'historyofcomputers' Episodes

PGP and the First Amendment


I was giving a talk at DefCon one year and this guy starts grilling me at the end of the talk about the techniques Apple was using to encrypt home directories at the time with new technology called Filevault. It went on a bit, so I did that thing you sometimes have to do when it’s time to get off stage and told him we’d chat after. And of course he came up - and I realized he was really getting at the mechanism used to decrypt and the black box around decryption. He knew way more than I did about encryption so I asked him who he was. When he told me, I was stunned.

Turns out that like me, he enjoyed listening to A Prairie Home Companion. And on that show, Garrison Keillor would occasionally talk about Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery in a typical Minnesota hometown he’d made up for himself called Lake Wobegon. Zimmerman liked the name and so called his new encryption tool PGP, short for Pretty Good Privacy. It was originally written to encrypt messages being sent to bulletin boards. 

That original tool didn’t require any special license, provided it wasn’t being used commercially. And today, much to the chagrin of the US government at the time, it’s been used all over the world to encrypt emails, text files, text messages, directories, and even disks. But we’ll get to that in a bit. 

Zimmerman had worked for the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign in the 80s after getting a degree in computer science fro Florida Atlantic University in 1978. And after seeing the government infiltrate organizations organizing Vietnam protests, he wanted to protect the increasingly electronic communications of anti-nuclear protests and activities. 

The world was just beginning to wake up to a globally connected Internet. And the ARPAnet had originally been established by the military industrial complex, so it was understandable that he’d want to keep messages private that just happened to be flowing over a communications medium that many in the defense industry knew well. So he started developing his own encryption algorithm called BassOmatic in 1988. That cipher used symmetric keys with control bits and pseudorandom number generation as a seed - resulting in 8 permutation tables. He named BassOmatic after a Saturday Night Live skit. I like him more and more. 

He’d replace BassOmatic with IDEA in version 2 in 1992. And thus began the web of trust, which survives to this day in PGP, OpenPGP, and GnuPG. Here, a message is considered authentic based on it being bound to a public key - one that is issued in a decentralized model where a certificate authority issues a public and private key where messages can only be encrypted or signed with the private key and back then you would show your ID to someone at a key signing event or party in order to get a key. Public keys could then be used to check that the individual you thought was the signer really is. Once verified then a separate key could be used to encrypt messages between the parties. 

But by then, there was a problem. The US government began a criminal investigation against Zimmerman in 1993. You see, the encryption used in PGP was too good. Anything over a 40 bit encryption key was subject to US export regulations as a munition. Remember, the Cold War. Because PGP used 128 bit keys at a minimum. So Zimmerman did something that the government wasn’t expecting. Something that would make him a legend. He went to MIT Press and published the PGP source code in a physical book. Now, you could OCR the software, run it through a compiler. Suddenly, his code was protected as an exportable book by the First Amendment. 

The government dropped the investigation and found something better to do with their time. And from then on, source code for cryptographic software became an enabler of free speech, which has been held up repeatedly in the appellate courts. So 1996 comes along and PGP 3 is finally available. This is when Zimmerman founds PGP as a company so they could focus on PGP full-time. Due to a merger with Viacrypt they jumped to PGP 5 in 1997. 

Towards the end of 1997 Network Associates acquired PGP and they expanded to add things like intrusion detection, full disk encryption, and even firewalls. Under Network Associates they stopped publishing their source code and Zimmerman left in 2001. Network Associates couldn’t really find the right paradigm and so merged some products together and what was PGP commandline ended up becoming McAfee E-Business Server in 2013. 

But by 2002 PGP Corporation was born out of a few employees securing funding from Rob Theis to help start the company and buy the rest of the PGP assets from Network Associates. They managed to grow it enough to sell it for $300 million to Symantec and PGP lives on to this day. 

But I never felt like they were in it just for the money. The money came from a centralized policy server that could do things like escrow keys. But for that core feature of encrypting emails and later disks, I really always felt like they wanted a lot of that free. And you can buy Symantec Encryption Desktop and command it from a server, S/MIME and OpenPGP live on in ways that real humans can encrypt their communications, some of which in areas where their messages might get them thrown in jail.

By the mid-90s, mail wasn’t just about the text in a message. It was more. RFC934 in 1985 had started the idea of encapsulating messages so you could get metadata. RFC 1521 in 1993 formalized MIME and by 1996, MIME was getting really mature in RFC2045. But by 1999 we wanted more and so S/MIME went out as RFC 2633. Here, we could use CMS to “cryptographically enhance” a MIME body. In other words, we could suddenly encrypt more than the text of an email and it since it was an accepted internet standard, it could be encrypted and decrypted with standard mail clients rather than just with a PGP client that didn’t have all the bells and whistles of pretty email clients. 

That included signing information, which by 2004 would evolve to include attributes for things like singingTime, SMIMECapabilities, algorithms and more. 

Today, iOS can use S/MIME and keys can be stored in Exchange or Office 365 and that’s compatible with any other mail client that has S/MIME support, making it easier than ever to get certificates, sign messages, and encrypt messages. Much of what PGP was meant for is also available in OpenPGP. OpenPGP is defined by the OpenPGP Working Group and you can see the names of some of these guardians of privacy in RFC 4880 from 2007. Names like J. Callas, L. Donnerhacke, H. Finney, D. Shaw, and R. Thayer. Despite the corporate acquisitions, the money, the reprioritization of projects, these people saw fit to put powerful encryption into the hands of real humans and once that pandoras box had been opened and the first amendment was protecting that encryption as free speech, to keep it that way. Use Apple Mail, GPGTools puts all of this in your hands. Use Android, get FairEmail. Use Windows, grab EverDesk. 

