired the man who designed the IBM logo, Paul Rand, to design a logo for NeXT. They paid him $100,000 flat. Imagine the phone call when Jobs called IBM to get them to release Rand from a conflict of interest in working with them. 

They released the first computer in 1988. The NeXT Computer, as it was called, was expensive for the day, coming in at $6,500. It sported a Motorola 68030 CPU and clocked in at a whopping 25 MHz. And it came with a special operating system called NeXTSTEP.

NeXTSTEP was based on the Mach kernel with some of the source code coming from BSD. If we go back a little, Unix was started at Bell Labs in 1969 and by the late 70s had been forked from Unix System V to BSD, Unix version 7, and PWB - with each of those resulting in other forks that would eventually become OpenBSD, SunOS, NetBSD, Solaris, HP-UX, Linux, AIX, and countless others. 

Mach was developed at Carnegie Mellon University and is one of the earliest microkernels. For Mach, Richard Rashid (who would later found Microsoft Research) and Avie Tevanian, were looking specifically to distributed computing. And the Mach project was kicked off in 1985, the same year Jobs left Apple. 

Mach was backwards-compatible to BSD 4.2 and so could run a pretty wide variety of software. It allowed for threads, or units of execution and tasks or objects that enabled threads. It provided support for messages, which for object oriented languages are typed data objects that fall outside the scope of tasks and threads and then a protected message queue, to manage the messages between tasks and rights of access. They stood it up on a DEC VAX and released it publicly in 1987.

Here’s the thing, Unix licensing from Bell Labs was causing problems. So it was important to everyone that the license be open. And this would be important to NeXT as well. NeXT needed a next-generation operating system and so Avi Tevanian was recruited to join NeXT as the Vice President of Software Engineering. There, he designed NeXTSTEP with a handful of engineers.

The computers had custom boards and were fast. And they were a sleek black like nothing I’d seen before. But Bill Gates was not impressed claiming that “If you want black, I’ll get you a can of paint.” But some people loved the machines and especially some of the tools NeXT developed for programmers.

They got a factory to produce the machines and it only needed to crank out 100 a month as opposed to the thousands it was built to produce. In other words, the price tag was keeping universities from buying the machines. So they pivoted a little. They went up-market with the NeXTcube in 1990, which ran NeXTSTEP, OPENSTEP, or NetBSD and came with the Motorola 68040 CPU. This came machine in at $8,000 to almost $16,000. It came with a hard drive. For the lower end of the market they also released the NeXTstation in 1990, which shipped for just shy of $5,000.

The new models helped but by 1991 they had to lay off 5 percent of the company and another 280 by 1993. That’s when the hardware side got sold to Canon so NeXT could focus exclusively on NeXTSTEP.  That is, until they got acquired by Apple in 1997.

By the end, they’d sold around 50,000 computers. Apple bought NeXT for $429 million and 1.5 million shares of Apple stock, trading at 22 cents at the time, which was trading at $17 a share so worth another $25 and a half million dollars. That makes the deal worth $454 million or $9,080 per machine NeXT had ever built. But it wasn’t about the computer business, which had already been spun down. It was about Jobs and getting a multi-tasking, object-oriented, powerhouse of an operating system, the grandparent of OS X - and the derivative macOS, iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, and tvOS forks.

The work done at NeXT has had a long-term impact on the computer industry as a whole. For one, the spinning pinwheel on a Mac. And the Dock. And the App Store. And Objective-C. But also Interface Builder as an IDE was revolutionary. Today we use Xcode. But many of the components go back all the way. And so much more. 

After the acquisition, NeXT became Mac OS X Server in 1999 and by 2001 was Mac OS X. The rest there is history. But the legacy of the platform is considerable. Just on NeXTSTEP we had a few pretty massive successes.

Tim Berners-Lee developed the first web browser WorldWideWeb on NeXTSTEP for a NeXT . Other browsers for other platforms would come but his work became the web as we know it today. The machine he developed the web on is now on display at the National Museum of Science and Media in the UK.

We also got games like Quake, Heretic, Stife, and Doom from Interface Builder. And webobjects. And the people. 

Tevanian came with NeXT to Apple as the Senior Vice President of Software Engineering. Jobs became an advisor, then CEO. Craig Federighi came with the acquisition as well - now Apple’s VP of software engineering. And I know dozens of others who came in from NeXT and helped reshape the culture at Apple.

Next.com still redirects to Apple.com. It took three years to ship that first computer at NeXT. It took 2 1/2 years to develop the iPhone. The Apple II, iPod, iPad, and first iMac were much less. Nearly 5 years for the original Mac. Some things take a little more time to flush out than others. Some need the price of components or new components to show up before you know it can be insanely great. Some need false starts like the Steve Jobs Steve Jobs famously said Apple wanted to create a computer in a book in 1983. That finally came out with the release of the iPad in 2010, 27 years later. 

And so the final component of the Apple acquisition of NeXT to mention is Steve Jobs himself. He didn’t initially come in. He’d just become a billionaire off Pixar and was doing pretty darn well. His arrival back at Apple signified the end of a long draught for the company and all those products we mentioned and the iTunes music store and the App Store (both initially built on WebObjects) would change the way we consume content forever. His impact was substantial. For one, after factoring stock splits, the company might still be trading at .22 cents a share, which is what it would be today with all that. Instead they’re the most highly valued company in the world. But that pales in comparison to the way he and his teams and that relentless eye to product and design has actually changed the world. And the way his perspectives on privacy help protect us today, long after he passed. 

The heroes journey (as described is a storytelling template that follows a hero from disgrace, to learn the mistakes of their past and reinvent themselves amidst a crisis throughout a grand adventure, and return home transformed. NeXT and Pixar represent part of that journey here. Which makes me wonder: what is my own Monomyth? Where will I return to? What is or was my abyss? These can be large or small. And while very few people in the world will have one like Steve Jobs did, we should all reflect on ours and learn from them. And yes that was plural because life is not so simple that there is one.

The past, and our understanding of it, predicts the future. Good luck on your journey. 


Apple's Lost Decade

     2/12/2021

I often think of companies in relation to their contribution to the next evolution in the forking and merging of disciplines in computing that brought us to where we are today. Many companies have multiple contributions. Few have as many such contributions as Apple. But there was a time when they didn’t seem so innovative. 

This lost decade began about half way through the tenure of John Sculley and can be seen through the lens of the CEOs. There was Sculley, CEO from 1983 to 1993. Co-founders and spiritual centers of Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, left Apple in 1985. Jobs to create NeXT and Wozniak to jump into a variety of companies like making universal remotes, wireless GPS trackers, and and other adventures. 

This meant Sculley was finally in a position to be fully in charge of Apple. His era would see sales 10x from $800 million to $8 billion. Operationally, he was one of the more adept at cash management, putting $2 billion in the bank by 1993. Suddenly the vision of Steve Jobs was paying off. That original Mac started to sell and grow markets. But during this time, first the IBM PC and then the clones, all powered by the Microsoft operating system, completely took the operating system market for personal computers. Apple had high margins yet struggled for relevance. 

Under Sculley, Apple released HyperCard, funded a skunkworks team in General Magic, arguably the beginning of ubiquitous computing, and using many of those same ideas he backed the Newton, coining the term personal digital assistant. Under his leadership, Apple marketing sent 200,000 people home with a Mac to try it out. Put the device in the hands of the people is probably one of the more important lessons they still teach newcomers that work in Apple Stores. 

Looking at the big financial picture it seems like Sculley did alright. But in Apple’s fourth-quarter earnings call in 1993, they announced a 97 drop from the same time in 1992. This was also when a serious technical debt problem began to manifest itself. 

The Mac operating system grew from the system those early pioneers built in 1984 to Macintosh System Software going from version 1 to version 7. But after annual releases leading to version 6, it took 3 years to develop system 7 and the direction to take with the operating system caused a schism in Apple engineering around what would happen once 7 shipped. Seems like most companies go through almost the exact same schism. Microsoft quietly grew NT to resolve their issues with Windows 3 and 95 until it finally became the thing in 2000. IBM had invested heavily into that same code, basically, with Warp - but wanted something new. 

Something happened while Apple was building macOS 7. They lost Jean Lois Gasseé who had been head of development since Steve Jobs left. When Sculley gave everyone a copy of his memoir, Gasseé provided a copy of The Mythical Man-Month, from Fred Brooks’ experience with the IBM System 360. It’s unclear today if anyone read it. To me this is really the first big sign of trouble. Gassée left to build another OS, BeOS. 

By the time macOS 7 was released, it was clear that the operating system was bloated, needed a massive object-oriented overhaul, and under Sculley the teams were split, with one team eventually getting spun off into its own company and then became a part of IBM to help with their OS woes. The team at Apple took 6 years to release the next operating system. Meanwhile, one of Sculley’s most defining decisions was to avoid licensing the Macintosh operating system. Probably because it was just too big a mess to do so. And yet everyday users didn’t notice all that much and most loved it. 

But third party developers left. And that was at one of the most critical times in the history of personal computers because Microsoft was gaining a lot of developers for Windows 3.1 and released the wildly popular Windows 95. 

The Mac accounted for most of the revenue of the company, but under Sculley the company dumped a lot of R&D money into the Newton. As with other big projects, the device took too long to ship and when it did, the early PDA market was a red ocean with inexpensive competitors. The Palm Pilot effectively ended up owning that pen computing market. 

Sculley was a solid executive. And he played the part of visionary from time to time. But under his tenure Apple found operating system problems, rumors about Windows 95, developers leaving Apple behind for the Windows ecosystem, and whether those technical issues are on his lieutenants or him, the buck stocks there. The Windows clone industry led to PC price wars that caused Apple revenues to plummet. And so Markkula was off to find a new CEO. 

Michael Spindler became the CEO from 1993 to 1996. The failure of the Newton and Copland operating systems are placed at his feet, even though they began in the previous regime. Markkula hired Digital Equipment and Intel veteran Spindler to assist in European operations and he rose to President of Apple Europe and then ran all international. He would become the only CEO to have no new Mac operating systems released in his tenure. Missed deadlines abound with Copland and then Tempo, which would become Mac OS 8. 

And those aren’t the only products that came out at the time. We also got the PowerCD, the Apple QuickTake digital camera, and the Apple Pippin. Bandai had begun trying to develop a video game system with a scaled down version of the Mac. The Apple Pippin realized Markkula’s idea from when the Mac was first conceived as an Apple video game system. 

There were a few important things that happened under Spindler though. First, Apple moved to the PowerPC architecture. Second, he decided to license the Macintosh operating system to companies wanting to clone the Macintosh. And he had discussions with IBM, Sun, and Philips to acquire Apple. Dwindling reserves, increasing debt. Something had to change and within three years, Spindler was gone.

Gil Amelio was CEO from 1996 to 1997. He moved from the board while the CEO at National Semiconductor to CEO of Apple. He inherited a company short on cash and high on expenses. He quickly began pushing forward OS 8, cut a third of the staff, streamline operations, dumping some poor quality products, and releasing new products Apple needed to be competitive like the Apple Network Server. 

He also tried to acquire BeOS for $200 million, which would have Brough Gassée back but instead acquired NeXT for $429 million. But despite the good trajectory he had the company on, the stock was still dropping, Apple continued to lose money, and an immovable force was back - now with another decade of experience launching two successful companies: NeXT and Pixar. 

The end of the lost decade can be seen as the return of Steve Jobs. Apple didn’t have an operating system. They were in a lurch soy-to-speak. I’ve seen or read it portrayed that Steve Jobs intended to take control of Apple. And I’ve seen it portrayed that he was happy digging up carrots in the back yard but came back because he was inspired by Johnny Ive. But I remember the feel around Apple changed when he showed back up on campus. As with other companies that dug themselves out of a lost decade, there was a renewed purpose. There was inspiration. 

By 1997, one of the heroes of the personal computing revolution, Steve Jobs, was back. But not quite… He became interim CEO in 1997 and immediately turned his eye to making Apple profitable again. Over the past decade, the product line expanded to include a dozen models of the Mac. Anyone who’s read Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, Inside the Tornado, and Zone To Win knows this story all too well. We grow, we release new products, and then we eventually need to take a look at the portfolio and make some hard cuts. 

Apple released the Macintosh II in 1987 then the Macintosh Portable in 1989 then the Iicx and II ci in 89 along with the Apple IIgs, the last of that series. By facing competition in different markets, we saw the LC line come along in 1990 and the Quadra in 1991, the same year three models of the PowerBook were released. Different printers, scanners, CD-Roms had come along by then and in 1993, we got a Macintosh TV, the Apple Newton, more models of the LC and by 1994 even more of those plus the QuickTake, Workgroup Server, the Pippin and by 1995 there were a dozen Performas, half a dozen Power Macintosh 6400s, the Apple Network Server and yet another versions of the Performa 6200 and we added the eMade and beige G3 in 1997. The SKU list was a mess. Cleaning that up took time but helped prepare Apple for a simpler sales process. Today we have a good, better, best with each device, with many a computer being build-to-order. 

Jobs restructured the board, ending the long tenure of Mike Markkula, who’d been so impactful at each stage of the company so far. One of the forces behind the rise of the Apple computer and the Macintosh was about to change the world again, this time as the CEO. 


The Unlikely Rise Of The Macintosh

     2/9/2021

There was a nexus of Digital Research and Xerox PARC, along with Stanford and Berkeley in the Bay Area. The rise of the hobbyists and the success of Apple attracted some of the best minds in computing to Apple. This confluence was about to change the world. One of those brilliant minds that landed at Apple started out as a technical writer. 

Apple hired Jef Raskin as their 31st employee, to write the Apple II manual. He quickly started harping on people to build a computer that was easy to use. Mike Markkula wanted to release a gaming console or a cheap computer that could compete with the Commodore and Atari machines at the time. He called the project “Annie.”

The project began with Raskin, but he had a very different idea than Markkula’s. He summed it up in an article called “Computers by the Millions” that wouldn’t see publication until 1982. His vision was closer to his PhD dissertation, bringing computing to the masses. For this, he envisioned a menu driven operating system that was easy to use and inexpensive. Not yet a GUI in the sense of a windowing operating system and so could run on chips that were rapidly dropping in price. He planned to use the 6809 chip for the machine and give it a five inch display. 

He didn’t tell anyone that he had a PhD when he was hired, as the team at Apple was skeptical of academia. Jobs provided input, but was off working on the Lisa project, which used the 68000 chip. So they had free reign over what they were doing. 

Raskin quickly added Joanna Hoffman for marketing. She was on leave from getting a PhD in archaeology at the University of Chicago and was the marketing team for the Mac for over a year. They also added Burrell Smith, employee #282 from the hardware technician team, to do hardware. He’d run with the Homebrew Computer Club crowd since 1975 and had just strolled into Apple one day and asked for a job. 

Raskin also brought in one of his students from the University of California San Diego who was taking a break from working on his PhD in neurochemistry. Bill Atkinson became employee 51 at Apple and joined the project. They pulled in Andy Hertzfeld, who Steve Jobs hired when Apple bought one of his programs as he was wrapping up his degree at Berkeley and who’d been sitting on the Apple services team and doing Apple III demos.

They added Larry Kenyon, who’d worked at Amdahl and then on the Apple III team. Susan Kare came in to add art and design. They, along with Chris Espinosa - who’d been in the garage with Jobs and Wozniak working on the Apple I, ended up comprising the core team.

Over time, the team grew. Bud Tribble joined as the manager for software development. Jerrold Manock, who’d designed the case of the Apple II, came in to design the now-iconic Macintosh case. The team would eventually expand to include Bob Belleville, Steve Capps, George Crow, Donn Denman, Bruce Horn, and Caroline Rose as well. It was still a small team. And they needed a better code name. But chronologically let’s step back to the early project. 

Raskin chose his favorite Apple, the Macintosh, as the codename for the project. As far as codenames go it was a pretty good one. So their mission would be to ship a machine that was easy to use, would appeal to the masses, and be at a price point the masses could afford. They were looking at 64k of memory, a Motorola 6809 chip, and a 256 bitmap display. Small, light, and inexpensive.

Jobs’ relationship with the Lisa team was strained and he was taken off of that and he started moving in on the Macintosh team. It was quickly the Steve Jobs show. 

Having seen what could be done with the Motorola 68000 chip on the Lisa team, Jobs had them redesign the board to work with that. After visiting Xerox PARC at Raskin’s insistence, Jobs finally got the desktop metaphor and true graphical interface design. 

Xerox had not been quiet about the work at PARC. Going back to 1972 there were even television commercials. And Raskin had done time at PARC while on sabbatical from Stanford. Information about Smalltalk had been published and people like Bill Atkinson were reading about it in college. People had been exposed to the mouse all around the Bay Area in the 60s and 70s or read Engelbart’s scholarly works on it. Many of the people that worked on these projects had doctorates and were academics. They shared their research as freely as love was shared during that counter-culture time. Just as it had passed from MIT to Dartmouth and then in the back of Bob Albrecht’s VW had spread around the country in the 60s. That spirit of innovation and the constant evolutions over the past 25 years found their way to Steve Jobs. 

He saw the desktop metaphor and mouse and fell in love with it, knowing they could build one for less than the $400 unit Xerox had. He saw how an object-oriented programming language like Smalltalk made all that possible. The team was already on their way to the same types of things and so Jobs told the people at PARC about the Lisa project, but not yet about the Mac. In fact, he was as transparent as anyone could be. He made sure they knew how much he loved their work and disclosed more than I think the team planned on him disclosing about Apple. 

This is the point where Larry Tesler and others realized that the group of rag-tag garage-building Homebrew hackers had actually built a company that had real computer scientists and was on track to changing the world. Tesler and some others would end up at Apple later - to see some of their innovations go to a mass market. Steve Jobs at this point totally bought into Raskin’s vision. Yet he still felt they needed to make compromises with the price and better hardware to make it all happen. 

Raskin couldn’t make the kinds of compromises Jobs wanted. He also had an immunity to the now-infamous Steve Jobs reality distortion field and they clashed constantly. So eventually Raskin the project just when it was starting to take off. Raskin would go on to work with Canon to build his vision, which became the Canon CAT. 

With Raskin gone, and armed with a dream team of mad scientists, they got to work, tirelessly pushing towards shipping a computer they all believed would change the world. Jobs brought in Fernandez to help with projects like the macOS and later HyperCard. Wozniak had a pretty big influence over Raskin in the early days of the Mac project and helped here and there withe the project, like with the bit-serial peripheral bus on the Mac. 

