The Web’s Very First Industry Event

[20 Years Ago, Part 5. Other options: prior post or start at the beginning.]

I now return to my telling of the events of 20 years ago, as the web emerged from its academic origins and became the single biggest wave of change to hit the tech industry…

It was October 1994, and a startup still called Mosaic Communications had just launched the beta of its “Netscape” browser (press release) with a completely radical pricing strategy: free1. It’s hard to explain now just how electrifying that release was, other than to say that for many of us, the launch of the Netscape browser (less than six months since the founding of the company) was like the firing of a starting gun. Clearly, it was time to pick up the pace and start running – as fast as possible. But in which direction?

The answer, for those in know, was “Chicago” and an event with the unwieldy name of “The Second International WWW Conference: Mosaic and the Web,” that kicked off exactly 20 years ago today.

ChicagoBanner

Though it had been preceded by a decidedly academic First International WWW Conference (with fewer than 400 participants) some six months earlier at CERN, the Second International WWW Conference in Chicago was truly the web’s first industry event. It had a Vendor Exhibits area, featuring tech giants Microsoft, IBM, HP, DEC, and Sun, plus a dozen smaller companies. And for potential attendees, ticket demand greatly exceeded supply, with nearly 1,000 people getting wait-listed – or worse – showing up at the venue to find it sold out. For all of us who did get in, seeing so many people turned away totally reinforced that we were at the start of something HUGE.

SecondInternationalWWW

So now, let me take you inside that historic event, through a combination of my most vivid memories and a memory-enhancing treasure trove of 20-year-old web pages I recently discovered in an almost completely intact copy of the event’s official site, saved for posterity by the Wayback Machine. I encourage you to take some time to check it out; all of the awesome graphics and many of the “hard facts” in this post came from there. To my great surprise, the site even includes a directory of digital photos from the conference, presumably captured with a QuickTake 100, the first consumer digital camera (launched four months earlier via an unlikely partnership between Apple and Kodak). Here are my two favorite shots, taken at the registration area (image credit to Ira Goldstein and/or Ed Burns):

Sold Out

Registration

The Web’s First Trade Show

Though much of the conference was dedicated to presentations, panel discussions, and tutorials, I was much more focused more on networking and market research. When the Vendor Exhibits opened up, I was among the first to enter, keen to find answers to questions like: What are the most promising market segments for a company like Silicon Graphics? What are our competitors offering and where do they appear to be heading? And is anyone already shipping truly great authoring software for this new medium?

Fortunately, what I saw from our competitors was underwhelming. For example, here’s how HP described what they were showing (as captured on the vendor exhibits page): “The WWW represents a tremendous opportunity. Stop by the HP booth and see what we’re doing with it. Try your hand at “surfing the net”.” IBM’s pitch was more detailed, but remarkably less coherent: “Take a tour through IBM’s World Wide Web and experience what a full multimedia RISC System 6000 can offer. AIX applications being shown will include multimedia tools, systems management, network management, and the Common Desktop Environment. Also, get a sneak preview of what the IBM webmasters are working on.” I’m not sure, but Sun was probably showing off their just-launched Netra Internet Server, a solution that: “Gives PC, Macintosh and UNIX workstation users on LANs direct connection from their desktops and enables them to ‘surf’ the Internet using Mosaic software and other popular network browsing tools.” In short, our competitors seemed to be focused on access to the web or on what you can do with the web, not on positioning their hardware and software for actually building the web.

But there was one vendor present who had (almost) exactly what I was looking for. The company was SoftQuad, based out of Toronto, and their product of interest was HoTMetaL Pro, the very first commercial HTML editor. I had a great discussion with the company’s charming co-founder/CEO, Yuri Rubinsky, who showed openness to a potential partnership that would involve them porting to IRIX (our flavor of UNIX). He gave me a shrink-wrapped box of the software to evaluate back in California. We exchanged business cards and agreed to talk formally after the conference.

So, at least there was one commercial product for web development, and its maker, unlike creative tools titans, Macromedia and Adobe, would not freeze us out from the market by shunning our platform2. That said, HoTMetaL Pro was clearly a technically-oriented tool, strongly wed to its SGML roots, whereas the vision that had been brewing in my mind was of a WYSIWY3 web authoring tool, something for designers and business people, not programmers. And, based on what I saw at the conference, that was a market opportunity that was still wide open.

NightLife

A Big Night

That evening, there was a dinner at the Museum of Science and Industry. According to the original program, attendance was limited to the first 600 to sign up (out of the total 1,200 attendees of the conference). Buses shuttled us South along the lake’s shore, a fifteen-minute drive to the Museum of Science and Industry. The program says that the exhibits were open for exploration, but I had none of that, heading straight to the bar reception area with food and drink.

As luck would have it, the first person I happened to chat with was Lou Montulli4, whom I learned was a founding engineer at Mosaic Communications – one of the guys who just built the Netscape browser! I was thrilled. As I introduced myself, I handed Lou my business card (which still said “Indy Product Manager”), and his face lit up. “Indy Product Manager? We need to talk!” And talk we did: all through the reception and all through the dinner at a table way in the back of the banquet.