This specific entry felt a little timely. Occasionally I hear senators tell companies they need to leave backdoors in products so the government can decrypt messages. And a terrorist forces us to rethink that basic idea of whether software that enables encryption is protected by freedom of speech. Or we choose to attempt to ban a company like WeChat, testing whether foreign entities who publish encryption software are also protected. Especially when you consider whether Tencent is harvesting user data or if the idea they are doing that is propaganda. For now, US courts have halted a ban on WeChat. Whether it lasts is one of the more intriguing things I’m personally watching these days, despite whatever partisan rhetoric gets spewed from either side of the isle, simply for the refinement to the legal interpretation that to me began back in 1993. After over 25 years we still continue to evolve our understanding of what truly open and peer reviewed cryptography being in the hands of all of us actually means to society. 

The inspiration for this episode was a debate I got into about whether the framers of the US Constitution would have considered encryption, especially in the form of open source public and private key encryption, to be free speech. And it’s worth mentioning that Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Adams, and Madison all used  ciphers to keep their communications private. And for good reason as they knew what could happen should their communications be leaked, given that Franklin had actually leaked private communications when he was the postmaster general. Jefferson even developed his own wheel cipher, which was similar to the one the US army used in 1922. It comes down to privacy. The Constitution does not specifically call out privacy; however, the first Amendment guarantees the privacy of belief, the third, the privacy of home, the fourth, privacy against unreasonable search and the fifth, privacy of of personal information in the form of the privilege against self-incrimination. And giving away a private key is potentially self-incrimination. Further, the ninth Amendment has broadly been defined as the protection of privacy. 

So yes, it is safe to assume they would have supported the transmission of encrypted information and therefore the cipher used to encrypt to be a freedom. Arguably the contents of our phones are synonymous with the contents of our homes though - and if you can have a warrant for one, you could have a warrant for both. Difference is you have to physically come to my home to search it - whereas a foreign government with the same keys might be able to decrypt other data. Potentially without someone knowing what happened. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 helped with protections but with more and more data residing in the cloud - or as with our mobile devices synchronized with the cloud, and with the intermingling of potentially harmful data about people around the globe potentially residing (or potentially being analyzed) by people in countries that might not share the same ethics, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what is the difference between keeping our information private, which the framers would likely have supported and keeping people safe. Jurisprudence has never kept up with the speed of technological progress, but I’m pretty sure that Jefferson would have liked to have shared a glass of his favorite drink, wine, with Zimmerman. Just as I’m pretty sure I’d like to share a glass of wine with either of them. At Defcon or elsewhere!

Claude Shannon and the Origins of Information Theory


The name Claude Shannon has come up 8 times so far in this podcast. More than any single person. We covered George Boole and the concept that Boolean is a 0 and a 1 and that using Boolean algebra, you can abstract simple circuits into practically any higher level concept. And Boolean algebra had been used by a number of mathematicians, to perform some complex tasks. Including by Lewis Carroll in Through The Looking Glass to make words into math. 

And binary had effectively been used in morse code to enable communications over the telegraph. 

But it was Claude Shannon who laid the foundation for making a theory that took both the concept of communicating over the telegraph and applying Boolean algebra to get to a higher level of communication possible. And it all starts with bits, which we can thank Shannon for. 

Shannon grew up in Gaylord, Michigan. His mother was a high school principal and his grandfather had been an inventor. He built a telegraph as a child, using a barbed wire fence. But barbed wire isn’t the greatest conducer of electricity and so… noise. And thus information theory began to ruminate in his mind. He went off to the University of Michigan and got a Bachelors in electrical engineering and another in math. A perfect combination for laying the foundation of the future. 

And he got a job as a research assistant to Vannevar Bash, who wrote the seminal paper, As We May Think. At that time, Bush was working at MIT on The Thinking Machine, or Differential Analyzer. This was before World War II and they had no idea, but their work was about to reshape everything.  At the time, what we think of as computers today, were electro-mechanical. They had gears that were used for the more complicated tasks, and switches, used for simpler tasks. 

Shannon devoted his masters thesis to applying Boolean algebra, thus getting rid of the wheels, which moved slowly, and allowing the computer to go much faster. He broke down Boole’s Laws of Thought into a manner it could be applied to parallel circuitry. That paper was called A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits in 1937 and helped set the stage for the Hackers revolution that came shortly thereafter at MIT. 

At the urging of Vannevar Bush, he got his PhD in Biology, pushing genetics forward by theorizing that you could break the genetic code down into a matrix. The structure of DNA would be discovered by George Gamow in 1953 and Watson and Crick would discover the helix and Rosalind Franklin would use X-ray crystallography to capture the first photo of the structure. 

He headed off to Princeton in 1940 to work at the Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein and von Neumann were. He quickly moved over to the National Defense Research Committee, as the world was moving towards World War II. A lot of computing was going into making projectiles, or bombs, more accurate. He co-wrote a paper called Data Smoothing and Prediction in Fire-Control Systems during the war. 

He’d gotten a primer in early cryptography, reading The Gold-Bug by Edgar Allan Poe as a kid. And it struck his fancy. So he started working on theories around cryptography, everything he’d learned forming into a single theory. He would have lunch with Alan Turning during the war. He would And it was around this work that he first coined the term “information theory” in 1945.

A universal theory of communication gnawed at him and formed during this time, from the Institute, to the National Defense Research Committee, to Bell Labs, where he helped encrypt communications between world leaders. He hid it from everyone, including failed relationships. He broke information down into the smallest possible unit, a bit, short for a binary digit. He worked out how to compress information that was most repetitive. Similar to how morse code compressed the number of taps on the electrical wire by making the most common letters the shortest to send. Eliminating redundant communications established what we now call compression. 

