Tag Archives: Netscape

The launch of the first product line for web authoring and serving

[20 Years Ago, Part 15. Other options: prior post or start at the beginning.]

Somehow, against the odds, it all came together. WebFORCE went from funded project to new product line, ready for launch in just 76 days. Twenty years ago today, January 26, 1995, the two hottest companies in Silicon Valley at the time, Silicon Graphics (SGI) and Netscape, came together to launch the first turnkey solution for web authoring and web serving — the very first products with “web” in their name.

WebFORCE_Commerce_Ad

My instincts on timing proved correct. By launching in January, we caught all of our competitors totally off guard. In fact, it would turn out to be many months before Sun Microsystems, Apple, and Microsoft would begin to address the hot growth market of the World Wide Web. That secured a significant first-mover advantage for us, and made SGI the second hottest product brand in all of the web (behind our white hot new partner, Netscape).

And we didn’t just win from great timing. We hit the market “guns a blazing” with the unbeatable combination of killer product, a high-profile press event, an historic demo, a big budget ad campaign, and awesome  collateral.

Killer Product (Even Microsoft Agreed!)

The WebMagic team burned the midnight oil and somehow managed to pull off the miracle of creating the first WYSIWYG HTML editor in under eight weeks. And under the technical leadership of David “Ciemo” Ciemiewicz and the product management leadership of Rob Lewis (one of my first hires), the WebFORCE software bundle expanded to include not just WebMagic and the Netscape server software, but many other essential tools for creating “media-rich web content”.  Among those were a video tool called MovieMaker (with support for MPEG-1, QuickTime, and Cinepack) and an audio tool called SoundEditor (with support for AIFF, Sun/NeXT, and MS RIFF WAVE).

In terms of  feature set, WebFORCE absolutely set the standard. Even five months later, it was referenced in a Microsoft internal exec team memo from Paul Maritz to Bill Gates, available online now because it was evidence in the U.S. Government’s anti-trust case against the company. In it, Maritz explains the gap between Unix and PCs in the web authoring space — and how it can’t be closed “until a suite similar to SGI’s WebFORCE is available on PC’s”:

Microsoft Memo

High-Profile Press Event

SGI’s PR team, one of the best in the industry, pulled out all the stops. This news was clearly big enough that there was no need for pre-briefing. Instead, we would host an invite-only press event on our campus in Mountain View. In addition to the newsworthiness of an SGI product launch, we also had the big draw of the announcement of a partnership with Netscape, with Marc Andreessen agreeing to speak and do interviews.

I think we drew well over a dozen technology and business reporters. Alas, very little of the coverage we got is findable today online. Carl Furry, who was the lead from the PR team for this launch, did find this scanned piece with ComputerWorld’s coverage of the news while we compared our memories in recent days.

Historic Demo

Of course, no SGI press event would be complete without a 3D demo. Fortunately, weeks earlier, Rikk Carey, a charismatic director of engineering from the Visual Magic Division, had reached out to get me excited about a futuristic project his team had just gotten involved with, something called Virtual Reality Modeling Language (“VRML” for short). Though it was a very early-stage, grass-roots, open standard effort, I immediately saw it as an important missing piece of the WebFORCE puzzle. With the promise of bringing 3D to the web, VRML was a natural technology for SGI, the pioneer and leader in 3D computing, to embrace.

The WebFORCE launch was the first day that VRML was demoed to the press. I’m not sure what we actually demoed, but it would have been using our Open Inventor toolkit. And even though neither Marc Andreessen nor I now remember it, the ComputerWorld article linked to above says that in addition to our demo, Marc announced that Netscape Navigator 1.1 would “support transmission of three-dimensional graphics”.

siggraph_sgi_booth

Example VRML demo from 1995 (not the one from the event). Image credit: David Frerichs

Hard to believe now, but that demo and the mutual endorsement of SGI and Netscape for VRML would kickoff an industry-wide, multi-year wrestling match for control of 3D on the web. The battle would feature intense competition, awkward alliances, and multiple acquisitions. Along with SGI and Netscape, tech stalwarts Microsoft, Apple, Sun, and Sony would all become swept up in the mania. (Much more on that in future posts!)

