Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It's a Messy, Messy World (or, "How the Web Was Won")

My very first job out of college was in the credit training program of the Chase Manhattan Bank on Wall Street. I never had any interest in becoming a banker, but I’d been deferred at business school for two years and needed to find something—“besides surfing or skiing,” per my grumpy Admissions officer—and Chase was kind enough to help out.

Frankly, despite my dim view of a banking career, I was pretty excited about working for one of the icons of American finance. At that time, the Chase (never just “Chase”) was a star, maybe the star, of world banking. David Rockefeller was CEO, and we actually got to see him nearly every week (when he was in town) reporting on his visits with potentates and on the general economy at the “Friday Morning Meeting.”

Consequently, it was a great surprise and real disappointment for me to find, after a few months of work, that the Chase was peopled by—can you believe?--people. The kind who occasionally did poor analysis. Sometimes did bad loans. Sometimes participated in petty infighting. Took it as a personal affront if some other bank changed the prime rate before them. Even lost a customer once in a while.

Oh, the Chase did have its share of brilliant people as well, but I was rattled by how human much of the activity was.

As a guy just out of college I saw this as an indictment of the Chase—it must have had one heck of a PR department to maintain its sterling reputation with all of these idiots walking the halls.

In retrospect, of course, (with a little wisdom and time, and a few scars)I came to understand that the Chase had indeed been a truly great institution that just happened to have working at it, as I said, people. Good, smart, but ultimately flawed people.

Historian David McCullough is asked from time to time why history is important. After (I suspect) he suppresses a gag reflex, he offers a typically cogent response. Here’s one element of it, in relation to his book, 1776:
I want people to see that all-important time in a different way --- in the way it was. For a number of reasons, including the absence of photographs, we tend to see the men and women of the Revolution as not quite real. . .it's a pageant in which the performers are all handsome as stage actors, with uniforms and dress that are always costume perfect. I want to be inside that other time. I want to convey the atmosphere of the time, what it was like to have been alive then, what the reality was for those people. I often think about how they would feel if they could read what I'm writing. I imagine them asking, "Does he get it?"

For me the key event is the Continental Army's escape from Brooklyn after being soundly defeated in the first full-scale battle of the war. It's the Dunkirk of the Revolution, and an example of both individual character and outside forces powerfully at work. On the one hand, Washington's role in the escape was leader-ship at its best. On the other hand, circumstances beyond his or anyone's control played a part almost beyond belief. If the wind had been blowing in a different direction, the British would have been able to bring their warships up the East River and seal off any possibility of escape for Washington and his troops. The war and the chances of an independent United States of America could have ended there and then.
Think about that. Washington had just lost a critical battle and made a complete mess of things, and if it hadn’t been for the right wind, Americans might now be drinking tea every afternoon.

To be fair, of course, if the weather had been different on the English Channel in 1588, the Spanish Armada might have destroyed the British fleet and Americans might now be drinking tea with paella every afternoon.

But, that’s the point, and why we study history. Without stories like this, everything looks neat and tidy and preordained. The history of the United States becomes: The Mayflower landed. The Revolution was won. The Civil War freed the slaves. American Idol premiered. The sun rose this morning.

The truth is, people are smart and courageous and stupid and weak and unpredictable. Even in iconic institutions, as my Chase experience proved. Plans go awry. Chance intervenes. Nothing—and I mean nothing—is preordained. We just get comfortable with the outcome and think, after a while, that it “had to be that way.”

That’s one reason why the oral history of the Internet—“How the Web Was Won”--in the July edition of Vanity Fair was such a welcome article.

This morning when you turned on your computer you saw a nicely arranged desktop, neatly gathered email, a bunch of your carefully harvested blog articles and access to a marvelous search engine. Maybe you shopped or bid on an auction, or checked your “wall” for postings from your friends.

Such cosmic order all points to the history of the web as being: Something called ARPA. Mosaic. Netscape gets whipped by Microsoft. AOL. Amazon. Ebay. Google. MySpace. The crazy guy dances on YouTube. The sun rose this morning.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, and makes us wonder, when we read about the current tribulations of Yahoo or Twitter, why the past is so darn neat and the present so awfully messy.