Today we use the term lossless compression frequently in computing. He worked out that the minimum amount of information to send would be H = - Sigma Pi log2 Pi - or entropy. 

His paper, put out while he was at Bell, was called “A mathematical theory or communication” and came out in 1948. You could now change any data to a zero or a one and then compress it. Further, he had to find a way to calculate the maximum amount of information that could be sent over a communication channel before it became garbled, due to loss. We now call this the Shannon Limit. And so once we have that, he derived how to analyze information with math to correct for noise. That barbed wire fence could finally be useful. This would be used in all modern information connectivity. For example, when I took my Network+ we spent an inordinate amount of time learning about Carrier-sense multiple access with collision detection (CSMA/CD) - a media access control (MAC) method that used carrier-sensing to defer transmissions until no other stations are transmitting.

And as his employer, Bell Labs helped shape the future of computing. Along with Unix, C, C++, the transistor, the laser, information theory is a less tangible yet given what we all have in our pockets on on our wrists these days, more tangible discovery. Having mapped the limits, Bell started looking to reach the limit. And so the digital communication age was born when the first modem would come out of his former employer, Bell Labs, in 1958. And just across the way in Boston, ARPA would begin working on the first Interface Message Processor in 1967, the humble beginnings of the Internet.

His work done, he went back to MIT. His theories were applied to all sorts of disciplines. But he comes in less and less. Over time we started placing bits on devices. We started retrieving those bits. We started compressing data. Digital images, audio, and more. It would take 35 or so years 

He consulted with the NSA on cryptography. In 1949 he published Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems,  pushed cryptography to the next level. His paper Prediction and Entropy of Printed English in 1951 practically created the field of natural language processing, which evolved into various branches of machine learning. He helped give us the Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem, used in aliasing, deriving maximum throughput, RGB, and of course signal to noise. 

He loved games. In 1941 he theorized the Shannon Number, or the game-tree complexity of chess. In case you’re curious, the reason deep blue can win at chess is that it can brute force 10 to the 120th power. His love of games continued and in 1949 he presented Programming a Computer for Playing Chess. That was the first time we thought about computers playing chess. And he’d have a standing bet that a computer would beat a human grand master at chess by 2001. Garry Kasparov lost to Deep Blue in 1997.

That curiosity extended far beyond chess. He would make Theseus in 1950 - a maze with a mouse that learned how to escape, using relays from phone switches. One of the earliest forms of machine learning. In 1961 he would co-invent the first wearable computer to help win a game of roulette. That same year he designed the Minivan 601 to help teach how computers worked. 

So we’ll leave you with one last bit of information. Shannon’s maxim is that “the enemy knows the system.” I used to think it was just a shortened version of Kerckhoffs's principle, which is that it should be possible to understand a cryptographic system, for example, modern public key ciphers, but not be able to break the encryption without a private key. Thing is, the more I know about Shannon the more I suspect that what he was really doing was giving the principle a broader meaning. So think about that as you try and decipher what is and what is not disinformation in such a noisy world. 

Lots and lots of people would cary on the great work in information theory. Like Kullback–Leibler divergence, or relative entropy. And we owe them all our thanks. But here’s the thing about Shannon: math. He took things that could have easily been theorized - and he proved them. Because science can refute disinformation. If you let it. 

The Great Firewall of China


“If you open the window, both fresh air and flies will be blown in.” Deng Xiaoping perfectly summed up the Chinese perspective on the Internet during his 11 year tenure as the president of the People’s Republic of China, a position he held from 1978 to 1989. Yes, he opened up China with a number of market-economy reforms and so is hailed as the “Architect of Modern China.” However, he did so with his own spin. 

The Internet had been on the rise globally and came to China in 1994. The US had been passing laws since the 1970s to both aid and limit the uses of this new technology, but China was slow to the adoption up until this point. 

1997, the Ministry of Public Security prohibits the use of the Internet to “disclose state secrets or injure the interests of the state or society. The US had been going through similar attempts to limit the Internet with the Telecommunications Decency Act in 1996 and the US Supreme Court ended up striking that down in 1997. And this was a turning point for the Internet in the US and in China. Many a country saw what was about to happen and governments were grappling with how to handle the cultural impact of technology that allowed for unfettered globally interconnected humans. 

By 1998, the Communist Party stepped in to start a project to build what we now call the Great Firewall of China. They took their time and over eight years but a technology that they could fully control. Fang Binxing graduated with a PhD from Harbin Institute of Technology and moved to the National Computer Network Emergency Response technical Team where he became the director in 2000. It’s in this capacity that he took over creating the Great Firewall.

They watched what people were putting on the Internet and by 2002 were able to make 300 arrests. They were just getting started and brought 10s of thousands of police in to get their first taste of internet and video monitoring and of this crazy facial recognition technology. 

By 2003 China was able to launch the Golden Shield Project. Here, they straight-up censored a number of web sites, looking for pro-democracy terms, news sources that spoke out in favor of the Tiananmen Square protests, anyone that covered police brutality, and locked down the freedom of speech. They were able to block blogs and religious organizations, lock down pornography, and block anything the government could consider subversive, like information about the Dalai Lama. 

And US companies played along. Because money. Organizations like Google and Cisco set up systems in the country and made money off China. But also gave ways around it, like providing proxy servers and VPN software. We typically lump Golden Shield and the Great Firewall of China together, but Golden Shield was built by Shen Changxiang and the Great Firewall is mainly run in the three big internet pipes coming into the country, basically tapping the gateway in and out, where Golden Shield is more distributed and affiliated with public security and so used to monitor domestic connections. 