Lou shared that the Indy was in the center of the action at Mosaic Communications. It was the workstation that most of the team was using for software development, and it was also being used as the server for downloading the Netscape browser. (Doubtless the busiest web server on the Internet at that time!) One topic Lou wanted to discuss was server performance. Was there any way that I could help them scale up (as they were seeing crushing traffic)? At some point in the evening, I excused myself to make a phone call to the head of software for Indy, Ken Klingman, to get the ball rolling on a project to overcome whatever bottlenecks Mosaic was encountering with their Indys. I remember Ken saying, “Well, it is meant to be multi-user workstation, but we didn’t design it for hundreds of simultaneous users!”

After dinner, people started streaming out of the ballroom. As Lou and I stood to join the exodus, someone called out to Lou, “There you are!” And there was Marc Andreessen (easy to recognize from months of ever-increasing publicity) along with several others from the Mosaic contingent. Obviously, they were curious who had kidnapped Lou. After quick introductions, we boarded a bus for a trip back to the hotel. The seats were already full or almost full; I’m pretty sure Marc, Lou, and I all ended up standing for the ride. Along the way, we hatched a plan to head out to a Blues bar, where we would end up drinking and talking until 2:00 in the morning!

So, that was when and how I first met Marc Andreessen, kicking off a relationship that continues to this day. (Marc led Andreessen Horowitz’s seed investment in my current company, MediaSpike.)

NightLifeBar

Night of My Epiphany

Of course, after 20 years, I can’t recall the details of the many conversations I participated in late that night in the Blues bar. Generally, I got a much better sense of what our most important potential partner, Mosaic Communications, was focused on (browser and server software) and what they weren’t (authoring software).

What I do vividly and viscerally recall is that it was this evening when it all came together for me. I achieved a state of clarity, conviction, and passion about how the web market would unfold and how Silicon Graphics could ride this enormous wave. It’s really hard to describe such a feeling, but I can assure you it was truly exhilarating. I gained a practically religious conviction that the web was the next mass medium, the biggest wave of change in the technology landscape, and the biggest new market opportunity for the company I happened to be at.

With my Chicago epiphany complete, I felt a great sense of urgency to get back to Mountain View to get the plan rolling, keen for Silicon Graphics to be first-to-market with the picks and shovels for this new Gold Rush.

I was returning with great news of enormous opportunities for my division and for two others. Surely, I would be received with open arms…

 

[To be continued]

 


 

1″For downloading by individual, academic and research users”. The company ended up pulling in a lot of revenue from licensing to enterprises and OEMs before Microsoft responded with free Internet Explorer — bundled with Windows.

2See my last post for the back-story here

3This is an old acronym for “What You See Is What You Get” which came into common use in the 1980’s during the word processing revolution. From Wikipedia “a WYSIWYG editor is a system in which content (text and graphics) onscreen during editing appears in a form closely corresponding to its appearance when printed or displayed as a finished product, which might be a printed document, web page, or slide presentation.”

4Lou Montulli would have a big impact on the web. Here’s what Wikipedia says about him. And in this blogpost, Lou talks about the reasoning behind Web cookies, which he created.

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Virtual Reality: Then and Now

[Note: Though this post touches on events in the '90’s, it is not part of my ongoing “20 Years Ago” series. I'll return to that in due time, but, given how hot virtual reality has become (again), I felt compelled to interrupt my narrative to share some personal experiences and thoughts on the topic.]

I am honored to have recently had the chance to experience the second-generation Oculus Rift, the magical hardware/software combo that inspired first an Andreessen Horowitz Series B and then, within four months , a $2 billion acquisition by Facebook. As you can imagine, it was truly awesome. My deeply personal reaction can be summed up in four words, “Finally, it is here.”

You see, I got inspired by the concept of virtual reality nearly 25 years ago, when in 1990, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on the technology, featuring Jaron Lanier, the dreadlocked visionary who coined the term “virtual reality” and who created the first VR startup, VPL. The article’s headline characterized the technology as no less than “electronic LSD,” giving virtual reality a forceful send off into Phase One of the hype cycle.

Less than a year later, when I arrived in Silicon Valley to go to Stanford Business School, I made getting over to VPL my top priority. Within weeks, I had successfully tapped my fledgling network to arrange a visit to VPL for me and a few classmates, hosted by George Zachary, VPL’s marketing director (and future colleague of mine at Silicon Graphics, who would go on to great success in the venture capital business at CRV). We got to put on the hardware (headgear and glove) and become among the first humans to explore immersion in an interactive virtual reality. I brought along my 35mm film camera and had someone take these pictures of me experiencing the demo. (That’s half of George on the right in the first image below.)

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

I remember being very excited by the experience. It helped ignite a passion for interactive 3D content that would become a major theme of my Silicon Valley career (from Silicon Graphics hardware, to trying to bring 3D to the web via VRML, and all the way to my current venture, MediaSpike, focused on the biggest 3D market so far, mobile gaming). But, in hindsight, VPL was a classic false start: a concept pursued before its time, and a company that would end in bankruptcy. VPL was not just a few years too early; it was decades before its time. That first encounter of mine with a VR headset was 23 years ago, and Oculus Rift DK2, as exciting as it is, is currently just a prototype of a developer release. The consumer version is not expected to ship until sometime next year. We are only just now truly on the cusp.

