'historyofcomputing' Episodes

The Rise of Netflix

     4/26/2020

Today we’re going to cover what many of you do with your evenings: Netflix.

Now, the story of Netflix comes in a few stages that I like to call the founding and pivot, the Blockbuster killer,  the streaming evolution, and where we are today: the new era of content. Today Netflix sits at more than a 187 billion dollar market cap. And they have become one of the best known brands in the world. But this story has some pretty stellar layers to it. And one of the most important in an era of eroding (or straight up excavated) consumer confidence is this thought. The IPOs that the dot com buildup created made fast millionaires. But those from the Web 2.0 era made billionaires. And you can see that in the successes of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

Prelude

Hastings founded Pure Software in 1991. They made software that helped other people make… software. They went public in 1995 and merged with Atria, and were acquired the next year by Rational Software - making he and Netflix founder Marc Randolph, well, obsolete. Hastings made investors and himself a lot of money. Which at that point was millions and millions of dollars. So he went on to sit on the State Board of Education and get involved in education.

Act I: The Founding and Pivot

He and Marc Randolph had carpooled to worked while at Pure Atria and had tossed around a lot of ideas for startups. Randolph landed on renting DVDs by mail. Using the still somewhat new Internet. Randolph would become CEO and Hastings would invest the money to get started. Randolph brought in a talented team from Pure Atria and they got to work using an initial investment of two and a half million dollars in 1997. 

But taking the brick and mortar concept that video stores had been successfully using wasn’t working. They had figured out how to ship DVDs cheaply, how to sell them (until Amazon basically took that part of the business away), and even how to market the service by inking deals with DVD player manufacturers. The video stores had been slow to adopt DVDs after the disaster they found with laser disk and so the people who made the DVDs saw it as a way to get more people to buy the players. And it was mostly working. But the retention numbers sucked and they were losing money. 

So they tinkered with the business model, relentlessly testing every idea. And Hastings came back to take the role of CEO and Randolph stepped into the role of president. One of those tests had been to pivot from renting DVDs to a subscription model. And it worked. They gave customers a free month trial. The subscription and the trial are now all too common. But at the time it was a wildly innovative approach. And people loved it. Especially those who could get a DVD the next day. They also gave Netflix huge word of mouth. In 1999 they were at 110,000 subscribers. Which is how I first got introduced to them in 2000, when they were finally up to 300,000 subscribers. I had no clue, but they were already thinking about streaming all the way back then. 

But they had to survive this era. And as is often the case when there’s a free month that comes at a steep cost, Netflix was bleeding money. And running out of cash. They planned to go IPO. But because the dot com bubble had burst, cash was becoming hard to come by. They had been well funded, taking a hundred million dollars by the time they got to a series E. And they were poised for greatness. But there was that cash crunch. And a big company to contend with: Blockbuster. With 9,000 stores, $6b in revenue, tens of thousands of employees, and millions of rentals being processed a month, Blockbuster was the king of the video rental market. 

The story goes that Hastings got the Netflix idea from a late fee. So they would do subscriptions. But they had sold DVDs and done rentals first. And really, they found success because of the pivot, wherever that pivot came from. And in fact, Hastings and Randolph had flown to Texas to try and sell Netflix to Blockbuster. Pretty sure Blockbuster wishes they’d jumped on that. 

Which brings us to Act II: The Blockbuster Killer. 

Managing to keep enough cash to make it through the growth, they managed to go public in 2002 and finally got profitable in 2003. Soon they would be shipping over a million DVDs every single day. They quickly rose through word of mouth. That one day shipping was certainly a thing. They pumped money into advertising and marketing. And they continued a meteoric growth. 

They employed growth hacks and they researched a lot of options for the future, knowing that technology changes were afoot. Randolf investigated opening kiosks with Mitch Lowe. Netflix wouldn’t really be interested in doing so, and Randolph would leave the company in 2002 on good terms. Wealthy after the companies successful IPO. And Lowe took the Video Droid concept of a VHS rental vending machine to DVDs after Netflix abandoned it, and went to Redbox, which had been initially started by McDonalds in 2003. Many of the ideas he and Randolf tested in Vegas as a part of Netflix would be used and by 2005 Redbox would try to sell to Netflix and Blockbuster. 