Steve Jobs wanted an inexpensive mouse that could be manufactured en masse. Jim Yurchenco from Hovey-Kelley, later called Ideo, got the task - given that trusted engineers at Apple had full dance cards. He looked at the Xerox mouse and other devices around - including trackballs in Atari arcade machines. Those used optics instead of mechanical switches. As the ball under the mouse rolled beams of light would be interrupted and the cost of those components had come down faster than the technology in the Xerox mouse.  He used a ball from a roll-on deodorant stick and got to work. The rest of the team designed the injection molded case for the mouse. That work began with the Lisa and by the time they were done, the price was low enough that every Mac could get one. 

Armed with a mouse, they figured out how to move windows over the top of one another, Susan Kare designed iconography that is a bit less 8-bit but often every bit as true to form today. Learning how they wanted to access various components of the desktop, or find things, they developed the Finder. Atkinson gave us marching ants, the concept of double-clicking, the lasso for selecting content, the menu bar, MacPaint, and later, HyperCard. 

It was a small team, working long hours. Driven by a Jobs for perfection. Jobs made the Lisa team the enemy. Everything not the Mac just sucked. He took the team to art exhibits. He had the team sign the inside of the case to infuse them with the pride of an artist. He killed the idea of long product specifications before writing code and they just jumped in, building and refining and rebuilding and rapid prototyping. The team responded well to the enthusiasm and need for perfectionism. 

The Mac team was like a rebel squadron. They were like a start-up, operating inside Apple. They were pirates. They got fast and sometimes harsh feedback. And nearly all of them still look back on that time as the best thing they’ve done in their careers. 

As IBM and many learned the hard way before them, they learned a small, inspired team, can get a lot done. With such a small team and the ability to parlay work done for the Lisa, the R&D costs were minuscule until they were ready to release the computer. And yet, one can’t change the world over night. 1981 turned into 1982 turned into 1983. 

More and more people came in to fill gaps. Collette Askeland came in to design the printed circuit board. Mike Boich went to companies to get them to write software for the Macintosh. Berry Cash helped prepare sellers to move the product. Matt Carter got the factory ready to mass produce the machine. Donn Denman wrote MacBASIC (because every machine needed a BASIC back then). Martin Haeberli helped write MacTerminal and Memory Manager. Bill Bull got rid of the fan. Patti King helped manage the software library. Dan Kottke helped troubleshoot issues with mother boards. Brian Robertson helped with purchasing. Ed Riddle designed the keyboard. Linda Wilkin took on documentation for the engineering team. It was a growing team. Pamela Wyman and Angeline Lo came in as programmers. Hap Horn and Steve Balog as engineers. 

Jobs had agreed to bring in adults to run the company. So they recruited 44 years old hotshot CEO John Sculley to change the world as their CEO rather than selling sugar water at Pepsi. Scully and Jobs had a tumultuous relationship over time. While Jobs had made tradeoffs on cost versus performance for the Mac, Sculley ended up raising the price for business reasons.

Regis McKenna came in to help with the market campaign. He would win over so much trust that he would later get called out of retirement to do damage control when Apple had an antenna problem on the iPhone. We’ll cover Antenna-gate at some point. They spearheaded the production of the now-iconic 1984 Super Bowl XVIII ad, which shows woman running from conformity and depicted IBM as the Big Brother from George Orwell’s book, 1984. 

Two days after the ad, the Macintosh 128k shipped for $2,495. The price had jumped because Scully wanted enough money to fund a marketing campaign. It shipped late, and the 128k of memory was a bit underpowered, but it was a success. Many of the concepts such as a System and Finder, persist to this day. It came with MacWrite and MacPaint and some of the other Lisa products were soon to follow, now as MacProject and MacTerminal. But the first killer app for the Mac was Microsoft Word, which was the first version of Word ever shipped. 

Every machine came with a mouse. The machines came with a cassette that featured a guided tour of the new computer. You could write programs in MacBASIC and my second language, MacPascal. 

They hit the initial sales numbers despite the higher price. But over time that bit them on sluggish sales. Despite the early success, the sales were declining. Yet the team forged on. They introduced the Apple LaserWriter at a whopping $7,000. This was a laser printer that was based on the Canon 300 dpi engine. Burrell Smith designed a board and newcomer Adobe knew laser printers, given that the founders were Xerox alumni. They added postscript, which had initially been thought up while working with Ivan Sutherland and then implemented at PARC, to make for perfect printing at the time.

The sluggish sales caused internal issues. There’s a hangover  when we do something great. First there were the famous episodes between Jobs, Scully, and the board of directors at Apple. Scully seems to have been portrayed by many to be either a villain or a court jester of sorts in the story of Steve Jobs. Across my research, which began with books and notes and expanded to include a number of interviews, I’ve found Scully to have been admirable in the face of what many might consider a petulant child. But they all knew a brilliant one. 

But amidst Apple’s first quarterly loss, Scully and Jobs had a falling out. Jobs tried to lead an insurrection and ultimately resigned. Wozniak had left Apple already, pointing out that the Apple II was still 70% of the revenues of the company. But the Mac was clearly the future. 

They had reached a turning point in the history of computers. The first mass marketed computer featuring a GUI and a mouse came and went. And so many others were in development that a red ocean was forming. Microsoft released Windows 1.0 in 1985. Acorn, Amiga, IBM, and others were in rapid development as well. 

I can still remember the first time I sat down at a Mac. I’d used the Apple IIs in school and we got a lab of Macs. It was amazing. I could open a file, change the font size and print a big poster. I could type up my dad’s lyrics and print them. I could play SimCity. It was a work of art. And so it was signed by the artists that brought it to us:

Peggy Alexio, Colette Askeland, Bill Atkinson, Steve Balog, Bob Belleville, Mike Boich, Bill Bull, Matt Carter, Berry Cash, Debi Coleman, George Crow, Donn Denman, Christopher Espinosa, Bill Fernandez, Martin Haeberli, Andy Hertzfeld, Joanna Hoffman, Rod Holt, Bruce Horn, Hap Horn, Brian Howard, Steve Jobs, Larry Kenyon, Patti King, Daniel Kottke, Angeline Lo, Ivan Mach, Jerrold Manock, Mary Ellen McCammon, Vicki Milledge, Mike Murray, Ron Nicholson Jr., Terry Oyama, Benjamin Pang, Jef Raskin, Ed Riddle, Brian Robertson, Dave Roots, Patricia Sharp, Burrell Smith, Bryan Stearns, Lynn Takahashi, Guy "Bud" Tribble, Randy Wigginton, Linda Wilkin, Steve Wozniak, Pamela Wyman and Laszlo Zidek.

Steve Jobs left to found NeXT. Some, like George Crow, Joanna Hoffman, and Susan Care, went with him. Bud Tribble would become a co-founder of NeXT and then the Vice President of Software Technology after Apple purchased NeXT.

Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld would go on to co-found General Magic and usher in the era of mobility. One of the best teams ever assembled slowly dwindled away. And the oncoming dominance of Windows in the market took its toll.

It seems like every company has a “lost decade.” Some like Digital Equipment don’t recover from it. Others, like Microsoft and IBM (who has arguably had a few), emerge as different companies altogether. Apple seemed to go dormant after Steve Jobs left. They had changed the world with the Mac. They put swagger and an eye for design into computing. But in the next episode we’ll look at that long hangover, where they were left by the end of it, and how they emerged to become to change the world yet again. 

In the meantime, Walter Isaacson weaves together this story about as well as anyone in his book Jobs. Steven Levy brilliantly tells it in his book Insanely Great. Andy Hertzfeld gives some of his stories at folklore.org. And countless other books, documentaries, podcasts, blog posts, and articles cover various aspects as well. The reason it’s gotten so much attention is that where the Apple II was the watershed moment to introduce the personal computer to the mass market, the Macintosh was that moment for the graphical user interface.


On Chariots of the Gods?

     2/6/2021

Humanity is searching for meaning. We binge tv shows. We get lost in fiction. We make up amazing stories about super heroes. We hunt for something deeper than what’s on the surface. We seek conspiracies or... aliens.

I finally got around to reading a book that had been on my list for a long time, recently. Not because I thought I would agree with its assertions - but because it came up from time to time in my research. 

Chariots of the Gods? is a book written in 1968 by German Erich Von Daniken. He goes through a few examples to, in his mind, prove that aliens not only had been to Earth but that they destroyed Sodom with fire and brimstone which he said was a nuclear explosion. He also says the Ark of the Covenant was actually a really big walkie-talkie for calling space. 

Ultimately, the thesis centers around the idea than humans could not possibly have made the technological leaps we did and so must have been given to us from the gods. I find this to be a perfectly satisfactory science fiction plot. In fact, various alien conspiracy theories seemed to begin soon after Orson Welles 1938 live adaption of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and like a virus, they mutated. But did this alien virus start in a bat in Wuhan or in Roman Syria. 

The ancient Greeks and then Romans had a lot of gods. Lucian of Samosata thought they should have a couple more. He wove together a story, which he called “A True Story.” In it, he says it’s all make-believe. Because they believed in multiple pantheons of gods in modern day Syria in the second century AD. In the satire, Lucian and crew get taken to the Moon where they get involved in a war between the Moon and the Sun kings for the rights to colonize the Morning Star. They then get eaten by a whale and escape and travel meeting great Greeks through time including Pythagoras, Homer, and Odysseus. And they find the new world. Think of how many modern plots are wrapped up in that book from the second century, made to effectively make fun of storytellers like Homer?

The 1800s was one of the first centuries where humanity began to inherit a rapid merger and explosion of scientific understanding and Edgar Allan Poe again took us to the moon in "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" in 1835. Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, and then H.G. Welles with that War of the Worlds in 1898. By then we’d mapped the surface of the moon with telescopes, so they wrote of Mars and further. H.P. Lovecraft gave us the Call of Cthulhu. These authors predicted the future - but science fiction became a genre that did more. It helped us create satire or allegory or just comparisons to these rapid global changes in ways that called out the social impact to consider before or after we invent. And to just cope with evolving social norms. The magazine Amazing Stories came in 1926 and the greatest work of science fiction premiered in 1942 with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Science fiction was opening our eyes to what was possible and opened the minds of scientists to study what we might create in the future. But it wasn’t real. 

Von Daniken and French author Robert Charroux seemed to influence one another in taking history and science and turning them into pseudohistory and pseudoscience. And both got many of their initial ideas from the 1960 book, The Morning of the Magicians. But Chariots of the Gods? was a massive success and a best seller. And rather than be dismissed it has now spread to include conspiracy and other theories. Which is fine as fiction, not as non-fiction. 

Let’s look at some other specific examples from Chariots of the Gods? Von Daniken claims that Japanese Dogu figures were carvings of aliens. He claims there were alien helicopter carvings in an Egyptian temple. He claims the Nazca lines in Peru were a way to call aliens and that a map from 1513 actually showed the earth from space rather than thinking it possible that cartography was capable of showing a somewhat accurate representation of the world in the Age of Discovery. He claimed stories in the Bible were often inspired by alien visits much as some First Nation peoples and cargo cults thought people in ships visiting their lands for the first time might be gods. 

The one thing I’ve learned researching these episodes is that technology has been a constant evolution. Many of our initial discoveries like fire, agriculture, and using the six simple machines could be observed in nature. From the time we learned to make fire, it was only a matter of time before humanity discovered that stones placed in or around fire might melt in certain ways - and so metallurgy was born. We went through population booms as we discovered each of these.

We used the myths and legends that became religions to hand down knowledge, as I was taught to use mnemonics to memorize the seven layers of the OSI model. That helped us preserve knowledge of astronomy across generations so we could explore further and better maintain our crops. 

The ancient Sumerians then Babylonians gave us writing. But we had been drawing on caves for thousands of years. Which seems more likely, that we were gifted this advance or that as we began to settle in more dense urban centers that we out of a need to scale operations tracked the number of widgets we had with markings that, over time evolved into a written language? First through pictures and then through words that evolved into sentences and then epics? We could pass down information more reliably across generation. 

Trade and commerce and then ziggurats and pyramids help hone our understanding of mathematics. The study of logic and automata allowed us to build bigger and faster and process more raw materials. Knowledge of all of these discoveries spread across trade routes. 

So ask yourself this. Which is more likely, the idea that humans maintained a constant, ever-evolving stream of learned ingenuity that was passed down for tens of thousands of years until it accelerated when we learned to write, or do you think aliens from outer space instead gave us technology? 

I find it revokes our very agency to assert anything but the idea that humans are capable of the fantastic feats we have reached and believe it insulting to take away from the great philosophers, discoverers, scientists, and thinkers that got us where we are today. 

Our species has long made up stories to explain that which the science of the day cannot. Before we understand the why, we make up stories about the how. This allowed us to pass knowledge down between generations. We see this in ancient explanations of the movements of stars before we had astrolabes. We see humans want to leave something behind that helps the next generations, or burial sites like with Stonehenge - not summon Thor from an alien planet as Marvel has rewritten their own epics to indicate. In part based on rethinking these mythos in the context of Chariots of the Gods?

Ultimately the greater our gaps in understanding, the more disconnected with ourselves I find that most people are. We listen to talking heads rather than think for ourselves. We get lost in theories of cabals. We seek a deeper, missing knowledge because we can’t understand everything in front of us. 

Today, if we know where to look, and can decipher the scientific jargon, all the known knowledge of science and history are at our fingertips. But it can take a lifetime to master one of thousands of fields of scientific research. If we don’t have that specialty then we can perceive it as unreachable and think maybe this pseudohistorical account of humanity is true and maybe aliens gave us 

If we feel left behind then it becomes easier to blame others when we can’t get below the surface of complicated concepts. Getting left behind might mean that jobs don’t pay what they paid our parents. We may perceive others as getting attention or resources we feel we deserve. We may feel isolated and alone. And all of those are valid feelings. When they’re heard then maybe we can look to the future instead of accepting pseudoscience and pseudohistory and conspiracies. Because while they make for fun romps on the big screen, they’re dangerous when taken as fact.


The Apple Lisa

     2/2/2021

Apple found massive success on the back of the Apple II. They went public like many of the late 70s computer companies and the story could have ended there, as it did for many computer companies of the era who were potentially bigger, had better technology, better go to market strategies, and/or even some who were far more innovative. 

But it didn’t. The journey to the next stage began with the Apple IIc, Apple IIgs, and other incrementally better, faster, or smaller models. Those funded the research and development of a number of projects. One was a new computer: the Lisa. I bet you thought we were jumping into the Mac next. Getting there. But twists and turns, as the title suggests. 

The success of the Apple II led to many of the best and brightest minds in computers wanting to go work at Apple. Jobs came to be considered a visionary. The pressure to actually become one has been the fall of many a leader. And Jobs almost succumbed to it as well. 

Some go down due to a lack of vision, others because they don’t have the capacity for executional excellence. Some lack lieutenants they can trust. The story isn’t clear with Jobs. He famously sought perfection. And sometimes he got close. 

The Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC for short, had been a focal point of raw research and development, since 1970. They inherited many great innovations, outlandish ideas, amazing talent, and decades of research from academia and Cold War-inspired government grants. Ever since Sputnik, the National Science Foundation and the US Advanced Research Projects Agency had funded raw research. During Vietnam, that funding dried up and private industry moved in to take products to market. 

Arthur Rock had come into Xerox in 1969, on the back of an investment into Scientific Data Systems. While on the board of Xerox, he got to see the advancements being made at PARC. PARC hired some of the oNLine System (NLS) team who worked to help ship the Xerox Alto in 1973, shipping a couple thousand computers. They followed that up with the Xerox Star in 1981, selling about 20,000. But PARC had been at it the whole time, inventing all kinds of goodness. 

And so always thinking of the next computer, Apple started the Lisa project in 1978, the year after the release of the Apple II, when profits were just starting to roll in. 

Story has it that Steve Jobs secured a visit to PARC and made out the back with the idea for a windowing personal computer GUI complete with a desktop metaphor. But not so fast. Apple had already begun the Lisa and Macintosh projects before Jobs visited Xerox. And after the Alto was shown off internally at Xerox in 1977, complete with Mother of All Demo-esque theatrics on stages using remote computers. They had the GUI, the mouse, and networking - while the other computers released that year, the Apple II, Commodore, and TRS-80 were still doing what Dartmouth, the University of Illinois, and others had been doing since the 60s - just at home instead of on time sharing computers. 

In other words, enough people in computing had seen the oNLine System from Stanford. The graphical interface was coming and wouldn’t be stopped. The mouse had been written about in scholarly journals. But it was all pretty expensive. The visits to PARC, and hiring some of the engineers, helped the teams at Apple figure out some of the problems they didn’t even know they had. They helped make things better and they helped the team get there a little quicker. But by then the coming evolution in computing was inevitable. 

Still, the Xerox Star was considered a failure. But Apple said “hold my beer” and got to work on a project that would become the Lisa. It started off simply enough: some ideas from Apple executives like Steve Jobs and then 10 people, led by Ken Rothmuller, to develop a system with windows and a mouse. Rothmuller got replaced with John Couch, Apple’s 54th employee. Trip Hawkins got a great education in marketing on that team. He would later found Electronic Arts, one of the biggest video game publishers in the world.

Larry Tesler from the Stanford AI Lab and then Xerox PARC joined the team to run the system software team. He’d been on ARPANet since writing Pub an early markup language and was instrumental in the Gypsy Word Processor, Smalltalk, and inventing copy and paste. Makes you feel small to think of some of this stuff. 

Bruce Daniels, one of the Zork creators from MIT, joined the team from HP as the software manager. 

Wayne Rosing, formerly of Digital and Data General, was brought in to design the hardware. He’d later lead the Sparc team and then become a VP of Engineering at Google.  

The team grew. They brought in Bill Dresselhaus as a principal product designer for the look and use and design and even packaging. They started with a user interface and then created the hardware and applications. 

Eventually there would be nearly 100 people working on the Lisa project and it would run over $150 million in R&D. After 4 years, they were still facing delays and while Jobs had been becoming more and more involved, he was removed from the project. The personal accounts I’ve heard seem to be closer to other large out of control projects at companies that I’ve seen though. 

The Apple II used that MOS 6502 chip. And life was good. The Lisa used the Motorola 68000 at 5 MHz. This was a new architecture to replace the 6800. It was time to go 32-bit. 

The Lisa was supposed to ship with between 1 and 2 megabytes of RAM. It had a built-in 12 inch screen that was 720 x 364. 