Big Budget Ad Campaign

The team at Poppe Tyson, SGI’s ad agency of record, who had already blown me away by creating a killer logo for WebFORCE, did it again with what may be the very first print ads for any web product. The flagship ad, that ran for many months in publications like Wired, ComputerWorld, and since forgotten places like Interactive Age and Interactive Week, still looks great to me:

Trick

Two elements that I really love about “One Stop Web Shop” are that the primary visual is content framed within a web browser, and that the team really made this an SGI-quality ad, with multiple nods to 3D.

The secondary launch ad (shown at the top of this post) is in some ways even more remarkable. Using the web to actual sell stuff  was unheard of at this point, with Amazon’s launch six months away. So for us to introduce WebFORCE as “the biggest revolution in commerce since the 800 number” was a pretty prescient claim! Readers of the Wall Street Journal got to see a full-page (but black & white) version of the ad within days of the announcement.

Over the first six months of 1995, we invested nearly $1 million to place these ads in the leading technology, business, and creative arts/new media publications. That, together with an amped up “Powered by Silicon Graphics” effort, made SGI appear to have already won the market, even before our first $10 million in sales.

Awesome Collateral

Amongst the earliest of hires to the WebFORCE team was Kris Hagerman, who like so many from the team would go on to found and lead other startups, including BigBook, the web’s first Yellow Pages, and Affinia, a Sequoia-backed e-commerce and digital advertising pioneer. If I were the “CEO” of WebFORCE (in practice, not actual title), Kris was my “COO”.

The very first thing Kris did after coming on board was take a project that was just a notion in my head, flesh it out, and see it to completion. The challenge was to create a brochure for the product line that looked and felt more like Wired magazine and less like a corporate data sheet. Here are some scans of this really beautiful “tri-fold”:

WebFORCE Brochure Cover

WebFORCE Brochure

And a Cringe-Worthy (But Highly Effective) Sales Tool

Many of you may have seen those digitized VHS tapes from the early days of the web. Well, here’s one more!

In early 1995, SGI had a 1,000-person global direct sales force. They were really awesome at selling high-performance workstations, and were becoming more comfortable selling high-performance servers and super-computers. But they did not have any experience selling software or turnkey hardware/software bundles. And, like all salespeople everywhere, they had no experience selling web authoring and serving solutions.

So, to jump start sales, we created a 10 minute sales training tape, starring me, Rob Lewis and Ciemo, along with Steffen Low, product manager for the WebFORCE servers, and Gene Trent, applied engineering for the server side of the line. In it, we explained why the web was a hot new opportunity perfectly suited to SGI (in other words, why a sales person should focus on it, or in other, other words: $). We showcased key features and key differentiators, and, given the audience, we opened and closed the narrative with references to 3D.

Like any tape from the mid-’90’s, there’s a lot to cringe at here, whether it’s the less-than-professional readings from teleprompter or the cheesy music throughout. That said, this tape was instrumental in selling tens of millions of dollars worth of workstations and servers. It turns out that though this was clearly made with the sales team as the intended audience, many sales offices would actually show this directly to prospects. But with each successive viewing, the sellers got more and more comfortable with how to pitch the WebFORCE line.

Without further ado, here for the first time on the web is “WebFORCE: To Author and To Serve”:

And that is how we launched WebFORCE!

To be continued…

 

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To Serve: How WebFORCE got its Netscape server software

[20 Years Ago, Part 13. Other options: prior post or start at the beginning.]

Having found a fortunate and just-in-time path forward on the authoring side of the WebFORCE1 project, it was time to focus on delivering the simpler, but equally vital, other half of the value proposition: web serving.

