Ted Nelson Returns
Tuesday, August 24, 1999 by Dave Winer.
I just got back from the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in Monterey, and I had a wonderful time. So many interesting things to say, my mind is buzzing. There's been a change in the Internet software industry, in a way this was a coming out party for it.
The O'Reilly conference was like an Apple or Microsoft developer conference, but there was no Apple or Microsoft. Yes, each open source community has a dictator, Larry Wall for Perl, Guido van Rossum for Python, John Ousterhout for Tcl, Brian Behlendorf for Apache, Eric Allman for Sendmail, Linus Torvalds for Linux. But the fascinating thing about this conference is that the dictators only got a slice of the time on stage, the rest of the work is done by developers, and get this, they have a lot of independence.
Independence is what I wanted, sitting in the audience at Apple's developer conference, year after year in the 80s and early 90s. A chance to pitch my peers on a new idea. Ask the people who know me from the Macintosh community, this is what I never liked about being captive to a platform vendor. They do all the talking, you're supposed to listen, and a lot of good ideas get flushed down the toilet.
I'll certainly have more to say about this, but having just returned from the conference, before eating dinner and retiring for the evening, I wanted to scoop the rest of the news sites, because Ted Nelson did something surprising and historic at the show, and very few people tuned into it.
I ran into Jon Udell, the veteran technical columnist for Byte.Com, on Monday evening. He said he had just attended a very strange Birds of the Feather meeting, led by Ted Nelson, one of my mentors in my formative years as a software developer.
Nelson wrote a classic book that had huge influence on my generation of software engineers and designers. The book was Computer Lib/Dream Machines. For me, it was confirmation of what I suspected -- that computers were part of the hippie revolution of the 60s and 70s. He said that computer power didn't have to reside exclusively in the corporate world, that they could be used to foster free expression and empower people where earlier forms of communication, TV, radio, and print, were largely one-way, hierarchic, and disempowering.
In those days these were radical ideas. Today, they're not as radical, the web opens up the technology, but they're still out of the box, not the norm. Real communication is rare, but not as much as it was, thanks to computers and networks of computers.
Ted Nelson was and is the prototype for all computer visionaries. He had the vision that computers could be an area where vision could be applied. He described the strange world of hypertext that I understood, in my youth, at an intuitive even visceral level.
After writing his book, where he talked about a hypothetical system called Xanadu, Nelson recruited a team of believers to actually implement it. Now, twenty years later, and ten years after all work on the system had ceased, Nelson and his band of believers have released the source code to the Xanadu system. And my friend, Udell, had been one of a small number of people present for the unveiling, the only other reporter was from Upside. (I bet they have a longish lead time, even for their website.)
This morning I asked Jon to write the story. He clearly got the scoop. So we went to the machine room at the Doubletree where he wrote the story and I accumulated historic background links on the Scripting News home page. While we were doing this other people in the room discovered what we were doing and started refreshing the Scripting News home page. Then Jon posted his story and I linked to it:
Even though Jon and I get our paychecks from different sources, we worked together as I imagine people in the golden age of journalism (whenever that was) worked together. Get the story and pull out all the stops. Damn the torpedos. Whatever. It's an energizing attitude.
Let's get the story out! I kept saying, in a good-natured way of course. We were trying to beat the imaginary competition. And now, many hours later, we still have the opportunity. The web moves s-l-o-w-l-y at latching onto a news story that isn't fed to it via a big corporate press release from a big corporate PR firm.
Eventually they'll get a clue and they'll be scouring the web for hot new stories. You just watch, over the next week this very curious story will percolate its way into your life. Remember where you heard it first.
Later in the day I talked with Roger Gregory, the lead developer of Xanadu. I had met him a few times before, he's a good guy. I asked him if the software really works. He said it does. I asked what his goal is. He wants to see the ideas out there. I recognize the sentiment. I promised to help.
You can help by spreading the word. Let people know that the Udanax site exists (Udanax is Xanadu spelled backwards.) Let's crawl thru this bit of history and see how they did.
I'm sure that Dan Bricklin's release of VisiCalc, and our release of the antique outliners in July were not directly related to Nelson's release of the Xanadu code, but it surely follows the trend.
Another way to think about it. Do we still listen to music created ten years ago? We do. Should we look into software ideas that were explored and then abandoned ten years ago? Of course.