Que Sera Sera
Thursday, October 24, 1996 by Dave Winer.
Gooood afternoon and welcome back to California.
I had fun in Phoenix! Saw some old friends, made some new ones, did some listening, did some talking.
The most gratifying part of the show for me was talking with many of the people who read this column and finding out what the experience is like for them. Thanks to everyone for sharing their opinions. It's nice to be so widely and thoughtfully read. Coool.
So, there were two big controversies at this show -- What about the Network Computer? and What's the song?
Let's deal with the song first. I think every conference should have one. The first order of business. Pass the mike around. What do you think? Play some tunes. Hmmm a few bars.
At the first lunch, we talked about the song. A bunch of ideas floated around. Then we settled on Everybody's Talkin', the Nilsson tune, the theme for Midnight Cowboy, the Oscar winner for best picture in 1969.
It's a very short but powerful song. Everybody's talking at me! I don't hear a word they're saying. Only the echoes of my mind. People stopping, staring. I can't see their faces. Only the shadows of their eyes.
What a beautiful song! Makes me laugh. He's going where the sun keeps shining, thru the pouring rain. He's going where the weather suits his clothes. Backing off the northeast wind, sailing on a summer breeze, and skipping over the ocean like a stone.
But later in the show, we found an even better song. It goes like this...
Whatever will be will be. The future's not ours to see. Que sera sera!
It's a woman's song. As a girl, she wants her mother to tell her if she'll be pretty, if she'll marry a rich man, and her mother sings the chorus. Que sera sera! La la la la la la la. Later as a grown woman she asks her husband if there will always be rainbows. A wise man, he sings, que sera sera. The future's not ours to see, silly woman. (A Nilsson song!)
It's a schmaltzy sad but hopeful tune. And it perfectly expresses how I and perhaps others feel about the infinite loop we call the computer industry. As much as (we think) we meet to talk about the future, we also meet to talk about our fear of the future. The software industry is an infinite loop. Everyone is talking, but very little learning is happening.
Our infinite loop -- the condition we fail to test. In the past, have we ever seen the future correctly? No. We forget that every time we've tried to head-trip our way into the future we always get it wrong. The future happens anyway. It isn't ours to see. We joke about the missed calls, the wasted energy; but we still miss the point and keep going round and round the loop.
It started, in my experience, with the quest for the killer app for the home. This question was asked over and over in response to the boom created in the business market by VisiCalc in the early eighties. No such killer app was ever found. The best the industry could come up with was a refinement of VisiCalc, which we took as a signal to get sidetracked into the integrated software debates of the mid-eighties. The users failed to follow, spreadsheets matured into a category, and the software industry found other distractions to express its fear of the future.
Now everyone agrees that PDAs, object oriented OSs, artificial intelligence, interactive TV and convergence were actually hot air when they were the hot topics. Was anything gained by all the energy and money they wasted? Even Bill Gates admits that he was singing the wrong tune a few years ago. Yes, this is generous of him, but perhaps it's a signal to the rest of us not to be so enamored of the Great Ideas of any year, including 1996.
Maybe we give too much power to the icons of our industry? Maybe we fail to see how little control they have? Maybe we are responsible for thinking for ourselves and being responsible to our own interests. Maybe we fail to see what is? We're always trying to break out of the que sera loop, and we never quite manage to do it, and that's how our infinite loop works.
Never was this clearer than when Larry Ellison, chairman of Oracle, took the stage with the conference host, Stewart Alsop. As he explained his concept of the Network Computer, or NC for short, his song said I'm great, you're not, here's my idea, love it or leave it. I'm taking over. Meet the new boss. Me!
Ohhh, the crowd didn't like it. Boos and hisses. The rumblings were awesome. I looked to the left and to the right, forward and back. Everyone is angry with him. Great emotion was swelling up in the audience. I got up, took the mike and asked the question I thought everyone wanted answered. Why would anyone want to use this? Amazingly, Ellison hadn't addressed that point. I doubt if it ever occurred to him that peoples' wants could enter into the equation. To him, it was enough that *he* wanted it. What we wanted was not the point.