The approach seemed straightforward; instead of building our own software, like we were for authoring, for serving we would take the partnership route. We just needed to secure an OEM license with Netscape to bundle their recently released NetSite server software. But nailing down that “simple” deal would prove to be more difficult than I imagined for two reasons, one that was known to me at the time, and another that I would only figure out much later…

The complicating factor I was aware of was that in December 1994, SGI was already in the middle of a different OEM deal with Netscape. You see, our customer support team had more fully embraced the web than any other computer company at the time (and, arguably, more than any other company period), having launched a customer-facing portal called “Silicon Surf” in March of that year. Believe it or not, you can still interact with a live version of Silicon Surf from that period, thanks to the work of Daniel Rich, SGI’s “webmaster” back in ’94, who resurrected the site many years later from a promotional CD-ROM. (Yes, back then it actually made sense to distribute a website on a disk in order to get people excited to go online!)

By the way, when finding the screenshot of Silicon Surf below, I recently learned that it was the launch of SGI’s website that got the competitive juices flowing over at our rival, Sun Microsystems, leading to them to create the Sun.com website!

Silicon Surf

In the Fall of 1994, the team behind Silicon Surf, led by Kip Parent, had decided to do another thing no computer company had yet done – pre-install a web browser on every desktop, in order to make the web central to the support experience. So when I stepped in to negotiate on behalf of the WebFORCE effort, a single and simple OEM deal for the browser morphed into a two-part deal, with browsers for all SGI workstations and server software just for WebFORCE-branded configurations of workstations and servers.

Despite that complication, I was still expecting a quick and easy negotiation. After all, having the hottest company in Silicon Valley throw its weight aggressively behind the web, in general, and behind Netscape’s server and browser, in particular, would be a big win for Netscape. And given that our two companies were both founded by Jim Clark and that SGI was Netscape’s primary development and serving platform at the time, we seemed the most natural of partners. Why, we were practically family!

So, why shouldn’t we be able to put this deal together in just a few weeks? (And a few weeks was, indeed, all that I had.) The launch date was locked in: January 25. That meant I needed to close the Netscape deal by the end of December, or at the very least, the first week of January, in order to nail down all of the marketing materials.

My counterpart in the negotiation was Marc Matoza, who had recently joined Netscape as their first sales rep. I had naively assumed we would do a quick and friendly deal. In reality, the tone was far from “familial”. Making matters worse, Marc did not seem to share my sense of urgency. Quite the contrary, he seemed to view my deadline focus as a source of negotiating leverage. As the holidays approached, I knew I needed to take a different path.

In the technology business, it’s hard to understate the importance of right timing. I was truly fortunate not just to get into Stanford business school, but also to time it just right as a member of the class of ’93. As a result, I ended up riding out the recession in school and then entering Silicon Valley just as the web wave was beginning to swell. Many of the friendships I made at the GSB (in my class and in the class of ’94) formed the basis of an incredible network, touching almost every part of the emerging web industry. And one of those relationships in particular would come to play a pivotal role in getting me out of my negotiation quagmire.

There’s the people you know from classrooms and the people you know from parties. And then there’s people you know from playing hockey (or other sports). My fondest memories of Greg Sands, GSB class of ’94, are of getting schooled by him in how to translate my decent ice skating skills into playing rollerblade hockey. Even in a friendly game, hockey is pretty physical, but you don’t really want to check your business school buddies and send them tumbling to the blacktop. But Greg is a really great skater, having played on Harvard’s ice hockey team as an undergrad. So, I felt comfortable skating aggressively around him, even lightly checking him, knowing that it was way more likely that I would end up flat on my back than that he would. In short, we ended up getting to know, like, and really trust each other.

