027. Internet Evangelist
“Will this impact our schedule?”…“Is it really a big deal?” …“We have something similar.” –Questions to me about the Internet and WWW
I’m about to get my first lesson in disruption. It wasn’t called that yet, the first HBR article is a year a way and the book and phrase “innovator’s dilemma” more than three years away. Trapped in the snow seeing the power of the loosely connected, mostly University-created, software almost immediately turned me into a zealot. I don’t use that term lightly. I had seamlessly transitioned from character to graphical interface, even from mainframe to PC, without suffering the pains of disruption. I had no business to run or customers to keep happy. I was just a kid, a technologist. I was now facing an entirely new challenge—not only did I feel compelled to evangelize the internet to people, but I had to wonder with every question, with every push back if I was even right. Smart, very smart, and successful, very successful, leaders at Microsoft and giants in the industry didn’t seem to get it. Who was I to be so certain? What did I know? It turns out, not knowing what I did not know was an asset.. And so begins my intense few weeks evangelizing the internet to anyone who would stop by my office and experience my dedicated internet “DTAP” connection.
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The Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) made public company filings available on the WWW. This was interesting because the information had been previously difficult to obtain and was only available with a subscription fee.
That would get BillG’s attention.
In the early stages of a technology, users are also the builders. As a result, there was a lot of easily accessed material about the WWW itself. It is often the sign of a healthy movement that there’s an ever-increasing, and ever-improving, volume of material about the movement itself. Many individuals tracked metrics such as number of servers, connectivity speed, and volume of major protocols. Part of my research was building up a data set to explain the growth and diffusion of the WWW and associated technologies.
I went to the Kinko’s on Broadway on Capitol Hill and once again used their crazy copy machine to make a big poster of the NSFNet internet backbone map of the United States. This would often become a main talking point for business-oriented discussions.
For technology discussions, I also started building my own library of important internet technical documents. These were called requests for comments (RFCs) and were the specifications for how different internet technologies worked. RFCs began with the research network itself in 1969 and continue today. While many other standards bodies started contributing to internet and networking (IEEE, ISO, W3C, etc.), much of the important work for the internet still takes place via this process. These documents are as important culturally as they are technically. When you read about email, domain names, network address translation (NAT, this was brand new at the time) you not only understand the implementation but gain a whole appreciation for the culture of openness and collaboration. These were the exact opposite of the rigid specification from IBM or the NT team.
After meeting with JAllard and hearing his excitement and also concerns, I scheduled a few more meetings. I met with people on the Chicago (what would become Windows 95) networking protocol team and the team working on higher level user features for networking. I also got an earful from my new friends in the Microsoft Information Services group about security concerns and also risks of leaking intellectual property, at the same time they were anxious to find ways to offer secure connectivity as a service to employees.
My first demo was with Bill. It was very intense and probably lasted two hours. As fast as I could click on the screen, Bill had deep questions about technology, business models, ownership, intellectual property, and more. I jotted down notes of questions I knew nothing about and kept demos moving. I was less than a week into learning the internet. Bill was two hours in.
What kind of questions did Bill ask? Though I was able to show BillG a lot, he stumped me asking to explain the difference between WinHelp, Microsoft’s relatively new online help engine, and the WWW. They were both formatted text with hyperlinks and the user experience was similar. The formats even looked the same. WinHelp used Word’s RTF format, which was also tagged as ASCII format. In fact, WinHelp looked world’s ahead of HTML because it was richer and compressed, so it took fewer bytes. On the face of it, distinguishing between WinHelp looking at Visual C++ help and Cello looking at the Novell site was not easy.
It took a few minutes for both of us to converge toward a shared understanding, but this was important learning. WinHelp at the time could not access links between different files, let alone different computers on different networks. This was a key innovation in HTTP and the invention of URIs (Uniform Resource Identifier, then often called the more specific URLs, uniform resource locators, referring to web addresses).
There were challenges that we discussed. It was going to be difficult to add more features to WinHelp. There was no WinHelp server. In fact, there were no servers anywhere. Microsoft was just starting to build servers. If someone working on WWW (HTML and HTTP) had stumbled into the conversation, they would have laughed at us thinking WinHelp was anything at all like the WWW. Just because there were links did not make them similar—the technology implementation mattered, and this theme kept emerging.