In the spirit of the Chase and David McCullough, then, and to disabuse you of this notion, I’ve captured my 14 favorite quotes from the Vanity Fair article. These come from the very folks who lived the early history of the web, the ones who remember the truth.

Enjoy, and remember when things don’t go perfectly today (and they won’t), that it’s just part and parcel of a messy, messy world.

1. Bob Taylor, the third director of ARPA’s computer-science division, disproving the myth that, every so often, innovation really is a “eureka” moment:
In my office in the Pentagon I had one terminal that connected to a time-sharing system at M.I.T. I had another one that connected to a time-sharing system at U.C. Berkeley. I had one that connected to a time-sharing system at the System Development Corporation, in Santa Monica. There was another terminal that connected to the Rand Corporation.

And for me to use any of these systems, I would have to move from one terminal to the other. So the obvious idea came to me: Wait a minute. Why not just have one terminal, and it connects to anything you want it to be connected to? And, hence, the Arpanet was born.

When I had this idea about building a network—this was in 1966—it was kind of an “Aha” idea, a “Eureka!” idea. I went over to Charlie Herzfeld’s office and told him about it. And he pretty much instantly made a budget change within his agency and took a million dollars away from one of his other offices and gave it to me to get started. It took about 20 minutes.
2. Paul Baran, who conceived one of the Internet’s building blocks—packet switching—while working at the Rand Corporation, reminds us, as Scott Berkun explains in his excellent book, The Myths of Innovation: “Ordinary things, people, and events are transformed into legends by the force of time, all the time.”
I get credit for a lot of things I didn’t do. I just did a little piece on packet switching and I get blamed for the whole goddamned Internet, you know? Technology reaches a certain ripeness and the pieces are available and the need is there and the economics look good—it’s going to get invented by somebody.
3. Baran, Bob Taylor (also with ARPA), and Bob Metcalfe (who invented Ethernet), on what happens when innovation upsets the status quo, how the Big Dogs sometimes miss the party completely, and why bad memories linger:
Baran: The one hurdle packet switching faced was AT&T. They fought it tooth and nail at the beginning. They tried all sorts of things to stop it. They pretty much had a monopoly in all communications. And somebody from outside saying that there’s a better way to do it of course doesn’t make sense. They automatically assumed that we didn’t know what we were doing.

Bob Taylor: Working with AT&T would be like working with Cro-Magnon man. I asked them if they wanted to be early members so they could learn technology as we went along. They said no. I said, Well, why not? And they said, Because packet switching won’t work. They were adamant. As a result, AT&T missed out on the whole early networking experience.

Bob Metcalfe: Imagine a bearded grad student being handed a dozen AT&T executives, all in pin-striped suits and quite a bit older and cooler. And I’m giving them a tour. And when I say a tour, they’re standing behind me while I’m typing on one of these terminals. I’m traveling around the Arpanet showing them: Ooh, look. You can do this. And I’m in U.C.L.A. in Los Angeles now. And now I’m in San Francisco. And now I’m in Chicago. And now I’m in Cambridge, Massachusetts—isn’t this cool? And as I’m giving my demo, the damned thing crashed.

And I turned around to look at these 10, 12 AT&T suits, and they were all laughing. And it was in that moment that AT&T became my bĂȘte noire, because I realized in that moment that these sons of bitches were rooting against me.

To this day, I still cringe at the mention of AT&T. That’s why my cell phone is a T-Mobile. The rest of my family uses AT&T, but I refuse.
4. Stewart Brand, co-founder of the Global Business Network and the Long Now Foundation, on the different and unplanned trajectories innovation takes:
The idea of Arpanet was that it was going to basically join up computational resources. It was not set up primarily to do e-mail—but the computational-resource connection turned out to be not so important, and the e-mail turned out to be the killer app. These were people who were just trying those two experiments, one to try to make the computational resources blend, and the other to stay in touch with each other conveniently. You were inventing in all directions, with no particular certainty what was going to play out.
5. Leonard Kleinrock of UCLA, on great moments underappreciated:
September 2, 1969, is when the first I.M.P. [or packet switch] was connected to the first host, and that happened at U.C.L.A. We didn’t even have a camera or a tape recorder or a written record of that event. I mean, who noticed? Nobody did. Nineteen sixty-nine was quite a year. Man on the moon. Woodstock. Mets won the World Series. Charles Manson starts killing these people here in Los Angeles. And the Internet was born. Well, the first four everybody knew about. Nobody knew about the Internet.