So, what did I see and experience through the VPL rig? Honestly, I don’t remember the details, just the hints of magic. Fortunately, I took a photo of a TV monitor during one of the other demos that day. Here’s what we saw:

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

And, yes, somehow, I walked away from that demo more confident that virtual reality had a bright future…

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, to the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality conference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. I had been fortunate enough to learn of the event via a Facebook post from an old friend, Tony Parisi, co-creator of VRML, who would be speaking on a panel at the conference. I tried to register, but a sign of how hot virtual reality had become (again) — it was completely sold out! Fortunately, Tony was willing to ask a favor on my behalf, and, as a result, I was able to buy a pass for Day 2 of the event.

I greatly enjoyed the first session I got into, one on game development for VR. The members of the panel were unknown to me, but not to each other – or to the crowd. There were lots of, “Your stuff inspired me” kinds of comments, along with thoughtful discussion about: the special challenges of how to develop VR content; UI paradigms; and most-needed enhancements to the current generation of development tools.

But what I was really excited about was the upcoming break at the end of the panel. When it came, I quickly exited the room and headed straight for my primary target: the expo room and the Oculus Rift booth. I don’t know if it was my speed or that fact that it was the second day of the conference, but somehow I managed to get there before anyone else. Soon, I was seated in a comfy living room chair and told I’d be competing against the guy who arrived just after me. I slipped on the “DK2″ (developer kit 2). One of the demo guys put headphones on me, and through them I was barely able to hear some rapid-fire instructions, involving a sword, a shield, jumping, and the various game controller features. Suddenly, a game controller was thrust into my hands.

Path 2014-05-20 12_02

And then it happened. The world turned on, and I was in a virtual living room with a coffee table in front of me, atop which were two smallish 3D characters, each with a sword and a shield. My opponent sat in a chair to the right of the coffee table. I was temporarily overwhelmed with the joy of finally seeing true, high-quality VR, the compulsion to not suck at my virtual sword fight, and the strangeness of having my avatar controlling a virtual avatar. I smacked the various buttons, knocking my opponent off the table with my shield, and then knocking down a set of wooden blocks on the table with the swipe of my (my character’s?) sword. Within a minute, I was so engaged in the battle that I achieved full suspension of disbelief. I looked over at my opponent and saw his head move to; we were both exploring. I looked down at my hands, and saw (virtually) the controller in them. Then, my opponent upped the ante, and had his character change the target of its attack from my little character to me. His creature jumped in my lap and started swiping at me. And then, darkness. My heart was racing.

CouchKnight_1

That, and many other experiences that day, convinced me that we are now, finally, on the cusp of the virtual reality going mainstream. I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences at the conference and felt like I had a sort of homecoming. After the panel that Tony was on, a conversation on “building the metaverse,” I planned to head out and go back to the office. As I was thanking Tony, he asked, “Did you see the Kite and Lightning demo?” I had not. “You have to,” he said. “These guys are making some of the best VR content ever.”

And so, I ended a great day with a truly mind-blowing encounter with immersive 3D content. You must experience it yourself when it is finalized and the Oculus Rift is available to all, but in the meantime, I recommend reading this description of it, then watching the YouTube video:

Of course, the real experience is far more visceral. But I am convinced the dream that has inspired so many of us for so long is finally about to be achieved.

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

20 Years Ago (Part 4): Indy’s “Catch-22″

[20 Years Ago: Part 3]

By the summer of 1994, just a few months after landing what I asserted was “the best job in Silicon Valley,” I was already thinking of moving on. How was that possible?

Silicon Graphics was still the hottest company in the Valley – and getting hotter. Our much-ballyhooed interactive television partnership with Time Warner was getting close to launch (and stilled seemed like a good idea at the time). We were hard at work on the Nintendo 64, the world’s first 3D game console. Video server partnerships had just been announced with AT&T and Japan’s NTT. And our market cap now topped that of rivals Sun and DEC.

But things were not so rosy for Indy.

In some ways, we were still recovering from an imperfect launch the prior year. The big plan for Indy was to dramatically increase sales volumes by hitting a much lower price point. Instead of the $10,000 price tag of its predecessor1, the Indigo, Indy’s strategic mandate was to break the $5,000 barrier. And Indy did just that, tiptoeing across that magical line with an entry-level configuration priced at $4,995. There was just one problem – that config, with only 16 MB of RAM, wouldn’t boot.

Yes, all around the world, customers excitedly opened their beautiful blue boxes labeled “Serious Fun,” smiled at the bright blue “pizza box” inside (and its accompanying juggling balls), and eagerly set up their system, complete with the trailblazing digital “IndyCam.” But when they powered up their sweet new workstation, its paltry 16 MB of RAM (critical to hitting the price and margin targets) was not enough memory to load the all-brand-new-and-maybe-not-quite-finished 5.1 version of the operating system. So it would just hang. Outrage ensued.

Of course, soon additional memory was shipped for free to irate customers. And the base configuration got bumped to 32 MB of RAM. By the time I joined, that “imperfect launch” was behind us, but Indy now faced a much larger and harder problem to solve — actually achieving the very ambitious volume goals set alongside its pricing strategy.

Indy’s volume problem was really a classic “Catch-22″. From a hardware perspective, Indy was truly a multimedia monster: 64-bit RISC CPU, video-capable 100 MHz system bus, integrated video camera, and enough inputs and outputs that the headline from one ad was “Any port in a brainstorm”. 