I got a clear message from Ellison, to shut up and sit down. Ask anyone who was there. He actually used those words! I was not surprised, but I was pleased. As a lab experiment it was perfect. Ellison is a straight shooter, unlike some, who could have deflected my challenge by offering some confusion. Ellison is too honest. He came right at me, said it didn't matter what I thought, or what I was curious about.
We like our despots to calm our fears. Everything's going to be OK because I'm such a lovable fellow! Ellison was not being lovable. I think this is how he earned the ire of the audience, not because he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar, presenting a half-baked idea as if it were an accomplished feat. That happens all the time at Agenda.
He failed because he didn't come up with a joke or a smile or bow his head appropriately, or beg Stewart for a better position on stage, or tell us how good it would be for us to have him run our world. Ellison was bold and truthful in his assertions, and in being so bold, he did us an enormous favor. He showed us how foolish our search for the elegant leader has been and continues to be.
The next day, Scott McNealy, the chairman of Sun Microsystems, presented basically the same idea as Ellison, but he gave us all the props, including stuffed dolls and funky homilies. But he is just as arrogant and clueless as Ellison, just not as easy to expose. He says that all you need from a computer is four commands. You don't need a PC, you probably don't need to store anything. It's not your computer it's the company's. Love it or quit.
Well, I've seen Sun's software, and I remember PCs when they were as simple (i.e. feature-poor) as McNealy's JavaOS NC is, and he wouldn't even be able to compete with the software that commercial developers were making in the mid-to-late 1980s, much less the software of the mid-to-late 1990s. So much has been learned since then, and none of this is reflected in Sun's NC OS.
Why didn't McNealy invite us to come play in his ground? As I've written before, Sun barely shows up in my world. I'm a net developer. I've been doing commercial development for sixteen years. I read all the magazines. I get email from all over the world. The message "Sun's stuff is great" rarely reaches my desktop.
Maybe I'm missing something and maybe Sun's new system will find a home with millions of users, in the office and in the home, on shop floors and in retail stores. Where ever, or whatever. But McNealy could have made a lot more friends earlier this week if he had come offering to share what he had, enabling our creativity, showing us where we fit in, instead of threatening to destroy us, to invade us, to make us irrelevent.
All the stuffed animals in the world can't hide the threat he was delivering. I'm great, you're not. That may temporarily get him an inflated stock price, but it won't achieve the dominance that he's saying that he seeks.
It seems that both he and Ellison are motivated on a personal level to displace Bill Gates as the perceived leader of the software industry. The truth is that none of them are qualified to lead us, because that isn't what they do. And Gates is not our leader! He's been appointed, true, by cover stories and homage from his competitors and the venture capitalists (John Doerr called him the chairman of the industry).
We should see them for who and what they are and ask if what we really want is what they want from us -- to be destroyed. I for one, don't want that. I want opportunities. I want to create wonderful new things, to explore the leading edge without losing my senses, and to recognize and revel in the unpredictability of the world we live in. I don't want to impose my will on anyone, and certainly not at the point of a gun.
To anyone who wants to lead -- show us software that's fun and empowering, get us interested and excited. Gates, McNealy, Ellison et al never do that. We've tried it their way before, look at the stagnation that resulted. We're at a crossroads now, do we go back to the mess of the past or do we learn to enjoy the que sera of it all, and stop seeing threats everywhere we look?
So much of the energy is about defeating and destroying, so little is about creating. People believe in others, not themselves, and are disappointed when they are left out of the big plans. They forget that no matter how rich and intimidating each leader of our industry is, or would-be leader, none of them predicted the world we live in now, and by extrapolation they are powerless to control the world we will live in in 1997 and beyond.
I'll do my part: here's an invitation to truly embrace the creativity of others. Instead of beating your breast about how great you are, try saying how great someone else is. Look for win-wins, make that your new religion. Establish a policy that nothing will be announced unless it can be shown that someone else will win because of what you're doing. How much happier we would be if instead of crippling each other with fear, we competed to empower each others' creativity.
PS: On Tuesday night, in the main lobby of the Phoenician Hotel, about twenty people sang a chorus of Que Sera Sera. Over and over. It was beautiful. No fear. Ye-hi!
PPS: The song was written by Jay Livingston, it's the theme of the Hitchcock thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much starring James Stewart and Doris Day. It won the Oscar for best song in 1956. I tried to find the full lyrics on the web, but the search engines I tried came up empty.