They got to work building applications, releasing LisaWrite, LisaCalc, LisaDraw, LisaGraph, LisaGuide, LisaList, LisaProject, and LisaTerminal. They translated it to British English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. 

All the pieces were starting to fall into place. But the project kept growing. And delays. Jobs got booted from the Lisa project amidst concerns it was bloated, behind schedule, wasting company resources, and that Jobs’ perfectionism was going to result in a product that could never ship. The cost of the machine was over $10,000. 

Thing is, as we’ll get into later, every project went over budget and ran into delays for the next decade. Great ideas could then be capitalized on by others - even if a bit watered down. Some projects need to teach us how not to do projects - improve our institutional knowledge about the project or product discipline. That didn’t exactly happen with Lisa. 

We see times in the history of computing and technology for that matter, when a product is just too far advanced for its time. That would be the Xerox Alto. As costs come down, we can then bring ideas to a larger market. That should have been the Lisa. But it wasn’t. While nearly half the cost of a Xerox Star, less than half the number of units were sold.

Following the release of the Lisa, we got other desktop metaphors and graphical interfaces. Agat out of the Soviet Union, SGI, Visi (makers of Visicalc), GEM from Digital Research, DeskMate from Tandy, Amiga Intuition, Acorn Master Compact, the Arthur for the ARM, and the initial releases of Microsoft Windows. By the late 1980s the graphical interface was ubiquitous and computers were the easiest to use for the novice than they’d ever been before. 

But developers didn’t flock to the system as they’d done with the Apple II. You needed a specialized development workstation so why would they? People didn’t understand the menuing system yet. As someone who’s written command line tools, sometimes they’re just easier than burying buttons in complicated graphical interfaces. 

“I’m not dead yet… just… badly burned. Or sick, as it were.” Apple released the Lisa 2 in 1984. It went for about half the price and was a little more stable. One reason was that the Twiggy disk drives Apple built for the Lisa were replaced with Sony microfloppy drives. This looked much more like what we’d get with the Mac, only with expansion slots. 

The end of the Lisa project was more of a fizzle. After the original Mac was released, Lisa shipped as the Macintosh XL, for $4,000. Sun Remarketing built MacWorks to emulate the Macintosh environment and that became the main application of the Macintosh XL. 

Sun Remarketing bought 5,000 of the Mac XLs and improved them somewhat. The last of the 2,700 Lisa computers were buried in a landfill in Utah in 1989. As the whole project had been, they ended up being a write-off. Apple traded them out for a deep discount on the Macintosh Plus. By then, Steve Jobs was long gone, Apple was all about the Mac and the next year General Magic would begin ushering in the era of mobile devices. 

The Lisa was a technical marvel at the time and a critical step in the evolution of the desktop metaphor, then nearly twenty years old, beginning at Stanford on NASA and ARPA grants, evolving further at PARC when members of the team went there, and continuing on at Apple. The lessons learned in the Lisa project were immense and helped inform the evolution of the next project, the Mac. But might the product have actually gained traction in the market if Steve Jobs had not been telling people within Apple and outside that the Mac was the next thing, while the Apple II line was still accounting for most of the revenue of the company? There’s really no way to tell. The Mac used a newer Motorola 68000 at nearly 8 megahertz so was faster, the OS was cleaner, the machine was prettier. It was smaller, boxier like the newer Japanese cars at the time. It was just better. But it probably couldn’t have been if not for the Lisa.

Lisa was slower than it was supposed to be. The operating system tended to be fragile. There were recalls. Steve Jobs was never afraid to cannibalize a product to make the next awesome thing. He did so with Lisa. If we step back and look at the Lisa as an R&D project, it was a resounding success. But as a public company, the shareholders didn’t see it that way at the time. 

So next time there’s an R&D project running amuck, think about this. The Lisa changed the world, ushering in the era of the graphical interface. All for the low cost of $50 million after sales of the device are taken out of it. But they had to start anew with the Mac and only bring in the parts that worked. They built out too much technical debt while developing the product to do anything else. While it can be painful - sometimes it’s best to start with a fresh circuit board and a blank command line editor. Then we can truly step back and figure out how we want to change the world.


Apple: The Apple I computer to the ///

     1/30/2021

I’ve been struggling with how to cover a few different companies, topics, or movements for awhile. The lack of covering their stories thus far has little to do with their impact but just trying to find where to put them in the history of computing. One of the most challenging is Apple. This is because there isn’t just one Apple. Instead there are stages of the company, each with their own place in the history of computers. 

Today we can think of Apple as one of the Big 5 tech companies, which include Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. But there were times in the evolution of the company where things looked bleak. Like maybe they would get gobbled up by another tech company. To oversimplify the development of Apple, we’ll break up their storied ascent into four parts:

  • Apple Computers: This story covers the mid-1970s to mid 1980s and covers Apple rising out of the hobbyist movement and into a gangbuster IPO. The Apple I through III families all centered on one family of chips and took the company into the 90s.
  • The Macintosh: The rise and fall of the Mac covers the introduction of the now-iconic Mac through to the Power Macintosh era. 
  • Mac OS X: This part of the Apple story begins with the return of Steve Jobs to Apple and the acquisition of NeXT, looks at the introduction of the Intel Macs and takes us through to the transition to the Apple M1 CPU.
  • Post PC: Steve Jobs announced the “post PC” era in 2007, and in the coming years the sales of PCs fell for the first time, while tablets, phones, and other devices emerged as the primary means people used devices. 

We’ll start with the early days, which I think of as one of the four key Apple stages of development. And those early days go back far past the days when Apple was hocking the Apple I. They go to high school.

Jobs and Woz

Bill Fernandez and Steve Wozniak built a computer they called “The Cream Soda Computer” in 1970 when Bill was 16 and Woz was 20. It was a crude punch card processing machine built from some parts Woz got from the company he was working for at the time.

Fernandez introduced Steve Wozniak to a friend from middle school because they were both into computers and both had a flare for pranky rebelliousness. That friend was Steve Jobs. 

By 1972, the pranks turned into their first business. Wozniak designed Blue Boxes, initially conceived by Cap’n Crunch John Draper, who got his phreaker name from a whistle in a Cap’n Crunch box that made a tone in 2600 Hz that sent AT&T phones into operator mode. Draper would actually be an Apple employee for a bit. They designed a digital version and sold a few thousand dollars worth. 

Jobs went to Reed College. Wozniak went to Berkely. Both dropped out. 

Woz got a sweet gig at HP designing calculators, where Jobs had worked a summer job in high school.  India to find enlightenment. When Jobs became employee number 40 at Atari, he got Wozniak to help create Breakout. That was the year The Altair 8800 was released and Wozniak went to the first meeting of a little club called the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975 when they got an Altair so the People’s Computer Company could review it. And that was the inspiration. Having already built one computer with Fernandez, Woz designed schematics for another. Going back to the Homebrew meetings to talk through ideas and nerd out, he got it built and proud of his creation, returned to Homebrew with Jobs to give out copies of the schematics for everyone to play with. This was the age of hackers and hobbyists. But that was about to change ever so slightly. 

The Apple I 

Jobs had this idea. What if they sold the boards. They came up with a plan. Jobs sold his VW Microbus and Wozniak sold his HP-65 calculator and they got to work. Simple math. They could sell 50 boards for $40 bucks each and make some cash like they’d done with the blue boxes. But you know, a lot of people didn’t know what to do with the board. Sure, you just needed a keyboard and a television, but that still seemed a bit much. 

Then a little bigger plan - what if they sold 50 full computers. They went to the Byte Shop and talked them into buying 50 for $500. They dropped $20,000 on parts and netted a $5,000 return. They’d go on to sell about 200 of the Apple Is between 1976 and 1977.

It came with a MOS 6502 chip running at a whopping 1 MHz and with 4KB of memory, which could go to 8. They provided Apple BASIC, as most vendors did at the time. That MOS chip was critical. Before it, many used an Intel or the Motorola 6800, which went for $175. But the MOS 6502 was just $25. It was an 8-bit microprocessor designed by a team that Chuck Peddle ran after leaving the 6800 team at Motorola. Armed with that chip at that price, and with Wozniak’s understanding of what it needed to do and how it interfaced with other chips to access memory and peripherals, the two could do something new. 

They started selling the Apple 1 and to quote an ad “the Apple comes fully assembled, tested & burned-in and has a complete power supply on-board, initial set-up is essentially “hassle free” and you can be running in minutes.” This really tells you something about the computing world at the time. There were thousands of hobbyists and many had been selling devices. But this thing had on-board RAM and you could just add a keyboard and video and not have to read LEDs to get output. The marketing descriptions were pretty technical by modern Apple standards, telling us something of the users. It sold for $666.66.

They got help from Patty Jobs building logic boards. Jobs’ friend from college Daniel Kottke joined for the summer, as did Fernandez and Chris Espinosa - now Apple’s longest-tenured employee. It was a scrappy garage kind of company. The best kind. 

They made the Apple I until a few months after they released the successor. But the problem with the Apple I was that there was only one person who could actually support it when customers called: Wozniak. And he was slammed, busy designing the next computer and all the components needed to take it to the mass market, like monitors, disk drives, etc. So they offered a discount for anyone returning the Apple I and destroyed most returned. Those Apple I computers have now been auctioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars all the way up to $1.75 million. 

The Apple II

They knew they were on to something. But a lot of people were building computers. They needed capital if they were going to bring in a team and make a go at things. But Steve Jobs wasn’t exactly the type of guy venture capitalists liked to fund at the time.

Mike Markkula was a product-marketing manager at chip makers Fairchild and Intel who retired early after making a small fortune on stock options. That is, until he got a visit from Steve Jobs. He brought money but more importantly the kind of assistance only a veteran of a successful corporation who’d ride that wave could bring. He brought in Michael "Scotty" Scott, employee #4, to be the first CEO and they got to work on mapping out an early business plan. If you notice the overlapping employee numbers, Scotty might have had something to do with that…

As you may notice by Wozniak selling his calculator, at the time computers weren’t that far removed from calculators. So Jobs brought in a calculator designer named Jerry Manock to design a plastic injection molded case, or shell, for the Apple II. They used the same chip and a similar enough motherboard design. They stuck with the default 4KB of memory and provided jumpers to make it easier to go up to 48. They added a cassette interface for IO. They had a toggle circuit that could trigger the built-in speaker. And they would include two game paddles. This is similar to bundles provided with the Commodore and other vendors of the day. And of course it still worked with a standard TV - but now that TVs were mostly color, so was the video coming out of the Apple II. And all of this came at a starting price of $1,298.

The computer initially shipped with a version of BASIC written by Wozniak but Apple later licensed the Microsoft 6502 BASIC to ship what they called Applesoft BASIC, short for Apple and Micorosft. Here, they turned to Randy Wiggington who was Apple’s employee #6 and had gotten rides to the Homebrew Computer Club from Wozniak as a teenager (since he lived down the street). He and others added features onto Microsoft BASIC to free Wozniak to work on other projects. Deciding they needed a disk operating system, or DOS. Here, rather than license the industry standard CP/M at the time, Wigginton worked with Shepardson, who did various projects for CP/M and Atari.  

The motherboard on the Apple II remains an elegant design. There were certain innovations that Wozniak made, like cutting down the number of DRAM chips by sharing resources between other components. The design was so elegant that Bill Fernandez had to join them as employee number four, in order to help take the board and create schematics to have it silkscreened.  The machines were powerful.

All that needed juice. Jobs asked his former boss Al Alcorn for someone to help out with that. Rod Holt, employee number 5, was brought in to design the power supply. By implementing a switching power supply, as Digital Equipment had done in the PDP-11, rather than a transformer-based power supply, the Apple II ended up being far lighter than many other machines. 

The Apple II was released in 1977 at the West Coast Computer Fair. It, along with the TRS-80 and the Commodore PET would become the 1977 Trinity, which isn’t surprising. Remember Peddle who ran the 6502 design team - he designed the PET. And Steve Leininger was also a member of the Homebrew Computer Club who happened to work at National Semiconductor when Radio Shack/Tandy started looking for someone to build them a computer. 

The machine was stamped with an Apple logo. Jobs hired Rob Janoff, a local graphic designer, to create the logo. This was a picture of an Apple made out of a rainbow, showing that the Apple II had color graphics. This rainbow Apple stuck and became the logo for Apple Computers until 1998, after Steve Jobs returned to Apple, when the Apple went all-black, but the silhouette is now iconic, serving Apple for 45 years and counting.

The computers were an instant success and sold quickly. But others were doing well in the market. Some incumbents and some new. Red oceans mean we have to improve our effectiveness. So this is where Apple had to grow up to become a company. Markkula made a plan to get Apple to $500 million in sales in 10 years on the backs of his $92,000 investment and another $600,000 in venture funding. 

They did $2.7 million dollars in sales in 1977. This idea of selling a pre-assembled computer to the general public was clearly resonating. Parents could use it to help teach their kids. Schools could use it for the same. And when we were done with all that, we could play games on it. Write code in BASIC. Or use it for business. Make some documents in Word Star, spreadsheets in VisiCalc, or use one of the thousands of titles available for the Mac. Sales grew 150x until 1980.

Given that many thought cassettes were for home machines and floppies were for professional machines, it was time to move away from tape. Markkela realized this and had Wozniak design a floppy disk for the Apple II, which went on to be known as the Drive II. Wozniak had experience with disk controllers and studied the latest available. Wozniak again managed to come up with a value engineered design that allowed Apple to produce a good drive for less than any other major vendor at the time. Wozniak would actually later go on to say that it was one of his best designs (and many contemporaries agreed).

Markkula filled gaps as well as anyone. He even wrote free software programs under the name of Johnny Appleseed, a name also used for years in product documentation. He was a classic hacker type of entrepreneur on their behalf, sitting in the guerrilla marketing chair some days or acting as president of the company others, and mentor for Jobs in other days.  

From Hobbyists to Capitalists

Here’s the thing - I’ve always been a huge fan of Apple. Even in their darkest days, which we’ll get to in later episodes, they represented an ideal. But going back to the Apple 1, they were nothing special. Even the Apple II. Osborne, Commodore, Vector Graphics, Atari, and hundreds of other companies were springing up, inspired first by that Altair and then by the rapid drop in the prices of chips. 

The impact of the 1 megahertz barrier and cost of those MOS 6502 chips was profound. The MOS 6502 chip would be used in the Apple II, the Atari 2600, the Nintendo NES, the BBY Micro. And along with the Zylog Z80 and Intel 8080 would spark a revolution in personal computers. Many of those companies would disappear in what we’d think of as a personal computer bubble if there was more money in it. But those that survived, took things to an order of magnitude higher. Instead of making millions they were making hundreds of millions. Many would even go to war in a race to the bottom of prices. And this is where Apple started to differentiate themselves from the rest. 

For starters, due to how anemic the default Altair was, most of the hobbyist computers were all about expansion. You can see it on the Apple I schematics and you can see it in the minimum of 7 expansion slots in the Apple II lineup of computers. Well, all of them except the IIc, marketed as a more portable type of device, with a handle and an RCA connection to a television for a monitor. 

The media seemed to adore them. In an era of JR Ewing of Dallas, Steve Jobs was just the personality to emerge and still somewhat differentiate the new wave of computer enthusiasts. Coming at the tail end of an era of social and political strife, many saw something of themselves in Jobs. He looked the counter-culture part. He had the hair, but this drive. The early 80s were going to be all about the yuppies though - and Jobs was putting on a suit. Many identified with that as well.

Fueled by the 150x sales performance shooting them up to $117M in sales, Apple filed for an IPO, going public in 1980, creating hundreds of millionaires, including at least 40 of their own employees. It was the biggest IPO since Ford in 1956, the same year Steve Jobs was born. The stock was filed at $14 and shot up to $29 on the first day alone, leaving Apple sitting pretty on a $1.778 valuation. 

Scotty, who brought the champagne, made nearly a $100M profit. One of the Venture Capitalists, Arthur Rock, made over $21M on a $57,600 investment. Rock had been the one to convince the Shockley Semiconductor team to found Fairchild, a key turning point in putting silicon into the name of Silicon Valley. When Noyce and Moore left there to found Intel, he was involved. And he would stay in touch with Markkula, who was so enthusiastic about Apple that Rock invested and began a stint on the board of directors at Apple in 1978, often portrayed as the villain in the story of Steve Jobs. But let’s think about something for a moment. Rock was a backer of Scientific Data Systems, purchased by Xerox in 1969, becoming the Xerox 500. Certainly not Xerox PARC and in fact, the anti-PARC, but certainly helping to connect Jobs to Xerox later as Rock served on the board of Xerox.

The IPO Hangover

Money is great to have but also causes problems. Teams get sidetracked trying to figure out what to do with their hauls. Like Rod Holt’s $67M haul that day. It’s a distraction in a time when executional excellence is critical. We have to bring in more people fast, which created a scenario Mike Scott referred to as a “bozo explosion.” Suddenly more people actually makes us less effective. 

Growing teams all want a seat at a limited table. Innovation falls off as we rush to keep up with the orders and needs of existing customers. Bugs, bigger code bases to maintain, issues with people doing crazy things. 

Taking our eyes off the ball and normalizing the growth can be hard. By 1981, Scotty was out after leading some substantial layoffs.  Apple stock was down. A big IPO also creates investments in competitors. Some of those would go on a race to the bottom in price. 

Apple didn’t compete on price. Instead, they started to plan the next revolution, a key piece of Steve Jobs emerging as a household name. They would learn what the research and computer science communities had been doing - and bring a graphical interface and mouse to the world with Lisa and a smaller project brought forward at the time by Jef Raskin that Jobs tried to kill - but one that Markkula not only approved, but kept Jobs from killing, the Macintosh. 

Fernandez, Holt, Wigginton, and even Wozniak just drifted away or got lost in the hyper-growth of the company, as is often the case. Some came back. Some didn’t. Many of us go through the same in rapidly growing companies. 

Next (but not yet NeXT)

But a new era of hackers was on the way. And a new movement as counter to the big computer culture as Jobs. But first, they needed to take a trip to Xerox. In the meantime, the Apple III was an improvement but proved that the Apple computer line had run its course. They released it in 1980 and recalled the first 14,000 machines and never peaked 75,000 machines sold, killing off the line in 1984. A special year. 


A Steampunk's Guide To Clockworks: From The Cradle Of Civilization To Electromechanical Computers

     1/21/2021

We mentioned John Locke in the episode on the Scientific Revolution. And Leibniz. They not only worked in the new branches of science, math, and philosophy, but they put many of their theories to use and were engineers. 