Any port in a brainstorm

And multimedia authoring was a super-hot market, driven by the explosive growth in sales of interactive CD-ROMs (such as “Mad Dog McCree,” a Western shootout simulation game which gave rise to my industry nickname) and the popularity of Macromedia’s flagship authoring tool, Director. Imagine the breakout sales that could be driven from a marriage of Indy’s multimedia hardware and Macromedia’s multimedia software! Alas, Director was a Mac application; it was not available on IRIX (our flavor of Unix). And all efforts to persuade Macromedia to port to IRIX were to no avail. Why? Not enough volume.

Lack of volume also meant tepid support from Adobe. There was a version of Photoshop running on IRIX, but it was a generic port via some tool called “Latitude”. It didn’t take advantage of our sweet GUI, nor was it very fast.

I very much wanted to find a way out of Indy’s volume Catch-22. But finding a new “killer app” willing to play nice with us seemed like a big job. I knew I couldn’t do that and handle all of the day-to-day tasks of the Indy product manager.

As luck would have it, I got the perfect opportunity to act on my desire for a new role. In August2, Jim White, the well-regarded marketing leader for the mid-range workstation division (maker of the company’s Indigo2 “cash cow”), was named director of marketing for our division, filling a position that had been vacant for a few months. Jim’s charter was to re-invigorate the efforts to make Indy a high-volume platform.

After Jim was introduced to the team and gave a great pep talk, he came up to each of us individually for a quick chat. I think he asked me something like, was I “liking the role of product manager?”. His positive energy and unblinking you-can-trust-me eye contact inspired me to do what many at Silicon Graphics would consider career suicide. I told him there might be a better role for me than product manager.

“And what is it you want to do?” Jim asked.

“Marketing with a capital ‘m,’” I said. “I think our breakout growth opportunity will come from a new market, and I’d like to focus on looking for it.”

“Okay, let’s work to back-fill you ASAP,” he said. “Go find us a new market.”

To be continued

_________________________

1Press release announcing Indigo

2I confess I’m not sure what month this happened; August is my best guess.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

20 Years Ago (Part 3): Yahoo, the Web, and Love at First “Site”

A few months passed between when I first heard about the web in January 1994 and when I actually saw it for the very first time. And that’s probably a good thing, since early 1994 was the exact period of time in which “dot coms” exploded on to the world wide web1, rapidly extending the diversity of web content far beyond its original subject matter, particle physics.

In April of 1994, when I finally downloaded Mosaic, I headed straight to the one site known to make it super-easy to discover and experience all of that new and diverse content: Yahoo. But I didn’t get there by typing “yahoo.com”.

It is true that the site had just embraced the short, fun, and memorable name, Yahoo, after operating for a few months with the unwieldy moniker “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web”. But, hard to believe now, once they chose the new name, Jerry Yang and David Filo did not immediately secure the yahoo domain. (In fact the site would not start to operate as yahoo.com until January 1995!) As a result, all of us who heard about Yahoo by word-of-mouth sometime in 1994 had to also know and correctly type the URL associated with Jerry’s workstation on Stanford campus: akebono.stanford.edu/yahoo2.

Below is the Yahoo I saw (or as close as we can now get; this screenshot is from some unknown date between April and December 1994). It may look ungainly to you now, but for me, and for so many others, this was the page that made the web a case of  “love at first site”:

Yahoo 1994

With this proto-Yahoo, if you had interest in a specific site or topic, you could quickly navigate the site’s hierarchy and find what you were looking for. But if you were curious, bored, or just new to the web (as most of us were), the awesome top-level navigation was where the action was. With the total number of servers on the web doubling every three months, What’s new? What’s cool? What’s popular? and “Random link” provided the perfect options for exploration and serendipity. Like so many others, I quickly became addicted, coming back multiple times a day to find new sites, and to watch the exponential growth of the web across a large and growing number of content categories.

What sorts of cool, new sites might one discover via Yahoo?

One of my early favorites was “IUMA” (short for the Internet Underground Music Archive). Years before Napster, this site let you discover and download digital music (in the MP2 format) from hundreds of indie bands. Hard to believe, but CNN had already done a short piece of them in March 1994. Well worth a watch:

(BTW, I’ll have more to say about IUMA in a future post, but that story comes later in the year.)

I’d love to show you more of the web from Spring of 1994, but almost all of the sites that inspired me then are now long gone.

To be continued

________________________

1Insight from the model I built, starting with data from M.I.T.’s Matthew Gray

2From a great article on Yahoo on History-Computer.com

Tagged , , , ,

20 Years Ago (Part 2): The Web of January 1994

[This is the second post in a series looking back on 1994, the year in which the web transitioned from a platform for scientists to a commercial interaction medium. At the end of my first post, set in January 1994, I revealed that I didn’t know what a web server was.]

How could I, a product manager at a company that sold high-performance UNIX workstations and servers, not know what a web server was? The simple truth is that in January 1994, I had never seen nor heard of the web. Hardly anyone had.

Through a bit of online archeology, I now know that the total number of web servers in existence at the time was less than 8001 – and they were almost all of the “.edu” flavor2, hosted at places like CERN and SLAC. And although there’s no count of how many people were on the web at the time, my best estimate is 3.7 million3.

