026. Blue Suede Pumas

With every passing minute, 2 new systems become wired. A new, connected network appears every 40 minutes. In 1993 more than 25 books appeared on the shelves of major bookstore chains… JAllard memo

Microsoft was now big enough in early 1994 that it was easy to know the really old-timers (10 years was really old, 5 years was the period of doubling year over year), but anyone hired after you outside of your immediate group (or school) became more difficult to know. Working as Technical Assistant gave me a chance to meet people at every level in every product and technology group. By far, the strongest bonds I built were with people who were more peers than anything else. James “J” Allard (JAllard) just authored the memo Windows: The Next Killer Application on the Internet and after my Cornell is WIRED! exchange I was immediately connected to him as “he’s a guy who has been working in this area”. As soon as I returned from being snowed in I headed over to meet J in one of the original single-X buildings, steps from the side door of Building 8.

Head over to the comments and share your first experiences with the Internet if you were there when it was new.

Back to 025. Trapped

Back home, I went to J’s office in one of the single X buildings just across the walkway from Building 8. He had a typical Microsoft interior office for a junior program manager, but his had an aquarium with some reptile in it. Yuck. We were both wearing blue suede retro Puma Clydes. Because of our footwear, I was able to forgive the reptile, which even later, after showing up at his office 100 times, made me uncomfortable.

J graduated from Boston University in 1991 and Microsoft was his first job. At BU he worked in the computing facilities the way I did at Cornell and we bonded over that too. He described the job he was given at Microsoft as “make this TCP problem go away.” He joined the networking group at a time SteveB was still running Systems, which included the always struggling LanMan product. TCP referred to the customer problem Steve was seeing where Microsoft did not support the technology that was rapidly becoming the preferred protocol in business networks, TCP/IP. This was a time when the choice of a network protocol was a strategic business decision guided by IBM, DEC, and hopefully Microsoft someday, and few would think of using what was generally considered a research platform.

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This was one of my first lessons in Microsoft challenges in developing an internet-centric strategy. It was new to me, but for J, it was the daily “battle” he already faced. Microsoft thought it would develop a connected PC by also developing the networking protocols that connected the PCs. There was a great deal of work that had gone into many “layers” of the networking software. Microsoft could do a better job if all the parts of the network were running Microsoft software. Microsoft was not unique in thinking this, but it was late to the party.

The internet didn’t work that way, though. The protocols themselves were openly developed. Vendors developed their own implementations of those protocols, but they needed to interoperate with all the other parts of the network. J’s job was to make sure Microsoft had great support for TCP/IP, the base networking layer for the internet. Some big commercial and government customers were early in adopting TCP/IP, including money center banking and defense departments who were very large Microsoft customers.

To the Windows and NT teams, TCP/IP was one of several ways of connecting. Windows NT was designed from the start to be networking agnostic but solidly favored and made a bet on TCP/IP, which was a significant departure for a Microsoft product, and also evidence of the difference between NT and LanMan. Chicago was working hard to support Netware’s protocols, which were the current business leader, with TCP/IP support coming from NT in an evolving partnership JAllard described to me.1 The speed at which networking switched to TCP/IP was stunning. The reality was that it was vastly superior to any other solution for running corporate networks. As I recalled from my first day at Microsoft, the beeping death due to network failure was still all too common and not something I experienced in graduate school where TCP/IP dominated. TCP/IP addressed that with a much more robust approach. J re-explained all of this to me.

He was tracking the public sources of data and was seeing the exponential growth in the use of the internet. This is really what got everyone’s attention, including, and especially, BillG’s. BillG gravitated toward the exponential.

Internet growth chart 1986-1993. Source SRI international. Taken from JAllard memo.
Internet growth in total systems from 1986-1993. This can be thought of as the number of nodes (computers) on the internet as each system had a unique IP address. It is fun to think how unique my workstation was in college in 1985! (Source: JAllard memo)

The internet was over two million connected “nodes” then. In 2019, a node meant a house with dozens of devices on the internet. Then, a node was a single computer (a Mac like at Cornell or a Gopher server). It was estimated that 25 million people were using the internet and it was growing at a rate of more than 5 percent per month, 70 percent per year. Importantly all the companies that offered networking over phone lines and leased lines were starting to offer internet (or packet switched) connectivity to businesses.

The numbers were breathtaking.

By way of comparison, about 37 million PCs were sold in 1994. But growth was slowing to about 12 percent per year. Given the lack of internet capabilities of Windows, there was a clear challenge in that the Macintosh might become the preferred internet PC and, with the internet growing much faster from a similar base, the numbers could be substantial. Simply by growth metrics, the internet was going to swallow PCs.

During our discussion, J offered more technical details on the services Windows required in order to be a first-tier internet device, on both the desktop and the nascent Windows server market. The largest volume by bytes was email, but the newest service, the one used by Mosaic, was growing at an astronomical rate. At the time there were just over 600 web servers worldwide and estimates that over one million people were using Mosaic, which users downloaded from the university site by FTP, a geeky and wonky tool if there ever was one.

That wasn’t a lot on the internet compared to what AOL or CompuServe offered, and like so many things that ended up being disruptive shifts, it had a toylike feeling. The WWW server that concerned J and team the most was that their biggest competitor, Novell, had already put all their networking documentation on the internet on novell.com.

Cornell Comupter Services Terminal Operator List from October 1985, names including Steven Sinofsky and Henry Sanders
Cornell Computer Services Terminal Operations Staff List from October 1985, two of the names include Steven Sinofsky (me) and Henry Sanders (HenrySa, who was the development manager for Windows TCP/IP). (Source: personal collection, CCS STOS Handbook)

J showed me a larger tower PC with a network cable going up through the ceiling where a tile had been pushed aside. J introduced me to two members of the team, David Treadwell (DavidTr), a developer on networking, and Henry Sanders (HenrySa), a more senior dev manager. I already knew David from common connections in college recruiting. Henry went to Cornell and was a terminal operator at the same time as me, though he graduated a year ahead. I remembered him. He did not remember me at all. Henry had a good deal of fun in college.

The three of them formed the bulk of the TCP/IP networking team. They were building out Microsoft’s TCP/IP layer and additional services required for the internet, such as FTP, for transferring files and TELNET for connecting to other computers—the bare minimum required to claim any entrée into the internet world compared to the Mac or especially Unix (there was no Linux yet).

Pie chart of internet traffic by type: 41% FTP, 3% WWW, 4% Gopher, 12% email, 15% USENET, 25% Telnet
Internet T1 backbone traffic in 1993 by application type. The dominance of FTP and Telnet, both used in the scientific and computing community is readily apparent, as is the incredible rise of Gopher and WWW in just the 18 months of their combined existence. USENET was 15% of traffic, take that Reddit. (Source: JAllard memo via NSFNet statistics)

The large tower computer was an important demo. The team had created an FTP server so people could download Microsoft software. Microsoft made a version of MS-DOS freely available but did not have distribution beyond the private services like CompuServe. J said that with no “marketing,” tens of thousands of people were downloading free MS-DOS from this one computer sitting in a hallway running pre-released Windows NT and one of the earliest and most arcane internet apps, FTP. Software patches and updates were also placed there. Over 50,000 people per week visited ftp.microsoft.com, essentially as customer support, in lieu of getting the same materials at CompuServe (for a connection fee). A local company provided internet connectivity for Microsoft HQ and we were nearly all of their volume, with Microsoft’s traffic the equivalent of 25 percent of the largest provider on the internet.

It was crazy.

In a big company, the first step of solving a cross-company problem was to make sure there was someone working on it. Usually, a bunch of people say they are, but they really aren’t—big companies love to stake a claim on an area, but digging in reveals little more than a hobby or side project. On a good day, only one person was working on the problem.

Systems had a phrase for this, cookie licking, or laying claim to a technology area without actually working on it.

really was working on Microsoft’s internet strategy.

His only challenge was that he was in the networking group and working on the low-level plumbing, not on the consumer experience that was on display at Cornell. That’s where my role as TA came in. It was to bring together the right people with the right level of both technical understanding and management responsibility to create a coherent strategy. That was all.

Jumping to a conclusion and the main tool I had as a TA, the power of convening, we needed to have a big emergency offsite. I told J, after hearing about the opportunities and challenges, that I would push BillG for one. Bill loved offsites. At the end of an unrelated meeting, I told him we needed to do an offsite on the internet. He grabbed his pad and felt tip and sketched out the calendar, an actual calendar, for what remained of March and April, identifying travel dates, important meetings, and the like—he was always obsessed with his use of time and calendar constraints. A few scratches and arrows and we had a date.

Before I could begin my adventure, though, I had one problem. I could not get “on the internet.” J fixed that by connecting (a pun) me with Dave Leinweber (DaveL), an old-timer in Microsoft Information Services (MIS), the IT organization that ran the company network. I emailed DaveL right away, subject line “DTAP,” which was how one described a direct access to the internet.

DaveL arrived at my office having not really been summoned before. Before connecting me, he talked at great length about how risky the internet was for network security and what a big problem this could be. He also talked about how much it cost in internal billing. After some negotiating, and me explaining I understood the company’s concerns, we agreed I received authorization for my DTAP, a bright red network cable in a separate jack with a warning label. The rule was that I could not connect a machine to both networks at the same time, and any machine that was connected to the red plug could never be connected to the regular corporate network ever again without first erasing the hard drive.

I needed a new computer for my new setup just as Apple released the PowerBook Duo. It was a slick portable with a fancy motorized docking station that inhaled and exhaled the computer with a lovely whirr. It had a trackpad! The bulky Compaq LTE with a goofy trackball mounted vertically on the screen was an embarrassing contrast. Plus, most of the internet software I’d seen to date was Mac first or exclusive.

I set up the Mac with a static IP address as per DaveL—my Mac became one of the two million nodes directly on the internet. On the front of the Mac was a sticker with the IP address that was assigned to both me and the jack in the wall. I immediately began to download software. I first had to find an FTP client, which I did via transferring a floppy from my Windows PC after downloading the client from CompuServe on Windows. From there, I connected dots.

Several collected screenshots of "Internet Navigation Tools" including NCSA Mosaic, Gopher, WAIS
Several screenshots of internet “navigation tools”. One thing that might seem odd was that it was totally unclear in early 1994 that WWW would take over, as cool as it was, it had limitations. Marc Andreessen had added images to the HTML format exactly a year earlier than this story is taking place, see that story here. http://1997.webhistory.org/www.lists/www-talk.1993q1/0183.html Also, note that is a cookie recipe in Gopher, not browser cookies which did not yet exist. (Source: JAllard memo)

I felt like I was in graduate school again. Back then my DEC workstation was assigned an IP address and I went and added that to the university’s HOSTS table which then communicated that to all the other computers on the network at the university and everywhere. The current mechanism of having a private internet address (those 192.168.*.* addresses) was still a year or so away from general deployment.2

Screenshot of White House Library running Gopher using a Windows NT based Gopher client.
Even the White House had a Gopher server up and running, and yes this was due to the efforts of Vice President Gore. The archived White House FAQ from this exact time is fascinating https://clintonwhitehouse6.archives.gov/1994/04/1994-04-02-white-house-electronic-publications-faqs.html (Source: screenshot taken from JAllard memo)

Using Gopher from the University of Minnesota, I located programs for IRC (Internet Relay Chat, which was the successor to Talk a program I used in college) or reading USENET News. And then I finally got to Cello and eventually Mosaic. Soon, I had a folder full of internet applications, which I labeled Information Superhighway. I also learned that AOL could use an internet connection if it existed (instead of a dial-up connection), so I was experiencing AOL, except it was extremely fast. How fast? Well that DTAP running on a shared T1 line I had was about the speed of a 3G mobile phone, or less than 1 megabit per second but substantially faster than dial-up’s maximum of 56 kilobits per second.

On the right is the T1 NSFNet internet backbone from 1992, essentially the entire internet. In 1994 the backbone was privatized (again, VP Gore) and had grown significantly if you overlay the main carriers. The economics of building this out and how people would pay were still rather fuzzy, which is a fascinating development. (Source: NSFNet data via JAllard memo, vox.com collection of maps)

That first day with the internet stretched well into the early hours of the morning. I was downing Diet Cokes and making notes in a text file of cool “places” to visit on the internet. “Surfing the web” was not yet a term, but that’s what I was doing. I built a list of favorite links in a text file, which was precisely what every early user did. I felt like I was back in my TV room exploring FIDONet all over again, but everything was faster, in color, and much more fun. As it would turn out, that’s exactly what everyone did when they first got connected—make a list of interesting places.

The biggest, peaceful world event happening at that time was the Lillehammer 1994 Winter Olympics and it had an internet presence (!). I was able to find a page that had a camera pointed at the main Olympic stadium. Every minute a tiny still black and white image, like CU-SeeMe, refreshed. I downloaded a separate program that made it possible to watch the live “feed.” Unbelievable.

I found MTV.com, which was a rogue and unofficial page maintained by legendary VJ Adam Curry. It became a favorite of mine, given that I tuned in to MTV at midnight on August 1, 1981, to see “Video Killed the Radio Star” debut. Curry set up the site a few months earlier without getting permission, including registering the domain name. It was all about music and musicians, but also had audio clips that could be downloaded. These required a separate audio player for the format that was common at the time (Apple was still charging for QuickTime and Windows formats had yet to be developed; MP3 was still a year away). I found several sites with song lyrics and routinely showed people R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” comparing different interpretations of a song with rather fluid lyrics. MTV sued Curry and eventually he surrendered MTV.com to the corporate masters.

A few years later, streaming arrived, but at the time what we were seeing was mind-blowing.

Think of the most mind-blowing product experience you ever had. The product experience that left you speechless, almost hyperventilating, with a million questions and a million ideas. I had already experienced that with so many of the firsts in my own computing life: Atari, dial up BBS, IBM PC, Sun workstation, Xerox Star, Macintosh, Windows 1.0, and on and on, but none of those compared to the Internet in 1994. Talk about the luck of timing. I experienced all those things when they were firsts, so at the very least I could calibrate my own reaction to the Internet.

While it was swell that I could see this stuff, I needed to get more people excited and soon. I felt Microsoft was behind and as soon as people saw this stuff, they would see the same level of urgency I did. I quickly became an internet evangelist. First stop was BillG.

I was about to begin a huge lesson in how to change a large company. I was excited, and scared.

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On to 027. Internet Evangelist


I originally wrote this as “but not TCP/IP” leaving out some of what I experienced personally. Brad Silverberg (BradSi) and John Ludwig (JohnLu), leading Chicago and Networking, emphasized that TCP/IP was a partnership that was working well with NT. At that very moment meeting JAllard, he shared with me his view at that time (February 1994) that Chicago seemed more focused on Netware versus TCP/IP and follow-up meetings I had with Chicago were consistent with that. This would be something that changed rapidly in just a few weeks.