So the switch arrives. Nobody notices. However, a month later, Stanford Research Institute gets their I.M.P., and they connect their host to their switch. Think of a square box, our computer, connected to a circle, which is the I.M.P., 5, 10 feet away. There’s another I.M.P. 400 miles north of us in Menlo Park, basically at Stanford Research Institute. And there’s a high-speed line connecting those two. We are now prepared to connect two hosts together over this fledgling network.

So on October 29, 1969, at 10:30 in the evening, you will find in a log, a notebook log that I have in my office at U.C.L.A., an entry which says, “Talked to SRI host to host.” If you want to be, shall I say, poetic about it, the September event was when the infant Internet took its first breath.
6. On the unintended consequences of innovation: The arrival of e-mail was followed quickly by the arrival of “junk” e-mail, or spam. Gary Thuerk, a marketer for Digital Equipment Corporation, sent the first spam into the Arpanet in 1978—it was an open invitation to two product demonstrations in California. (The Ferris Research technology group estimates that the global cost of combating unwanted e-mails will reach $140 billion in 2008.)

7. On more unintended consequences of innovation:
As late as 1988, e-mail was still far from widely used—nearly all traffic was either academic or military-oriented. In that year Ronald Reagan’s former national-security adviser John Poindexter was indicted for his role in the Iran-contra scandal, and his trial was one of the first to bring e-mail into the courtroom. Dan Webb was the prosecuting attorney in U.S. v. Poindexter.

Dan Webb: I didn’t really know what e-mail was, to be honest with you. All of a sudden these top-ranking government officials were communicating back and forth with each other with amazing candor just as if they were in a conversation. And it opened my eyes to what, in effect, was a stunning change in the way evidence gets presented. What we’re always doing is we have witnesses, and we’re trying to reconstruct past historical events through the imperfection of recollection. All of a sudden you have these things called e-mails, where there’s a verbatim record of what was actually communicated at a point in time.
8. On yet more unintended consequences: When the Internet started to become a truly globalized system, the potential threats to it became more insidious—interconnectivity is both a strength and a weakness. The first significant attack came on November 2, 1988, in the form of the so-called Morris Worm, created by a Cornell graduate student named Robert Tappan Morris. Keith Bostic, a computer programmer then at Berkeley, was one of those who tracked Morris down.
Keith Bostic: Basically, Robert Morris finds a couple of security problems in Unix systems and figures he can write a worm. He’s a student. He’s not being malicious here. Fires that sucker off. And unfortunately he makes a pretty boneheaded programming error. Instead of doing what he intended, which was kind of, you know, to wander around the Net and have a good time, it just pretty much shut down all the network systems.
9. On how the media often misses the big stuff: The first browser to take-off was Mosaic, created by Marc Andreessen, a student at the University of Illinois. Entrepreneur and Silicon Graphics founder Jim Clark soon took notice and partnered with Andreessen to create Netscape Communications.
Marc Andreessen: And so we basically said to ourselves, you know, if a lot of people are going to connect to the Internet, if only because of e-mail, and if all the P.C.’s are going to be going graphical, then you’ve got this whole new world where you’re going to have a lot of graphical P.C.’s on the Internet. Somebody should build a program that lets you access any of these Internet services from a single graphical program.

It sounds obvious in retrospect, but at the time, that was an original idea. When we were working on Mosaic during Christmas break between 1992 and 1993, I went out at like four in the morning to a 7-Eleven to get something to eat, and there was the first issue of Wired on the shelf. I bought it. In it there’s all this science-fiction stuff. The Internet’s not mentioned. Even in "Wired".
10. On the cost of poking the wrong bear:

Hadi Partovi was the group program manager for Internet Explorer at Microsoft. He later co-founded Tellme Networks and is president of iLike. Thomas Reardon was on Microsoft’s original Internet Explorer team.
Hadi Partovi: Both Marc Andreessen and Jim Barksdale were trash-talking basically. I mean, there was a competition between the companies, but it got to the point where they felt they were far enough ahead that they might as well trash-talk to build up the perception that these guys are going to win. On the one hand, you know, they were the David and we were the Goliath. On the other hand, Internet Explorer only had 5 percent market share in the Web-browser world, and nobody had even heard of it when we started out. And it definitely got people’s competitive juices up. Marc Andreessen had said something along the lines of “Windows will be reduced down to being a poorly debugged bag of device drivers.” And what that means is basically the relative value of Windows will be pretty much meaningless.