Navigating a Gopher site looked like the developing Chicago Explorer (or Windows File Manager). At least that included networking sites. But in this case Windows even lacked the basics of long file names (except on Windows NT). The similarity to directory browsing took on a more nuanced differentiation because the Windows servers were “connection based” and Gopher servers were stateless/connectionless like everything on the internet. This was a key discussion and differentiating point that, while sounding a bit esoteric, represented the challenges Microsoft faced technically in working with internet technologies.
One of the things I concluded was that as I showed different aspects of the internet to Bill (gopher, WWW, ftp, telnet, HTML, etc.) he was quick to map those to existing or envisioned capabilities in Windows or in Information At Your Fingertips. I was struck by this because, well, I did not see that at all. I saw everything on the internet as totally new and different. I saw everything we had as kind of clunky and unrelated, or at least different. As I reflect on this and now have the benefit of the vocabulary of disruptive technologies, I can see how I had an insurgent view of the technology whereas Bill had the incumbent view. As the insurgent I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by embracing the new and seeing it as different. As the incumbent, the natural inclination is to see new things from the perspective of the existing work.
To emphasize this point I found myself making printouts of screenshots of some internet technologies as well as their comparable Windows technologies (again, back to Kinkos for their color printer since we did not yet have those in the copy room). For example, I made a screen shot of WinHelp and compared it to a screen shot of WWW. I had a sample of HTML and a sample of Microsoft’s Rich Text Format from Word, called RTF. I did the same for the envisioned File Explorer in Windows and Gopher, and so on. I had these handy because as I spoke with different people I routinely found myself needing to explain what was new grounded in the reality of Microsoft’s technology platform.
The excitement around this first “new” internet demo was tangible. I repeated the demo later and we exchanged questions and answers over email. Bill had seen various bits and pieces of the earliest (pre-WWW) internet demonstrations at ThinkWeeks. Then, the internet still seemed like a competing mechanism for accessing proprietary information services—using TCP/IP packet switching instead of X.25 connections. These new demos quickly changed his view. The internet was changing faster than twice a year ThinkWeeks.
I said to Bill we needed to have an offsite—that was always a good thing to do I figured. I wasn’t sure what we would accomplish but needed to get a bunch of people in the same place thinking about this at the same time, importantly, with the same inputs. We had our focus for the upcoming internet offsite. I set a date for April 5, which gave me about 6 weeks to pull together the right people, meet and pre-brief all those people, and prepare materials.
While offsite preparation was going on, I dragged anyone I could into my office to demonstrate the WWW and discuss the internet. The program manager in me put together a standard demo script that was flashy but also explained what was going on. If you’ve ever seen the TODAY Show clip in which the anchors asked, “What’s the internet?” and then debate how to say the @ symbol (about? at? around?) and internet addresses, that almost exactly sums up what it was like to demonstrate the internet even at a leading tech company. Most Microsoft people weren’t even using AOL because most of our work activities were on CompuServe, with its clunky text interface and overpriced access to interesting information sources. There was a uniform interest and even excitement.
In big companies, however, everyone is busy. At Microsoft (and with software companies in general) every project was already late. That meant it was always the wrong time to show people something new, and most times my attempts were met with skepticism and concern.
“Will this impact our schedule?”
“Is it really a big deal?”
“We have something similar.”
J and I needed to up-level the conversation while we balanced schedules, the understanding of the technology, and the reluctance to take on new work. It wasn’t pushback; everyone understood the technology. There was a lot happening at Microsoft already between Windows Chicago, Windows NT, a new version of Office, and every other product building on those.
Every person and team, from Chicago to Cairo, reacted differently. Was the internet an app or a platform? What exactly were we worried about from a competitive perspective? Did we care about formats, protocols, or implementations? These abstract questions became fundamental to how Microsoft evolved its perspective.
Chicago was already late (originally Windows 93, we were well into 1994 and still 15 months from finishing). Most everyone on that team said of the demo, “We have the plumbing,” but apps came from third parties.
Cairo reacted differently. The skepticism mirrored that of corporate customers who viewed a body of free, university-developed software as risky and unreliable at best, or toylike at worst. The Cairo project was aimed at commercial implementations. The internet was difficult for the Cairo project to wrap itself around as it was a direct “competitor.”