In Greg’s second year of business school, he spotted an interesting posting at the career center. Someone from the Stanford community was looking for a business school student to do some volunteer work on a startup business plan. The poster was none other than former electrical engineering professor Jim Clark, and the startup at that time was just Jim, Marc Andreessen, and the earliest seeds of what would eventually become Netscape. From that auspicious beginning, Greg would go on to become the company’s first business/marketing/product hire, coauthor of the business plan, and the person who gave the company its new name, Netscape, after the University of Illinois threatened to sue over the use of “Mosaic”. And now, he was the product manager of the very software products I so keenly wanted to license…

Greg Sands and John McCrea

[Above: Greg and I in Stanford Business School Magazine, December 1995. Pretty clear we weren’t getting a lot of sleep that year!]

Greg and I met for coffee at Café Verona2 in downtown Palo Alto to talk it out. We didn’t do any actual negotiation. I shared my frustrations and my goals. And perhaps most important of all, I shared with Greg my “BATNA”. (That’s a term we both would have learned at the GSB in the negotiations class. It stands for “best alternative to a negotiated agreement”.) Although I was truly keen to bundle Netscape’s server software with WebFORCE, if for some reason we were unable to finalize a deal in time, I could live without it. In that case, we would emphasize our Web Magic authoring software and position the product line as Netscape-ready or add-your-own-server-software. This wasn’t a threat or posturing; I was just candidly sharing my situation.

Greg offered to see what he could do. Within days he broke the log jam. Terms became reasonable and the timeline radically accelerated. I ended up getting my deal well in advance of the holidays, and SGI became the second OEM licensee of Netscape. (The first OEM deal, struck a month earlier, was with Digital Equipment Corporation. That said, we would beat them to market, becoming the very first vendor of a turnkey web server.)

But what was it that had been the real friction? I didn’t ask, and Greg didn’t tell. But over time, I would come to understand that it wasn’t Marc Matoza dragging his feet. The real issue was Jim Clark, behind the scenes, who was still bitter about having been edged out3 of his own company. In my research for this blogpost, Greg recently shared with me that the WebFORCE deal “caused a bit of a firestorm internally, as Jim didn’t want SGI to get a special (and OEM prices always feel like specials).”

Special or not, I got my deal, and we were now on track to launch a kickass product on January 25, 1995, now about 40 days away!

To be continued

 


1Though we had pitched the project to TJ as “Spider,” that was never really intended as the launch name. About two weeks after funding, I came up with the real name and tagline in the shower before work: “WebFORCE: To Author and To Serve”.

2It is now long since closed, but Caffe Verona played a role in Silicon Valley history – it was where Marc Andreessen first met Jim Clark.

3Jim resigned as Chairman of SGI, but only after years of strategic disagreement with our CEO, Ed McCracken, and a rising sense of being shut out of key decisions.

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The Untold (and Rather Improbable) Story Behind the First Real HTML Editor

[20 Years Ago, Part 12. Other options: prior post or start at the beginning.]

The first mainstream and well-remembered “WYSIWYG”1 HTML editor, FrontPage, was released in October 1995. Less than three months later, the small startup that created it, Vermeer Technologies, was acquired by Microsoft for a whopping $133 million! FrontPage would become a key weapon for Microsoft in its ruthless, monopolistic “browser war” against Netscape.

But FrontPage was actually not the first WYSIWYG HTML editor; it was just the first one on Windows. A full year prior to Microsoft’s acquisition of Vermeer, Silicon Graphics, at the time the hottest company in Silicon Valley, launched a product called “WebMagic”. It was the actual first WYSIWYG HTML editor, empowering designers and business people for the first time to create web pages without learning to code HTML. This is the previously untold (and rather improbable) story of how that historic application came to be…

I’ll start the story from hours after I had secured $2.5 million in funding from Tom “TJ” Jermoluk, SGI’s President and COO, based on my pitch/commitment to launch a product line for web authoring and web serving by the end of January 1995. That deadline was less than 80 days away (a period that would include Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s!).

And that means that these events took place in the single craziest time of my career. It was such a blur, that I’m sure I’ll miss some key facts and miss-remember some details. With hope, others involved in the story will keep me honest.