But again, Blockbuster failed to modernize. They didn’t have just one shot at buying Netflix, Reed Hastings flew out there four times to try and sell the company to Blockbuster. Blockbuster launched their own subscription service in 2004 but it was flawed and there was bad press around late fees and other silly missteps. Meanwhile Netflix was growing fast. 

Netflix shipped the billionth DVD in 2007. And by 2007, there were more Reboxes than Blockbusters and by 2011 the kiosks accounted for half of the rental market. Blockbuster was finally forced to file for bankruptcy in 2010, after being a major name brand for 25 years. 

Netflix was modernizing though. Not with Kiosks but they were already beginning to plan for streaming. And a key to their success, as in the early days was relentless self improvement and testing every little thing, all the time. They took their time and did it right. 

Broadband was on the rise. People had more bandwidth and were experimenting with streaming music at work. Netflix posted earnings of over a hundred million dollars in 2009. But they were about to do something special. 

And so Act III: The Streaming Revolution

The streaming world came online in the early days of the Internet when Severe Tire Damage streamed the first song out of Xerox PARC in 1993. But it wasn’t really until YouTube came along in 2005 that streaming video was getting viable. By 2006 Google would acquire YouTube, which was struggling with over a million dollars a month in bandwidth fees and huge legal issues with copywritten content. This was a signal to the world that streaming was ready. I mean, Saturday Night Live was in, so it must be real! 

Netflix first experimented with making their own content in 2006 with a film production division they called Red Envelope Films. They made over a dozen movies but ultimately shut down, giving Netflix a little focus on another initiative before they came back to making their own content.

Netflix would finally launch streaming media in 2007, right around the time they shipped that billionth DVD. This was the same year Hulu launched out of AOL, Comcast, Facebook, MSN, and Yahoo. But Netflix had a card up it’s sleeve. Or a House of Cards, the first show they produced, which launched in 2013. Suddenly, Netflix was much, much more than a DVD service. They were streaming movies, and creating content. Wildly popular content. They’ve produced hundreds of shows now in well over a dozen languages. 2013 also brought us Orange is the New Black, another huge success. They started off with a whole Marvel universe in 2015 with Daredevil, followed by Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and tied that up with The Defenders. But along the way we got The Crown, Narcos and the almost iconic at this point Stranger Things. Not to mention Bojack Horseman, Voltron, and the list just goes on and on. 

That era of expansion would include more than just streaming. They would finally expand into Canada in 2010, finally going international. They would hit 20 million subscribers in 2011. By 2012 they would be over 25 million subscribers. By 2013 they would exceed 33 million. In 2014 they hit 50 million. By the end of 2015 they were at almost 70 million. 2016 was huge, as they announced an expansion into 130 new international territories at CES. And the growth continued. Explosively. At this point, despite competition popping up everywhere Netflix does over 20 billion a year in revenue and has been as instrumental in revolutionizing the world as anyone. 

That competition now includes Disney Plus, Apple, Hulu, Google, and thousands of thousands of podcasts and home spun streamers, even on Twitch. All battling to produce the most polarizing, touching, beautiful, terrifying, or mesmerizing content. 

Oh and there’s still regular tv I guess… 

Epilogue

So Y2K. The dot com bubble burst. And the overnight millionaires were about to give way to something new. Something different. Something on an entirely different scale. 

As with many of the pre-crash dot com companies, Netflix had initially begun with a pretty simple idea. Take the video store concept, where you payed per-rental. And take it out of brick and mortar and onto the internets. And if they had stuck with that, we probably wouldn’t know who they are today. We would probably be getting our content from a blue and yellow box called Blockbuster. But they went far beyond that, and in the process, they changed how we think of that model. And that subscription model is how you now pay for almost everything, including software like Microsoft Office. 

And Netflix continued to innovate. They made streaming media mainstream. They made producing content a natural adjacency to a streaming service. And they let millions cut the cord from cable and get into traditional media. They became a poster child for the fact that out of the dot com bubble and Great Recession, big tech companies would go from making fast millionaires to a different scale, fast billionaires!