NathanM and CraigMu embraced the technologies. Nathan and Craig were leading the idea of partnering with the large telecom and cable carriers to deliver home services for the information superhighway. How the internet as I was showing it related to these became interesting. As an example, AT&T viewed the internet as a “home endpoint,” like a phone. A big project they had underway was to think about how everyone could have an email address and then list that in a big directory. If that sounds like the email version of a phone number plus 411 that’s exactly how a carrier like AT&T thought of new technologies—through the lens of proprietary services and protocols.
RussS had already transitioned to work full time on the online service Marvel. Russ set out to build an entirely new network, a new dial-up service, to ship with Chicago. He went from researching an opportunity to critical path for the release of Chicago in the span of a few weeks. He saw the potential of the internet but was going to need time to absorb what impact, if any, it had.
Rob Glaser (formerly RobG) left Microsoft to form an exciting new company called Progressive Networks. It was going to be a distribution channel for politically progressive content. Rob had spearheaded Microsoft’s multimedia strategy and collaborated with Bill on many projects during his time at Microsoft. Rob was the first to ask me a lot of questions I did not know the answers to. Rob wanted to understand who paid for the internet and how it was going to be a viable model. Part of my demo “kit” was a map of major nodes on the internet and the connectivity speed. Rob wanted to understand much more about the journey of bits over the network and how that worked. He had a lot of interesting questions. Rob later renamed his company RealNetworks, which became content streaming pioneers. In September 1995, RealNetworks livestreamed a Seattle Mariners game. Rob was well ahead of almost everyone.
SteveB was overseeing (and building!) the global sales and support organization, the “field.” He was in Japan working at MSKK, but he still managed to catch a demo on a trip back. He was immersed in the growing needs of enterprise customers—Microsoft was still overwhelmingly an OEM and Retail business. He was well versed in and played back many of the typical concerns voiced by corporate customers regarding the maturity and readiness of university “free” software. One WWW site I showed him was the Novell Networking site, which was already far ahead of any Microsoft presence (well, we had no presence at all except the FTP server outside HenrySa’s office). The availability of Netware documentation in a WWW browser made an impression immediately and riled up SteveB’s competitive spirit (as if that needed any help).
Living in Japan and traveling all the time, Steve was acutely aware of the difficulties connecting to Redmond HQ for resources. Microsoft’s products, collateral, and demos were growing exponentially, and downloading all these over paltry connections was a hot button. The field created a monthly CD-ROM, which was DHLed to the subsidiary offices around the world. Maybe the internet could speed this up. Steve also wanted me to connect with someone in Product Support Services, which was managed by PattyS, to see how we should use the internet for providing product support.
I also offered demonstrations to any guests that were in the office to meet with BillG or NathanM. They were meeting all the time with people from the telecommunications industry, Hollywood, and cable television. In spirit these were a lot like the Microsoft meetings in that people were quick to try to map new technologies or experiences into the world they knew, but unlike the Microsoft technology stack I was ill-equipped to explain how NSFNet related to leased X.25 lines or how HTML might evolve to be good enough for Hollywood productions. One well-known director was thankful for the demonstration and sent a 6 foot Jurassic Park cardboard cutout that remained in my office for my tenure.
Perhaps the most fun I had were the demonstrations for my friends and peers. Erin Cullen (ErinCu) worked in corporate communications and had been poking around all the new stuff. She soon made a case to the larger team that Microsoft needed a web presence and helped to make Microsoft’s first WWW home page.
Soon, I was getting mail from all over the company requesting demonstrations. I wish I kept a list of how many times I went through my expanding and improving demos or how many times I had to explain who pays for the internet or who wrote the software we were looking at. While everyone to a person was intrigued and excited, what exactly should come next was totally unclear. I was incredibly happy that there was so much excitement. I was equally nervous that people did not “get it” like JAllard insisted needed to happen. I did not quite understand it at the time, but I was facing that ever-present corporate force that just wants to keep doing what it was doing. I had an over-abundance of misplaced confidence and a cool demo script.
I also had an offsite to prepare for and what was beginning to sink in was the opportunity to use the ability to convene the leaders who could really embrace (and extend) Internet technologies.
On to 028. Pivotal Offsite