Computing at the time was mechanical, what we might now think of as clockwork. And clockwork was starting to get some innovative new thinking. As we’ve covered, clockworks go back thousands of years. But with a jump in more and more accurate machining and more science, advances in timekeeping were coming. Locke and Huygens worked on pendulum clocks and then moved to spring driven clocks. Both taught English patents and because they didn’t work that well, neither were granted. But more somethings needed to happen to improve the accuracy of time. 

Time was becoming increasingly important. Not only to show up to appointments and computing ever increasing math problems but also for navigation. Going back to the Greeks, we’d been estimating our position on the Earth relative to seconds and degrees. And a rapidly growing maritime power like England at the time needed to use clocks to guide ships. Why?

The world is a sphere. A sphere has 360 degrees which multiplied by 60 minutes is 21,600. The North South circumference is 21603 nautical miles. Actually the world isn’t a perfect sphere so the circumference around the equator is 21,639 nautical miles. Each nautical mile is 6,076 feet. When traveling by sea, trying to do all that math in feet and inches is terribly difficult and so we came up with 180 lines each of latitude, running east-west and longitude running north-south. That’s 60 nautical miles in each line, or 60 minutes. The distance between each naturally goes down as one gets closer to the poles - and goes down a a percentage relative to the distance to those poles. Problem was that the most accurate time to check your position relative to the sun was at noon or to use the Polaris North Star at night.

Much of this went back to the Greeks and further. The Sumerians developed the sexagesimal system, or base 60 and passed it down to the Babylonians in the 3rd millennium BCE and by 2000 BCE gave us the solar year and the sundial. As their empire grew rich with trade and growing cities by 1500 BCE the Egyptians had developed the first water clocks timers, proved by the Karnak water clock, beginning as a controlled amount of water filling up a vessel until it reached marks. Water could be moved - horizontal water wheels were developed as far back as the 4th millennium BCE. 

Both the sundial and the water clock became more precise in the ensuing centuries, taking location and the time of the year into account. Due to water reacting differently in various climates we also got the sandglass, now referred to as the hourglass. 

The sundial became common in Greece by the sixth century BCE, as did the water clock, which they called the clepsydra. By then it had a float that would tell the time. Plato even supposedly added a bowl full of balls to his inflow water clock that would dump them on a copper plate as an alarm during the day for his academy. 

We still use the base 60 scale and the rough solar years from even more ancient times. But every time sixty seconds ticks by something needs to happen to increment a minute and every 60 minutes needs to increment an hour. From the days of Thales in the 600s BCE and earlier, the Greeks had been documenting and studying math and engineering. And inventing. All that gathered knowledge was starting to come together.

Ctesibius was potentially the first to head the Library of Alexandria and while there, developed the siphon, force pumps, compressed air, and so the earliest uses of pneumatics. He is accredited for adding a scale and float thus mechanics. And expanding the use to include water powered gearing that produced sound and moved dials with wheels.

The Greek engineer Philo of Byzantium in the 240s BCE, if not further back, added an escapement to the water clock. He started by simply applying a counterweight to the end of a spoon and as the spoon filled, a ball was released. He also described a robotic maid who, when Greeks put a cup in her hand, poured wine. 

Archimedes added the idea that objects displaced water based on their volume but also mathematical understanding of the six simple machines. He then gets credited for being the first to add a gear to a water clock. We now have gears and escapements. Here’s a thought, given their lifetimes overlapping, Philo, Archimedes, and Ctesibius could have all been studying together at the library. Archimedes certainly continued on with earlier designs, adding a chime to the early water clocks. And Archimedes is often credited for providing us with the first transmission gears.

The Antikythera device proves the greeks also made use of complex gearing. Transferring energy in more complex gearing patterns. It is hand cranked but shows mathematical and gearing mastery by choosing a day and year and seeing when the next eclipse and olympiad would be. And the Greeks were all to happy to use gearing for other devices, such as an odometer in the first century BCE and to build the Tower of the Winds, an entire building that acted as a detailed and geared water clock as well as perhaps a model of the universe. 

And we got the astrolabe at the same time, from Apollonius or Hipparchus. But a new empire had risen. The astrolabe was a circle of metal with an arm called an alidade that users sighted to the altitude of a star and based on that, you could get your location. The gearing was simple but the math required to get accurate readings was not. These were analog computers of a sort - you gave them an input and they produced an output. At this point they were mostly used by astronomers and continued to be used by Western philosophers at least until the Byzantines.

The sundial, water clocks, and many of these engineering concepts were brought to Rome as the empire expanded, many from Greece. The Roman Vitruvius is credited with taking that horizontal water wheel and flipping it vertical in 14 CE. Around the same time, Augustus Caesar built a large sundial in Campus Martius. The Romans also added a rod to cranks giving us sawmills in the third century. The larger the empire the more time people spent in appointments and the more important time became - but also the more people could notice the impact that automata had. Granted much of it was large, like a windmill at the time, but most technology starts huge and miniaturizes as more precision tooling becomes available to increasingly talented craftspeople and engineers. 

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was an architect who wrote 10 books in the 20s BCE about technology. His works link aqueducts to water-driven machinations that could raise water from mines, driven by a man walking on a wheel above ground like a hamster does today but with more meaning. They took works from the Hellenistic era and put them in use on an industrial scale. This allowed them to terraform lands and spring new cities into existence. Sawing timber with mills using water to move saws allowed them to build faster. And grinding flour with mills allowed them to feed more people.

Heron of Alexandria would study and invent at the Library of Alexandria, amongst scrolls piled to the ceilings in halls with philosophers and mechanics. The inheritor of so much learning, he developed vending machines, statues that moved, and even a steam engine. If the Greeks and early Roman conquered of Alexandria could figure out how a thing work, they could automate it. 

Many automations were to prove the divine. Such as water powered counterweights to open doors when priests summoned a god, and blew compressed air through trumpets. He also used a wind mill to power an organ and a programmable cart using a weight to turn a drive axle. He also developed an omen machine, with ropes and pulleys on a gear that caused a bird to sing, the song driven by a simple whistle being lowered into water. His inventions likely funding more and more research. 

But automations in Greek times were powered by natural forces, be it hand cranked, fire, or powered by water. Heron also created a chain driven automatic crossbow, showing the use of a chain-driven machine and he used gravity to power machines, automating devices as sand escaped from those sand glasses.

He added pegs to pulleys so the distance travelled could be programmed. Simple and elegant machines. And his automata extended into the theater. He kept combining simple machines and ropes and gravity into more and more complex combinations, getting to the point that he could run an automated twenty minute play. Most of the math and mechanics had been discovered and documented in the countless scrolls in the Library of Alexandria. 

And so we get the term automated from the Greek word for acting of oneself. But automations weren’t exclusive to the Greeks. By the time Caligula was emperor of the Roman Empire, bronze valves could be used to feed iron pipes in his floating ships that came complete with heated floors. People were becoming more and more precise in engineering and many a device was for telling time. The word clock comes from Latin for bell or clogga. I guess bells should automatically ring at certain times. Getting there...

Technology spreads or is rediscovered. By Heron the Greeks and Romans understood steam, pistons, gears, pulleys, programmable automations, and much of what would have been necessary for an industrial or steampunk revolution. But slaves were cheap and plentiful in the empire. The technology was used in areas where they weren’t. Such as at Barbegal to feed Arles in modern France, the Romans had a single hillside flour grinding complex with automated hoppers, capable of supplying flour to thousands of Romans. Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, was based there before founding Constantinople.

And as Christianity spread, the gimmicks that enthralled the people as magic were no longer necessary. The Greeks were pagans and so many of their works would be cleansed or have Christian writings copied over them. Humanity wasn’t yet ready. Or so we’ve been led to believe. 

The inheritors of the Roman Empire were the Byzantines, based where Europe meets what we now think of as the Middle East. We have proof of geared portable sundials there, fewer gears but showing evidence of the continuation of automata and the math used to drive it persisting in the empire through to the 400s. And maybe confirming written accounts that there were automated lions and thrones in the empire of Constantinople. And one way geared know-how continued and spread was along trade routes which carried knowledge in the form of books and tradespeople and artifacts, sometimes looted from temples. One such trade route was the ancient Silk Road (or roads).

Water clocks were being used in Egypt, Babylon, India, Persia, Greece, Rome, and China. The Tang Dynasty in China took or rediscovered the escapement to develop a water powered clockwork escapement in the 700s and then in the Song Dynasty developed astronomical clock towers in the 900s. By now the escapements Su Sung is often credited for the first mechanical water clock in 1092. And his Cosmic Engine would mark the transition from water clocks to fully mechanical clocks, although still hydromechanical. The 1100s saw Bhoja in the Paramara dynasty of India emerge as a patron of the arts and sciences and write a chapter on mechanical bees and birds. These innovations could have been happening in a vacuum in each - or word and works could have spread through trade. 

That technology disappeared in Europe, such as plumbing in towns that could bring tap water to homes or clockworks, as the Roman Empire retreated. The specialists and engineers lacked the training to build new works or even maintain many that existed in modern England, France, and Germany. But the heads of rising eastern empires were happy to fund such efforts in a sprint to become the next Alexander. And so knowledge spread west from Asia and was infused with Greek and Roman knowhow in the Middle East during the Islamic conquests. The new rulers expanded quickly, effectively taking possession of Egypt, Mesopotamia, parts of Asia, the Turkish peninsula, Greece, parts of Southern Italy, out towards India, and even Spain. In other words, all of the previous centers of science. And they were tolerant, not looking to convert conquered lands to Islam. This allowed them to learn from their subjects in what we now think of as the Arabic translation movement in the 7th century when Arabic philosophers translated but also critiqued and refined works from the lands they ruled.

This sparked the Muslim golden age, which became the new nexus of science at the time. Over time we saw the Seljuks, ruling out of Baghdad, and Abbasids as Islamic empires who funded science and philosophy. They brought caravans of knowledge into their capitals. The Abbasids even insisted on a specific text from Ptolemy (the Almagest) when doing a treaty so they could bring it home for study. They founding of schools of learning known as Madrasas in every town. This would be similar to a university system today.

Over the centuries following, they produced philosophers like Muhammad Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi, who solved quadratic equations, giving us algebra. This would become important to make clockwork devices became more programmable (and for everything else algebra is great at helping with). They sent clockworks as gifts, such as a brass automatic water clock sent to Charlemagne between 802 and 807, complete with chimes. Yup, the clogga rang the bell.

They went far past where Heron left off though. There was Ibn-Sina, Al-Razi, Al-Jazari, Al Kindi, Thābit ibn Qurra, Ridwan, and countless other philosophers carrying on the tradition. The philosophers took the works of the Greeks, copied, and studied them. They evolved the technology to increasing levels of sophistication. And many of the philosophers completed their works at what might be considered the Islamic version of the Library of Alexandria, The House of Wisdom in Baghdad. In fact, when Baghdad was founded about 50 miles north of ancient Babylon, the Al-Mansur Palace Library was part of the plan  and over subsequent Caliphs was expanded adding an observatory that would then be called the House of Wisdom.

The Banu Musa brothers worked out of there and wrote twenty books including the first Book of Ingenious Devices. Here, they took the principles the Greeks and others had focused on and got more into the applications of those principles. On the way to their compilation of devices, they translated books from other authors, including A Book on Degrees on the Nature of Zodiacal Signs from China and Greek works.The three brothers combined pneumatics and aerostatics. They added plug valves, taps, float valves, and conical valves. They documented the siphon and funnel for pouring liquids into the machinery and thought to put a float in a chamber to turn what we now think of as the first documented crank shaft. We had been turning circular motion into linear motion with wheels, but we were now able to turn linear motion into circular motion as well.

They used all of this to describe in engineering detail, if not build and invent, marvelous fountains. Some with multiple jets alternating. Some were wind powered and showed worm-and-pinion gearing.  

Al-Biruni, around the turn of the first millennia, came out of modern Uzbekistan and learned the ancient Indian Sanskrit, Persian, Hebrew, and Greek. He wrote 95 books on astronomy and math. He studied the speed of light vs speed of sound, the axis of the earth and applied the scientific method to statics and mechanics. This moved theories on balances and weights forward. He produced geared mechanisms that are the ancestor of modern astrolabes. 

The Astrolabe was also brought to the Islamic world. Muslim astronomers added newer scales and circles. As with in antiquity, they used it in navigation but they had another use, to aid in prayer by showing the way to Mecca. 

Al-Jazari developed a number of water clocks and is credited with others like developed by others due to penning another Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Here, he describes a camshaft, crank dive and reciprocating pumps, two way valves, and expanding on the uses of pneumatic devices. He developed programmable humanoid robots in the form of automatic musicians on a boat. These complex automata included cams and pegs, similar to those developed by Heron of Alexandria, but with increasing levels of sophistication, showing we were understanding the math behind the engineering and it wasn’t just trial and error.

All golden ages must end. Or maybe just evolve and migrate. Fibonacci and Bacon quoted then, showing yet another direct influence from multiple sources around the world flowing into Europe following the Holy Wars. 

Pope Urban II began inspiring European Christian leaders to wage war against the Muslims in 1095. And so the Holy Wars, or Crusades would begin and rage until 1271. Here, we saw manuscripts copied and philosophy flow back into Europe. Equally as important, Muslim Caliphates in Spain and Sicily and trade routes. And another pair of threats were on the rise. The plague and the Mongols. 

The Mongol invasions began in the 1200s and changed the political makeup of the known powers of the day. The Mongols sacked Baghdad and burned the House of Wisdom. After the mongols and Mughals, the Islamic Caliphates had warring factions internally, the empires fractured, and they turned towards more dogmatic approaches. The Ottomon empire rose and would last until World War I, and while they continued to sponsor scientists and great learners, the nexus of scientific inquiry and the engineering that inspired shifted again and the great works were translated with that shift, including into Latin - the language of learning in Europe. By 1492 the Moors would be kicked out of Spain. That link from Europe to the Islamic golden age is a critical aspect of the transfer of knowledge.

The astrolabe was one such transfer. As early as the 11th century, metal astrolabes arrive in France over the Pyrenees to the north and to the west to Portugal . By the 1300s it had been written about by Chaucer and spread throughout Europe. Something else happened in the Iberian peninsula in 1492. Columbus sailed off to discover the New World. He also used a quadrant, or a quarter of an astrolabe. Which was first written about in Ptolemy’s Almagest but later further developed at the House of Wisdom as the sine quadrant. 

The Ottoman Empire had focused on trade routes and trade. But while they could have colonized the New World during the Age of Discovery, they didn’t. The influx of wealth coming from the Americas caused inflation to spiral and the empire went into a slow decline over the ensuing centuries until the Turkish War of Independence, which began in 1919. 

In the meantime, the influx of money and resources and knowledge from the growing European empires saw clockworks and gearing arriving back in Europe in full force in the 14th century. 

In 1368 the first mechanical clock makers got to work in England. Innovation was slowed due to the Plague, which destroyed lives and property values, but clockwork had spread throughout Europe. The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomons in 1453 sends a wave of Greek Scholars away from the Ottoman Empire and throughout Europe. Ancient knowledge, enriched with a thousand years of Islamic insight was about to meet a new level of precision metalwork that had been growing in Europe.

By 1495, Leonardo da Vinci showed off one of the first robots in the world -  a knight that could sit, stand, open its visor independently. He also made a robotic lion and repeated experiments from antiquity on self driving carts. And we see a lot of toys following the mechanical innovations throughout the world. Because parents. 

We think of the Renaissance as coming out of Italy but scholars had been back at it throughout Europe since the High Middle Ages. By 1490, a locksmith named Peter Hele is credited for developing the first mainspring in Nurnburg. This is pretty important for watches. You see, up to this point nearly every clockwork we’ve discussed was powered by water or humans setting a dial or fire or some other force. The mainspring stores energy as a small piece of metal ribbon is twisted around an axle, called an abror, into a spiral and then wound tighter and tighter, thus winding a watch. 

The mainspring drove a gear train of increasingly smaller gears which then sent energy into the escapement but without a balance wheel those would not be terribly accurate just yet. But we weren’t powering clocks with water.

At this point, clocks started to spread as expensive decorations, appearing on fireplace mantles and on tables of the wealthy. These were not small by any means. But Peter Henlein would get the credit in 1510 for the first real watch, small enough to be worn as a necklace.

By 1540, screws were small enough to be used in clocks allowing them to get even smaller. The metals for gears were cut thinner, clock makers and toy makers were springing up all over the world. And money coming from speculative investments in the New World was starting to flow, giving way to fuel even more investment into technology.

Jost Burgi invented the minute hand in 1577. But as we see with a few disciplines he decided to jump into, Galileo Galilei has a profound impact on clocks. Galileo documents the physics of the pendulum in 1581 and the center of watchmaking would move to Geneva later in that decade. Smaller clockworks spread with wheels and springs but the 1600s would see an explosion in hundreds of different types of escapements and types of gearing.  He designed an escapement for a pendulum clock but died before building it. 

1610 watches got glass to protect the dials and 1635 French inventor Paul Viet Blois added enamel to the dials. Meanwhile, Blaise Pascal developed the Pascaline in 1642, giving the world the adding machine.

But it took another real scientist to pick up Galileo’s work and put it into action to propel clocks forward. To get back to where we started, a golden age of clockwork was just getting underway. In 1657 Huygens created a clock driven by the pendulum, which by 1671 would see William Clement add the suspension spring and by 1675 Huygens would give us the balance wheel, mimicking the back and forth motion of Galileo’s pendulum. The hairspring, or balance spring, then controlled the speed making it smooth and more accurate. And the next year, we got the concentric minute hand.

I guess Robert Hooke gets credit for the anchor escapement, but the verge escapement had been in use for awhile by then. So who gets to claim inventing some of these devices is debatable. Leibniz then added a stepped reckoner to the mechanical calculator in 1672 going from adding and subtracting to multiplication and division. Still calculating and not really computing as we’d think of it today.

At this point we see a flurry of activity in a proton-industrial revolution. Descartes puts forth that bodies are similar to complex machines and that various organs, muscles, and bones could be replaced with gearing similar to how we can have a hip or heart replaced today. Consider this a precursor to cybernetics. We see even more mechanical toys for the rich - but labor was still cheap enough that automation wasn’t spreading faster. 

And so we come back to the growing British empire. They had colonized North America and the empire had grown wealthy. They controlled India, Egypt, Ireland, the Sudan, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Burma, Australia, Canada, and so much more. And knowing the exact time was critical for a maritime empire because we wouldn’t get radar until World War II. 

