Touch of grey
Thursday, March 16, 2000 by Dave Winer.
I'm back from Phoenix and Esther Dyson's PC Forum conference.
It had been fourteen years since I was on the stage at PC Forum, it was great to be back.
On Tuesday morning I talked for five minutes about Web Applications, exactly as outlined in my previous piece.
Then, later that day, we did a panel with seven software entreprenuers repping apps that run in a web browser. This piece is largely a review of the panel, what we learned, the questions raised, and suggestions for further exploration.
1010Data.Com is an industrial-strength database server, capable of storing millions of records, and has tools for viewing them, much as a high-end database like Paradox did in the age of the PC. It was demo'd for the first time publicly at our session on Tuesday, by the CEO of the company, Peter Miller, who I knew when he was at Lotus.
Of all the products, 1010Data is the only one that charges the user a fee, which makes it possible for them to do things the others can't, like support an XML-RPC interface for the app, which of course, I encouraged him to do.
A week earlier Dale Dougherty of O'Reilly, who's becoming a Manila user, asked for a database that ran in Manila. Dale meet Peter, who can give you the database and through the magic of interapplication communication, it will appear as if it's in Manila. Hah! The hype of years gone by still works. ;->
Eric Krugler of Bitlocker.Com showed a web-based database too, but it had far more polish and visual appeal than 1010Data. Clearly patterned after Filemaker, the interface was a one-to-one correspondence, the terminology carried over, and even though it ran in a Web browser and didn't hide the fact, you got a suspension of disbelief. This is what Filemaker would look like in the Web age. Good job. However, it didn't hold up under closer scrutiny. With usability expert Jakob Nielsen in the audience nodding his head, we discovered that the program's use of wedges was expedient and not consistently implemented. Krugler nodded his head too. "We still have work to do," he said. Excellent.
Then we switched from databases to writing tools, Pyra's Blogger and Trellix Web Express.
Blogger was demo'd by Evan Williams. This was the only product that I had used before. I couldn't feign confusion because I understood how it works, and at one point I had to stop myself from answering an audience question on Evan's behalf. I apologize for this.
Blogger is a web site that once-configured (easy) can add news items and comments to a Weblog-style site. The items, bits of text containing HTML links, appear in reverse-chronogolic order on your website. It saves through FTP. It's an easy editorial system for a fast-changing website. The audience had clearly never seen a tool like Blogger and they were delighted. Literally you could hear oohs and ahhhs. Blogger is sexy, and Evan is adorable, Blogger has the attidude of a 20-something Web designer based in San Francisco. It's style and it's cool and you just gotta like. Everyone did, you could tell.
Later in the session Evan let some news slip. They had programmed a prototype version of Blogger that could save to a Manila site through XML-RPC. "Excuse me while I fall off my chair," I said.
I think I'm becoming Jean-Louis Gassee. ;->
Next up was Dan Bricklin and Trellix Web Express which is a wonderful app that you can use to create and maintain a multi-page website from a set of pre-designed attractive templates. They adopted our Edit This Page design (although their buttons are just called Edit, a minor distinction). It's very beautifully designed, lots of templates for the casual web writer to choose from. A solution to a terminology problem we had been grappling with. A gorgeous DHTML interface that makes our Netscape 2-style UI in Manila look a little old. He showed his writing tool connecting to his website. Impressive, although it uses FTP and saves static HTML files.
Their software is not as deep as ours (btw, I said none of the following at the session, as the moderator my first obligation was to the audience, as I made clear before the session to my fellow panelists). We're deep and powerful, they're beautiful and easy. I know Dan would prefer if we didn't see them as competition, but it's relatively easy to hide features so they don't get in the way of novice users, and know that they will appreciate the more advanced features if they become an expert user.
Next we switched from Dan Bricklin demoing a text tool, to Steve Guttman of Halfbrain.Com demoing a web-based spreadsheet. It was stunning. Man that looks like a spreadsheet! And it's connected to the Internet, you can include realtime stock quotes in formulas, and they recalc. Oh this is so nice. It looks and behaves like Excel but it's DHTML. It so closely mimics Excel that you can hardly tell you're in a Web browser, but the title at the top of the window confirms that you are. We also got a sneak peak at their presentation tool, of course it looks and behaves like PowerPoint, but in DHTML. This is the stuff Microsoft wanted when MSIE 4.0 shipped, a couple of years ago.
I asked Steve why the site is called HalfBrain, he said that the domain was available. I was a little disappointed, I was hoping for a good story.
As it turns out we saved the best for last. Ken Rhies, a youngish-looking Korean who's over 40, has a stunning ripoff of Microsoft Office running in Java at ThinkFree.Com, and it totally doesn't look like a Web app. The people in the audience were stunned, as I was. "What part of the world don't you want to dominate?" I asked.
Ken is one of the best demoers I've ever seen. Despite all the oohs and ahhs he kept piling on features. Look, it does this! And that! And there's more. I talked with him quite a bit later in the show, and I have a good idea how this product can fit into our Two-Way-Web strategy, and this guy is easy to work with. Ken came from Symantec, and his partners, in Korea, have one of the few remaining word processors after Office cleared the productivity market.
He wanted me to take his picture with Steve Ballmer, he knows he's going to get the first class treatment from Microsoft, and I think this will be fun. We can carve out a position for Ken in the Web Apps market, and tilt the table in his favor. Competition is good! Even for Microsoft. (Especially for Microsoft.)
After some discussion, I decided it would be OK to show Manila. I didn't want to include it with the other products, it's a little touchy, I needed a little time to jump from the role of inquisitive student and JLG-clone to the role of product demoer. Tim O'Reilly who was in the audience, and clearly enjoying himself, asked about XML-RPC, "Show me where it is," he said, or at least that's how I interpreted what he said.