I think it was in the afternoon of the day of the funding that Way Ting sought me out. He was the Vice President and General Manager of the Visual Magic Division (VMD) that created the desktop software environment and a bunch of tools to showcase the differentiation of our powerful workstations. And after the amazing events of the morning, he was keen to sign up for a critical element of the plan.

“We want to create that SGI-quality authoring tool you described,” he said.

“That’s great news,” I said.

“But there’s just one problem,” said Way. “The timeline is too short. I don’t think it’s possible to develop such a tool by the end of January. Any chance we can add a few weeks to the schedule?”

Way knew a heck of a lot more about software development than I did, but I had a deep conviction that timing was vital in this rapidly emerging web market. I feared that Sun or Apple were about to beat us to market with web authoring/serving solutions, and I strongly preferred to launch first with an imperfect product than to launch second or third with everything on my wishlist.

“I’m sorry, Way,” I said. “I know it’s crazy, and it may not be possible, but the one thing that is certain for this project is that we’re launching by the end of January.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll see what we can do.”

To my surprise, within a few days, he reached out to me again, asking if I’d accompany him to a meeting in Palo Alto with a company that had a possible solution to our problem. The company was Enterprise Integration Technologies (EIT), and although I didn’t know it at the time, it happened to be the startup that Marc Andreessen had moved to California for, and the one from which Jim Clark recruited him just months later to co-found what would become Netscape.

Our host for the meeting was EIT’s founder and CEO, Marty Tenenbaum, a more-than-a-little smart guy, with multiple degrees from M.I.T. and a PhD from Stanford. EIT was a pioneer in e-commerce, having conducted the very first Internet transaction in 1992. Therefore, it was not a surprise that nearly every desk had an SGI workstation on it. They were the real deal.

I have no idea how Way had managed to make this meeting happen, but it was pretty magical. What Marty showed us that sunny afternoon looked like exactly what I had been advocating for – an SGI-native web authoring system, with WYSIWYG HTML coding and an intuitive, drag-and-drop user interface. It looked pretty polished.

But when Way asked, “What is it written in?” Marty replied, “WINTERP.”

Ruh, roh!

I had never heard of that, and I’m guessing Way hadn’t either. Marty went on to explain that it was an interactive, object-oriented user interface language that EIT had developed.

As we drove back from the meeting, it became clear that this was hardly an ideal path for achieving our goal. I resolved to pursue my Plan B with fervor – getting SoftQuad to port their less-than-ideal alternative HTML editor, HoTMetaL Pro, as the candidate for bundling with our web workstations. It wasn’t WYSWYG, nor was it going exploit the differentiation of our OS and tools, but it could allow us to check-the-box for “HTML editor”.

But then, to my surprise, Way reached out to me a few days later with a proposal for another outing, this time to Sunnyvale, to the headquarters of Amdahl.

“Amdahl?” I thought. “Did I hear Way right? Why would we go visit such a freaking dinosaur?”

For my younger readers, Amdahl was a maker of IBM-compatible mainframe computers. Hardly the most likely place to find cutting-edge web software!

You may be thinking my story is old-timey, but here’s how ancient Amdahl looked to me 20 years ago:

AmdahlMuch to my surprise, what we found at Amdahl was a decent HTML editor, still under development by a single contractor developer, David Koblas. It was a Motif-based program, written in C++, running on Solaris. In short, it was exactly what we were looking for – the right kind of code base, far enough along in its development, that turning it into a robust SGI-native application just might be possible in weeks, not months.

I don’t know all the details, but within days we had struck a deal with Amdahl that somehow brought us both the code and David. In a recent email exchange, David recalls that to avoid creating a taxable event, no physical media were involved in the transfer of the source code; the bits were passed from Amdahl to SGI via FTP.

A small team was quickly assembled around David, including Ken Kershner (who managed the team), and Ashmeet Sidana, Baron Roberts, and Victor Riley. By then, I had locked in a launch date for the project: January 25, 1995. So this newly formed “WebMagic team” would have just under eight weeks to port to IRIX, integrate deeply with SGI’s desktop environment and media tools, and polish code that David now recalls as “quite buggy”.