There were clocks but still, the clocks built had to be corrected at various times, based on a sundial. This is because we hadn’t yet gotten to the levels of constant power and precise gearing and the ocean tended to mess with devices. The growing British Empire needed more reliable ways than those Ptolemy used to tell time. And so England would offer prizes ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 pounds for more accurate ways to keep time in the Maritime Act in 1714. Crowdsourcing.

It took until the 1720s. George Graham, yet another member of the Royal Society, picked up where Thomas Tompion left off and added a cylinder escapement to watches and then the deadbeat escapement. He chose not to file patents for these so all watch makers could use them. He also added mercurial compensation to pendulum clocks. And John Harrison added the grid-iron compensation pendulum for his H1 marine chronometer. And George Graham added the cylinder escapement. 

1737 or 1738 sees another mechanical robot, but this time Jacques de Vaucanson brings us a duck that can eat, drink, and poop. But that type of toy was a one-off. Swiss Jaquet-Droz built automated dolls that were meant to help sell more watches, but here we see complex toys that make music (without a water whistle) and can even write using programmable text. The toys still work today and I feel lucky to have gotten to see them at the Museum of Art History in Switzerland. Frederick the Great became entranced by clockwork automations. Magicians started to embrace automations for more fantastical sets. 

At this point, our brave steampunks made other automations and their automata got cheaper as the supply increased. By the 1760s Pierre Le Roy and Thomas Earnshaw invented the temperature compensated balance wheel. Around this time, the mainspring was moved into a going barrel so watches could continue to run while the mainspring was being wound. Many of these increasingly complicated components required a deep understanding of the math about the simple machine going back to Archimedes but with all of the discoveries made in the 2,000 years since. 

And so in 1785 Josiah Emery made the lever escapement standard. The mechanical watch fundamentals haven’t changed a ton in the past couple hundred years (we’ll not worry about quartz watches here). But the 1800s saw an explosion in new mechanical toys using some of the technology invented for clocks. Time brings the cost of technology down so we can mass produce trinkets to keep the kiddos busy.  This is really a golden age of dancing toys, trains, mechanical banks, and eventually bringing in spring-driven wind-up toys. 

Another thing happened in the 1800s. With all of this knowhow on building automations, and all of this scientific inquiry requiring increasingly complicated mathematics, Charles Babbage started working on the Difference Engine in 1822 and then the Analytical Engine in 1837, bringing in the idea of a Jacquard loom punched card. The Babbage machines would become the precursor of modern computers, and while they would have worked if built to spec, were not able to be run in his lifetime. 

Over the next few generations, we would see his dream turn into reality and the electronic clock from Frank Hope-Jones in 1895. There would be other innovations such as in 1945 when the National Institute of Standards and technology created the first atomic clock. But in general parts got smaller, gearing more precise, and devices more functional. We’d see fits and starts for mechanical computers, with Percy Ludgate’s Analytical Machine in 1909, the Marchant Calculator in 1918, the electromechanical Enigma in the 1920s, the Polish Enigma double in 1932, the Z1 from Konrad Zuse in 1938, and the Mark 1 Fire Control Computer for the US Navy in the World War II era, when computers went electro-mechanical and electric, effectively ending the era of clockwork-driven machinations out of necessity, instead putting that into what I consider fun tinkerations.

Aristotle dreamed of automatic looms freeing humans from the trappings of repetitive manual labors so we could think. A Frenchman built them. Long before Aristotle, Pre-Socratic Greek legends told of statues coming to life, fire breathing statues, and tables moving themselves. Egyptian statues were also known to have come to life to awe and inspire the people. The philosophers of the Thales era sent Pythagoras and others to Egypt where he studied with Egyptian priests. Why priests? They led ascetic lives, often dedicated to a branch of math or science. And that’s in the 6th century BCE. The Odyssey was written about events from the 8th century BCE. 

We’ve seen time and time again in the evolutions of science that we often understood how to do something before we understood why. The legendary King Solomon and King Mu of the Zhao dynasty are said to have automata, or clockwork, or moving statues, or to have been presented with these kinds of gifts, going back thousands of years. And there is the chance that they were. Since then, we’ve seen a steady advent of this back and forth between engineering and science. 

Sometimes, we understand how to do something through trial and error or random discovery. And then we add the math and science to catch up to it. Once we do understand the science behind a discovery we uncover better ways and that opens up more discoveries. Aristotle’s dream was realized and extended to the point we can now close the blinds, lock the doors, control the lights, build cars, and even now print cars. We mastered time in multiple dimensions, including Newton’s relative time. We mastered mechanics and then the electron and managed to merge the two. We learned to master space, mapping them to celestial bodies. We mastered mechanics and the math behind it.

Which brings us to today. What do you have to do manually? What industries are still run by manual labor? How can we apply complex machines or enrich what those can do with electronics in order to free our fellow humans to think more? How can we make Aristotle proud? One way is to challenge and prove or disprove any of his doctrines in new and exciting ways. Like Newton and then Einstein did. We each have so much to give. I look forward to seeing or hearing about your contributions when its time to write their histories!


Connections: ARPA > RISC > ARM > Apple's M1

     1/17/2021

Let’s oversimplify something in the computing world. Which is what you have to do when writing about history. You have to put your blinders on so you can get to the heart of a given topic without overcomplicating the story being told. And in the evolution of technology we can’t mention all of the advances that lead to each subsequent evolution. It’s wonderful and frustrating all at the same time. And that value judgement of what goes in and what doesn’t can be tough. 

Let’s start with the fact that there are two main types of processors in our devices. There’s the x86 chipset developed by Intel and AMD and then there’s the RISC-based processors, which are ARM and for the old school people, also include PowerPC and SPARC. Today we’re going to set aside the x86 chipset that was dominant for so long and focus on how the RISC and so ARM family emerged.   

First, let’s think about what the main difference is between ARM and x86. RISC and so ARM chips have a focus on reducing the number of instructions required to perform a task to as few as possible, and so RISC stands for Reduced Instruction Set Computing. Intel, other than the Atom series chips, with the x86 chips has focused on high performance and high throughput. Big and fast, no matter how much power and cooling is necessary. 

The ARM processor requires simpler instructions which means there’s less logic and so more instructions are required to perform certain logical operations. This increases memory and can increase the amount of time to complete an execution, which ARM developers address with techniques like pipelining, or instruction-level parallelism on a processor. Seymour Cray came up with this to split up instructions so each core or processor handles a different one and so Star, Amdahl and then ARM implemented it as well. 

The X86 chips are Complex Instruction Set Computing chips, or CISC. Those will do larger, more complicated tasks, like computing floating point integers or memory searches, on the chip. That often requires more consistent and larger amounts of power.

ARM chips are built for low power. The reduced complexity of operations is one reason but also it’s in the design philosophy. This means less heat syncs and often accounting for less consistent streams of power. This 130 watt x86 vs 5 watt ARM can mean slightly lower clock speeds but the chips can cost more as people will spend less in heat syncs and power supplies. This also makes the ARM excellent for mobile devices. 

The inexpensive MOS 6502 chips helped revolutionize the personal computing industry in 1975, finding their way into the Apple II and a number of early computers. They were RISC-like but CISC-like as well. They took some of the instruction set architecture family from the IBM System/360 through to the PDP, General Nova, Intel 8080, Zylog, and so after the emergence of Windows, the Intel finally captured the personal computing market and the x86 flourished. 

But the RISC architecture actually goes back to the ACE, developed in 1946 by Alan Turing. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Carver Mead from Caltech and Lynn Conway from Xerox PARC saw that the number of transistors was going to plateau on chips while workloads on chips were growing exponentially. ARPA and other agencies needed more and more instructions, so they instigated what we now refer to as the VLSI project, a DARPA program initiated by Bob Kahn to push into the 32-bit world. They would provide funding to different universities, including Stanford and the University of North Carolina. 

Out of those projects, we saw the Geometry Engine, which led to a number of computer aided design, or CAD efforts, to aid in chip design. Those workstations, when linked together, evolved into tools used on the Stanford University Network, or SUN, which would effectively spin out of Stanford as Sun Microsystems. And across the bay at Berkeley we got a standardized Unix implementation that could use the tools being developed in Berkely Software Distribution, or BSD, which would eventually become the operating system used by Sun, SGI, and now OpenBSD and other variants. 

And the efforts from the VLSI project led to Berkely RISC in 1980 and Stanford MIPS as well as the multi chip wafer.The leader of that Berkeley RISC project was David Patterson who still serves as vice chair of the RISC-V Foundation. The chips would add more and more registers but with less specializations. This led to the need for more memory. But UC Berkeley students shipped a faster ship than was otherwise on the market in 1981. And the RISC II was usually double or triple the speed of the Motorola 68000. 

That led to the Sun SPARC and DEC Alpha. There was another company paying attention to what was happening in the RISC project: Acorn Computers. They had been looking into using the 6502 processor until they came across the scholarly works coming out of Berkeley about their RISC project. Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber from Acorn then got to work building an instruction set for the Acorn RISC Machine, or ARM for short. They had the first ARM working by 1985, which they used to build the Acorn Archimedes.

The ARM2 would be faster than the Intel 80286 and by 1990, Apple was looking for a chip for the Apple Newton. A new company called Advanced RISC Machines or Arm would be founded, and from there they grew, with Apple being a shareholder through the 90s. By 1992, they were up to the ARM6 and the ARM610 was used for the Newton. DEC licensed the ARM architecture to develop the StrongARMSelling chips to other companies. Acorn would be broken up in 1998 and parts sold off, but ARM would live on until acquired by Softbank for $32 billion in 2016. Softbank is  currently in acquisition talks to sell ARM to Nvidia for $40 billion. 

Meanwhile, John Cocke at IBM had been working on the RISC concepts since 1975 for embedded systems and by 1982 moved on to start developing their own 32-bit RISC chips. This led to the POWER instruction set which they shipped in 1990 as the RISC System/6000, or as we called them at the time, the RS/6000. They scaled that down to the Power PC and in 1991 forged an alliance with Motorola and Apple. DEC designed the Alpha. It seemed as though the computer industry was Microsoft and Intel vs the rest of the world, using a RISC architecture.

But by 2004 the alliance between Apple, Motorola, and IBM began to unravel and by 2006 Apple moved the Mac to an Intel processor. But something was changing in computing. Apple shipped the iPod back in 2001, effectively ushering in the era of mobile devices. By 2007, Apple released the first iPhone, which shipped with a Samsung ARM. 

You see, the interesting thing about ARM is they don’t fab chips, like Intel - they license technology and designs. Apple licensed the Cortex-A8 from ARM for the iPhone 3GS by 2009 but had an ambitious lineup of tablets and phones in the pipeline. And so in 2010 did something new: they made their own system on a chip, or SoC. Continuing to license some ARM technology, Apple pushed on, getting between 800MHz to 1 GHz out of the chip and using it to power the iPhone 4, the first iPad, and the long overdue second-generation Apple TV. The next year came the A5, used in the iPad 2 and first iPad Mini, then the A6 at 1.3 GHz for the iPhone 5, the A7 for the iPhone 5s, iPad Air. That was the first 64-bit consumer SoC.

In 2014, Apple released the A8 processor for the iPhone 6, which came in speeds ranging from 1.1GHz to the 1.5 GHz chip in the 4th generation Apple TV. By 2015, Apple was up to the A9, which clocked in at 1.85 GHz for the iPhone 6s. Then we got the A10 in 2016, the A11 in 2017, the A12 in 2018, A13 in 2019, A14 in 2020 with neural engines, 4 GPUs, and 11.8 billion transistors compared to the 30,000 in the original ARM. 

And it’s not just Apple. Samsung has been on a similar tear, firing up the Exynos line in 2011 and continuing to license the ARM up to Cortex-A55 with similar features to the Apple chips, namely used on the Samsung Galaxy A21. And the Snapdragon. And the Broadcoms. 

In fact, the Broadcom SoC was used in the Raspberry Pi (developed in association with Broadcom) in 2012. The 5 models of the Pi helped bring on a mobile and IoT revolution. 

And so nearly every mobile device now ships with an ARM chip as do many a device we place around our homes so our digital assistants can help run our lives. Over 100 billion ARM processors have been produced, well over 10 for every human on the planet. And the number is about to grow even more rapidly. Apple surprised many by announcing they were leaving Intel to design their own chips for the Mac. 

Given that the PowerPC chips were RISC, the ARM chips in the mobile devices are RISC, and the history Apple has with the platform, it’s no surprise that Apple is going back that direction with the M1, Apple’s first system on a chip for a Mac. And the new MacBook Pro screams. Even software running in Rosetta 2 on my M1 MacBook is faster than on my Intel MacBook. And at 16 billion transistors, with an 8 core GPU and a 16 core neural engine, I’m sure developers are hard at work developing the M3 on these new devices (since you know, I assume the M2 is done by now). What’s crazy is, I haven’t felt like Intel had a competitor other than AMD in the CPU space since Apple switched from the PowerPC. Actually, those weren’t great days. I haven’t felt that way since I realized no one but me had a DEC Alpha or when I took the SPARC off my desk so I could play Civilization finally. 

And this revolution has been a constant stream of evolutions, 40 years in the making. It started with an ARPA grant, but various evolutions from there died out. And so really, it all started with Sophie Wilson. She helped give us the BBC Micro and the ARM. She was part of the move to Element 14 from Acorn Computers and then ended up at Broadcom when they bought the company in 2000 and continues to act as the Director of IC Design. We can definitely thank ARPA for sprinkling funds around prominent universities to get us past 10,000 transistors on a chip. Given that chips continue to proceed at such a lightning pace, I can’t imagine where we’ll be at in another 40 years. But we owe her (and her coworkers at Acorn and the team at VLSI, now NXP Semiconductors) for their hard work and innovations.


Bob Tayler: ARPA to PARC to DEC

     1/15/2021

Robert Taylor was one of the true pioneers in computer science. In many ways, he is the string (or glue) that connected the US governments era of supporting computer science through ARPA to innovations that came out of Xerox PARC and then to the work done at Digital Equipment Corporation’s Systems Research Center. Those are three critical aspects of the history of computing and while Taylor didn’t write any of the innovative code or develop any of the tools that came out of those three research environments, he saw people and projects worth funding and made sure the brilliant scientists got what they needed to get things done.

The 31 years in computing that his stops represented were some of the most formative years for the young computing industry and his ability to inspire the advances that began with Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article called “As We May Think” then ended with the explosion of the Internet across personal computers. 

Bob Taylor inherited a world where computing was waking up to large crusty but finally fully digitized mainframes stuck to its eyes in the morning and went to bed the year Corel bought WordPerfect because PCs needed applications, the year the Pentium 200 MHz was released, the year Palm Pilot and eBay were founded, the year AOL started to show articles from the New York Times, the year IBM opened a we web shopping mall and the year the Internet reached 36 million people. Excite and Yahoo went public. Sometimes big, sometimes small, all of these can be traced back to Bob Taylor - kinda’ how we can trace all actors to Kevin Bacon. But more like if Kevin Bacon found talent and helped them get started, by paying them during the early years of their careers… 

How did Taylor end up as the glue for the young and budding computing research industry? Going from tween to teenager during World War II, he went to Southern Methodist University in 1948, when he was 16. He jumped into the US Naval Reserves during the Korean War and then got his masters in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin using the GI Bill. Many of those pioneers in computing in the 60s went to school on the GI Bill. It was a big deal across every aspect of American life at the time - paving the way to home ownership, college educations, and new careers in the trades. From there, he bounced around, taking classes in whatever interested him, before taking a job at Martin Marietta, helping design the MGM-31 Pershing and ended up at NASA where he discovered the emerging computer industry. 

Taylor was working on projects for the Apollo program when he met JCR Licklider, known as the Johnny Appleseed of computing. Lick, as his friends called him, had written an article called Man-Computer Symbiosis in 1960 and had laid out a plan for computing that influenced many. One such person, was Taylor. And so it was in 1962 he began and in 1965 that he succeeded in recruiting Taylor away from NASA to take his place running ARPAs Information Processing Techniques Office, or IPTO. 

Taylor had funded Douglas Engelbart’s research on computer interactivity at Stanford Research Institute while at NASA. He continued to do so when he got to ARPA and that project resulted in the invention of the computer mouse and the Mother of All Demos, one of the most inspirational moments and a turning point in the history of computing. 

They also funded a project to develop an operating system called Multics. This would be a two million dollar project run by General Electric, MIT, and Bell Labs. Run through Project MAC at MIT there were just too many cooks in the kitchen. Later, some of those Bell Labs cats would just do their own thing. Ken Thompson had worked on Multics and took the best and worst into account when he wrote the first lines of Unix and the B programming language, then one of the most important languages of all time, C. 

Interactive graphical computing and operating systems were great but IPTO, and so Bob Taylor and team, would fund straight out of the pentagon, the ability for one computer to process information on another computer. Which is to say they wanted to network computers. It took a few years, but eventually they brought in Larry Roberts, and by late 1968 they’d awarded an RFQ to build a network to a company called Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) who would build Interface Message Processors, or IMPs. The IMPS would connect a number of sites and route traffic and the first one went online at UCLA in 1969 with additional sites coming on frequently over the next few years. That system would become ARPANET, the commonly accepted precursor to the Internet. 

There was another networking project going on at the time that was also getting funding from ARPA as well as the Air Force, PLATO out of the University of Illinois. PLATO was meant for teaching and had begun in 1960, but by then they were on version IV, running on a CDC Cyber and the time sharing system hosted a number of courses, as they referred to programs. These included actual courseware, games, convent with audio and video, message boards, instant messaging, custom touch screen plasma displays, and the ability to dial into the system over lines, making the system another early network. 

Then things get weird. Taylor is sent to Vietnam as a civilian, although his rank equivalent would be a brigadier general. He helped develop the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam. Battlefield operations and reporting were entering the computing era. Only problem is, while Taylor was a war veteran and had been deep in the defense research industry for his entire career, Vietnam was an incredibly unpopular war and seeing it first hand and getting pulled into the theater of war, had him ready to leave. This combined with interpersonal problems with Larry Roberts who was running the ARPA project by then over Taylor being his boss even without a PhD or direct research experience. And so Taylor joined a project ARPA had funded at the University of Utah and left ARPA. 

There, he worked with Ivan Sutherland, who wrote Sketchpad and is known as the Father of Computer Graphics, until he got another offer. This time, from Xerox to go to their new Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC. One rising star in the computer research world was pretty against the idea of a centralized mainframe driven time sharing system. This was Alan Kay. In many ways, Kay was like Lick. And unlike the time sharing projects of the day, the Licklider and Kay inspiration was for dedicated cycles on processors. This meant personal computers. 