As anyone who has worked on proxies and various filters know, blocking traffic is a constantly moving target. The Chinese government blocks IP addresses and ranges. New addresses are always coming online though. They implement liar DNS and hijack DNS, sometimes providing the wrong IP to honeypot certain sites. But people can build local hosts files and do DNS over TLS. They use transparent proxies to block, or filter, specific URLs and URI schemes. That can be keyword based and bypassed by encrypting server names. 

They also use more advanced filtering options. Like Packet forging where they can do a TCP reset attack which can be thwarted by ignoring the resets. And of course man in the middle attacks, because you know, state owned TLS so they can just replace the GitHub, Google, or iCloud certs - with has each happened. They employ quality of service filtering. This is deep packet inspection that mirrors traffic and then analyze and create packet loss to slow traffic to unwanted sites. This helps thwart VPNs, SSH Tunneling and Tor but can be bypassed by spoofing good traffic, or using pluggable transports. Regrettably that can be as processor intensive as the act of blocking. Garlic routing is used when onion routing can’t be. 

All of this is aided by machine learning. Because like we said, it’s a constantly moving target. And ultimately, pornography and obscene contact is blocked. Discussion about protests is stomped out. Any descent about whether Hong Kong or Taiwan are part of China is disappeared. Democracy is squashed. 

By 2006, Chinese authorities could track access both centrally and from local security bureaus. The government could block and watch what the people were doing. Very 1984. By 2008, Internet cafe’s were logging which customers used which machines. Local officials could crack down further than the central government or tow the party line. 

2010, Google decides they’re not playing along any more and shuts down their own censoring. 2016, the WTO defines the Great Firewall as a trade barrier. Wikipedia has repeatedly been blocked and unblocked since the Chinese version was launched in 2001 but as of 2019 all Wikipedia versions are completely blocked in China.

The effect of many of these laws and engineering projects has been to exert social control over the people of China. But it also acts as a form of protectionism. Giving the people Baidu and not Google means a company like Baidu has a locked in market, making Baidu worth over $42 billion. Sure, Alphabet, the parent of Google, is worth almost a trillion dollars but in their minds, at least China is protecting some market for Baidu. And giving the people Alibaba instead of Amazon gives people the ability to buy goods and China protects a half-trillion dollar market capitalized company, in moneys that would be capitalizing Amazon, who currently stands at $1.3 trillion. 

Countries like Cuba and Zimbabwe then leverage technology from China to run their own systems. With such a large number of people only able to access parts of the Internet that their government feels is ok, many have referred to the Internet as the Splinternet. China has between 700 and 900 million internet users with over half using broadband and over 500 million using a smart phone. But the government owns the routes they use in the form of CSTNET, ChinaNet, CERNET, and CHINAGBN but expanding to 10 access points in the last few years, to handle the increased traffic. 

Sites like Tencent and Sina.com provide access to millions of users. With that much traffic they’re now starting to export some technologies, like TikTok, launched in 2016. And whenever a new app or site comes along based in China, it often comes with plenty of suspect. And sometimes that comes with a new version of TikTok that removes potentially harmful activity. 

And sometimes Baidu Maps and Tianditu are like Google Maps but Chinese like the skit in the show Silicon Valley. Like AliPay for Stripe. Or Soso Baike for Wikipedia. And there are plenty of viral events in China that many Americans miss, like the Black Dorm Boys or Sister Feng. Or “very erotic, very violent” or the Baidu 10 Mythical Creatures and the list goes on. And there’s a China slang like 520 meaning I love You or 995 meaning Help. More examples of splinternetting or just cultural differences? You decide.

And the protectionism. That goes a lot of different ways. N Jumps is Chinese slang to refer to the number of people that jump out of windows at Foxconn factories. We benefit from not-great working conditions. The introduction of services and theft of intellectual property would be a place where the price for that benefit is paid in full. And I’ve seen it estimated that roughly a third of sites are blocked by the firewall, a massive percentage and places where some of the top sites do not benefit from Chinese traffic. 

But suffice it to say that the Internet is a large and sprawling place. And I never want to be an apologist. But some of this is just cultural differences. And who am I to impose my own values on other countries when at least they have the Interwebs - online North Korea. Oh, who am I kidding… Censorship is bad. And the groups that have risen to give people the Internet and rights to access it and help people bypass controls put in place by oppressive governments. Those people deserve our thanks.

So thank you to everyone involved. Except the oppressors. And thank you, listeners, for tuning in to this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. Now go install ToR, if only to help those who need to access modern memes to do so. Your work is awesome sauce.

Have a great day.

From Antiquity to Bitcoin: A Brief History of Currency, Banking, and Finance


Today we’re going to have a foundational episode, laying the framework for further episodes on digital piracy, venture capital, accelerators, Bitcoin, PayPal, Square, and others. I’ll try to keep from dense macro and micro economics but instead just lay out some important times from antiquity to the modern financial system so we can not repeat all this in those episodes. I apologize to professionals in these fields whose life work I am about to butcher in oversimplification. 

Like a lot of nerds who found myself sitting behind a keyboard writing code, I read a lot of science fiction growing up. There are dystopian and utopian outlooks on what the future holds for humanity give us a peak into what progress is. Dystopian interpretations tell of what amount to warlords and a fragmentation of humanity back to what things were like thousands of years ago. The utopian interpretations often revolve around questions about how society will react to social justice, or a market in equilibrium.

