John Doerr on a bicycle
Thursday, February 1, 2001 by Dave Winer.
Last Saturday I was on my daily walk, listening to NPR of course, approaching a hill and two bike-riders pass me, huffing and puffing, wearing the usual bright-colored tight-fitting clothes that bike riders like to wear. Then something very unusual happened. A man riding a bicycle wearing business clothes passes me. "Why is that man riding a bicycle wearing business clothes?" I wondered. Then, on reaching the top of the hill, I see that it's John Doerr! I didn't dream this, it actually happened.
In case you don't know, Doerr is a partner at Kleiner-Perkins, one of Silicon Valley's leading venture capital firms. He's a very powerful man, but you might not know it to talk with him. I've always had a warm spot in my heart for John, I think that's part of his magic. His attention is focused, very sharply, and it can be years between our conversations, but when I see him it's almost as if we're talking every day. We talked for about fifteen minutes there on the street, as they say in diplomacy, it was a frank talk, but very friendly.
I thought about this conversation, which I will try to recount here, on returning from a confidential briefing at Microsoft about their activities in distributed computing on the Internet, technology we worked with them on for the last two and a half years.
As I watch the next steps unfold, I realize that we lost to Microsoft, John and I, and now they're trying, the best they can, to be good winners, probably with the help of the US government who won a lawsuit proving that Microsoft had behaved poorly in its competition with Netscape, a company that Doerr founded along with Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen.
We lost, yet most of us didn't have any say in what Netscape did. We lost our two-party-system, and now the browser, probably the most pivotal piece of software in existence, is owned by Microsoft. This is an uncomfortable situation, to say the least. Now Microsoft, driven by its own logic, is reluctant to move the browser where its destiny calls. There's an important linkup that's not happening, the Web wants to be a writing environment, and as long as the same company owns both the browser and the leading word processor, and as long as the investment community of the Valley doesn't tune in, it's not going to happen.
Like Microsoft, I think the venture capital industry is responsible not only to their investors, but also to the larger developer community, the ones who create new stuff, rain or shine, whether or not they're riding a rocketship to IPO-land. We all have an interest in choice, because it keeps things competitive. If we had the support of Doerr, as we have asked for and received support from Gates, he could do a lot of good here, with more leverage than he can in the larger issues he and his wife Ann tackle, such as high quality education for all people, not just people with money. Leverage is the key here, and straightening things out also happens to be good for business, imho.
I urged Doerr to learn from what happened in the last few years. Long-term investments matter. Keeping the browser going, even though Netscape had lost its will to win (if it ever had it), was important to all of us. On Tuesday in Building 33 on the Microsoft campus, I argued that integrating writing and reading was in Microsoft's interest because it would create explosive growth in software, and that can only benefit the largest software company in the world. I think perhaps for the first time in its existence, Microsoft is ready to hear this message. Control is no longer an option for them. Now they have to contemplate, at least until our new President decides, what life would be like after being split in two. Can we manage this, as an industry, so it's a win-win? I think we can and I think Doerr is the man who can help the most.
I asked him to recall a phone conversation we had in the spring of 1998. I had been given permission by my partner in the SOAP process, Microsoft, to recruit participation from Silicon Valley technology companies. I thought of Netscape, Sun and Novell. I asked John to help make intros, which he did. But the net result was zip. My take on it? The companies were so focused on *not* working with Microsoft that the possibility of actually working with Microsoft couldn't penetrate.
There must be some poison pill, goes the conventional thinking in Silicon Valley. There might have been one, but now with the benefit of two-plus years hindsight, it's clear that it couldn't work. Opening up the underside of your servers is a big win if your software is good, and something you might resist if it's not. Negating lock-in, which is SOAP's theme, opens the market. You can't require that software port to Java just to link to Java code bits. I have enough experience and a brain, I could see where it was going, and I wanted Sun and Netscape to give it up, but I don't think they cared what I thought, and I know they didn't trust Microsoft. Later, Sun embraced SOAP, but the embrace would have been more powerful if it had been done earlier. I was the messenger in 1998, but the message didn't get through. Now that's totally water under the bridge, but what clues does it have for our future?
I wondered then and I wonder now, how can we work together, rain or shine, boom or bust, to keep technology moving, much as Alan Greenspan keeps our currency solid. Anyone who's been involved in technology for a few loops, as both John and I have, knows it's going to come back. In fact, we know while it's booming that the bust is coming and so is the next boom. So in addition to funding rocketships, it's good for all of us if we invest both short-term and long-term. Do the things that give technology somewhere to go. Let the professional managers worry about the next quarter, but also put bets down on technologies that may or may not pan out. Follow the grain of Moore's law and the equivalent law that says that users learn, and software can be easier, meaning that next time around we'll be doing the same thing, but it'll cost less, and more people will do it.
Today I'm more sure than ever that distributing the work is the way to go. Centralized servers no longer have a "viable business model." That's good, because while our centralized servers huff and puff, the performance monitor on the PCs we use to browse and write for the Web stay flat, and so do the brains of most people using the Web. The users are getting bored, that's why our growth is flat too.
In the eighties we made productivity software and dreamed of groupware. Ask Esther. She called most of it. Now technology has caught up. Networking is deployed on a massive scale, as are the MIPs. All that's missing is new software to wire it all together. Now here's the surprise, and it wouldn't be a surprise if we were communicating within our Valley, the software already exists.
Let's rebuild around this new model John, the Internet is a two-way medium, more like the telephone than the printing press or TV. There's a big picture and hope for the future, and the power of Microsoft is better organized and (I think) they are ready to cooperate. Let's work together.