As we move into a new post COVID-19 era, a new round of change is about to come. Nationalism is regrettably becoming more of a thing. Further automation and adoptions of new currencies may start to disrupt existing models even further. We have so much content we have to rethink how search works. And our interpersonal relationships will be forever changed from these months in isolation. Many companies are about to go the way of Blockbuster. Including plenty that have been around much, much longer than they were. But luckily, companies like Netflix are there for us to remind us that any company can innovate like in a multi-act play. 

And we owe them our thanks, for that. - and because what the heck else would we do stuck in quarantine, right?!?! So to the nearly 9,000 people that work at Netflix we 167 million plus subscribers thank you. For revolutionizing content distribution, revolutionizing business models, and for the machine learning and other technological advancements we didn’t even cover in this episode. You are lovely. 

And thank you listeners, for abandoning binge watching Tiger King long enough to listen to this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We are so lucky to have you. Now get back to it!

 


One Year Of History Podcasts

     7/7/2020

 

 

The first episode of this podcast went up on July 7th 2019. One year later, we’ve managed to cover a lot of ground, but we’re just getting started. Over 70 episodes and so far, my favorite was on Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

They may seem disconnected at times, but they’re not. There’s a large outline and it’s all research being included in my next book.

The podcast began with an episode on the prehistory of the computer. And we’ve had episodes on the history of batteries, electricity, superconductors, and more - to build up to what was necessary in order for these advances in computing to come to fruition.

We’ve celebrated Grace Hopper and her contributions. But we’d like to also cover a lot of other diverse voices in computing. 

There was a series on Windows, covering Windows 1, 3, , and 95. But we plan to complete that series with a look at 98, Millineum, NT, 2000, and on. We covered Android, CP/M, OS/2 and VMS but want to get into the Apple operating systems, SUN, and Linux, etc.

Speaking of Apple… We haven’t gotten started with Apple. We covered the lack of an OS story in the 90s - but there’s a lot to unpack around the founding of Apple, Steve Jobs and Woz, and the re-emergence of Apple and their impact there. 

And since that didn’t happen in a vacuum, there were a lot of machines in that transition from the PC being a hobbyist market to being a full-blown industry. We talked through Radioshack, Commodore, the Altair, the Xerox Alto, 

We have covered some early mainframes like the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, ENIAC, the story of Z-1 and Zuse, and even supercomputers like Cray, but still need to tell the later story, bridging the gap between the mainframe, the minicomputer, and traditional servers we might find in a data center today. 

We haven’t told the history of the Internet. We’ve touched on bits and pieces, but want to get into those first nodes that got put onto ARPAnet, the transition to NSFnet, and the merging of the nets into the Internet. And we covered sites like Friendster, Wikipedia, and even the Netscape browser, but the explosion of the Internet has so many other stories left to tell. Literally a lifetime’s worth. 

For example, we covered Twitter and Snapchat but Google and Facebook

We covered the history of object-oriented languages. We also covered BASIC, PASCAL, FORTRAN, ALGOL, Java, But still want to look at AWS and the modern web service architecture that’s allowed for an explosion of apps and web apps. 

Mobility. We covered the Palm Pilot and a little on device management, but still need to get into the iPhone and Samsung and the underlying technology that enabled mobility. 

And enterprise software and compliance.

Knowing the past informs each Investment thesis. We covered Y Combinator but there are a lot of other VC/Private equity firms to look at.

But what I thought I knew of the past isn’t always correct. As an example, coming from the Apple space, we have a hero worship of Steve Jobs that, for example, reading the Walter Isaacson book often conflicts with. He was a brilliant man, but complicated. And the more I read and research, the more I need to unpack many of own assumptions across the industry. 

I was here for a lot of this, yet my understanding is still not what it could be.

Interviews from people who wrote code to put on lunar landers, who invented technology like spreadsheets, 

I wish more people could talk about their experiences openly, but even 40 years later, some are still bound by NDAs

I’ve learned so much and I look forward to learning so much more!