The web of January 1994 is largely gone, and cannot be re-constructed. But, believe it or not, in that month some folks at Georgia Tech’s Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center did what must be the very first web-based survey attempting to characterize the users of the “world wide web”. James Pitkow and Margaret Recker were trying to learn things like: which browsers were people using, how frequently were they surfing the web, and some basic facts about who those early adopters were (and to see whether, as they believed, the web would be a better platform for surveys than email had been).

And even more surprising than knowing such a survey was done so early, is discovering, as I did a few days ago, that the original survey and its results are still online!

So, let’s use those survey results to travel back in time to a very different web than the one we experience today. First up: gender. Apparently, the web of January 1994 was, to put it mildly, a bit of a boys club. Males accounted for a whopping 95% of respondents. I assume this says far less about the web than it does about the professions that were among its earliest users. (Physics, I’m looking at you!)

Image

And these folks diverged from the mainstream in another significant way. They were not surfing the early web on commodity hardware from the old “Wintel” duopoly. No, 92% of them were on UNIX workstations (and most likely enjoying always-on broadband connections via Ethernet, versus slow, intermittent connectivity via dial-up).

Image

Remember the browser war, when Microsoft and Netscape fought each other, tooth and nail? Well, that was still a ways off, as Netscape did not yet exist, and Microsoft had no plans for making a web browser. Nonetheless, the browser question offered no fewer than five choices, listed alphabetically (Cello, Lynx, Mosaic, Other, and Samba). As it turns out, that was three choices too many. Mosaic, developed by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina at NCSA and released less than 12 months earlier, had completely taken over, accounting for 97% of respondents! (The remaining 3% were using Lynx, a text-based browser developed by Lou Montulli, Michael Grobe, and Charles Rezac at University of Kansas).

Image

It’s also interesting what the survey reveals about the utility of the early web. With fewer than 800 total servers on the web, it’s easy to imagine that usage would be fairly infrequent. Quite the contrary; 20% of respondents used their browser more than nine times a day! Another 18% accessed the web 5 to 8 times a day. And another 42% reported one to four times a day. Together, that’s 80% of early users finding the web so essential that they used it every single day.

Image

You can see all of the graphs here, and read the full paper here. Who knows just how representative this data is of the whole of the web at the time? But as far as I can tell, it is the only such dataset of its kind from that time period, so let’s be thankful that it exists, is online, and can be read by modern browsers.

To be continued

____________________________________

1The number 800 comes from a model I built, starting with data from M.I.T.’s Matthew Gray, which counts 623 servers in December 1993 rising to 2,738 by June 1994.

2Also from Matthew Gray

3The 3.7 million estimate I backed into, based on data for 1995 through 1999 from Internet World Stats, with year-over-year growth of approximately 110%

Tagged , ,

20 Years Ago (Part 1): A Very Good Month

[1994 was an historic year, both for Silicon Valley and for me. So, this will serve to kick off a series of “20 Years Ago” posts to try to capture some of the missing history from the year when the web began its transition from something just for science and academia to an exponentially-growing interactive medium for everybody. This first post focuses on the first month of the year. And to put it in perspective, January 1994 was the month in which Jerry Yang and David Filo launched "David and Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web," which they would later be rename "Yahoo!".]

20 years ago this month, I got my “golden ticket” into Silicon Valley.

I had graduated from Stanford Business School seven months earlier, but between an economy still slowly emerging from recession and having an undergraduate degree that was neither engineering nor computer science1, I struggled to find a full-time job at a tech company. But by December of 1993, I had managed to land a very promising contractor position at Silicon Graphics in the “low-end” division that had recently launched the company’s newest product, the Indy workstation. And that proved to be quite fortuitous in a number of ways.

First off, Silicon Graphics was going to have its first-ever presence at MacWorld Expo a few weeks later, and, strangely, everyone seemed keen to let “the new guy” take the marketing lead, not just for the low-end division, but for the whole company. (This, despite the fact that I didn’t know any of our products in depth, hadn’t been to a MacWorld, and had never organized a major trade show presence.) There was a lot to do, with great urgency, and there would be a big spotlight on my effort. So, whether I succeeded or failed, the results would be spectacularly visible.

Second, the guy who hired me as a contractor, the Indy product manager, was already eyeing his next role, a chance to participate in the birth of a new division within the company, something called Silicon Studio, that was setting out to create high-end authoring software for interactive multimedia content. But for his transfer to be gladly accepted, he had an obligation to find a back-fill for his current role. And so, when I managed to not screw up our debut at MacWorld2, I essentially got hired and promoted at the same time, stepping into the shoes of the guy who had signed me to a try-before-you-buy contract just weeks before!

sgi_logo1

Soon, I would enthusiastically tell anyone who would listen that I was thrilled to have “the best job in Silicon Valley.” Why? Because I was the freakin’ product manager for the newest, sexiest, highest-volume product for what was clearly the hottest company in Silicon Valley. Yes, now but a dim memory, in 1994, Silicon Graphics was so hot that it was featured in a BusinessWeek cover story, breathlessly entitled “The Gee-Whiz Company”.