In addition, the team fully embraced an even more audacious goal – full “render compatibility” with the now dominant browser, Netscape Navigator. And what that meant was aiming at a moving target. The team at Netscape was extending the capabilities of the browser at a blistering pace. The WebMagic team wanted to support it all, including tables, forms, and, yes, even the blink tag.

It took long days and nights, with David and Baron often working until 3:00am. (On those nights, they would typically switch to pair programming at 1:00am to minimize bugs.)

The heroic work of the team paid off. When we launched, WebMagic had become all that I and the team had hoped: a true WYSIWYG HTML editor with the polished look and feel of a word processor, drag-and-drop integration with SGI’s media toolkit, and pixel-perfect compatibility with Netscape Navigator.

And that is the rather improbable story of the creation of the very first WYSIWYG HTML editor.

But what of that “project” that WebMagic was such a central part of? To be continued

 


 

1This 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.”

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What We Didn’t Know When We Did the “Big Pitch”

[20 Years Ago, Part 11. Other options: prior post or start at the beginning.]

This post is kind of a footnote to the story of “The Big Pitch to TJ and the Exec Team“. It’s the revelation of two key pieces of information that Ciemo and I did not know at the time, but that were very helpful in setting the stage for our pitch.

The first piece of information was something that I would learn minutes after the pitch, and it was something that everyone in the room (but us) knew.

The second was something I wouldn’t learn until years later, and it was information known to only one person in the room.  (And that person was the company’s President and COO, Tom “TJ” Jermoluk.)

The First Piece of Information

Victorious in our Big Pitch, Ciemo and I exited the Board Room and returned to the waiting area, not because we had anything to wait for, but just to take a few minutes to let it all soak in. We had landed $2.5 million, but to keep our end of the bargain, we would have to create and launch a whole new product line in less than 76 days. And we’d have to do it in a period of time that would include Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s!

As we stood in the waiting area, various execs came up and offered their congratulations, encouragement, and compliments on the presentation. Tom Furlong, our division’s GM, came up with a big smile on his face. “Nice job,” he said. “By the way, you have no idea how good your timing was.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “What do you mean?”

“The call with the country managers could not have set you up better,” he said. “The main topic of conversation was the Web. Multiple countries reported issues of losing account control, with Sun servers starting to penetrate some of our most strategic SGI-only accounts, driven by a desire for an Internet server. The big question everyone was asking TJ was ‘What are we going to do about this Web thing?'”

The Second Piece of Information

It wasn’t until almost three years later, in a lengthy and depressing BusinessWeek cover story entitled “The Sad Saga of Silicon Graphics,” that I would learn the other key piece of information we didn’t know. As it turns out, TJ was more than a little bit familiar with what we were pitching him; in fact, just a few months earlier, Jim Clark had been wooing him to take on the CEO role at Netscape!

Tom Jermoluk, President and COO

And that means he would have had quite a bit of knowledge about the Web’s rapid growth, its potential as a server market, and the degree to which the company at the center of the action was leveraging SGI boxes for development and serving.

Here’s what Rob Hof wrote (in August 1997) of the incident and the reaction of our then-CEO, Ed McCracken:

The Internet’s singular potential should have been more obvious to Jermoluk than to anyone. In late summer, 1994, Clark had offered him the CEO spot at Netscape. But McCracken didn’t want to lose Jermoluk, least of all to Clark. So to keep him, SGI offered the young president a new compensation package valued at $10 million-plus over four years. He stayed1.

In Silicon Valley, more than any other place, it is often said that “timing is everything”. And certainly it is now clear that our timing could not have been better for that historic pitch.

Speaking of timing; did I mention that we now had 76 or fewer days until launch?

To be continued


1But he would not stay the full four years. In fact, he would resign in less than 18 months to become the Chairman, CEO, and President of @Home.

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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 (human-to-human IRL) 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.

 

 

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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!

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