The Evolution Of Wearables

     5/4/2020

Mark Weiser was the Chief Technologiest 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 concept of wearable technology probably kicks off way earlier than you might think. 

Humans have long sought to augment ourselves with technology. This includes eyeglasses, which came along in 1286  and wearable clocks, an era kicked off with the Nuremberg eggs in 1510. The technology got smaller and more precise as our capacity at precision grew. Not all wearable technology is meant to be worn by humans. We strapped cameras to pigeons in 1907.

in the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci would draw up plans for a pedometer and that concept would go on the shelf until Thomas Jefferson picked it back up during his tinkering days. And we would get an abacus ring in 1600. But computers began by needing a lot of electricity to light up those vacuum tubes to replace operations from an abacus, and so when the transistor came along in the 40s, we’d soon start looking for ways to augment our capabilities with those. 

Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka began the wearable technology craze in 1953 when they started developing what would become the TR-55 when it was released in 1955. It was the first transistor radio and when they changed their name to Sony, they would introduce the first of their disruptive technologies. We don’t think of radios as technology as much as we once did, but they were certainly an integral part of getting the world ready to accept other technological advances to come!

Manfred Clynes came up with cyborgs in his story story called Cyborgs in Space in 1960. The next year, Edward Thorp and mathematician and binary algebra guru Claude Shannon wanted to try their hands at cheating at roulette so built a small computer to that timed when balls would land. It went in a shoe. created their own version of wearable technology – a computer small enough to fit into a shoe. This would stay a secret until Thorp released his book “Beat the Dealer” telling readers they got a 44 percent improvement in making bets. By 1969 though Seiko gave us the first automatic quartz watch. 

Other technologies were coming along at about the same time that would later revolutionize portable computing once they had time to percolate for awhile. Like in the 1960s, liquid crystal displayers were being researched at RCA. The technology goes back further but George H. Heilmeier from RCA laboratories gets credit for In 1964 for operationalizing LCD. 

And Hatano developed a mechanical pedometer to track progress to 10,000 steps a day, which by 1985 had him defining that as the number of steps a person should reach in a day. But back to electronics. 

Moore’s law. The digital camera traces its roots to 1975, but Kodak didn’t really pursue it. 1975 and devices were getting smaller and smaller. Another device we don’t think of as a computer all that much any more is a calculator. But kits were being sold by then and suddenly components had gotten small enough that you could get a calculator in your watch, initially introduced by Pulsar. And those radios were cool but what if you wanted to listen to what you wanted rather than the radio? Sony would again come along with another hit: The Walkman in 1979, selling over 200 million over the ensuing decade. Akio Morita was a genius, also bringing us digital hearing aids and putting wearables into healthcare. Can you imagine the healthcare industry without wearable technology today? 

You could do more and more and by 1981, Seiko would release the UC 2000 Wrist PC. By then portable computers were a thing. But not wearables. You could put 2 whopping kilobytes of data on your wrist and use a keyboard that got strapped to an arm. Computer watches continued to improve any by 1984 you could play. Games on them, like on the Nelsonic Space Attacker Watch. 

Flash memory arguably came along in 1984 and would iterate and get better, providing many, many more uses for tiny devices and flash media cards by 1997. But those calculator watches, Marty McFly would sport one in 1985s Back To The Future and by the time I was in high school they were so cheap you could get them for $10 at the local drug store. And a few years later, Nintendo would release the Power Glove in 1989, sparking the imagination of many a nerdy kid who would later build actually functional technology. Which regrettably the Power Glove was not. 

The first portable MP3 player came along in 1998. It was the MPMan. Prototypes had come along in 1979 with the IXI digital audio player. The audible player, Diamond Rio, and Personal Jukebox came along in 1998 and on the heels of their success the NOMAX Jukebox came in y2k. But the Apple iPod exploded onto the scene in 2001 and suddenly the Walkman and Diskman were dead and the era of having a library of music on mainstream humans was upon us, sparking Microsoft to release the Zen in 2004, and the Zune in 2006. 

And those watches. Garmin brought us their first portable GPS in 1990, which continues to be one of the best such devices on the market.