The dystopian science fiction represents the past of economics and currency. And the move to online finances and digital currency tracks against what science fiction told us was coming in a future more utopian world. My own mental model of economics began with classes on micro and macro economics in college but evolved when I was living in Verona, Italy.

We visited several places built by a family called the Medici’s. I’d had bank accounts up until then but that’s the first time I realized how powerful banking and finance as an institution was. Tombs, villas, palaces. The Medici built lasting edifices to the power of their clan. They didn’t invent money, but they made enough to be on par with the richest modern families. 

It’s easy to imagine humans from the times of hunter-gatherers trading an arrowhead for a chunk of meat. As humanity moved to agriculture and farming, we began to use grain and cattle as currency. By 8000 BC people began using tokens for trade in the Middle East. And metal objects came to be traded as money around 5,000 BC.

And around 3,000 PC we started to document trade. Where there’s money and trade, there will be abuse. By 1,700 BC early Mesopotamian even issued early regulations for the banking industry in the Code of Hammurabi. By then private institutions were springing up to handle credit, deposits, interest, and loans. Some of which was handled on clay tablets. 

And that term private is important. These banking institutions were private endeavors. As the Egyptian empire rose, farmers could store grain in warehouses and then during the Ptolemeic era began to trade the receipts of those deposits. We can still think of these as tokens and barter items though. Banking had begun around 2000 BC in Assyria and Sumeria but these were private institutions effectively setting their own splintered and sometimes international markets. Gold was being used but it had to be measured and weighed each time a transaction was made. 

Until the Lydian Stater. Lydia was an empire that began in 1200 BC and was conquered by the Persians around 546 BC. It covered the modern Western Anatolia, Salihli, Manisa, and Turkey before the Persians took it. One of their most important contributions to the modern world was the first state sponsored coinage, in 700BC. The coins were electrum, which is a mix of gold and silver. 

And here’s the most important part. The standard weight was guaranteed by an official stamp. The Lydian king Croesus then added the concept of bimetallic coinage. Or having one coin made of gold and the other of silver. Each had a different denomination where the lower denomination was one dozen of the higher. They then figured out a way to keep counterfeit coins off the market with a Lydian stone, the color of which could be compared to other marks made by gold coins. And thus modern coinage was born. And the Lydian merchants became the merchants that helped move goods between Greece and Asia, spreading the concept of the coin. Cyrus the second defeated the Lydians and Darius the Great would issue the gold daric, with a warrior king wielding a bow. And so heads of state adorned coins. 

As with most things in antiquity, there are claims that China or India introduced coins first. Bronzed shells have been discovered in the ruins of Yin, the old capital of the Shang dynasty dating back hundreds of years before the Lydians. But if we go there this episode will be 8 hours long. 

Exodus 22:25-27 “If you lend money to my people—to any poor person among you—never act like a moneylender. Charge no interest.”

Let’s put that bible verse in context. So we have coins and banks. And international trade. It’s mostly based on the weight of the coins. Commerce rises and over the centuries banks got so big they couldn’t be allowed to fail without crashing the economy of an empire. Julius Caeser expands the empire of Rome and gold flows in from conquered lands. One thing that seems constant through history is that interest rates from legitimate lenders tend to range from 3 to 14 percent. Anything less and you are losing money. Anything more and you’ve penalized the borrower to the point they can’t repay the loan. The more scarce capital the more you have to charge. Like the US in the 80s. So old Julius meets an untimely fate, there are wars, and Augustus manages to solidify the empire and Augustus reformed taxes and introduced a lot of new services to the state, building roads, establishing a standing army, the Praetorian Guard, official fire fighting and police and established a lot of the old Roman road systems through the empire that Rome is now known so well for. It was an over 40 year reign and one of the greatest in history. But greatness is expensive. 

Tiberius had to bail out banks and companies in the year 33. Moneylending sucks when too many people can’t pay you back. Augustus had solidified the Roman Empire and by the time Tiberius came around Rome was a rich import destination. Money was being leant abroad and interest rates and so there was less and less gold in the city. Interest rates had plummeted to 4 percent. Again, we’re in a time when money is based on the weight of a coin and there simply weren’t enough coins in circulation due to the reach of the empire. And so for all my Libertarian friends - empires learned the hard way that business and commerce are essential services and must be regulated. If money cannot be borrowed then crime explodes. People cannot be left to starve. Especially when we don’t all live on land that can produce food any more. 

Any time the common people are left behind, there is a revolt. The more the disparity the greater the revolt. The early Christians were heavily impacted by the money lending practices in that era between Julius Caeser and Tiberius and the Bible as an economic textbook is littered with references to usury, showing the blame placed on emerging financial markets for the plight of the commoner. Progress often involves two steps forward and one back to let all of the people in a culture reap the rewards of innovations.  

The Roman Empire continued on gloriously for a long, long time. Over time, Rome fell. Other empires came and went. As they did, they minted coins to prove how important the ruling faction was. It’s easy to imagine a farmer in the dark ages following the collapse of the Roman Empire dying and leaving half of the farm to each of two children. Effectively each owns one share. That stock can then be used as debt and during the rise of the French empire, 12th century courretiers de change found they could regulate debts as brokers. The practice grew. 

Bankers work with money all day. They get crafty and think of new ways to generate income. The Venetians were trading government securities and in 1351 outlawed spreading rumors to lower the prices of those - and thus market manipulation was born. By 1409 Flemish traders began to broker the trading of debts in Bruges at an actual market. Italian companies began issuing shares and joint stock companies were born allowing for colonization of the American extensions to European powers. That colonization increased the gold supply in Europe five fold, resulting in the first great gold rush. 