In that feature, Rob Hof would describe us as “the most magical computer maker on the planet” and then go on to report:

In an industry marked by huge hype, Silicon Graphics is the genuine article: a truly innovative company with clearly unique products. “They’re the new Apple,” says Morgan Stanley & Co. analyst Steven M. Milunovich. Then, mulling Apple’s recent struggles, he corrects himself: “The Microsoft of computer graphics.”

So, there I was, no longer searching, having landed at the best possible place, with the best possible job. That alone was enough to make January 1994 a very memorable month, but there was one more door about to open for me. And it was to a far bigger opportunity – but one that would take me more than a few months to fully grasp.

It started with an invitation in the mail to a party celebrating Wired magazine’s first anniversary.

Image

[Photo credit: The Original Wired Magazine, 1993 on Facebook.]

I was a Wired fanboy. I’d read every issue cover-to-cover, and even tried landing a job there a few months earlier. So I was thrilled to get an invite (likely only as a result of spending a lot of Silicon Graphics marketing dollars at MacWorld). The event was in San Francisco, in a huge brick warehouse on Third, near Wired’s headquarters in South Park. Back then there weren’t very many startups in San Francisco; that was yet to come, with Wired to serve as “ground zero” for the City’s emergent “dot-com” scene.

At a time when most people thought of technology as boring or nerdy, Wired managed to make computers, software, and networking seem as edgy as a new designer drug and as wild as a rave (at a time when those were a thing). So, dressed all in black, I put on my new Doc Martin boots, and headed out from my Lower Haight apartment, ready to rock.

Looking back now, I can hardly distinguish that particular party from many others in the ‘90’s – dark setting, loud music, drinks, packed crowd. What I do vividly remember, thought, is meeting Jonathan Steuer, who worked at Wired and had the tantalizing title of “Online Tsar”. I suspect he is the very first person I handed a business card with “Indy Product Manager” on it. Once he heard where I worked and what I worked on, Jonathan got very excited.

“I want to use Indys as the web servers for a project I’m working on,” he said.

“Awesome,” I replied, without missing a beat. “Just one question – what’s a web server?”

To be continued

____________________________________

1 Although my first major at M.I.T. was Physics, mid-way through my sophomore year I did the unthinkable and shifted over to the Humanties department, majoring in Creative Writing

2 MacWorld ended up being a great event for Silicon Graphics. Here’s a great quote from a piece in the San Jose Mercury News by David Plotnikoff, entitled The house party at the end of the Interactive Highway:

Raster Masters, a team of performance artists from Silicon Graphics, put on the best demo of the week, in the McBean Theater. The live interactive graphics show was downright seamless. The performance, which featured algorithm technology developed recently at NASA, was an M.C. Escher-meets- Brian Eno-on-acid kinda thing. They should have required seat belts in the theater.

Tagged , , , , ,

Life as an “Explorer”

I’ve had the very good fortune of being part of the Explorer program for Google Glass for two weeks now. In an upcoming post, I’ll give a full review of the product, but for now I thought it would be interesting to share what it feels like to be among the earliest non-employee users of this revolutionary new platform.

First off, I’d say the Explorer program is a brilliant (and necessary) move. There’s no doubt that Glass is both revolutionary and controversial. Reactions to the product are all over the map, and it’s going to take society a while to get comfortable with this new generation of technology. So, having a small group of early adopters acting as ambassadors for the product makes a ton of sense. I’d also say that this is a program well suited to confident extroverts — and one that I imagine would be quite painful for all others.

Wearing Glass in public generates lots of reactions, ranging from stares, to audible murmurings (“Glass!” “He’s got Glass!”), to lots of unplanned conversations with complete strangers. Glass is a conversation starter with familiars, too, like the folks working the cash register at my local coffee shop and grocery store.

I’ve now discussed Glass with over 100 friends, family members, familiars, and strangers — and let more than 40 of them try the product. The reactions can be grouped into two buckets: fear and loathing; and curiosity and joy.

Fear and Loathing

There are definitely some folks freaked out by Glass. Not so much by what it actually does and how I find myself using it, but by what they think it must do. These folks, mostly men and mostly over the age of 30, assume the device is constantly recording, or at the very least wearers of Glass are constantly and secretly snapping photos. Common reactions from this crowd are:

  • Are you recording right now?
  • Don’t take my picture.
  • Why do you need those?
  • Take those off!
  • You look ridiculous.

Conversations about Glass with those who have already formed a strong negative opinion tend to go poorly. I’m keen to help people understand how the product works, and what I like about it, in hopes of dispelling some of the misconceptions. So far, I don’t think I changed anyone’s mind. Oh, well.

Curiosity and Joy

Fortunately, even more people think Glass is a wonder to behold. These folks come in all ages and genders, but I’ve noticed a certain pattern; everyone under the age of 18 that I’ve discussed Glass with is very excited by the product.

Folks in the curiosity and joy camp tend ask a lot of questions, like:

  • What are those?
  • Are those glasses?
  • What do they do?
  • What are you seeing?
  • Do you work at Google?
  • How much do they cost?
  • How did you get them?

Letting the curious try on my Glass is almost always a rewarding experience. At the grocery store a few days ago, a young man working there asked me a few questions. He had never heard of Glass and had no expectations of what it might do. I offered to let him try them on, but he said “no”. He asked another question, though, so I offered one more time. “Just for a second,” he said. And when he put them on, and saw a few events on my timeline, his face lit up with an enormous smile. “Oh, my God!” he said, and it sounded like he was having a religious experience.

