Bob: So, Dave, welcome to Nerd TV.
Bob: You know, I think of your career as being immensely long. It's like as long as I've been around, you've been there.
Bob: And you sorta started in the dim recesses of the early sort of pre-IBM PC days, wasn't it?
Dave: Yeah, yeah, I started - well, there was no IBM PC when I started programming on computers. There were no PCs when I started programming on computers.
Bob: When was that and where?
Dave: Let's see, I first - I guess I started in 1977 when I was a student at Tulane University, and I programmed on a IBM 7044 mainframe with punch cards, and it was a perfectly horrible experience. Didn't like programming at that time. It wasn't any fun. But, you know, it was later, not much later, that we got interactive, and we started using UNIX a few years later, and that was wonderful. And then I-
Bob: And where was that?
Dave: That was at - when I was a grad student at University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Bob: And what made you decide to make this your career?
Dave: A very visceral reaction to it. I mean I just knew that this was what I was gonna do. When I - there was a moment when I was sitting there at the keyboard and program. I just understood it. It just made sense to me. I just got it, and I had - there were lots of things that I really liked, and if you'd asked me when I was a teenager if I would end up being a programmer, I would've said, "That's the most ridiculous thing/idea in the world." Absolutely not. No, I was the editor of an underground newspaper. I was a promoter of rock concerts. I was a drug dealer. I was a-
Bob: What did you deal?
Dave: Well, mostly acid, actually.
Dave: If you wanna know. I wasn't expecting the conversation to go that direction, but -
Bob: You took it that way.
Dave: Yeah, well, you asked it. Yeah, I did. I know, absolutely.
Bob: Yeah, no, no, that's fine. Statute of limitations has passed. It's fine.
Dave: Whatever, you got it. And, you know, I forgive myself for all those crazy things I did. But-
Bob: So you wouldn't have expected to be -
Dave: No, I hated computers. I thought they were - this was like the '60s and the '70s, and the feeling was that computers were military/industrial complex, and this was the instrument of the thing that we were against. You know, this sort of sterile life. But turns out it was the hippie side to computers, too. And once I understood there was this sort of liberation aspect of it that it could turn into a printing press for everybody. It could be a way for all of us to express ourselves and not have to go through - you know, you didn't have to have a million dollars to be able to publish or to broadcast. I got that pretty early on. That this was a writing medium and a publishing medium. And then I read Ted Nelson's book, which meant so much to so many people.
Bob: Computer Lib?
Dave: Yeah, Computer Lib, and by that time I had already done my first Outliner, and so I thought that I was like - this was like my big secret - that nobody had ever done one of these before. So part of it was actually a little disturbing to find out that - we were talking about Doug Engelbart before. That Doug had done all of his work before. Some of the same ideas that I thought that I had been the first guy to do. So that was a - for a young man who's out to change the world, which all young men are out to do, that was a little disturbing.
On the other hand, it was very good to realize that I wasn't the only one who realized - who felt that this technology had implications for freedom. It meant something about freedom.
Bob: How did the Outliner come about?
Dave: Well, I was talking with a friend of mine who was a Lisp programmer, really loved Lisp, and he was telling me about a feature that they had in Lisp editors called Function Illusion, which allowed you to - you know, Lisp was all about names with parentheses. So it's just a ton of - so in order to manage all those parentheses, the software that you use to edit a Lisp program knows how to take all the detail out and just show you the sort of skeleton of it. So you can sort of walk through the structure of a Lisp program.
And I thought, since I wasn't programming in Lisp, I was programming in Pascal and then C, that it would be nice to have something like that for those languages. And so I decided to write an editor like that. This is when I was at Wisconsin. And I showed it to my colleagues in the Computer Science Department. And this is an experience that I repeat to this day - that you try to - computer guys don't wanna try new things out. I mean the theory is that we're very innovative people. But, in fact, we're anything but innovative. And so I showed it to them. They scratched their heads, and they said, "Well, that looks great, but I think I'll continue using the regular old editor that I'm using."
And I thought it would be like in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle Ice Nine that just sorta, you know, the whole world froze because of this great thing. Well, not quite - nobody wanted to use it. So it sorta sat around, and I lived in this great house with - I had nine roommates on West Wilson Street in Madison. And it's still there. I went back to Madison a few years ago. So it's much smaller than I remember it being. I hadn't -
Bob: It always is.
Dave: It always is. It's amazing. And all these places that I remembered where we had a garden and stuff. There were - I couldn't find it, 'cause there were just trees everywhere. You know how much - enough time has passed so that there are trees that are full grown where there was like nothing.
Bob: Your youth had been reforested.