European markets, flush with cash and speculation and investments, grew and by 1611 in Amsterdam the stock market was born. The Dutch East India Company sold shares to the public and brought us options, bonds and derivatives. Dutch perpetual bonds were introduced and one issued in 1629 is still paying dividends. So we got the bond market for raising capital. 

Over the centuries leading to the industrial revolution, banking, finance, and markets became the means with which capitalism and private property replaced totalitarian regimes, the power of monarchs, and the centralized control of production. As the markets rose, modern economics were born, with Adam Smith codifying much of the known works at that point, including those from French physiocrats. The gold standard began around 1696 and gained in popularity. The concept was to allow paper money to be freely convertible into a pre-defined amount of gold. Therefore, paper money could replace gold and still be backed by gold just as it was in antiquity. By 1789 we were running a bit low on gold so introduced the bimetallic standard where silver was worth one fifteenth of gold and a predefined market ratio was set.  

Great thinking in economics goes back to antiquity but since the time of Tiberius, rulers had imposed regulation. This had been in taxes to pay for public goods and bailing out businesses that had to get bailed out - and tariffs to control the movement of goods in and out of a country. To put it simply, if too much gold left the country, interest rates would shoot up, inflation would devalue the ability to buy goods and as people specialized in industries, those who didn’t produce food, like the blacksmiths or cobblers, wouldn’t be able to buy food. And when people can’t buy food, bad things happen. 

Adam Smith believed in self-regulation though, which he codified in his seminal work Wealth of Nations, in 1776. He believed that what he called the “invisible hand” of the market would create economic stability, which would lead to prosperity for everyone. And that became the framework for modern capitalistic endeavors for centuries to come. But not everyone agreed. Economics was growing and there were other great thinkers as well. 

Again, things fall apart when people can’t get access to food and so Thomas Malthus responded with a theory that the rapidly growing populations of the world would outgrow the ability to feed all those humans. Where Smith had focused on the demand for goods, Malthus focused on scarcity of supply. Which led to another economist, Karl Marx, to see the means of production as key to providing the Maslovian hierarchy. He saw capitalism as unstable and believed the creation of an owner (or stock trader) class and a working class was contrary to finding balance in society. He accurately predicted the growing power of business and how that power would control and so hurt the worker at the benefit of the business. We got marginalize, general equilibrium theory, and over time we could actually test theories and the concepts that began with Smith became a science, economics, with that branch known as neoclassical.

Lots of other fun things happen in the world. Bankers begin instigating innovation and progress. Booms or bull markets come, markets over index and/or supplies become scarce and recessions or bear markets ensue. Such is the cycle. To ease the burdens of an increasingly complicated financial world, England officially adopted the gold standard in 1821 which led to the emergence of the international gold standard, adopted by Germany in 1871 and by 1900, most of the world. Gaining in power and influence, the nations of the world stockpiled gold up until World War I in 1914. The international political upheaval led to a loss of faith in the gold standard and the global gold supply began to fall behind the growth in the global economy. 

JP Morgan dominated Wall Street in what we now called the Gilded age. He made money by reorganizing and consolidating railroad businesses throughout America. He wasn’t just the banker, he was the one helping become more efficient, digging into how the businesses worked and reorganizing and merging corporate structures. He then financed Edison’s research and instigated the creation of General Electric. He lost money investing on a Tesla project when Tesla wanted to go wireless. He bought Carnegie Steel in 1901, the first modern buyout that gave us US Steel. The industrialists from the turn of the century increased productivity at a rate humanity had never seen. We had the biggest boom market humanity had ever seen and then when the productivity gains slowed and the profits and earnings masked the slowdown in output a bubble of sorts formed and the market crashed in 1929. 

These markets are about returns on investments. Those require productivity gains as they are usually based margin, or the ability to sell more goods without increasing the cost - thus the need for productivity gains. That crash in 1929 sent panic through Wall Street and wiped out investors around the world. Consumer confidence, and so spending and investment was destroyed. With a sharp reduction needed in supply, industrial output faltered and workers were laid off, creating a vicious cycle. 

The crash also signaled the end of the gold standard. The pound and franc were mismanaged, commodity prices, new power Germany was having trouble repaying war debts, commodity prices collapsed, and thinking a reserve of gold would keep them legitimate, countries raised interest rates, further damaging the global economy. High interest rates reduce investment. England finally suspended the gold standard in 1931 which sparked  other countries to do the same, with the US raising the number of dollars per ounce of gold from $20 to $35 and so obtaining enough gold to back the US dollar as the de facto standard. 

Meanwhile, science was laying the framework for the next huge boom - which would be greater in magnitude, margins, and profits. Enter John Maynard Keynes and Keynesian economics, the rise of macroeconomics. In a departure from neoclassical economics he believed that the world economy had grown to the point that aggregate supply and demand would not find equilibrium without government intervention. In short, the invisible hand would need to be a visible hand by the government. By then, the Bolsheviks had established the Soviet Union and Mao had founded the communist party in China. The idea that there had been a purely capitalist society since the time the Egyptian government built grain silos or since Tiberius had rescued the Roman economy with bailouts was a fallacy. The US and other governments began spending, and incurring debt to do so, and we began to dig the world out of a depression.

But it took another world war to get there. And that war did more than just end the Great Depression. World War II was one of the greatest rebalancing of powers the world has known - arguably even greater than the fall of the Roman and Persian empires and the shift between Chinese dynasties. In short, we implemented a global world order of sorts in order to keep another war like that from happening. Globalism works for some and doesn’t work well for others. It’s easy to look on the global institutions built in that time as problematic. And organizations like the UN and the World Bank should evolve so they do more to lift all people up, so not as many around the world feel left behind. 