The Mansfield Amendment in 1973 banned general research by defense agencies. This meant that ARPA funding started to dry up and the scientists working on those projects needed a new place to fund their playtime. Taylor was able to pick the best of the scientists he’d helped fund at ARPA. He helped bring in people from Stanford Research Institute, where they had been working on the oNLineSystem, or NLS. 

This new Computer Science Laboratory landed people like Charles Thacker, David Boggs, Butler Lampson, and Bob Sproul and would develop the Xerox Alto, the inspiration for the Macintosh. The Alto though contributed the very ideas of overlapping windows, icons, menus, cut and paste, word processing. In fact, Charles Simonyi from PARC would work on Bravo before moving to Microsoft to spearhead Microsoft Word.

Bob Metcalfe on that team was instrumental in developing Ethernet so workstations could communicate with ARPANET all over the growing campus-connected environments. Metcalfe would leave to form 3COM. 

SuperPaint would be developed there and Alvy Ray Smith would go on to co-found Pixar, continuing the work begun by Richard Shoup. 

They developed the Laser Printer, some of the ideas that ended up in TCP/IP, and the their research into page layout languages would end up with Chuck Geschke, John Warnock and others founding Adobe. 

Kay would bring us the philosophy behind the DynaBook which decades later would effectively become the iPad. He would also develop Smalltalk with Dan Ingalls and Adele Goldberg, ushering in the era of object oriented programming. 

They would do pioneering work on VLSI semiconductors, ubiquitous computing, and anything else to prepare the world to mass produce the technologies that ARPA had been spearheading for all those years. Xerox famously did not mass produce those technologies. And nor could they have cornered the market on all of them. The coming waves were far too big for one company alone. 

And so it was that PARC, unable to bring the future to the masses fast enough to impact earnings per share, got a new director in 1983 and William Spencer was yet another of three bosses that Taylor clashed with. Some resented that he didn’t have a PhD in a world where everyone else did. Others resented the close relationship he maintained with the teams. Either way, Taylor left PARC in 1983 and many of the scientists left with him. 

It’s both a curse and a blessing to learn more and more about our heroes. Taylor was one of the finest minds in the history of computing. His tenure at PARC certainly saw the a lot of innovation and one of the most innovative teams to have ever been assembled. But as many of us that have been put into a position of leadership, it’s easy to get caught up in the politics. I am ashamed every time I look back and see examples of building political capital at the expense of a project or letting an interpersonal problem get in the way of the greater good for a team. But also, we’re all human and the people that I’ve interviewed seem to match the accounts I’ve read in other books. 

And so Taylor’s final stop was Digital Equipment Corporation where he was hired to form their Systems Research Center in Palo Alto. They brought us the AltaVista search engine, the Firefly computer, Modula-3 and a few other advances. Taylor retired in 1996 and DEC was acquired by Compaq in 1998 and when they were acquired by HP the SRC would get merged with other labs at HP. 

From ARPA to Xerox to Digital, Bob Taylor certainly left his mark on computing. He had a knack of seeing the forest through the trees and inspired engineering feats the world is still wrestling with how to bring to fruition. Raw, pure science. He died in 2017. He worked with some of the most brilliant people in the world at ARPA. He inspired passion, and sometimes drama in what Stanford’s Donald Knuth called “the greatest by far team of computer scientists assembled in one organization.” 

In his final email to his friends and former coworkers, he said “You did what they said could not be done, you created things that they could not see or imagine.” The Internet, the Personal Computer, the tech that would go on to become Microsoft Office, object oriented programming, laser printers, tablets, ubiquitous computing devices. So, he isn’t exactly understating what they accomplished in a false sense of humility. I guess you can’t do that often if you’re going to inspire the way he did. 

So feel free to abandon the pretense as well, and go inspire some innovation. Heck, who knows where the next wave will come from. But if we aren’t working on it, it certainly won’t come.

Thank you so much and have a lovely, lovely day. We are so lucky to have you join us on yet another episode. 


WordStar

     1/8/2021

We’ve covered Xerox PARC a few times - and one aspect that’s come up has been the development of the Bravo word processor from Butler Lampson, Charles Simonyi, and team. Simonyi went on to work at Microsoft and spearheaded the development of Microsoft Word. But Bravo was the first WYSIWYG tool for creating documents, which we now refer to as a word processor. That was 1974. 

Something else we’ve covered happened in 1974, the release of the Altair 8800. One aspect of the Altair we didn’t cover is that Michael Shrayer was a tinkerer who bought an Alatir and wrote a program that allowed him to write manuals. This became the Electric Pencil. It was text based though and not a WYSIWYG like Bravo was. It ran in 8k of memory and would be ported to Intel 8080, Zylog Z-80, and other processors over the years leading into the 80s. But let’s step back to the 70s for a bit. Because bell bottoms. 

The Altair inspired a clone called the IMSAI 8080 in 1975. The direct of marketing, Seymour Rubenstein started tinkering with the idea of a word processor. He left IMSAI and by 1978, put together $8,500 and started a company called MicroPro International. He convinced Rob Barnaby, the head programmer at IMSAI, to join him.

They did market research into the tools being used by IBM and Xerox. They made a list of what was needed and got to work. The word processor grew. They released their word processor, which they called WordStar, for CP/M running on the Intel 8080. By then it was 1979 and CP/M was a couple years old but already a pretty dominant operating system for microcomputers. Software was a bit more expensive at the time and WordStar sold for $495.

At the time, you had to port your software to each OS running on each hardware build. And the code was in assembly so not the easiest thing in the world. This meant they wanted to keep the feature set slim so WordStar could run on as many platforms as possible. They ran on the Osborne 1 portable and with CP/M support they became the standard. They could wrap words automatically to the next line.  Imagine that. 

They ported the software to other platforms. It was clear there was a new OS that they needed to run on. So they brought in Jim Fox, who ported WordStar to run on DOS in 1981. They were on top of the world. Sure, there was Apple Write, Word, WordPerfect, and Samna, but WordStar was it.

Arthur C Clarke met Rubenstein and Barnaby and said they "made me a born-again writer, having announced my retirement in 1978, I now have six books in the works, all through WordStar." He would actually write dozens more works. 

They released the third version in 1982 and quickly grew into the most popular, dominant word processor on the market. The code base was getting a little stale and so they brought in Peter Mierau to overhaul it for WordStar 4. The refactor didn’t come at the best of times. In software, you’re the market leader until… You thought I was going to say Microsoft moved into town? Nope, although Word would eventually dominate word processing. But there was one more step before computing got there. 

Next, along with the release of the IBM PC, WordPerfect took the market by storm. They had more features and while WordStar was popular, it was the most pirated piece of software at the time. This meant less money to build features. Like using the MS-DOS keyboard to provide more productivity tools. This isn’t to say they weren’t making money. They’d grown to $72M in revenue by 1984. When they filed for their initial public offering, or IPO, they had a huge share of the word processing market and accounted for one out of every ten dollars spent on software. 

WordStar 5 came in 1989 and as we moved into the 90s, it was clear that WordStar 2000 had gone nowhere so WordStar 6 shipped in 1990 and 7 in 1991. The buying tornado had slowed and while revenues were great, copy-protecting disks were slowing the spread of the software. 

Rubinstein is commonly credited with creating the first end-user software licensing agreement, common with nearly every piece of proprietary software today. Everyone was pirating back then so if you couldn’t use WordStar, move on to something you could steal. You know, like WordPerfect. MultiMate, AmiPro, Word, and so many other tools. Sales were falling. New features weren’t shipping. 

One pretty big one was support for Windows. By the time Windows support shipped, Microsoft had released Word, which had a solid two years to become the new de facto standard. SoftKey would acquire the company in 1994, and go on to acquire a number of other companies until 2002 when they were acquired. But by then WordStar was so far forgotten that no one was sure who actually owned the WordStar brand. 

I can still remember using WordStar. And I remember doing work when I was a consultant for a couple of authors to help them recover documents, which were pure ASCII files or computers that had files in WordStar originally but moved to the WSD extension later. And I can remember actually restoring a BAK file while working at the computer labs at the University of Georgia, common in the DOS days. It was a joy to use until I realized there was something better.

Rubinstein went on to buy another piece of software, a spreadsheet. He worked with another team, got a little help from Barnaby and and Fox and eventually called it Surpass, which was acquired by Borland, who would rename it to Quattro Pro. That spreadsheet borrowed the concept of multiple sheets in tabs from Boeing Calc, now a standard metaphor. Amidst lawsuits with Lotus on whether you could patent how software functions, or the UX of software, Borland sold Lotus to Novell during a time when Novell was building a suite of products to compete with Microsoft.

We can thank WordStar for so much. Inspiring content creators and creative new features for word processing. But we also have to remember that early successes are always going to inspire additional competition. Any company that grows large enough to file an initial public offering is going to face barbarian software vendors at their gates. When those vendors have no technical debt, they can out-deliver features. But as many a software company has learned, expanding to additional products by becoming a portfolio company is one buffer for this. As is excellent execution. 

The market was WordStar’s to lose. And there’s a chance that it was lost the second Microsoft pulled in Charles Simonyi, one of the original visionaries behind Bravo from Xerox PARC. But when you have 10% of all PC software sales it seems like maybe you got outmaneuvered in the market. But ultimately the industry was so small and so rapidly changing in the early 1980s that it was ripe for disruption on an almost annual basis. That is, until Microsoft slowly took the operating system and productivity suite markets and .doc, .xls, and .ppt files became the format all other programs needed to support. 

And we can thank Rubinstein and team for pioneering what we now call the software industry. He started on an IBM 1620 and ended his career with WebSleuth, helping to usher in the search engine era. Many of the practices he put in place to promote WordStar are now common in the industry. These days I talk to a dozen serial entrepreneurs a week. They could all wish to some day be as influential as he. 


The Immutable Laws of Game Mechanics In A Microtransaction-Based Economy

     12/23/2020

Once upon a time, we put a quarter in a machine and played a game for awhile. And life was good. The rise of personal computers and subsequent fall in the cost of microchips allowed some of the same chips found in early computers, such as the Zylog Z80, to bring video game consoles into homes across the world. That one chip could be found in the ColecoVision, Nintendo Game Boy, and the Sega Genesis. Given that many of the cheaper early computers came with joysticks or gaming at the time, the line between personal computer and video game console seemed natural. 

Then came the iPhone, which brought an explosion of apps. Apps were anywhere from a buck to a hundred. We weren't the least surprised by the number of games that exploded onto the platform. Nor by the creativity of the developers. When the Apple App Store and Google Play added in-app purchasing and later in-app subscriptions it all just seemed natural. But it has profoundly changed the way games are purchased, distributed, and the entire business model of apps. 

The Evolving Business Model of Gaming

Video games were originally played in arcades, similar to pinball. The business model was each game was a quarter or token. With the advent of PCs and video game consoles, games were bought in stores, as were records or cassettes that included music. The business model was that the store made money (40-50%), the distributor who got the game into a box and on the shelf in the store made money, and the company that made the game got some as well. And discounts to sell more inventory usually came out of someone not called the retailer. By the time everyone involved got a piece, it was common for the maker of the game to get between $5 and $10 dollars per unit sold for a $50 game. 

No one was surprised that there was a whole cottage industry of software piracy. Especially given that most games could be defeated in 40 to 100 hours. This of course spawned a whole industry to thwart piracy, eating into margins but theoretically generating more revenue per game created. 

Industries evolve. Console and computer gaming split (although arguably consoles have always just been computers) and the gamer-verse further schism'd between those who played various types of games. Some games were able to move to subscription models and some companies sprang up to deliver games through subscriptions or as rentals  (game rentals over a modem was the business model that originally inspired the AOL founders). And that was ok for the gaming industry, which slowly grew to the point that gaming was a larger industry than the film industry.

Enter Mobile Devices and App Stores

Then came mobile devices, disrupting the entire gaming industry. Apple began the App Store model, establishing that the developer got 70% of the sale - much better than 5%. Steve Jobs had predicted the coming App Store in a 1985 and then when the iPhone was released tried to keep the platform closed but eventually capitulated and opened up the App Store to developers. 

Those first developers made millions. Some developers were able to port games to mobile platforms and try to maintain a similar pricing model to the computer or console versions. But the number of games created a downward pressure that kept games cheap, and often free. 

The number of games in the App Store grew (today there are over 5 million apps between Apple and Google). With a constant downward pressure on price, the profits dropped. Suddenly, game developers forgot they used to get 10 percent of the sale of a game a lot of times and started to blame the stores the games were distributed in on the companies that owned the App Stores: Apple, Google, and in some cases, Steam. 

The rise and subsequent decrease in popularity of Pokémon Go was the original inspiration for this article in 2016 but since a number of games have validated the perspectives. These free games provide a valuable case study into how the way we design a game to be played (known as game mechanics) impacts our ability to monetize the game in various ways. And there are lots and lots of bad examples in games (and probably legislation on the way to remedy abuses) that also tells us what not to do.

The Microtransaction-Based Economy

These days, game developers get us hooked on the game early, get us comfortable with the pace of the game and give us an early acceleration. But then that slows down. Many a developer then points us to in-app purchases in order to unlock items that allow us to maintain the pace of a game, or even to hasten the pace. And given that we're playing against other people a lot of the time, they try and harness our natural competitiveness to get us to buy things. These in-app purchases are known as microtransactions. And the aggregate of these in-app purchases can be considered as a microtransaction-based economy.

As the microtransaction-based economy has arrived in full force, there are certain standards emerging as cultural norms for these economies. And violating these rules cause vendors to get blasted on message boards and more importantly lose rabid fans of the game. As such, I’ve decided to codify my own set of laws for these, which are follows:

All items that can be purchased with real money should be available for free. 

For example, when designing a game that has users building a city and we develop a monument that users can pay $1 for and place in their city to improve morale of those that live in the city, that monument should be able to be earned in the game as well. Otherwise, you’re able to pay for an in-app purchase that gives some players an advantage for doing nothing more than spending money. 

In-app purchases do not replace game play, but hasten the progression through the game. 

For example, when designing a game that has users level up based on earning experience points for each task they complete, we never want to just gift experience points based on an in-app purchase. Instead, in-app purchases should provide a time-bound amplification to experience (such as doubling experience for 30 minutes in Pokémon Go or keeping anyone else from attacking a player for 24 hours in Clash of Clans so we can save enough money to buy that one Town Hall upgrade we just can’t live without). 

The amount paid for items in a game should correlate to the amount of time saved in game play. 

For example, get stuck on a level in Angry Birds. We could pay a dollar for a pack of goodies that will get us past that level (and probably 3 more), so we can move on. Or we could keep hammering away at that level for another hour. Thus, we saved an hour, but lost pride points in the fact that we didn’t conquer that level. Later in the game, we can go back and get three stars without paying to get past it. 

Do not allow real-world trading. 

This is key. If it’s possible to build an economy outside the game, players can then break your game mechanics. For example, in World of Warcraft, you can buy gold, and magic items online for real money and then log into the game only to have another shady character add those items to your inventory. This leads to people writing programs known as bots (short for robots) to mine gold or find magic items on their behalf so they can sell it in the real world. There are a lot of negative effects to such behavior, including the need to constantly monitor for bots (which wastes a lot of developer cycles), bots cause the in-game economy to practically crash when the game updates (e.g. a map) and breaks the bots, and make games both more confusing for users and less controllable by the developer.

Establish an in-game currency.

 You don’t want users of the game buying things with cash directly. Instead, you want them to buy a currency, such as gold, rubies, gems, karma, or whatever you’d like to call that currency. Disassociating purchases from real world money causes users to lose track of what they’re buying and spend more money. Seems shady, and it very well may be, but I don’t write games so I can’t say if that’s the intent or not. It’s a similar philosophy to buying poker chips, rather than using money in a casino (just without the free booze).

Provide multiple goals within the game.

Players will invariably get bored with the critical path in your game. When they do, it’s great for players to find other aspects of the game to keep them engaged. For example, in Pokémon Go, you might spend 2 weeks trying to move from level 33 to level 34. During that time, you might as well go find that last Charmander so you can evolve to a Charzard. That’s two different goals: one to locate a creature, the other to gain experience. Or you can go take over some gyms in your neighborhood. Or you can power level by catching hundreds of Pidgeys. The point is, to keep players engaged during long periods with no progression, having a choose your own adventure style game play is important. For massive multiplayers (especially role playing games) this is critical, as players will quickly tire of mining for gold and want to go, for example, jump into the latest mass land war. To place a little context around this, there are also 28 medals in Pokémon Go (that I’m aware of), which keep providing more and more goals in the game. 

Allow for rapid progression early in the game in order to hook users, so they will pay for items later in the game.

We want people to play our games because they love them. Less than 3% of players will transact an in-app purchase in a given game. But that number skyrockets as time is invested in a game. Quickly progressing through levels early in a game keeps users playing. Once users have played a game for 8 or 9 hours, if you tell them they can go to bed and for a dollar and it will seem like they kept playing for another 8 or 9 hours, based on the cool stuff they’ll earn, they’re likely to give up that dollar and keep playing for another couple of hours rather than get that much needed sleep! We should never penalize players that don't pay up. In fact, players often buy things that simply change the look of their character in games like Among Us. There is no need to impact game mechanics with purchase if we build an awesome enough game.  

Create achievable goals in discrete amounts of time. 

Boom Beach villages range from level 1 to level 64. As players rise through the ability to reach the next stage becomes logarithmically more difficult given other players are paying to play. Goals against computers players (or NPCs or AI according to how we want to think of it) are similar. All should be achievable though. The game Runeblade for the Apple Watch was based on fundamentally sound game mechanics that could enthrall a player for months; however, there’s no way to get past a certain point. Therefore, players lose interest, Eric Cartman-style, and went home.

Restrict the ability to automate the game.

If we had the choice to run every day to lose weight or to eat donuts and watch people run and still lose weight, which would most people choose? Duh. Problem is that when players automate your game, they end up losing interest as their time investment in the game diminishes, as does the necessary skill level to shoot up through levels in games. Evony Online was such a game; and I’m pretty sure I still get an email every month chastising me for botting the game 8-10 years after anyone remembers that the game existed. As a game becomes too dependent on resources obtained by gold mining bots in World of Warcraft, the economy of the game could crash when they were knocked off-line. Having said this, such drama adds to the intrigue - which can be a game inside a game for many. 

Pit players against one another.

