Tag Archives: WebFORCE

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”.

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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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WebFORCE: Creating the very first “web” brand

[20 Years Ago, Part 14. Other options: prior post or start at the beginning.]

Getting the product ready in time was only half of the challenge for our January launch. The other half was getting all of the marketing items done on deadline. And in 1995, that meant dealing with multi-week workflows to create and purchase print advertising and to design and produce print collateral and video sales tools.

And to really get started on any of those projects, it was vitally important to have locked down the “identity” of the product: its name, its tagline and fundamental positioning, and its logo or visual identity.

As those of you who have been following this series know, the project was pitched to the leadership of SGI with the name “Spider” and the tagline “Now making a web comes naturally”. In the weeks that followed, that positioning started to feel weak to me. While it had the benefit of obvious analogy, it lacked any sense of the strategic land grab that I intended for the project. Also it seemed more appropriate for a singular product, rather than a product line that spanned multiple configurations of workstations and servers.

The search for a more appropriate identity had a very clear center of gravity; the organizing principle of the entire effort was that the web was the most important thing in all of computing. The web was the Big Wave that everyone needed to pay attention to.

And yet, there was not a single product that had “web” in its name at that time.

So, each day in late November and the first week of December, I thought up different web-based names. On the morning of Tuesday, December 6, while showering before work, the winning name came to me, “WebFORCE”.

I was instantly 100% sold. Within 24 hours, all documents relating to the project bore the new name.

Now, the mad scramble was to turn that name into a logo that we could use in collateral and advertising. I turned to the crack team of designers in SGI’s marketing communications department. Within a couple days, they presented me with this array of logos:

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WebFORCE logo losers 2

WebFORCE was my first real product launch, so I was very much learning on the job. I didn’t have any experience choosing a logo, but I knew what I liked and what I didn’t. These might have been fine designs, but none of them was close to what I needed.

The problem, though I wasn’t consciously aware of it, was that I didn’t really need an actual “logo”. I was launching a product line, not a new company – and SGI already had an awesome 3D-based logo. What I needed was some sort of “visual identity” that could anchor the marketing. And getting to that would take a surprising route.

Part of what I liked about the name “WebFORCE” was that it seemed to fit really well with a messaging element that I had come up with a few weeks earlier, the phrase “To author and to serve.” It was inspired by the motto of the LAPD, which I knew from TV shows like Adam-12 and Dragnet, “To protect and to serve.”

“To author and to serve” fit WebFORCE so well, that within days it became the official tagline for the product line. And it would also serve as key inspiration for the design of the product line’s ultimate visual identity – from a team that wasn’t even tasked with designing it!

A major component of the WebFORCE launch was an aggressive million dollar print advertising campaign. As soon as the project was funded, I started frequent meetings with the ad agency that SGI had recently begun working with, Poppe Tyson.

At one of those, I must have mentioned that I was struggling a bit to get the right logo developed. To my surprise, the creative team at the agency proactively took on the challenge. The next meeting opened with a sort of “hope you don’t mind” intro. And then they showed me a big bold design they had developed for WebFORCE:

WebFORCE Visual Identity

It certainly lacked the simplicity of a traditional corporate logo, but this was a visual identity worthy of the first “web” brand. It had the color and depth one would expect of Silicon Graphics (including its embrace of purple). And it had sufficient breadth and scale to encompass the SGI logo as a supporting (and central) element. In short, it seemed perfect then – and it holds up well 20 years later.

And now, we had all that we needed to get started on creating print ads, a brochure, data sheets, and a launch video. 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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