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Looking Back

Friday, October 25, 1996 by Dave Winer.

I took a long walk yesterday afternoon. It's rainy in California, winter is coming, and it's nice. Fireplace season! Yeah...

Soon we'll be reflecting on a year gone by and thinking about a new year coming. But there's still a little of 1996 remaining and still lots of things to do. Onward!

Que Sera postscript Permalink to Que Sera postscript

I've sat in many dark halls thru my career listening to the kind of pitches that Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy were hurling earlier this week at the Agenda conference in Phoenix. My rage finally came out in a productive way, in the past I just fumed quietly, kept it inside (mostly) and the problem persisted, we just looped and looped. It's frustrating for me, as a commercial developer, because I generally keep my software visions to myself and try to keep the attention focused on what is, because there's enough there to focus on.

Unfortunately, in the past, that made my ideas vulnerable to vaporware promoters. To those that think Bill Gates is the worst offender (I hear that a lot) it isn't true. The most offensive predators, the would-be visionaries, long-gone former industry leaders, would take the stage and dominate markets, without bothering to ship competitive software. These are the real destroyers.

For all the negative things people say about Gates, he has usually been on the right side when the trances begin. I remember sitting in the audience listening to him talk about the object oriented craze that was sweeping the industry in the late eighties. He said "I don't get it." Gates wasn't declaring his stupidity, quite the opposite.

I don't want to debate the merits of various programming tools, and certainly not with people who don't program. Their arguments tend to miss the point. If you can make better software with object oriented techniques (1989) or Java (1996) -- more power to you. But who else (other than your competitors) could possibly care how you made your software?

And why brag about it? If there's so much value in the tools that you choose, keep it secret. Shhhh. If people are boasting that they use the best tools, you can figure that they can't find any competitive advantage to using those tools, or else they wouldn't be presenting them as a competitive advantage.

Yes, there probably are opportunities in the Network Computer space, but the proponents incorrectly tell us that it has anything to do with hardware. That's a lie. Step one is to investigate the software issues. As a designer of end-user software, and an avid net user, I believe the experience could be more enabling and deeper and easier. More highly leveraged. More bang per user-hour, especially for people with high-traffic websites or mailboxes. But first, make it run on standard platforms. Make it simpler and more powerful. Do it again. Then, and only then, talk to us about a new hardware platform.

Instinct tells me that new hardware is not needed; that you could do a beautiful job of highly leveraged integrated net access without any change of operating system or CPU or (imagine this) leaving out a crucial bit of hardware, a disk drive. I think it's a fallacy.

I also don't think Larry Ellison or Scott McNealy have ever designed a commercially successful piece of software. Then I have to ask, who that I respect as a software designer, works at either of these companies? And are they working on the network computer? If either of these leaders really wanted to sell their ideas, they would have brought a software designer with them to explain what's going on.

I can't imagine a truly creative software person working with Ellison and I can't imagine that McNealy gets involved in the details of what makes his NC work for real users. I'm a hard-nosed from-Missouri kind of guy when it comes to software. There are so many ways to go wrong. These guys don't even start out on the right track.

The moral of the story: when a CEO of a software or hardware company takes the stage and tells you how big it is, it probably isn't that big. As my friend Jean-Louis Gassee advises, let others talk about its size. It's more convincing.

Looking back Permalink to Looking back

Agenda is a worthwhile conference. But its focus, by definition, is in looking forward. We just got thru Agenda 1997. Next year we'll be talking about 1998.

Agenda could use some tweaks, for sure. I'd get the CEOs off the stage and bring up the people who are closer to the process of defining the future, or more accurately, on defining bets for the future. That's a tough job, picking the people that will define the coming year. No matter, that's not my problem.

Keep Agenda, but let's do another conference. It would come at the end of the year, or the very beginning. It would be a review of the year gone by. There would be no pre-selected speakers; how could you choose the speakers in advance? It would defeat the purpose.

The people who speak would be the ones who defined the previous year. They would talk about the highs and the lows. With the rate of change these days, you can be fairly sure that at the beginning of the year, we didn't know that they'd be so important. They had an interesting year. Let's hear about it!

What was it like to be them? Focus on story-telling. Their first Markoff article, CNN interview, PC WEEK first-look. The public offering. When did they get the idea that they were becoming a platform vendor? What would they do differently? What do their parents think? What did they learn about friendship?

No slide shows. No demos. Just people. A beautifully-lit room. It'd be like a picnic or a great New Year's party! The microphone travels thru the audience. The stage contains one or more people. But they wouldn't have had a chance to prepare, or to get nervous, or to have their PR people place stuffed animals on every desk. And just a hunch, there wouldn't be any desks or pitchers of water, or M&Ms or newspapers. But there would be music.

Think of Larry King or Barbara Walters as the moderator. Get to the heart of the story, to the heart of the person. The audience is encouraged to be boisterous but respectful. The goal is to get the story, to figure out what *really* happened. Questions would be pointed. If you're scared of the truth, don't come; and certainly don't get on stage! But, if you like to dance or sing or ski, you want to be there. If you like a nervous feeling in your stomach, you would like this conference.

What have we learned? What worked? What didn't? This industry never plays Monday-morning quarterback. Winning teams always study the game tapes; successful software companies do too, as do successful industries.

PDAs, Macintosh Permalink to PDAs, Macintosh

Returning to the PDA example, the industry seems to have concluded that PDAs are failures, despite the quality we're seeing. They deserve another look. And even more important, we need to look at why we don't look. If this sounds recursive, it is. Look at how we look. I bet we'd uncover a lot if we did.

In this context, with all possible humility and objectivity, I ask you all to take another look at the Macintosh platform, as much as you may not want to. Apple is a total loss. Think DEC, only the defeat will be deeper. Will anything be left after? What will we have learned? When a platform vendor dies, who picks up the pieces? Tune out the Mac zealots, many of whom are disrespectful and offensive in their pleas for the platform. They make the rest of us look bad.

The Mac may have as many as 25 million users, and a pile of innovative software developers. Today's Mac users tend to be people who switched when other people were still using character-based systems. These are smart people! A huge concentration of energy. If you're a smart software vendor or system maker, you may want these people in your camp. Don't make them wrong.

Apple's letting them go. Do you want them? Opportunity knocks.

Listen. Remember. Learn.

Dave Winer

© Copyright 1994-2004 Dave Winer. Last update: 2/5/07; 10:50:05 AM Pacific. "There's no time like now."