So I went to my test site, dave.editthispage.com, the place where I try out new features and do demos from. I don't like to use Scripting News as a demo, because it's a real site to me. Having a for-play-only site makes sense. I showed them how I flip the home page to start a new day, and use the Edit This Page button to make a change. Then I reviewed the menu commands at the top of each page, and took a dive into the Preferences system, landing on the search prefs. An interesting little place. You enter the IP address of the search engine server, the port the search software is running on, the name of the procedure to call, and the path to send the HTTP POST command to. Anyone running a Web server would understand what this means. I said that all the major search engine companies had said no to supporting this protocol, but Brian Behlendorf of the Apache Group was in the audience smiling and nodding his head. I never did find out why this pleased him so much.
Then we all talked for a bit, and then the session was over.
A Job Well Done, I said in a follow-up email to my fellow panelists.
What a nice way to launch an industry!
Competition is good for our users. I said this so many times in Phoenix, in relation to the patent issue. Competition is good! Say that 18 times until you believe it. It makes you stronger. Rise to it, accept the challenge, don't run away. You learn the most from your competitors, and vice versa. It's the most intimate relationship you can have in the business world.
So since we're going to have competition, I believe we must take extra steps to guarantee that there's no customer lock-in. It's even more important in the age of the Web when the user might not even have a copy of their own data. One of the cardinal requirements of this market, even before we try to get the UIs compatible, is an export function that leaves un-rendered text and data on the user's hard disk in a format readable by software that's available at a reasonable or no cost. UserLand will make this an issue in this market. We're not fully there yet, but we will be shortly.
I know Dan Bricklin understands this. He invented the DIF format for exchanging spreadsheet data in the early 80s, which became the standard exchange format for numeric data. The customers insisted on it, and they will again, as will the magazine reviewers, when they start reviewing web apps. The users own the data, and it must be made available for other apps to work with. Closed apps must be opened, and since this is a new market, let's have it be that way right from the start.
There were so many interesting people in the room. Michael Schrage from the MIT Media Lab. Mike Weiner who I knew from the Thesaurus Wars of the mid-late 80s. Turns out he's a patent expert. Others I have mentioned, the ever-grinning Jakob Nielsen, Tim O'Reilly who thought the Web Apps should be on the main stage, and Esther Herself who said most people wouldn't understand. I love Esther, but..
Was this the beginning of an industry? Perhaps. There were other Web Apps at Esther's, including the new Kleiner-Perkins startup Firedrop, and Desktop.Com, which is more gutsy than even Ken Rhie's ThinkFree.
If we get another larger meeting together, perhaps its own conference, I want to be part of it. I would be very happy to play the same role I played in Phoenix. This was one of the best sessions I ever moderated. I had as much fun as I had at the Can Apple Survive? panel at Seybold in 1997 (which I think helped save the publishing market for Apple) and the private session we had at Microsoft in 1998 where we designed XML-RPC.
I like moderating groups of people. When I'm the only one on stage I don't know who to talk to. I've tried little tricks to pretend I'm conversing with a particular audience member, but I get in my head and it doesn't come through very well. But give me a group of people and I can make them shine, and give the audience their moneys-worth. I do this better than anything else I do, including writing essays and software.
And thanks to Esther. It had been fourteen years since I had been on the PC Forum stage. Ever the graceful host, Esther said "Welcome back Dave." Indeed. It was a thrill. There'll be more to say later, for example I spent ten minutes with Whoopi Goldberg at the show. And I bonded with David Ellington of Netnoir. And reconnected with my old friend Fred Davis, who is making a solid transformation from journalist to CEO of Lumeria. And the list goes on and on.
One meeting stands out. At dinner on Monday night, I was at a table with a group of AT&T expatriots. After Whoopi spoke (where did she get the name Whoopi? What about Goldberg?) after the dinner was finished, a Lucent exec, Mary Whelan, who had been beaming at me the whole dinner (I didn't know why) shook my hand, and said she used to get DaveNets forwarded to her by Kevin Compton at AT&T but wasn't getting them anymore. No problem I said, may I have your card. Then she thanked me for my eulogy of Jerry Garcia back in 1995. I was stirred by this. Imagine a big company exec, sharing a sadness and a celebration of a man who now is long dead, as cold as Benjamin Franklin or anyone else who's been gone for many years. What a lovely experience. When I got back to my room I re-read the piece, and a little spot in my heart healed again. "Appreciate, respect and celebrate every person you can. Now is the time to have fun! Tomorrow they may be gone."
That may be the theme of Esther's for me this year. Fourteen years is a long time to be gone. Many of my friends weren't there this year, and the ones who were, are fourteen years older. The hair is graying, the middles are getting larger, my friends are getting old, and I guess so am I. And many, some who I loved, weren't there. Goodbye old friends!
Dan Bricklin took a great picture of me, smiling! Yeah, I guess I look like Jerry. I like it. Thanks Dan!
Good news. Esther's used to be a place of fear for me, but I'm happy to report, not any more. I'm a dean now. One of the survivors.There are still bright eyes, some of them in old bodies, some in young. Where ever they are, they are inspiration.
There's a spark out there. Let's be who we are. We used to be young, that was great. Now we're older, and soon for some us the clock will run out. No doubt there will be more missing friends. And more space for new trees to grow! Onward. With love.
PS: I added a bunch of people who gave me business cards to the DaveNet list. If you don't want to receive these emails, please let me know immediately. Thanks!