Here’s someone in the curiosity and joy camp:

photo(5)

I will admit that part of the fun of the Explorer program, especially at this early stage, is that despite the freaked out minority, wearing Glass around Silicon Valley feels a bit like how I imagine it feels to be a celebrity. I’m noticed wherever I go, and strangers are keen to engage with me in really positive ways. Some have asked to get their picture taken with me. Curious.

There’s an interesting irony here: right now, in wearing Glass, I’m giving up some of my privacy, as I no longer blend into the crowd. But that seems only fair, given the privacy concerns of others about this new product.

Tagged ,

Recalling the Early Days of the Web

I was there at the birth of the web, and I’d like to share my story…

(I’m not talking about the awesome sprouting of the underpinnings of the World Wide Web in the early ’90’s at physics research hubs like CERN and SLAC, but rather the Big Bang of the commercial web that rapidly emerged upon that foundation in 1994 and 1995 at a bunch of startups across Silicon Valley, unleashing one of the biggest waves of game-changing entrepreneurship the world has ever seen.)

I was at the veritable right place at the right time for this once-in-a-career opportunity, having become the product manager for the Indy workstation at Silicon Graphics (SGI) in early 1994. That bright blue UNIX “pizza box” (which, painfully, I admit most of you have probably never heard of) was truly at the center of the action at the earliest days of the commercial web.

SGI_Indy_front

You see, the Indy workstation was the development platform for Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina at NCSA when they created the Mosaic browser. And it became the primary software development and web-serving platform in the earliest days of Mosaic Communications Corporation (an electrifying startup, founded by Marc and SGI’s founder and recently departed Chairman, Jim Clark, that would soon change its name to Netscape). And it was the sexy server hardware proudly used by some of the most prominent sites of the early web, including HotWired (the first online magazine), Organic Online (the very first interactive ad agency), and Virtual Vineyards (not only the first online wine seller, but the very first web-based retailer, period). As Indy’s product manager, I had a unique opportunity to follow my product into one of the most rapidly exploding markets in the history of computing — an opportunity I seized with gusto.

But as it turns out, those very early days of the commercial web, long before the “dot com bubble” of 1998 and 1999, are, for the most part, ironically and tragically ungoogleable. Of course, the Way Back Machine gives some glimmers of the old days, but its earliest records go no further back than 1996. And while Wikipedia has posts that give some of the backstory, the fact is that very little remains of the websites, press releases, and news stories of 1994 and 1995.

So, I believe that now is a good time for me to start writing down my memories of that historic time. With luck, it might inspire others to come forward with their own anecdotes.

In the coming weeks, I plan to share first-hand accounts of the inside stories behind a number of industry “firsts,” including the first advertising deal of the web, the first business-oriented web conference, the first platform-wide licensing deal for Netscape, the first visual HTML editor, the first web server product line, and the first licensing deal for Java. Back then, we cared a lot about what print publications wrote about us, so I hope to include some photos of long lost pubs, like Interactive Week. :)

If you were a part of those stories and want to add to the narrative, please email me or add your comments along the way!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Glass: the Most Important Product since the iPhone

Okay, so we’re some number of months away from the Google’s introduction of Glass to the world, and much has already been written, but I wanted to add my thoughts to the conversation. Why? Because so much of what I’ve read so far either leans toward skepticism or, while positive, takes a fairly narrow view of what I think will be a real game-changer. Let me outline why I believe that Google Glass will prove to be the most important product since the iPhone…

A New Primary UI

The iPhone put an always-connected computer in our pockets, giving us a new way to access and interact with the digital world. But as much as I love smartphones, there is something sad about our addictive fixation with their tiny, smudgy, bacteria-covered screens. Glass promises to be a great liberator, offering a new primary UI to so many things:

  • Your smartphone: While some see Glass as competition with smartphones, I am confident that being able to access my iPhone without taking it out of my pocket will make me use it and love it even more. Instead of fumbling for the device in my pocket, unlocking it, and swiping, clicking, or typing to get to what I need, I’ll have the power of the iPhone always available to me, right before my eyes, and controllable by voice command. I also suspect that Glass will make me even more curious about how switching to an Android smartphone might enrich my life. Google has a huge ecosystem-type opportunity to make the combo of Glass + Android smartphone as awesome as the interplay between my iPhone and my Apple TV.
  • Google: The coolest moment for me in the recently released promo video for Glass (embedded above) was how they used the company name not just as a verb, but as a command. Yes, you will soon be able to “Google” anything, anytime, anywhere, simply by saying, “Google” and what you’re looking for. Imagine what impact that will have at scale for Google’s core business. Glass will solidify Google’s dominance of search as the web enters its third chapter with a UI that is omnipresent and natural.
  • Your cloud: Glass will also serve as a UI to your own Google-hosted cloud services, not only giving you super-convenient access to your stuff, but more importantly giving you a dramatic shift in the most important constraints around sharing: convenience and privacy. Expect Google to make it easy, fun, and rewarding to stream ever more of your life to their cloud (whether or not you choose to share it to others).
  • Your “people layer”: Of course, the ambitions of Glass intersect with the strategic imperatives of Google+, and give Google a not-to-miss second chance to define how we share our life moments with the people we care about. Hangouts are clearly a big part of the plan, though the forward-facing POV camera seems better suited for new kinds of virtual presence sharing scenarios. It will also be very interesting to see how Glass acts as an interface to social platforms not owned by Google. Pay close attention to what comes of Mark Zuckerberg’s fascination with this game-changing UI to social. Might Google and Facebook finally find a common ground?

