The Crazy Bar Scene in Star Wars
Thursday, October 28, 1999 by Dave Winer.
I have a new friend, Alex Cohen, a scholar and UC-Berkeley professor, and an entrepreneur-in-residence at Kleiner-Perkins, the famous Silicon Valley venture capitalist that started Sun, Compaq, Lotus, Netscape, Excite, Amazon, and lots of other rich companies that you've heard of.
Alex and I get along really well, partially because we share a similar vision of how the net builds out. He's one of a handful of people I know who sees the Internet as a programming platform, and sees the need for standardized higher-level APIs that allow apps to be plug-compatible across OS, scripting and content management system boundaries.
As a former Netscape exec, Alex knows the value of being able to swap in new hardware and services in a manageable way. Now his vision extends to servers running in other organizations, opening the web to the kinds of high-level interfaces that heretofore only ran inside the firewall at portal sites, like Netscape.Com.
Anyway, last week Alex told me a story about the art of war, the lessons of Sun-Tze and Von Clausewitz, which he says can be summarized in a single Star Trek episode.
It's the one where Kirk and Spock discover a culture that had turned war into a bloodless business run by a computer. Every day a printout says which citizens have to enter a chamber, where they are killed, in a painless way. This method allows the cities to remain intact, no property is destroyed, and life can go on even though there's a long-term world war going on. The culture was very proud of this innovation, finally, a humane war!
Kirk, of course, is horrified. Where's the glory in fighting battles in the memory of a computer? Interesting question, and not one that I know the answer to. As Spock would say: Fascinating.
Another thing I liked about Star Trek are the scenes where ambassadors from different cultures get together and the script writers have fun with their different physiological needs. Some live in ion baths, others need to breathe fumes from devices that are housed in their chests and deliver strange gases to their noses. This has been a recurring theme in all versions of Star Trek, and the idea really blossomed in Star Wars.
This is the environment of the web. It's like the bar scene in Star Wars. I get lots of mail from Unix people warning me that I'm reinventing the wheel when we move forward with interfaces designed to run on networks defined by XML-RPC. Some of these protocols, at first glance, look to them like SMTP, others like FTP. But only if you fail to notice that I hail from a different culture, not your culture, where what we breathe would smell as strange to you as what you breathe smells to us.
For this round of the Internet, the Unix folks are doing the hosting. We (the GUI people) listen a lot as we try to puzzle out why FTP works the way it does, and SMTP and NNTP work the way they do. But how much effort have the Unix folks put into understanding how developers of graphical systems work? Not enough, IMHO.
One question I'd like to hear an answer to -- where is the Unix equivalent of COM and Apple Events? The stock answer is CORBA, but think again. Apple Events and COM are *easy* -- programmers working in scripting environments such as Visual Basic and AppleScript have been able to master these protocols in weeks not years, without having to go to school. And there are hundreds of thousands of them, if not millions.
Now, is CORBA really that strong? Should CORBA dictate the rules about how we move these traditions onto the Internet? Is FTP an equivalent to COM? If all you know is FTP, perhaps it looks something like COM. It's certainly one process talking to another. But if you had to build another layer on the Internet, would you chose FTP as the substrate or would you go with HTTP which is much cleaner, better specified, and more widely deployed? To me, it's a no-brainer.
So where did this little rant come from? Wednesday I spent the afternoon meeting with Dale Dougherty from O'Reilly. We got around to a favorite puzzle. What is the web?
Here's my answer. It's the crazy bar scene from Star Wars. It's unweblike to ignore the weird cultures that show up here. Some of the patterns are the same old thing all over again, and others are truly new. To be of the web, you embrace the newness instead of hiding from it. You move quickly. When an invitation comes, the answer is Yes!
That definition works because it embraces the power of the web, the power of linking.
There's more ado here every time we meet. Even though I hail from the GUI Galaxy and Dale comes from the Unix Quadrant, we share the same vision with Alex, the Kleiner guy.
I still need one more leg on my stool, and that leg will come from Microsoft. I'm sure I've said this before, but it bears repeating. Microsoft is not the enemy. Microsoft gets what a lot of the open source advocates don't get. The days of Windows being the dominant operating system are over. At best it lasted two-three years at the beginning of this decade.
But Windows is important because it's what so many end-users use. So here's the vision. Let's have a word processor for the Internet. Open the net for writers. It's sure to happen. Emacs and VI are not going to be the standard writing tools on the Internet, if you think they will take another hit of benzene.
Today's web browsers are mere training wheels for the writers network. Office 2000 is inelegant and far too complex to be the standard. To find the answer, turn the clock back to the 80s, when we were learning how to do writing tools for end-users. We will do it again, start over, this time for the net.
Meanwhile, Dan Gillmor has been posting daily notes on his weblog.
Yesterday he had pictures from the airplane and his new workplace at Hong Kong University
Today's installment tells the story of Dan wandering into a Microsoft/Dow Jones-sponsored conference in Hong Kong, and getting kicked out!
"The event, apparently a high-level schmooze for executives of companies with which Dow Jones and Microsoft do business, was closed to the press -- except, of course, people who worked for the Wall Street Journal and other Dow Jones media properties."
Dan's network includes a reporter at the WSJ. "A friend at the Journal e-mails with an objection to the 'cozy' crack. I've asked him for permission to post his note, and will do so if he agrees."
Yup, Dan's an electronic journalist now.
The world is safe!