Dinner with Doug Engelbart
Friday, October 6, 2000 by Dave Winer.
Last night I had dinner with Doug Engelbart. I wish I hadn't waited so long to do this. Until this morning I didn't realize how much my career was a replay of his. We're still doing things he did in the 1960s, even after 20+ years of digging. He had a lot of good ideas for Radio UserLand and the World Outline. Not superficial ideas, but to-the-core, why aren't you doing this type stuff. I hope he gets really involved with what we're doing. The next step is to exchange demos.
This morning I started work by writing, relatively free-form, about the experience of meeting and exchanging ideas with Engelbart. I don't want to over-edit it, it's a stream of thought that may not mean anything to you. Or it might. Bascally I think I met my new rabbi. Whatever. Not sure I trust myself here. Time will tell.
Engelbart thought I had worked at Apple, I told him I never worked at Apple. I did, after leaving Symantec, *want* to work at Apple. Jean-Louis Gassee told me I wouldn't like it. Later I realized he was right. But being at Apple meant your ideas had a chance of being supported by Apple. Bill Atkinson's ideas, for example, were well supported, to the detriment of independent developers. Was our work any less worthy than his? Well I'd argue our work had more value, because we stuck it out, and did successive versions, learned from our mistakes and did the hard work of evolution. It's relatively easy to ship a version 1.0, but once shipped you have to deal with something that's messy and difficult -- users. But it's worth doing if you want your software to be used.
Working together. That's the common goal, we both have it, and both tell stories of how hard it is to get through the gatekeepers to get to the users. He threw challenges at me to see if I was one of the gatekeepers. Over and over. I guess I passed the test. I kept saying all I want to do is create an environment where people work together.
It's clear is that Engelbart has had a tough life. Eventually he got recognition, awards, grants, seminars about his accomplishments, but he hasn't gotten the thing he wants. I was distracted by all the recognition he got, I was jealous of it, scared of it. I asked if Augment is running anywhere, he said it is, he uses it every day. When I probed, I found that he had an engineer's depth of knowledge. It wasn't phony. I have nothing but admiration for this grey-haired man with a twinkle in his eye and the impatience of youth, wanting, waiting and waiting to see his vision revolutionize humanity. I told him that we would get there. I have no doubt that we will.
Working together. Working together. That's the point. The software that I create, the software that Engelbart creates, is about working together. It's opposite of the walls that gatekeepers create. I hated what Apple did with Hypercard. I hated what Lotus did with Notes. I hate what every self-interested promoter does to see their often shallow ideas dominate all others. General Magic, Netscape, Sun (with Java) and now the open source promoters. I hate the engineers, esp the talented ones, who seek this kind of dominance. The purpose of networks of computers is to enable people to work together. Mastering the art of working together requires that you throw the concept of dominance out the window. Goodbye. I don't want to dominate you, I want to work with you. Big difference in attitude.
It may appear that the outliner approach is narrow, but I don't think it is. I think outliners mirror what's going on in our brains, they reflect the way we organize ideas, concepts and information. I told Engelbart that our success with outliners came with people who understood the process of thinking. Everyone thinks, but only a few are aware of how they do it. This requires a higher level of awareness. First we have to turn on their lights again, after a hiatus of quite a few years. Then I want to figure out how make the tool useful for people who aren't aware of their process, the way MORE did in the 80s, by sneaking it in, in the guise of a presentation program.
By the end of the evening we were done probing and explained our work. We did a map that translated the terms he uses to the terms I use. At almost every step in my story he said "We did that too!" -- and it included XML-RPC and SOAP. We do have some differences, while he loves the mouse (he invented it) he does not believe in GUIs. He thinks they're crude. I have to give this some thought. At one point I thought they were crude too, but I gave in, drank the Kool Aid and never looked back. It's possible that there's something I've missed as a result.
To Radio UserLand people, he understood nodetypes, and totally gets evolutionary software. It's the process of evolution that matters. If a system is rigid and can't change, you're stuck. This may seem obvious, but lots of software ships with no way to evolve. What happened with Hypercard, Notes and HTML? Why aren't they evolving? Why is Frontier?