The webcam would come along in 1994 when Canadian researcher Steve Mann built the first the wearable wireless webcam. That was the spark that led to the era of the Internet of Things. Suddenly we weren’t just wearing computers. We were wearing computers connected to the inter webs. 

All of these technologies brought to us over the years… They were converging. Bluetooth was invented in 2000. 

By. 2006, it was time for the iPod and fitness tracking to converge. Nike+iPod was announced and Nike would release a small transmitter that. Fit into a notch in certain shoes. I’ve always been a runner and jumped on that immediately! You needed a receiver at the time for an iPod Nano. Sign me up, said my 2006 self! I hadn’t been into the cost of the Garmin but soon I was tracking everything. Later I’d get an iPhone and just have it connect. But it was always a little wonky. Then came The Nike+ Fuelband in 2012. I immediately jumped on that bandwagon as well. You. Had to plug it in at first but eventually a model came out that sync’d over bluetooth and life got better. I would sport that thing until it got killed off in 2014 and a little beyond… Turns out Nike knew about Apple coming into their market and between Apple, Fitbit, and Android Wear, they just didn’t want to compete in a blue ocean, no matter how big the ocean would be.  

Speaking of Fitbit, they were founded in 2007 James Park and Eric Friedman with a goal of bringing fitness trackers to market. And they capitalized on an exploding market for tracking fitness. But it wasn’t until the era of the app that they achieved massive success and in 2014 they released apps for iOS, Android and Windows Mobile, which was still a thing. And the watch and mobile device came together in 2017 when they released their smartwatch. They are now the 5th largest wearables company. 

Android Wear had been announced at Google I/O in 2014. Now called Wear OS, it’s a fork of Android Lollipop, that pairs with Android devices and integrates with the Google Assistant. It can connect over Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and LTE and powers the Moto 360, the LG G and Samsung Gear. And there are a dozen other manufacturers that leverage the OS in some way, now with over 50 million installations of the apps. It can use Hangouts, and leverages voice to do everything from checking into Foursquare to dictating notes. 

But the crown jewel in the smart watches is definitely the Apple Watch. That came out of hiring former Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch to bring a Siri-powered watch to market, which happened in 2015. With over 33 million being sold and as of this recording on the 5th series of the watch, it can now connect over LTE, Wifi, or through a phone using Bluetooth. There are apps, complications, and a lot of sensors on these things, giving them almost limitless uses.

Those glasses from 1286. Well, they got a boost in 2013 when Google put images on them. Long a desire from science fiction, Google Glass brought us into the era of a heads up display. But Sega had introduced their virtual reality headset in 1991 and the technology actually dates back to the 70s from JPL and MIT. Nintendo experimented with Virtual boy in 1994. Apple released QuickTime VR shortly thereafter, but it wasn’t that great. I even remember some VGA “VR” headsets in the early 2000s, but they weren’t that great. It wasn’t until the Oculus Rift came along in 2012 that VR seemed all that ready. These days, that’s become the gold standard in VR headsets. The sign to the market was when Facebook bought Oculus for $2.3 billion dollars in 2014 and the market has steadily grown ever since. 

Given all of these things that came along in 2014, I guess it did deserve the moniker “The Year of Wearable Technology.” And with a few years to mature, now you can get wearable sensors that are built into yoga pants, like the Nadi X Yoga Pants, smartwatches ranging from just a few dollars to hundreds or thousands from a variety of vendors, sleep trackers, posture trackers, sensors in everything bringing a convergence between the automated home and wearables in the internet of things. Wearable cameras like the Go Pro, smart glasses from dozens of vendors, VR headsets from dozens of vendors, smart gloves, wearable onesies, sports clothing to help measure and improve performance, smart shoes, smart gloves, and even an Alexa enabled ring. 

Apple waited pretty late to come out with bluetooth headphones, releasing AirPods in 2016. These bring sensors into the ear, the main reason I think of them as wearables where I didn’t think of a lot of devices that came before them in that way. Now on their second generation, they are some of the best headphones you can buy. And the market seems poised to just keep growing. Especially as we get more and more sensors and more and more transistors packed into the tiniest of spaces. It truly is ubiquitous computing. 


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. 


(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020