Together, I expect this new, way-more-accessible UI to drive an order-of-magnitude increase in my picture taking, video shooting, searching, map usage, and so on. Google will end up knowing way more about me — and, in return, deliver to me ever-more personalized and proactive services. And I am totally cool with that.

A New Compute Platform

A new primary UI to your digital/online world is, of course, a pretty rare and extraordinary thing, but Glass is some much more than just an elegant UI layer. It is nothing less than a new generation of compute platform as transformative as the four generations that came before it: mainframe, mini, personal computer, and smartphone. Glass ushers in the era of wearable computing.

If Glass emerged from any of the other tech titans, there would be a question about whether or how much it would be “open.” But this is Google, so we can expect open-ness to be a central and defining feature of the platform. Expect a robust app economy to emerge — one that takes full advantage a new three-tier model: Glass + smartphone + cloud.

Actually, it’s even richer and more complicated than that. For Glass is but one type of wearable computer. Apple’s rumored to be working on an iWatch, and there are already several fitness tracking devices on the market. Over time, expect Glass apps to interconnect with an ever more diverse network of sensors on (or in) our bodies.

A New Google

Just as the iPhone re-invented Apple, the introduction of Glass is re-defining moment for Google. What has been almost exclusively a software company will now become a consumer electronics company. I wish them much success in this big transition.

Update, 3.7.13:

I got to test drive Glass this evening, out and about in downtown Palo Alto, and I stand by the title and substance of this blogpost more firmly than before. Three takeaways from the experience:

1) Huge convenience factor. While waiting to be seated at a crowded restaurant, I needed to know if there was a risk I’d be late to pick up my daughter. Instead of pulling out my iPhone, I just tilted my head up slightly and saw the time. Awesome! More importantly, my beloved iPhone, so central to my life, requires me to pull out my reading glasses. Glass? Not at all. I found the display remarkably crisp and easy to read without my reading glasses. And that was true, whether looking at a photo I had taken, a map, or the menu items. (Also, the speech interface works amazingly well in a noisy environment.)

2) Super comfortable. A lot of folks are worried that a computer on your face would be heavy and awkward. In my testing, Glass was as comfortable as my reading glasses or a pair of sunglasses. Very well designed, even though first generation. Imagine what Moore’s Law will do for this new product category.

3) Glasshole” or rockstar? Many try to put Glass down for being awkward from the perspective of fashion and social comfort. I’ve thought for months that wouldn’t be a problem, and that, instead, the high-end price tag and great design would give the product a “luxury halo”. After experiencing the reaction in a pub and a restaurant, I’d have to say the skeptics will be eating crow. Wearing Glass in 2013 is awesome. Strangers come up and engage with you. People notice you enter the room. Friends ask lots of questions. It’s a bit like being a rockstar (at least in Palo Alto).

Tagged , , , , ,

Where I’ve Landed

After a wonderfully restorative break, it is now time for me to jump back into startup land…

I am pleased to announce that I’m re-uniting with another legendary Plaxo alum, Blake Commagere, and joining his startup, MediaSpike, as the company’s COO. We’re building a revolutionary new advertising platform for digital product placement in social and mobile games. The company is aligned with the inevitable future of advertising, which will be less about interruption and distraction and more about encounters between people and brands that are contextual, digital, and interactive – and when done correctly, loved.

Here’s recent coverage of MediaSpike in TechCrunch. Our awesome backers include Google Ventures, Raptor Ventures, 500 Startups, and Team Downey (Robert Downey Jr.’s production company), and more.

For those wondering how big an opportunity this is, consider how dramatically the media landscape is changing and what that means for marketers:

  • Gaming is on the rise (at the cost of other media), with humans now spending over 3 billion hours a week playing video games.
  • In the digital world, attention is shifting at an accelerating pace from the desktop to smartphones and tablets (in the process, threatening established forms of online advertising, especially banner ads).
  • Spurred by the continued rise in DVR-based time-shifting and commercial-skipping, brand advertisers are shifting more and more of their spend toward product placement (with paid product placement projected to top $6 billion in 2014).
  • Despite concerns about how best to do mobile advertising, it is already huge ($2.6 billion in U.S. and $6.4 billion worldwide) and expected to grow rapidly (reaching $11.9 billion in U.S. and $23.6 billion worldwide by 2016).

Bottom line: the attention economy is undergoing a tectonic shift away from traditional media and the desktop and toward smartphones, tablets, and interactive digital content. Advertising needs to be reinvented for this new world, and the folks who figure it out will be digging into tasty slices of a very large and rapidly growing pie.

So, if you’re a marketer for a major consumer brand or a developer of an interesting social or mobile game, please join the revolution. (You can reach me at: john at mediaspike dot com.) Onward!

Tagged , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers

%d bloggers like this: