I was binge watching “Silicon Valley” on HBO while staying at home. I had never watched the series; and frankly, found it to be a bit shallow and too ironic for my taste. However, it did get me thinking about technology, the Internet, our shared history and the great people I have met in this industry, as well as the people we have lost. Taking stock of life and times during this pandemic has been really liberating—as life slows down and old memories are easily reactivated, life passes through our mind’s eye in times like these.
And then I remembered, it was 45 years ago in May that I touched my first computer—a mainframe—an IBM 360 with punch cards driven by the BASIC programming language. I also realized on May 24th that AOL was celebrating its 35th anniversary. Motivated by a Jesuit priest named Father Joseph Durkin at Georgetown University—and resulting from a mash-up of a linguistics major and a programmer from the Department of Defense who worked at the University part-time—we eventually created one of the first known algorithms to solve a humanities and literature problem and created a new thesis regarding the work of Ernest Hemingway. I was an American Studies and English major but soon understood that Math was more important as it was the only true universal language.
I became an early mover in Boston’s Route 128 tech scene. In 1977, I started at Wang Laboratories working for an industry giant named Dr. An Wang. Dr Wang, a Chinese immigrant, invented the notion of populist computing, creating word processing and embracing the growing female workforce. It was the first computer for everyone. We took on IBM. We were the “hungrier computer company.” From day one, I used a desktop computer at work; and eventually, used the WangWriter—a prototype to the PC with a dedicated software platform for word processing and email at home. What great timing to graduate from college in the mid ‘70s and enter the work force. My starting salary was $10,500 per year. I can still see the late, great Dr. Wang in his grey suit, white shirt, bow tie and smoking his pipe—every day, same outfit.
I was able to meet other industry giants alongside Dr. Wang such as Ken Olson, founder of DEC, the premiere mini computer-maker—also a new competitor to IBM. Ken Olson was not a believer in smaller and cheaper computing. He said, “there is no good reason for anyone to have a computer in their home.” He may have been an engineering genius, but could anyone be more wrong in a basic belief as their legacy ?
I later met Edward De Castro, founder of Data General, another fast-growing mini computer company. One of the most influential books I ever read was “The Soul of a New Machine” by Tracy Kidder. The book details life at Data General and the launch of a next generation computing platform. It is still the most authentic account of a tech product launch—warts and all. If you haven’t read the book, I suggest that you do.
There were many other Boston-based tech companies sprouting up at the time—Prime Computer, ComputerVision, Cullinane, EMC and on-and-on. John Cullinane was a genius too. He predicted the ubiquity of packaged software; and that software would have way more value than hardware and devices. He also thought software would one day be delivered online—not via sales forces, stores or in cardboard boxes.
Pat McGovern, founder of CompterWorld and IDC, was so very influential to me and an early mentor as well. You could sense something big was about to happen—tech would be everywhere, and computers would be ubiquitous. There would also be a magazine and a trade show for every category and subject. Print was alive and well.
I eventually headed out West to learn more about computing and tech. I wanted to use new things. I was curious about systems, networks and devices; and thus met and started working at a consulting services company as a partner to many Silicon Valley firms. Whenever I visited Northern California, I stayed at Rickey’s Hyatt House in Palo Alto—home of the plastic glasses wrapped in cellophane, tiny bars of soap, dirty shower curtains and wall-to-wall, brown shag carpeting. It’s funny the things what we remember.
Attending the West Coast Computer Faire, as well as conferences and meetings during the years, I met Alan Kay—a genius thinker and futurist. He coined the term “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” He always spoke of the coming “ Dynabook”—an all-in-one small mainframe computer that would be easy to use in the palm of your hand. Later there was a company called Dynabook. John Doeer from Kleiner Perkins and I worked on it. The CEO was the former GM of the IBM PC, Dan Wilkie. The Dynabook at the end of the day was the iPhone. I also wrote a book called “Blue Magic” about the launch of the PC in Boca Raton, FL.
I visited Xerox Parc—truly a founding think-tank and builder of prototypes—and saw the first computer mouse to use alongside a keyboard. Xerox Parc was of huge influence on Apple – much more so than HP—the originator of founding a great company in a garage.
I met and listened to Dr. Bob Metcalfe, founder of Ethernet and inventor of the Metcalfe’s law, which describes the effect of a telecommunications network. He was also the founder of 3Com. This notion of the network effect helped us to pioneer viral marketing at AOL (and via AIM instant messaging by the way!) I also met Dennis Hayes, founder of Hayes Modem in Atlanta. Imagine buying a computer that didn’t connect with anything. Modems were an aftermarket product and a booming business until the IBM PC was launched with a modem built into every device. Hard to believe right? I bought my first modem at Computerland.
I hung out with Gary Kildall, founder of the first operating system CPM and his company called Intergalactic Digital Research. He missed a meeting with the newly created IBM PC team because of weather problems delaying his flight from Catalina Island. Then IBM hence went to Seattle, met with Bill Gates and decided to work with Microsoft to create and license DOS as its operating system for the PC. Of course, Microsoft didn’t have an operating system developed in-house, fibbed its way to the deal, bought a small software house in Seattle that did write it—and the rest is history. DOS, to Windows, to a $1 trillion valuation. John Cullinane was right—Bill Gates is now our most important philanthropist and business leader. Gary Kildall later died in a biker bar fight—true story. Unintended consequences of being late to a meeting I would say. In my book, “Blue Magic,” I celebrated Don Estridge who ran the PC Division at IBM. Sadly, he also died in a plane crash in Dallas, TX.
I was on keynote panels at conferences and I met Steve Jobs and bought an Apple11. It was really just a mother board, a keyboard and a cathode ray tube. This chance meeting led me to next work on the Macintosh launch team with Apple. I had one of the first 100 Mac computers that shipped and created the “Macintosh Buyer’s Guide,” which was bundled with the first 1 million computers sold. I worked on the launch of the laser printer and met the founders of Adobe, which made the software that powered this creative output.
PC’s were launching and Time magazine named the PC as the “Man of the Year” and I was sampling it all.
I bought a Commodore Computer; and met with and worked with Jack Tramiel—a holocaust survivor and truly the grittiest operator in the industry.
I bought an Osborne Computer; and hung out with Adam Osborne. The first vaporware victim couldn’t sell its last generation product because of leaks and hype in the media. Its next generation product was eventually delayed and put the company out of business. Ever wonder why secrecy on new tech and product launches is so rampant in technology? This was ground zero for that mindset!
I bought a Kaypro Computer; and met Andrew Kay and his son. My mother saw my computer in my apartment and thought it was a Singer sewing machine!
I used first generation software, VisiCalc, and met with the great Dan Bricklin, its founder. He was from Boston.
Phillipe Kahn from Borland was another smart man, great coder, software theorist and leader. They made great software that I used.
Fred Gibbons, founder of the easy to use PFS Software line—his vision of consumer consumption of software for the masses was inspirational to me as well.
I attended Comdex and fought with Shelly Adelson about trade show displays and rent. I bought advertising in his magazine Data Communications while at Wang Laboratories. Shelly is now a gaming & gambling magnate and one of the richest men in the world.
I bought a Compaq computer; worked with Rod Canion, its founder. It was a better IBM PC clone he always insisted. His company was Texas-based.
I bought a Dell PC from mail order and met Michael Dell, also a Texas-based company. This computing industry is going mainstream I thought. Michael has become one of the world’s most respected business leaders.
I was at the launch of Lotus 123 and met the great Mitch Kapor—a fantastic human being, very transcendental, a great leader and humanist. Together, we later went on to help to create the open source movement and Mozilla post the Netscape acquisition at AOL (look it up!).
David Bunnell was another gifted friend and thinker and started many important PC and MAC-themed magazines and conferences. I miss him a lot. MACWORLD was my favorite conference each year at the Moscone Center. Again, died way too young.
I also met with Nolan Bushnell and bought an Atari game counsel. He invented PONG, which I believe is the first social gaming platform and precursor to esports. People watching other people play video games, right? I did this in bars with my buddies all the time!
I met and knew Dennis Barnhart, founder and CEO of Eagle Computer. His company went public in which they made clone-like computers but used the CP/M operating system. Sadly, he was test driving a Ferrari to celebrate and died in a car accident the day of his IPO. Another great industry tragedy and life lesson. Don’t spike the ball at the 10-yard line for sure!
I used one of the first handheld devices, the Palm, co-invented by Ed Colligan. I thought this was like the “Dynabook” concept come to life. I used that Stylus a lot doing my email—tap, tap, tap. I used a Blackberry too and knew its founder, Jim Balsille. He later wanted to buy NHL teams. Instead he should have focused on making Blackberry more like Android. Software, not hardware—platforms, not devices.
Hambrecht and Quist was a leading tech banker. Dan Case was the leader—”Upper Case” was his nickname—and he introduced me his little brother Steve Case—”Lower Case.” I was there to see Steve truly become a pioneer making the online world come alive and making the Internet popular and affordable by getting America Online. Dan tragically passed away far too young. The world lost a class act and giant when he left us.
We met with Dr. John Malone who is still one of the smartest men I have ever met. He correctly predicted that cable TV companies would become Internet platform companies via broadband and new bundles of TV, data and telephony.
I met with “The King of Content,” Sumner Redstone, and talked to him about interactive content and the future. Read the book, “King of Content.” It is mind blowing. We bought Moviefone; and Andrew Jarecki and I were tossed out of a meeting room by Shari Redstone as we argued about interactive online movie ticketing—true story.
Met with Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix. He delivered movies via DVD. We delivered software via CD. We were online at 2400 baud, 9600 hundred baud and would soon get faster and better; and one day we could deliver video via streaming via high speed pipes. We could use data and machine learning to deliver content where you wanted and needed it. See the similarities?
When AOL acquired Time Warner and we suggested creating a platform that streamed all content for a subscription price — music and movies and print — we were laughed at. Just as Ken Olson didn’t get it, here was the Head of HBO and then CEO of Time Warner, Jeff Bewkes, saying regarding Netflix “it is a little bit like the Albanian Army conquering the world, I don’t think so…Netflix isn’t a 800 pound gorilla. It’s a 200 pound chimp.” Good call, Jeff. This quote will follow you everywhere!
We acquired Netscape and Marc Andreesen became our CTO for a while. Actually, the smartest investor in Silicon Valley lived in Great Falls, Virginia. I bet you didn’t know that!
We mourned the passing of Daniel Lewin on 9-11, a friend and founder of Boston-based Akamai—the platform for streaming and compression. He was on one of the Boston-based planes on its way to LA and died at the World Trade Center.
We invested in Google; I went on tour with Sergei Brin. AOL owned five percent of Google until Time Warner collared the stock for $8 billion. Today, that would be worth $80 billion. What did they do with the $8 billion, they paid down cable company debt. Another odd decision by Time Warner I always thought. We wanted to acquire Google for $5 billion—that was shot down too.
We met with Jeff Bezos as he was founding Amazon and he loved our campus at AOL. Ever wonder why Amazon Cloud was created in Northern Virginia and why Amazon HQ2 is a coming to Virginia? Talent, infrastructure and access to the federal government. At one point between AOL and WorldCom, 80 percent of the world’s Internet traffic flowed under Waxpool Road near Dulles Airport.
We met with the founders of Twitter. They were inspired by AIM and status messaging—a small, cleanly designed box to let friends know what’s happening.
We met with Facebook, also inspired by hacking into AIM and how we built community.
Now I am at home, living and working on Microsoft Teams, Zoom, GoToMeeting and Cisco Webex.
Cisco’s retired great CEO is John Chambers. He led the company for 20 years and positioned the company to be the leader in networking infrastructure. The circle is complete today. I knew John Chambers as he worked at Wang Laboratories.
A journey for me 45 years in the making!