Leaderboards. Everyone wants to be in 1st place, all the time. Or to see themselves moving up in rankings. By providing a ranking system, we increase engagement, and drive people towards making in-app purchases. Those just shouldn't be done to directly get a leg up. It's a slippery slope to allow a player to jump 30 people in front of them to get to #1,000 in the rankings only to see those people do an in-app purchase and create an addiction to the in-app purchases in order to maintain their position in the rankings. It's better to make smaller amounts and keep players around than have them hate a developer once they're realized the game was making money off addiction. Sounds a bit like 

Don’t pit weak players against strong players unnecessarily. 

In Clash of Clans a player builds a village. As they build more cool stuff in the village, the village levels up. The player can buy rubies to complete buildings faster, and so you can basically buy the village levels. But, since a player can basically buy levels, the levels can exceed the players skill. Therefore, in order to pit matched players in battles, a second metric was introduced to match battles that is based on won/lost ratios of battles. By ensuring that players of similar skill duel one another, the skill of players is more likely to progress organically and therefore they remain engaged with the game. The one exception to this rule that I’ve seen actually work well so far has been in Pokémon Go where a player needs to be physically close to a gym rather than just close to the gym while sitting in their living room playing on a console. That geographical alignment really changes this dynamic, as does the great way that gym matches heavily favor attackers, driving fast turnover in gyms and keeping the game accessible to lower level players.

Add time-based incentives. 

If a player logs into a game every day, they should get a special incentive for the day that amplifies the more days they log in in a row. Or if they don’t log in, another player can steal all the stuff. Players get a push alert when another player attacks them. There are a number of different ways to incentivize players to keep logging into an app. The more we keep players in an app, the more likely they are to make a purchase. Until they get so many alerts that they delete your app. Don’t do that.

Incentivize pure gameplay. 

 It might seem counter-intuitive to incentivize players to not use in-app purchases. But not allowing for a perfect score on an in-app purchase (e.g. not allowing for a perfect level in Angry Birds if you used an in-app purchase) will drive more engagement in a game, while likely still allowing for an in-app purchase and then a late-game strategy of finding perfection to unlock that hidden extra level, or whatever the secret sauce is for your game.

Apply maximum purchasing amounts.

Games can get addictive for players. We want dolphins, not whales. This is to say that we want people to spend what they would have spent on a boxed game, say $50, or even that per month. But when players get into spending thousands per day, they're likely to at some point realize their error in judgement and contact Apple or Google for a refund. And they should get one. Don't take advantage of people. 

Make random returns on microtransactions transparent.

There has been talk of regulating randomized loot boxes. Why? Because the numbers don't add up. Rampant abuse of in-app purchases for random gear means that developers who publish the algorithm or source code for how those rewards are derived  will have a certain level of non-repudiation when the law suits start. Again, if those rewards can be earned during the game as well (maybe at a lower likelihood) then we're not abusing game mechanics. 

Conclusion

The above list might seem manipulative at times. Especially to those who don't write code for a living. And to some degree it is. But it can be done ethically and when it is the long-term returns are greater. If nothing else, these laws are a code of ethics of sorts. 

These are lessons that hundreds of companies are out there learning by trial and error, and hopefully documenting them can help emergent companies not have to repeat some of the same mistakes of others. 

We could probably get up to 100 of these (with examples) if we wanted to! What laws have you noticed?


RFC1

     12/18/2020

Months before the first node of ARPANET went online, the intrepid easy engineers were just starting to discuss the technical underpinnings of what would evolve into the Internet some day. Here, we hear how hosts would communicate to the IMPs, or early routing devices (although maybe more like a Paleolithic version of what's in a standard network interface today).

It's nerdy. There's discussion of packets and what bits might do what and later Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn would redo most of this early work as the protocols evolved towards TCP/IP. But reading their technical notes and being able to trace those through thousands of RFCs that show the evolution into the Internet we know today is an amazing look into the history of computing. 


The Spread of Science And Culture From The Stone Age to the Bronze Age

     12/11/2020

Humanity realized we could do more with stone tools some two and a half million years ago. We made stone hammers and cutting implements made by flaking stone, sharpening deer bone, and sticks, sometimes sharpened into spears. It took 750,000 years, but we figured out we could attach those to sticks to make hand axes and other cutting tools about 1.75 million years ago. Humanity had discovered the first of six simple machines, the wedge. 

During this period we also learned to harness fire. Because fire frightened off animals that liked to cart humans off in the night the population increased, we began to cook food, and the mortality rate increased. 

More humans. We learned to build rafts and began to cross larger bodies of water. We spread. Out of Africa, into the Levant, up into modern Germany, France, into Asia, Spain, and up to the British isles by 700,000 years ago. And these humanoid ancestors traded. Food, shell beads, bone tools, even arrows. 

By 380,000-250,000 years ago we got the first anatomically modern humans. The oldest of those remains has been found in modern day Morocco in Northern Africa. We also have evidence of that spread from the African Rift to Turkey in Western Asia to the Horn of Africa in Ethiopia, Eritraea, across the Red Sea and then down into Israel, South Africa, the Sudan, the UAE, Oman, into China, Indonesia, and the Philopenes. 

200,000 years ago we had cored stone on spears, awls, and in the late Stone Age saw the emergence of craftsmanship and cultural identity. This might be cave paintings or art made of stone. We got clothing around 170,000 years ago, when the area of the Sahara Desert was still fertile ground and as people migrated out of there we got the first structures of sandstone blocks at the border of Egypt and modern Sudan. As societies grew, we started to decorate, first with seashell beads around 80,000, with the final wave of humans leaving Africa just in time for the Toba Volcano supereruption to devastate human populations 75,000 years ago. 

And still we persisted, with cave art arriving 70,000 years ago. And our populations grew. 

Around 50,000 years ago we got the first carved art and the first baby boom. We began to bury our dead and so got the first religions. In the millennia that followed we settled in Australia, Europe, Japan, Siberia, the Arctic Circle, and even into the Americas. This time period was known as the Great Leap Forward and we got microliths, or small geometric blades shaped into different forms. This is when the oldest settlements have been found from Egypt, the Italian peninsula, up to Germany, Great Britain, out to Romania, Russia, Tibet, and France. We got needles and deep sea fishing. Tuna sashimi anyone?

By 40,000 years ago the neanderthals went extinct and modern humans were left to forge our destiny in the world. The first aboriginal Australians settled the areas we now call Sydney and Melbourne. We started to domesticate dogs and create more intricate figurines, often of a Venus. We made ivory beads, and even flutes of bone. We slowly spread. Nomadic peoples, looking for good hunting and gathering spots. In the Pavolv Hills in the modern Czech Republic they started weaving and firing figurines from clay. We began to cremate our dead. Cultures like the Kebaran spread, to just south of Haifa. But as those tribes grew, there was strength in numbers. 

The Bhimbetka rock shelters began in the heart of modern-day India, with nearly 800 shelters spread across 8 square miles from 30,000 years ago to well into the Bronze Age. Here, we see elephants, deer, hunters, arrows, battles with swords, and even horses. A snapshot into the lives of of generation after generation. Other cave systems have been found throughout the world including Belum in India but also Germany, France, and most other areas humans settled. As we found good places to settle, we learned that we could do more than forage and hunt for our food. 

Our needs became more complex. Over those next ten thousand years we built ovens and began using fibers, twisting some into rope, making clothing out of others, and fishing with nets. We got our first semi-permanent settlements, such as Dolce Vestonice in the modern day Czech Republic, where they had a kiln that could be used to fire clay, such as the Venus statue found there - and a wolf bone possibly used as a counting stick. The people there had woven cloth, a boundary made of mammoth bones, useful to keep animals out - and a communal bonfire in the center of the village.

A similar settlement in modern Siberia shows a 24,000 year old village. Except the homes were a bit more subterranean. 

Most parts of the world began to cultivate agriculture between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago according to location. During this period we solved the age old problem of food supplies, which introduced new needs. And so we saw the beginnings of pottery and textiles. Many of the cultures for the next 15,000 years are now often referred to based on the types of pottery they would make.

These cultures settled close to the water, surrounding seas or rivers. And we built large burial mounds. Tools from this time have been found throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and in modern Mumbai in India. Some cultures were starting to become sedentary, such as the Natufian culture we collected grains, started making bread, cultivating cereals like rye, we got more complex socioeconomics, and these villages were growing to support upwards of 150 people. 

The Paleolithic time of living in caves and huts, which began some two and a half million years ago was ending. By 10,000 BCE, Stone Age technology evolved to include axes, chisels, and gouges. This is a time many parts of the world entered the Mesolithic period. The earth was warming and people were building settlements. Some were used between cycles of hunting. As the plants we left in those settlements grew more plentiful, people started to stay there more, some becoming permanent inhabitants. Settlements like in Nanzhuangtou, China. Where we saw dogs and stones used to grind and the cultivation of seed grasses. 

The mesolithic period is when we saw a lot of cave paintings and engraving. And we started to see a division of labor. A greater amount of resources led to further innovation. Some of the inventions would then have been made in multiple times and places again and again until we go them right.  One of those was agriculture. 

The practice of domesticating barley, grains, and wheat began in the millennia leading up to 10,000 BCE and spread up from Northeast Africa and into Western Asia and throughout. There was enough of a surplus that we got the first granary by 9500 BCE. This is roughly the time we saw the first calendar circles emerge. Tracking time would be done first with rocks used to form early megalithic structures. 

Domestication then spread to animals with sheep coming in around the same time, then cattle, all of which could be done in a pastoral or somewhat nomadic lifestyle. Humans then began to domesticate goats and pigs by 8000 BCE, in the Middle East and China. Something else started to appear in the eight millennium BCE: a copper pendant was found in Iraq.

Which brings us to the Neolithic Age. And people were settling along the Indus River, forming larger complexes such as Mehrgarh, also from 7000 BCE. The first known dentistry dates back to this time, showing drilled molars. People in the Timna Valley, located in modern Israel also started to mine copper. This led us to the second real crafting specialists after pottery. Metallurgy was born. 

Those specialists sought to improve their works. Potters started using wheels, although we wouldn’t think to use them vertically to pull a cart until somewhere between 6000 BCE and 4000 BCE. Again, there are six simple machines. The next is the wheel and axle. 

Humans were nomadic, or mostly nomadic, up until this point but settlements and those who lived in them were growing. We starting to settle in places like Lake Nasser and along the river banks from there, up the Nile to modern day Egypt. Nomadic people settled into areas along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers with Maghzaliyah being another village supporting 150 people. They began to building using packed earth, or clay, for walls and stone for foundations. This is where one of the earliest copper axes has been found. And from those early beginnings, copper and so metallurgy spread for nearly 5,000 years. 

Cultures like the Yangshao culture in modern China first began with slash and burn cultivation, or plant a crop until the soil stops producing and move on. They built rammed earth homes with thatched, or wattle, roofs. They were the first to show dragons in artwork. In short, with our bellies full, we could turn our attention to the crafts and increasing our standard of living. And those discoveries were passed from complex to complex in trade, and then in trade networks. 

Still, people gotta’ eat. Those who hadn’t settled would raid these small villages, if only out of hunger. And so the cultural complexes grew so neolithic people could protect one another. Strength in numbers. Like a force multiplier. 

By 6000 BCE we got predynastic cultures flourishing in Egypt. With the final remnants of the ice age retreating, raiders moved in on the young civilization complexes from the spreading desert in search of food. The area from the Nile Valley in northern Egypt, up the coast of the Mediterranean and into the Tigris and Euphrates is now known as the Fertile Crescent - and given the agriculture and then pottery found there, known as the cradle of civilization. Here, we got farming. We weren’t haphazardly putting crops we liked in the grounds but we started to irrigate and learn to cultivate. 

Generations passed down information about when to plant various crops was handed down. Time was kept by the season and the movement of the stars. People began settling into larger groups in various parts of the world. Small settlements at first. Rice was cultivated in China, along the Yangtze River. This led to the rise of the Beifudi and Peiligang cultures, with the first site at Jaihu with over 45 homes and between 250 and 800 people. Here, we see raised altars, carved pottery, and even ceramics. 

We also saw the rise of the Houli culture in Neolithic China. Similar to other sites from the time, we see hunting, fishing, early rice and millet production and semi-subterranean housing. But we also see cooked rice, jade artifacts, and enough similarities to show technology transfer between Chinese settlements and so trade. Around 5300 BCE we saw them followed by the Beixin culture, netting fish, harvesting hemp seeds, building burial sites away from settlements, burying the dead with tools and weapons. The foods included fruits, chicken and eggs,  and lives began getting longer with more nutritious diets.

Cultures were mingling. Trading. Horses started to be tamed, spreading from around 5000 BCE in Kazakstan. The first use of the third simple machine came around 5000 BCE when the lever was used first, although it wouldn’t truly be understood until Archimedes. 

Polished stone axes emerged in Denmark and England. Suddenly people could clear out larger and larger amounts of forest and settlements could grow. Larger settlements meant more to hunt, gather, or farm food - and more specialists to foster innovation. In todays Southern Iraq this led to the growth of a city called Eridu. 

Eridu was the city of the first Sumerian kings. The bay on the Persian Gulf allowed trading and being situated at the mouth of the Euphrates it was at the heart of the cradle of civilization. The original neolithic Sumerians had been tribal fishers and told stories of kings from before the floods, tens of thousands of years before the era. They were joined by the Samarra culture, which dates back to 5,700 BCE, to the north who brought knowledge of irrigation and nomadic herders coming up from lands we would think of today as the Middle East. The intermixing of skills and strengths allowed the earliest villages to be settled in 5,300 BCE and grow into an urban center we would consider a city today. 

This was the beginning of the Sumerian Empire Going back to 5300, houses had been made of mud bricks and reed. But they would build temples, ziggurats, and grow to cover over 25 acres with over 4,000 people. As the people moved north and gradually merged with other cultural complexes, the civilization grew. 

Uruk grew to over 50,000 people and is the etymological source of the name Iraq. And the population of all those cities and the surrounding areas that became Sumer is said to have grown to over a million people. They carved anthropomorphic furniture. They made jewelry of gold and created crude copper plates. They made music with flutes and stringed instruments, like the lyre. They used saws and drills. They went to war with arrows and spears and daggers. They used tablets for writing, using a system we now call cuneiform. Perhaps they wrote to indicate lunar months as they were the first known people to use 12 29-30 day months. They could sign writings with seals, which they are also credited with. How many months would it be before Abraham of Ur would become the central figure of the Old Testament in the Bible? 

With scale they needed better instruments to keep track of people, stock, and other calculations. The Sumerian abacus - later used by the Egyptians and then the device we know of as an abacus today entered widespread use in the sixth century in the Persian empire. More and more humans were learning larger precision counting and numbering systems. 

They didn’t just irrigate their fields; they built levees to control floodwaters and canals to channel river water into irrigation networks. Because water was so critical to their way of life, the Sumerian city-states would war and so built armies. 

Writing and arithmetic don’t learn themselves. The Sumerians also developed the concept of going to school for twelve years. This allowed someone to be a scribe or writer, which were prestigious as they were as necessary in early civilizations as they are today. 

In the meantime, metallurgy saw gold appear in 4,000 BCE. Silver and lead in 3,000 BCE, and then copper alloys. Eventually with a little tin added to the copper. By 3000 BCE this ushered in the Bronze Age. And the need for different resources to grow a city or empire moved centers of power to where those resources could be found. 

The Mesopotamian region also saw a number of other empires rise and fall. The Akkadians, Babylonians (where Hammurabi would eventually give the first written set of laws), Chaldeans, Assyrians, Hebrews, Phoenicians, and one of the greatest empires in history, the Persians, who came out of villages in Modern Iran that went back past 10,000 BCE to rule much of the known world at the time. The Persians were able to inherit all of the advances of the Sumerians, but also the other cultures of Mesopotamia and those they traded with. One of their trading partners that the Persians conquered later in the life of the empire, was Egypt. 

Long before the Persians and then Alexander conquered Egypt they were a great empire. Wadi Halfa had been inhabited going back 100,000 years ago. Industries, complexes, and cultures came and went. Some would die out but most would merge with other cultures. There is not much archaeological evidence of what happened from 9,000 to 6,000 BCE but around this time many from  the Levant and Fertile Crescent migrated into the area bringing agriculture, pottery, then metallurgy. 

These were the Nabta then Tasian then Badarian then Naqada then Amratian and in around 3500 BCE we got the Gerzean who set the foundation for what we may think of as Ancient Egypt today with a drop in rain and suddenly people moved more quickly from the desert like lands around the Nile into the mincreasingly metropolitan centers. Cities grew and with trade routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia they frequently mimicked the larger culture. 

From 3200 BCE to 3000 BCE we saw irrigation begin in protodynastic Egypt. We saw them importing obsidian from Ethiopia, cedar from Lebanon, and grow. The Canaanites traded with them and often through those types of trading partners, Mesopotamian know-how infused the empire. As did trade with the Nubians to the south, who had pioneered astrological devices. At this point we got Scorpion, Iry-Hor, Ka, Scorpion II, Double Falcon. This represented the confederation of tribes who under Narmer would unite Egypt and he would become the first Pharaoh. They would all be buried in Umm El Qa’ab, along with kings of the first dynasty who went from a confederation to a state to an empire. 

The Egyptians would develop their own written language, using hieroglyphs. They took writing to the next level, using ink on papyrus. They took geometry and mathematics. They invented toothpaste. They built locked doors. They took the calendar to the next level as well, giving us 364 day years and three seasons. They’d of added a fourth if they’d of ever visited Minnesota, don’tchaknow. And many of those Obelisks raided by the Romans and then everyone else that occupied Egypt - those were often used as sun clocks. They drank wine, which is traced in its earliest form to China. 

Imhotep was arguably one of the first great engineers and philosophers. Not only was he the architect of the first pyramid, but he supposedly wrote a number of great wisdom texts, was a high priest of Ra, and acted as a physician. And for his work in the 27th century BCE, he was made a deity, one of the few outside of the royal family of Egypt to receive such an honor. 

Egyptians used a screw cut of wood around 2500 BCE, the fourth simple machine. They used it to press olives and make wine.  They used the fifth to build pyramids, the inclined plane. And they helped bring us the last of the simple machines, the pulley. And those pyramids. Where the Mesopotamians built Ziggurats, the Egyptians built more than 130 pyramids from 2700 BCE to 1700 BCE. And the Great Pyramid of Giza would remain the largest building in the world for 3,800 years. It is built out of 2.3 million blocks, some of which weigh as much as 80 tonnes. Can you imagine 100,000 people building a grave for you? 

