The State of the Net
Friday, October 18, 1996 by Dave Winer.
I'm going to Agenda, it starts this weekend.
It's an industry conference. The money comes to Agenda. The CEOs of all the major technology companies. The leading venture capitalists. The business plans and the business press -- the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, the New York Times. It's a festival of judgment! Evidence of the pecking order of the industry. A major argument over who controls everyone else.
I always have a fantastic time at Agenda. A few days away from the details. I always come back with my head buzzing with ideas. I envy people who live at this level 365 days a year. My life is filled with details. But for three days every year I get to soar in the clouds, where every dream makes sense, and anything is possible.
I'm going to have a fantastic time at Agenda. The human drama, we manipulate symbols that tell a story and hide the fact that we're all trying to attain something that isn't in great supply at Agenda -- respect. Respect comes at the point of a gun at Agenda. Who has the power to push everyone else to the side? Most years it's been Microsoft. Lately it's been Netscape and then the Java community, but I bet this year the pendulum will swing back to Microsoft.
Too bad, because Microsoft doesn't embrace most of what's going on in the world, so to the extent that we accept the view that they control our destiny, we accept a limited version of what each of us can contribute.
Ohhh it's Phoenix, it's in the desert, in the southwestern US. I like to go driving in the desert. Like the vistas at Agenda, you can see for miles! Hey, sometimes you're seeing mirages. Uhhh yah. The same visual effect at Agenda.
In this week's PC WEEK, Marc Andreessen says there is no market for web browsers. So where is the delivery on all the deep inhaling the net people were doing last year at Agenda?
Hey, it's still about software and hardware. Add a net connection. Coool. Have the rules changed? Yes! Have Netscape et al embodied those changes? No. They drove right into Microsoft. They couldn't figure out how to zig while Microsoft zags. Java may look like a turn, but Microsoft has put up a roadblock in its way, called a Runtime. Ooops. Think again folks.
Netscape is VisiCalc. There's still a play for a 1-2-3. They built a company that looks like any Silicon Valley high tech firm. They're no threat to Microsoft. The real action will come from a new company that's not much of a company at all. One that takes a back seat to net users. Acts as an enabler with no control. A company whose bylaws say that every employee must have a personal website. Such a company would give Microsoft a lot of grief! And that's what Microsoft asks for, so it will get it.
Free software is just the first step. Free people is the next one. The owners of this company will be its users. It'll go public in a way that no company ever has. Every day will be a shareholder's meeting. Every day the business plan will be rewritten.
I admit that I often have a superior attitude sitting in the audience at Agenda. I see the speakers engaging in self-promotion, telling us why their vision of the future is the one that will hold; why they will call all the shots. This is such an immature industry, I wonder if it will ever grow up? A few years ago the Net seemed like such a wonderful big world. Everyone could work together, the world was big enough for lots of new ideas. Too bad people felt threatened by it. Now this group of people is back where it started.
We can sell technology and tools. We can arrange for the quick flow of ideas over the net. But thin clients and Java and whatever else (there will be nothing else) that's discussed at Agenda, only hide the truth that the center of this world is nowhere. It can't be controlled.
There will never be an Agenda type conference that concentrates the power of the Internet in one place, because while that's happening a group of young people with no acknowledged stake in the future will be plotting the overthrow of the people who are posturing as the leaders of the net. And their ideas will work. Computers are a powerful medium. It doesn't take much money to make a net phenomenon. It'll be even more that way in the future.
Today's Net may look like a vast wasteland of self-important and tasteless and soulless commercialism, but I'm optimistic. I think we're in a quiet period. Things will heat up again, after we flush the system, re-learn some old lessons and then re-tool for the real changes that are coming.
Think about bandwidth and define it broadly. How big are the pipes that connect computers together? And how big are the reservoirs at either end of the pipe? I don't think of client machines as water taps, as some people do. In most cases they're more powerful computers than the servers. This is becoming more true.
I know it's hard to conceive of things this way.
I remember seeing my first website on the net, and then seeing my first web server in person. There's a tremendous incongruence. How could this little computer have such a large presence on the net? Pay attention to this. The truth is that client machines are bigger computers than the servers.
People talk about thin clients, or Network Computers. I think they're super-boring. It's like living in the Wild West, and instead of building great ranches, people want to build nursing homes. Sure some people will get NCs, like airline reservation clerical people, the telemarketing staffs; they have no business looking at personal websites on company time. But remember the power of the back door. That's how Apple IIs got into the corporate world in the early 80s. Can the Internet be a back-door purchase? Yes.
Servers are specialized machines, but simple ones. You might have a server that feeds out 50,000 web pages a day. It has 24 megabytes of memory and 512 megabytes of disk storage. A small crappy monitor. No audio. True, it has some wierd peripherals -- like a Connectix QuickCam. But it's nowhere near the power of a desktop machine. These days semi-serious users get 64 megabytes of memory, a 1-gig removable media drive, an internal 4-gig drive, a CD ROM, 21 inch color screen and music! (Paul Simon is singing about him and Julio down by the schoolyard as I write this.)
The pipes are getting bigger. Irritating animated gifs pulse down the net, building up bandwidth. The reservoirs are getting bigger as RAM prices drop and graphic software wants more memory. In the meantime, chunks of code and data are starting to flow down the pipe. Code and data, as usual, is much smaller stuff than animated graphics. You'll hardly notice the time it takes to download the secure meta-data-mini-apps that will be so prevalent in the future.
High level frameworks are cool. Defacto standards are set by people developing quietly out of view of the Agendees. Standards bodies are logjams. Innovation happens out of sight.
Remember the buzz about artificial intelligence a few years back? Now it's time to go commercial with that stuff. The problem with the AI techniques back in the mid-80s, when they were the focus of Agenda-like conferences, was that there was limited data for them to work against. Take another look at your mid-90s inbox and ask yourself if lack of information flow is still the problem. Quite the opposite.
That's why scripting and the Internet are synonymous. The client machines run at hundreds of megahertz now. RISC is commonplace. Customization is needed everywhere. The development environment of the net isn't in compiled languages, it's in dynamic interpreted languages with persistent storage systems and bottlenecks that allow for customization and security. File systems are the past. Object storage systems that integrate with super-high-level languages are the new land.
Right now HTML text flows around the net. The next step is bits of code and information that assemble themselves on the client machine and use the rendering and UI engines, installed on the client, according to the preferences of the user, and subject to easy customization by the user.
So there are two bets possible right now -- one which emphasizes the power of the server, and one that bets on dumb servers and super coool clients. Go for the latter. It's where the power really is, as opposed to where it appears to be.
I may sound like I think I understand the net, but I don't.
No one does.
The Internet has always been there, ever since the first computer crawled up on land and started serving bits. We ignored the net in the PC industry, hoping that Novell and then General Magic could deliver an orderly and dependable and controlled connected world for us. That only bought us a little time, and that ignorance made a thing like Netscape possible.
The same seeds that made Netscape possible make the next thing possible. Head-trips don't work, you won't be able to figure out where lightning will strike next. The only approach that works if you're a technologist, I believe, is to immerse yourself in the technology and try out lots of new ideas, and see which ones work.
Then you go commercial, and hope you hit the window. If you do, take a break, and come back. If you don't, take a break and come back.
See you at Agenda!