Thomas Reardon: Andreessen said that Windows was just a piece of shit. Well, that became a call to arms for us. We had this famous meeting called the Pearl Harbor Day meeting that year. Bill was going from talking about the Internet to: O.K., now we need a battle plan. The Internet Explorer team went from 5 people to 300.

Hadi Partovi: I personally printed out the strongest quotes from the Netscape people, with their faces, so if you walked down the hallway of the Internet Explorer team, you’d see the faces of one of these Netscape executives and what they said.
11. Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, on how it takes big and little ideas to keep innovation moving:
When we launched, we launched with over a million titles. There were countless snags. One of my friends figured out that you could order a negative quantity of books. And we would credit your credit card and then, I guess, wait for you to deliver the books to us. We fixed that one very quickly.

When we started out, we were packing on our hands and knees on these cement floors. One of the software engineers that I was packing next to was saying, You know, this is really killing my knees and my back. And I said to this person, I just had a great idea. We should get kneepads. And he looked at me like I was from Mars. And he said, Jeff, we should get packing tables.

We got packing tables the next day, and it doubled our productivity.
12. AT&T wasn’t alone in missing the Internet opportunity. Vinod Khosla created Sun Microsystems with Stanford classmates Scott McNealy and Andy Bechtolsheim, and Bill Joy.
Vinod Khosla: The media people essentially did not think the Internet would be important or disruptive. In 1996, I got together the C.E.O.’s of 9 of the 10 major newspaper companies in America in a single room to propose something called the New Century Network. It was the C.E.O.’s of The Washington Post and The New York Times and Gannett and Times Mirror and Tribune and I forget who else. They couldn’t convince themselves that a Google, a Yahoo, or an eBay would be important, or that eBay could ever replace classified advertising.
13. On how innovation can make us all temporarily stark raving mad: The dot-com boom of the 1990s was epitomized by the initial public offering of Netscape Communications, in August 1995; on the opening day of trading, Netscape’s stock price almost doubled in value. Before long, Silicon Valley was the scene of the most frenzied investing in modern times. Some companies, such as Amazon.com and eBay, had realistic business models; many other start-ups did not. Record losses soon followed. Between March 10, 2000, and October 10, 2002, the nasdaq Composite Index, which lists most technology and Internet companies, lost 78 percent of its value.
Hadi Partovi: There were so many start-ups where they’d have a fund-raising party. The company basically would have a business plan and a PowerPoint, no technology. They’d raise $10 million and then there’d be like $250,000 or $500,000 blown away just on the party.

Jeff Bezos: Many of those companies didn’t spend the money in a thrifty way. They would raise $25 million with a single phone call and then spend half of it on Super Bowl ads.

Hadi Partovi: Most investors didn’t understand the Internet. They just knew that these things that have “dot-com” next to them were worth a lot and were going to be really big someday, and they missed the last one. I remember DrKoop.com. And I remember they were losing money, I think $10 million a month or some crazy amount, and they still had an I.P.O. of almost a billion dollars, something really ridiculous.

Rich Karlgaard’s, whose Upside magazine was the first to cover the Silicon Valley start-up scene: The hottest job title during the frothy days was—you’d see 25-year-olds who had the title of “vice president, business development.” It was like sales without the quota. I remember asking one of these V.P., biz-dev guys how his company was doing, and he says, “Oh, it’s great, we’re into our third round of financing.” And I said, Well, how about the revenue side? Are you profitable? He says, “We’re a pre-revenue company.”
14. On enternal hope, and why the world remains a messy, messy place despite our best efforts otherwise:
Rich Karlgaard: And after it all, there was a bumper sticker you’d see in Palo Alto: “Dear God, one more bubble before I die.”