The systems of governance changed world economics.The Bretton Woods Agreement would set the framework for global currency markets until 1971. Here, all currencies were valued in relation to the US dollar which based on that crazy rebalancing move now sat on 75% of the worlds gold. The gold was still backed at a rate of $35 per ounce. And the Keynesian International Monetary Fund would begin managing the balance of payments between nations. Today there are 190 countries in the IMF

Just as implementing the gold standard set the framework that allowed the investments that sparked capitalists like JP Morgan, an indirect financial system backed by gold through the dollar allowed for the next wave of investment, innovation, and so productivity gains.

This influx of money and investment meant there was capital to put to work and so bankers and financiers working with money all day derived new and witty instruments with which to do so. After World War II, we got the rise of venture capital. These are a number of financial instruments that have evolved so qualified investors can effectively make bets on a product or idea. Derivatives of venture include incubators and accelerators. 

The best example of the early venture capital deals would be when Ken Olson and Harlan Anderson raised $70,000 in 1957 to usher in the age of transistorized computing. DEC rose to become the second largest computing company - helping revolutionize knowledge work and introduce a new wave of productivity gains and innovation. They went public in 1968 and the investor made over 500 times the investment, receiving $38 million in stock. More importantly, he stayed friends and a confidant of Olson and invested in over 150 other companies. 

The ensuing neoclassical synthesis of economics basically informs us that free markets are mostly good and efficient but if left to just Smith’s invisible hand, from time to time they will threaten society as a whole. Rather than the dark ages, we can continue to evolve by keeping markets moving and so large scale revolts at bay. As Aasimov effectively pointed out in Foundation - this preserves human knowledge. And strengthens economies as we can apply math, statistics, and the rising computers to help apply monetary rather than fiscal policy as Friedman would say, to keep the economy in equilibrium. 

Periods of innovation like we saw in the computer industry in the post-war era always seem to leave the people the innovation displaces behind. When enough people are displaced we return to tribalism, nationalism, thoughts of fragmentation, and moves back into the direction of dystopian futures. Acknowledging people are left behind and finding remedies is better than revolt and retreating from progress - and showing love to your fellow human is just the right thing to do. Not doing so creates recessions like the ups and downs of the market in the years as gaps between innovative periods formed.

The stock market went digital in 1966, allowing more and more trades to be processed every day. Instinet was founded in 1969 allowing brokers to make after hour trades. NASDAQ went online in 1970, removing the floor or trading market that had been around since the 1600s. And as money poured in, ironically gold reserves started to go down a little. Just as the Romans under Tiberius saw money leave the country as investment, US gold was moving to other central banks to help rebuild countries, mostly those allied with NATO, to rebuild their countries. But countries continued to release bank notes to pay to rebuild, creating a period of hyperinflation.

As with other times when gold became scarce, interest rates became unpredictable, moving from 3 to 17 percent and back again until they began to steadily decline in 1980. 

Gold would be removed from the London market in 1968 and other countries began to cash out their US dollars for gold. Belgium, the Netherlands, then Britain cashed in their dollars for gold, and much as had happened under the reign of Tiberius, there wasn’t enough to sustain the financial empires created. This was the turning point for the end of the informal links back to the gold standard. By 1971 Nixon was forced to sever the relationship between the dollar and gold and the US dollar, by then the global standard going back to the Bretton Woods Agreement, became what’s known as fiat money. The Bretton Woods agreement was officially over and the new world order was morphing into something else. Something that was less easily explainable to common people. A system where the value of currency was based not on the link to gold but based on the perception of a country, as stocks were about to move from an era of performance and productivity to something more speculative.

Throughout the 80s more and more orders were processed electronically and by 1996 we were processing online orders. The 2000s saw algorithmic and high frequency trading. By 2001 we could trade in pennies and the rise of machine learning created billionaire hedge fund managers. Although earlier versions were probably more just about speed. Like if EPS is greater than Expected EPS and guidance EPS is greater than EPS then buy real fast, analyze the curve and sell when it tops out. Good for them for making all the moneys but while each company is required to be transparent about their financials, the high frequency trading has gone from rewarding companies with high earnings to seeming like more a social science where the rising and falling was based on confidence about an industry and the management team.

It became harder and harder to explain how financial markets work. Again, bankers work with money all day and come up with all sorts of financial instruments to invest in with their time. The quantity and types of these became harder to explain. Junk bonds, penny stocks, and to an outsider strange derivatives. And so moving to digital trading is only one of the ways the global economy no longer makes sense to many. 

Gold and other precious metals can’t be produced at a rate faster than humans are produced. And so they had to give way to other forms of money and currency, which diluted the relationship between people and a finite, easy to understand, market of goods. 

As we moved to a digital world there were thinkers that saw the future of currency as flowing electronically. Russian cyberneticist Kitov theorized electronic payments and then came ATMs back in the 50s, which the rise of digital devices paved the way to finally manifest themselves over the ensuing decades. Credit cards moved the credit market into more micro-transactional, creating industries where shop-keepers had once kept debits in a more distributed ledger. As the links between financial systems increased and innovators saw the rise of the Internet on the way, more and more devices got linked up.

This combined with the libertarianism shown by many in the next wave of Internet pioneers led people to think of ways for a new digital currency. David Chaum thought up ecash in 1983, to use encrypted keys, much as PGP did for messages, to establish a digital currency. In 1998, Nick Szabo came up with the idea for what he called bitgold, a digital currency based on cryptographic puzzles and the solved puzzles would be sent to a public registry using a public key where the party who solved the puzzle would receive a private key. This was kinda’ like using a mark on a Lydian rock to make sure coins were gold. He didn’t implement the system but had the initial concept that it would work similar to the gold standard - just without a central authority, like the World Bank. 