The sundial emerged in 1,500 BCE, presumably in Egypt - and so while humans had always had limited lifespans, our lives could then be divided up into increments of time. 

The Chinese cultural complexes grew as well. Technology and evolving social structures allowed the first recorded unification of all those neolithic peoples when You the Great and his father brought flood control, That family, as the Pharos had, claimed direct heritage to the gods, in this case, the Yellow Emperor. The Xia Dynasty began in China in 2070 BCE. They would flourish until 1600 BCE when they were overthrown by the Shang who lasted until 1046 when they were overthrown by the Zhou - the last ancient Chinese dynasty before Imperial China. 

Greek civilizations began to grow as well. Minoan civilization from 1600 to 1400 BCE grew to house up to 80,000 people in Knossos. Crete is a large island a little less than half way from Greece to Egypt. There are sites throughout the islands south of Greece that show a strong Aegean and Anatolian Cycladic culture emerging from 4,000 BCE but given the location, Crete became the seat of the Minoans, first an agricultural community and then merchants, facilitating trade with Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean. The population went from less than 2,000 people in 2500 BCE to up to 100,000 in 1600 BCE. They were one of the first to be able to import knowledge, in the form of papyrus from Egypt.

The Mycenaeans in mainland Greece, along with earthquakes that destroyed a number of the buildings on Crete, contributed to the fall of the Minoan civilization and alongside the Hittites, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Babylonians, we got the rise of the first mainland European empire: Mycenaean Greece. Sparta would rise, Athens, Corinth, Thebes. After conquering Troy in the Trojan War the empire went into decline with the Bronze Age collapse. We can read about the war in the Iliad and the return home in the Odyssey, written by Homer nearly 400 years later. 

The Bronze Age ended in around 1,200 BCE - as various early empires outgrew the ability to rule ancient metropolises and lands effectively, as climate change forced increasingly urbanized centers to de-urbanize, as the source of tin dried up, and as smaller empires banded together to attack larger empires. Many of these empires became dependent on trade. Trade spread ideas and technology and science. But tribalism and warfare disrupted trade routes and fractured societies. We had to get better at re-using copper to build new things. The fall of cultures caused refugees, as we see today. It’s likely a conflagration of changing cultures and what we now call Sea People caused the collapse. These Sea People include refugees, foreign warlords, and mercenaries used by existing empires. These could have been the former Philistines, Minoans, warriors coming down from the Black Sea, the Italians, people escaping a famine on the Anatolian peninsula, the Mycenaeans as they fled the Dorian invasion, Sardinians, Sicilians, or even Hittites after the fall of that empire. The likely story is a little bit of each of these. But the Neo-Assyrians were weakened in order to take Mesopotamia and then the Neo-Babylonians were. And finally the Persian Empire would ultimately be the biggest winners.

But at the end of the Bronze Age, we had all the components for the birth of the Iron Age. Humans had writing, were formally educating our young, we’d codified laws, we mined, we had metallurgy, we tamed nature with animal husbandry, we developed dense agriculture, we architected, we warred, we destroyed, we rebuilt, we healed, and we began to explain the universe. We started to harness multiple of the six simple machines to do something more in the world. We had epics that taught the next generation to identify places in the stars and pass on important knowledge to the next generation. 

And precision was becoming more important. Like being able to predict an eclipse. This led Chaldean astronomers to establish Saros, a period of 223 synodic months to predict the eclipse cycle. And instead of humans computing those times, within just a few hundred years, Archimedes would document the use of and begin putting math behind many of the six simple devices so we could take interdisciplinary approaches to leveraging compound and complex machines to build devices like the Antikythera mechanism. We were computing.  We also see that precision in the way buildings were created. 

After the collapse of the Bronze Age there would be a time of strife. Warfare, famines, disrupted trade. The great works of the Pharaohs, Mycenaeans and other world powers of the time would be put on hold until a new world order started to form. As those empires grew, the impacts would be lasting and the reach would be greater than ever. 

We’ll add a link to the episode that looks at these, taking us from the Bronze Age to antiquity. But humanity slowly woke up to proto-technology. And certain aspects of our lives have been inherited over so many generations from then. 


The Printing Press

     12/8/2020

The written word allowed us to preserve human knowledge, or data, from generation to generation. We know only what we can observe from ancient remains from before writing, but we know more and more about societies as generations of people literate enough to document their stories spread. And the more documented, the more knowledge to easily find and build upon, thus a more rapid amount of innovation available to each generation...

The Sumerians established the first written language in the third millennium BCE. They carved data on clay. Written languages spread and by the 26th century BCE the Diary of Merer was written to document building the Great Pyramid of Giza. They started with papyrus, made from the papyrus plant. They would extract the pulp and make thin sheets from it. The sheets of papyrus ranged in color and how smooth the surface was. But papyrus doesn’t grow everywhere. 

People had painted on pots and other surfaces and ended up writing on leather at about the same time. Over time, it is only natural that they moved on to use parchment, or stretched and dried goat, cow, and sheep skins, to write on. Vellum is another material we developed to write on, similar, but made from calfskin. The Assyrians and Babylonians started to write on vellum in the 6th century BCE. 

The Egyptians wrote what we might consider data that was effectively included into pictograms we now call hieroglyphs on papyrus and parchment with ink. For example, per the Unicode Standard 13.0 my cat would be the hieroglyph 130E0. But digital representations of characters wouldn’t come for a long time. It was still carved in stone or laid out in ink back then. 

Ink was developed by the Chinese thousands of years ago, possibly first by mixing soot from a fire and various minerals. It’s easy to imagine early neolithic peoples stepping in a fire pit after it had cooled and  realizing they could use first their hands to smear it on cave walls and then a stick and then a brush to apply it to other surfaces, like pottery. By the time the Egyptians were writing with ink, they were using iron and ocher for pigments. 

India ink was introduced in the second century in China. They used it to write on bamboo, wooden tablets, and even bones. It was used in India in the fourth century BCE and used burned bits of bone, powders made of patroleum called carbon black, and pigments with hide glue then ground and dried. This allowed someone writing to dip a wet brush into the mixture in order to use it to write. And these were used up through the Greek and then Roman times.

More innovative chemical compounds would be used over time. We added lead, pine soot, vegetable oils, animal oils, mineral oils, and while the Silk Road is best known for bringing silks to the west, Chinese ink was the best and another of the luxuries transported across it, well into the 17th century. 

Ink wasn’t all the Silk Road brought. Paper was first introduced in the first century in China. During the Islamic Golden Age, the islamic world expanded the use in the 8th century, and adding the science to build larger mills to make pulp and paper. Paper then made it to Europe in the 11th century.

So ink and paper laid the foundation for the mass duplication of data. But how to duplicate? 

We passed knowledge down verbally for tens of thousands of years. Was it accurate with each telling? Maybe. And then we preserved our stories in a written form for a couple thousand years in a one to one capacity. The written word was done manually, one scroll or book at a time. And so they were expensive. But a family could keep them from generation to generation and they were accurate across the generations.

Knowledge passed down in written form and many a manuscript was copied ornately, with beautiful pictures drawn on the page. But in China they were again innovating. Woodblock printing goes back at least to the second century to print designs on cloth. But had grown to include books by the seventh century. The Diamond Sutra was a Tang Dynasty book from 868 that may be the first printed book, using wood blocks that had been carved in reverse. 

And moveable type came along in 1040, from Bi Sheng in China. He carved letters into clay. Wang Chen in China then printed a text on farming practices called Nung Shu in 1297 and added a number of innovations to the Chinese presses. And missionaries and trade missions from Europe to China likely brought reports home, including copies of the books.

Intaglio printing emerged where lines were cut, etched, or engraved into metal plates, dipped into ink and then pressed onto paper. Similar tactics had been used by goldsmiths for some time. 

But then a goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg began to experiment using similar ideas just adding the concept of moveable type. He used different alloys to get the letter pressing just right - including antimony, lead, and tin. He created a matrix to mold new type blocks, which we now refer to as a hand mould. He experimented with different kinds of oil and water-based inks. And vellum and paper.  

And so Gutenberg would get credit for inventing the printing press in 1440. This took the basic concept of the screw press, which the Romans introduced in the first century to press olives and wine and added moveable type with lettering made of metal. He was at it for a few years. Just one problem, he needed to raise capital in order to start printing at a larger scale. So he went Johann Fust and took out a loan for 800 guilders. He printed a few projects and then thought he should start printing Bibles. So he took out another loan from Fust for 800 more guilders to print what we now call the Gutenberg Bible and printed indulgences from the church as well. 

By 1455 he’d printed 180 copies of the Bible and seemed on the brink of finally making a profit. But the loan from Fust at 6% interest had grown to over 2,000 guilders and once Fust’s son-in-law was about to run the press, he sued Gutenberg, ending up with Gutenberg’s workshop and all of the Bibles basically bankrupting Gutenberg by 1460. He would die in 1468. 

The Mainz Psalter was commissioned by the Mainz archbishop in 1457 and Fust along with Peter Schöffer, a Gutenberg assistant, would use the press to become the first book to be printed with the mark of the printer. They would continue to print books and Schöffer added putting dates in books, colored ink, type-founding, punch cutting, and other innovations. And Schöffer’s sons would carry on the art, as did his grandson. 

As word spread of the innovation, Italians started printing presses by 1470. German printers went to the Sorbonne and by 1476 they set up companies to print. Printing showed up in Spain in 1473, England in 1476, and Portugal by 1495. In a single generation, the price of books plummeted and the printed word exploded, with over 20 million works being printed by 1500 and 10 times that by 1600.

Before Gutenberg, a single scribe could spend years copying only a few editions of a book before the printing press and with a press, up to 3,600 pages a day could be printed. The Catholic Church had the market on bibles and facing a cash crunch, Pope Alexander VI threatened to excommunicate printing manuscripts. In two decades, John Calvin and Martin Luther changed the world with their books - and Copernicus followed quickly by other scientists published works, even with threats of miscommunication or the Inquisition. 

As presses grew, new innovative uses also grew. We got the first newspaper in 1605. Literacy rates were going up, people were becoming more educated and science and learning were spreading in ways it had never done before. Freedom to learn became freedom of thought and Christianity became fragmented as other thinkers had other ideas of spirituality. We were ready for the Enlightenment. 

Today we can copy and paste text from one screen to the next on our devices. We can make a copy of a single file and have tens of thousands of ancient or modern works available to us in an instant. In fact, plenty of my books are available to download for free on sites with or without mine or my publisher’s consent. Or we can just do a quick Google search and find most any book we want. And with the ubiquity of literacy we moved from printed paper to disks to online and our content creation has exploded. 90% of the data in the world was created in the past two years. We are producing over 2 quintillion bytes of data daily. Over 4 and a half billion people are connected, What’s crazy is that’s nearly 3 and a half billion people who aren’t online. 

Imagine having nearly double the live streamers on Twitch and dancing videos on TikTok! I have always maintained a large physical library. And while writing many of these episodes and the book it’s only grown. Because some books just aren’t available online, even if you’re willing to pay for them. 

So here’s a parting thought I’d like to leave you with today: history is also full of anomalies or moments when someone got close to a discovery but we would have to wait thousands of years for it to come up again. The Phaistos Disc is a Minoan fired clay tablet from Greece. It was made by stamping Minoan hieroglyphs onto the clay. 

And just like sometimes it seems something may have come before its time, we also like to return to the classics here and there. Up until the digital age, paper was one of the most important industries in the world. Actually, it still is. But this isn’t to say that we haven’t occasionally busted out parchment for uses in manual writing. The Magna Carta and the US Constitution were both written on parchment.

So think about what you see that is before its time, or after. And keep a good relationship with your venture capitalists so they don’t take the printing presses away. 


The Scientific Revolution: Copernicus to Newton

     12/5/2020

Following the Renaissance, Europe had an explosion of science. The works of the Greeks had been lost during the Dark Ages while civilizations caught up to the technical progress. Or so we were taught in school. Previously, we looked at the contributions during the Golden Age of the Islamic Empires and the Renaissance when that science returned to Europe following the Holy Wars.

The great thinkers from the Renaissance pushed boundaries and opened minds. But the revolution coming after them would change the very way we thought of the world. It was a revolution based in science and empirical thought, lasting from the middle of the 1500s to late in the 1600s. 

There are three main aspects I’d like to focus on in terms of taking all the knowledge of the world from that point and preparing it to give humans enlightenment, what we call the age after the Scientific Revolution. These are new ways of reasoning and thinking, specialization, and rigor. Let’s start with rigor.

My cat jumps on the stove and burns herself. She doesn’t do it again. My dog gets too playful with the cat and gets smacked. Both then avoid doing those things in the future.

Early humans learn that we can forage certain plants and then realize we can take those plants to another place and have them grow. And then we realize they grow best when planted at certain times of the year. And watching the stars can provide guidance on when to do so. This evolved over generations of trial and error. 

Yet we believed those stars revolved around the earth for much of our existence. Even after designing orreries and mapping the heavens, we still hung on to this belief until Copernicus. His 1543 work “On The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” marks the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Here, he almost heretically claimed that the stars in fact revolved around the sun, as did the Earth. 

This wasn’t exactly new. Aristarchus had theorized this heliocentric model in Ancient Greece. Ptolemy had disagreed in Almagest, where he provided tables to compute location and dates using the stars. Tables that had taken rigor to produce. And that Ptolemaic system came to be taken for granted. It worked fine. 

The difference was, Copernicus had newer technology. He had newer optics, thousands more years of recorded data (some of which was contributed by philosophers during the golden age of Islamic science), the texts of ancient astronomers, and newer ecliptical tables and techniques with which to derive them. 

Copernicus didn’t accept what he was taught but instead looked to prove or disprove it with mathematical rigor. The printing press came along in 1440 and 100 years later, Luther was lambasting the church, Columbus discovered the New World, and the printing press helped disseminate information in a way that was less controllable by governments and religious institutions who at times felt threatened by that information. For example, Outlines of Pyrrhonism from first century Sextus Empiricus was printed in 1562, adding skepticism to the growing European thought. In other words, human computers were becoming more sentient and needed more input. 

We couldn’t trust what the ancients were passing down and the doctrine of the church was outdated. Others began to ask questions. 

Johannes Keppler published Mysterium Cosmographicum in 1596, in defense of Copernicus. He would go on to study math, such as the relationship between math and music, and the relationship between math and the weather. And in 1604 published Astronomiae Pars Optica, where he proposed a new method to measure eclipses of the moon. He would become the imperial mathematician to Emperor Rudolf II, where he could work with other court scholars. He worked on optical theory and wrote Astronomiae Pars Optica, or The Optical Part of Astronomy. He published numerous other works that pushed astronomy, optics, and math forward. His Epitome of Copernican Astronomy would go further than Copernicus, assigning ellipses to the movements of celestial bodies and while it didn’t catch on immediately, his inductive reasoning and the rigor that followed, was enough to have him conversing with Galileo. 

Galileo furthered the work of Copernicus and Kepler. He picked up a telescope in 1609 and in his lifetime saw magnification go from 3 to 30 times. This allowed him to map Jupiter’s moons, proving the orbits of other celestial bodies. He identified sunspots. He observed the strength of motions and developed formulas for inertia and parabolic trajectories. 

We were moving from deductive reasoning, or starting our scientific inquiry with a theory - to inductive reasoning, or creating theories based on observation. Galileos observations expanded our knowledge of Venus, the moon, and the tides. He helped to transform how we thought, despite ending up in an Inquisition over his findings.

The growing quantity and types of systematic experimentation represented a shift in values. Emiricism, observing evidence for yourself, and the review of peers - whether they disagreed or not. These methods were being taught in growing schools but also in salons and coffee houses and, as was done in Athens, in paid lectures.

Sir Francis Bacon argued about only basing scientific knowledge on inductive reasoning. We now call this the Baconian Method, which he wrote about in 1620 when he published his book, New method, or Novum Organum in latin. This was the formalization of eliminative induction. He was building on if not replacing the inductive-deductive method  in Aristotle’s Organon. Bacon was the Attorney General of England and actually wrote Novum while sitting as the Lord Chancellor of England, who presides over the House of Lords and also is the highest judge, or was before Tony Blair. 

Bacon’s method built on ancient works from not only Aristotle but also Al-Biruni, al-Haytham, and many others. And has influenced generations of scientists, like John Locke. 

René Descartes helped lay the further framework for rationalism, coining the term “I think therefore I am.” He became by many accounts the father of modern Western Philosophy and asked what can we be certain of, or what is true? This helped him rethink various works and develop Cartesian geometry. Yup, he was the one who developed standard notation in 1637, a thought process that would go on to impact many other great thinkers for generations - especially with the development of calculus. As with many other great natural scientists or natural philosophers of the age, he also wrote on the theory of music, anatomy, and some of his works could be considered a protopsychology. 

Another method that developed in the era was empiricism, which John Locke proposed in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1689. George Berkeley, Thomas Hobbes, and David Hume would join that movement and develop a new basis for human knowledge in that empirical tradition that the only true knowledge accessible to our minds was that based on experience.

Optics and simple machines had been studied and known of since antiquity. But tools that deepened the understating of sciences began to emerge during this time. We got the steam digester, new forms of telescopes, vacuum pumps, the mercury barometer. And, most importantly for this body of work - we got the mechanical calculator. 

Robert Boyle was influenced by Galileo, Bacon, and others. He gave us Boyle’s Law, explaining how the pressure of gas increases as the volume of a contain holding the gas decreases. He built air pumps. He investigated how freezing water expands, he experimented with crystals. He experimented with magnetism, early forms of electricity. He published the Skeptical Chymist in 1660 and another couple of dozen books. Before him, we had alchemy and after him, we had chemistry.

One of his students was Robert Hooke. Hooke. Hooke defined the law of elasticity, He experimented with everything. He made music tones from brass cogs that had teeth cut in specific proportions. This is storing data on a disk, in a way. Hooke coined the term cell. He studied gravitation in Micrographia, published in 1665. 

And Hooke argued, conversed, and exchanged letters at great length with Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientific minds of all time. He gave the first theory on the speed of sound, Newtonian mechanics, the binomials series. He also gave us Newton’s Rules for Science which are as follows:

  1. We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.
  2. Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes.
  3. The qualities of bodies, which admit neither intension nor remission of degrees, and which are found to belong to all bodies within the reach of our experiments, are to be esteemed the universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever.
  4. In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions collected by general induction from phenomena