This was all happening concurrently with the rise of ubiquitous computing, the move away from checking to debit and credit cards, and the continued mirage that clouded what was really happening in the global financial system. There was a rise in online e-commerce with various sites emerging to buy products in a given industry online. Speculation increased creating a bubble around Internet companies. That dot com bubble burst in 2001 and markets briefly retreated from the tech sector. 

Another bull market was born around the rise of Google, Netflix, and others. Productivity gains were up and a lot of money was being put to work in the market, creating another bubble. Markets are cyclical and need to be reigned back in from time to time. That’s not to minimize the potentially devastating impacts to real humans. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 came along for a number of reasons, mostly tied to the bursting of a housing bubble to oversimplify the matter. The lack of liquidity with banks caused a crash and the lack of regulation caused many to think through the nature of currency and money in an increasingly globalized and digital world. After all, if the governments of the world couldn’t protect the citizenry of the world from seemingly unscrupulous markets then why not have completely deregulated markets where the invisible hand does so?

Which brings us to the rise of cryptocurrencies.

Who is John Galt? Bitcoin was invented by Satoshi Nakamoto, who created the first blockchain database and brought the world into peer-to-peer currency in 2009 when bitcoin .1 was released. Satoshi mined block 0 of bitcoin for 50 bitcoins. Over the next year Satoshi mined a potential of about a million bitcoins. Back then a bitcoin was worth less than a penny. As bitcoin grew and the number of bitcoins mined into the blockchain increased, the scarcity increased and the value skyrocketed reaching over $15 billion as of this writing. Who is Satoshi Nakamoto? No one knows - the name is a pseudonym. Other cryptocurrencies have risen such as Etherium. And the market has largely been allowed to evolve on its own, with regulators and traditional financiers seeing it as a fad. Is it? Only time will tell. 

There is about an estimated 200,000 tonnes of gold in the world worth about 93 trillion dollars if so much of it weren’t stuck in necklaces and teeth buried in the ground. The US sits on the largest stockpile of it today, at 8,000 tonnes worth about a third of a trillion dollars, then Germany, Italy, and France. By contrast there are 18,000,000 bitcoins with a value of about $270 billion, a little less than the US supply of gold. By contrast the global stock market is valued at over $85 trillion.

The global financial markets are vast. They include the currencies of the world and the money markets that trade those. Commodity markets, real estate, the international bond and equity markets, and derivative markets which include contracts, options, and credit swaps. This becomes difficult to conceptualize because as one small example in the world financial markets, over $190 billion is traded on stock markets a day. 

Seemingly, rather than running on gold reserves, markets are increasingly driven by how well they put debt to work. National debts are an example of that. The US National Debt currently stands at over $27 trillion dollars. Much is held by our people as bonds, although some countries hold some as security as well, including governments like Japan and China, who hold about the same amount of debt if you include Hong Kong with China. But what does any of that mean? The US GDP sits at about $22.3 trillion dollars. So we owe a little more than we make in a year. Much as many families with mortgages, credit cards, etc might owe about as much as they make. And roughly 10% of our taxes go to pay interest. Just as we pay interest on mortgages. 

Most of this is transparent. As an example, government debt is often held in the form of a treasury bond. The treasury.gov website lists who holds what bonds: https://ticdata.treasury.gov/Publish/mfh.txt. Nearly every market discussed here can be traced to a per-transaction basis, with many transactions being a matter of public record. And yet, there is a common misconception that people think the market is controlled by a small number of people. Like a cabal. But as with most perceived conspiracies, the global financial markets are much more complex. There are thousands of actors who think they are acting rationally who are simply speculating. And there are a few who are committing a crime by violating or inorganically manipulating markets, as has been illegal since the Venetians passed their first laws on the matter. Most day traders will eventually lose all of their money. Most market manipulators will eventually go to jail. But there’s a lot of grey in between. And that can’t entirely be planned for. 

At the beginning of this episode I mentioned it was a prelude to a deeper dive into digital piracy, venture capital, Bitcoin, PayPal, Square, and others. Piracy, because it potentially represents the greatest redistribution of wealth since the beginning of time. Baidu and Alibaba have made their way onto public exchanges. ANT group has the potential to be the largest IPO in history. Huawei is supposedly owned by employees. You can also buy stocks in Russian banking, oil, natural gas, and telecom. 

Does this mean that the split created when the ideas of Marx became a political movement that resulted in communist regimes is over? No. These have the potential of creating a bubble. One that will then need correcting, maybe even based on intellectual property damage claims. The seemingly capitalistic forays made by socialist or communist countries just go to show that there really isn’t and has never been a purely capitalist, socialist, or communist market. Instead, they’re spectrums separated by a couple of percentages of tax here and there to pay for various services or goods to the people that each nation holds as important enough to be universal to whatever degree that tax can provide the service or good. 

So next time you hear “you don’t want to be a socialist country, do you?” Keep in mind that every empire in history has simply been somewhere in a range from a free market to a state-run market. The Egyptians provided silos, the Lydians coined gold, the Romans built roads and bailed out banks, nations adopted gold as currency, then build elaborate frameworks to gain market equilibrium. Along the way markets have been abused and then regulated and then deregulated. The rhetoric used to day though is really a misdirection play handed down by people with ulterior motives. You know, like back in the Venetian times. I immediately think of dystopian futures when I feel I’m being manipulated. That’s what charlatans do. That’s not quite so necessary in a utopian outlook.

VisiCalc, Excel, and The Rise Of The Spreadsheet


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. 

(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020