Dave: I am so old. That's - it made me feel very old. But so I just happened to show this editor to one of my roommates who was, you know, nothing - had nothing to do. These guys weren't computer science guys. They thought it was kinda neat that here was this computer science guy who actually could speak English sentences. You know, and like to drink beer and party and play croquet and meet broads and, you know, whatever.
And so I showed to him. The guy said, "Well, I'd like to use that." I said, "Well, you can't use that. This isn't for you." And this is like another little lesson about how the mind of a computer guy works. It's like the answer, first answer is always no. I can't do it. But - and that's me. That's the way my mind works, too. But very often the next day I figure out how to do it.
And so I said, "Oh, okay, well, I could just take out the Pascal part. Just take it out." And so I did, and that turned out to be a tool that - and I downloaded it for people in the English Department. They thought it was really cool. They said, "Wow, you know, I could use this." And I said, "Well, this is really-" and it's a interesting sort of - it's a theme that I would call - today I call that users and developers party together. The idea is that you need to have both. You need to have - you can't just have developers.
There is this like - there was this blog post on the Google blog that said about coders, said, "It's a coder's world. We just live in it." And that's just wrong. That's not true. It's hubris. It's not true. It's God's world and programmers are not gods. And this is one of the fundamental problems of computer culture, of Silicon Valley, you know, the whole nine yards. It's not true. I mean you need to have users. You need to have developers.
And so it's a very long story from there to the point where they're actually - I had a commercial Outliner. But that is where I - that was the moment at which I flipped, and I said, "Okay, I'm not making a tool for programmers as much as I'm making a tool for people, for literate people - for people with ideas, for people with information that they want to organize." And it turned out to be a very good tool for doing exactly that.
Bob: Now, some people watching this won't even know what an Outliner is.
Dave: Right, sure.
Bob: What's an Outliner?
Dave: Well, it's a tool for organizing outlines, of course. An outline is basically a hierarchy. And it has like two distinguishing features. One is that you can control the level of detail. So - and the Outliners I write, we call that expanded and collapse. So I can put my cursor on a headline and say I wanna collapse it, and then everything that's subordinate to that - that's indented underneath it - doesn't get deleted. It just is taken out of the display. Or I can put my cursor on something else and say I wanna expand that and see what's underneath it.
So you can have control over what you're looking at, and so you can be manipulating a very large structure with hundreds of thousands of items in it. But you can still get a very manageable view of that. Right?
Dave: And the other key feature is that you can reorganize according to structure. So you can put your cursor on a given headline, and you can drag it to some other location. When you do that, everything that's underneath it moves with it. And this - you'll see that in - I mean people might wonder, "Well, okay, every piece of software has that, basically. The file system has it. Word processors have that. Presentations programs."
Programming language editors don't generally have it, although they should. But before there was an Outliner, before these tools were commercialized, they didn't have it. Yeah, there was a time when we're - when these tools did not have that ability, and so -
Bob: And we can thank you for it.
Dave: Well, I would think that's a little presumptuous to say. Certainly somebody -
Bob: Yeah, no, it's presumptuous for you to say it.
Dave: Okay, right, very good.
Bob: But for me to, it's not at all.
Dave: Very nice, thank you very much. I still think it's a little presumptuous, because it would've happened no matter what. Had I not done it, it's just like such a basic piece of programming that it would've had to get done.
Bob: Now how were you introduced to the world of commercial software?
Dave: Well, I always was sorta driven to be commercial. I always thought that ideas didn't really get proven until you actually, you know, I don't know where that idea came from. It was just sorta like part of who I was that I felt that I needed to - it was part of being disciplined. So I did my first Outliner when I was a student, and then after I finished my graduate degree, my master's degree, I could've gone to continue.
But at that time I was reading Byte magazine. There was a computer store had opened in Madison. I was seeing ads for Apple II computers in Playboy magazine, and, you know, various mainstream publications had ads for - these little ads for Apple computer, and they were very nice ads, actually. It was kinda imaginative, you know.
And so there was something going on, and so I took six - I think it was six months was about what it - maybe eight. I forget exactly how long to write an Outliner on - outside of - I bought myself a personal computer, a CP/M machine, and got UCSD p system running on top of that. And then I wrote an Outliner and a database, and that was still in Madison.
Once I got those things up and running, I said, "Well, okay, there's no opportunity for me to go commercial here in Madison," so I basically loaded all my stuff onto a van and drove out to - I noticed that all these towns in the back of Byte magazine all were sort of in the same area. You know, Mountain View and Sunnyvale. I had this whole idea of these Swiss Alp-type villages, you know, with the beautiful vistas of the mountains and in Sunnyvale and it just sounded great. So I drove out here.
Bob: Yeah, tilt-up buildings, yeah.
Dave: Yeah, oh, well, I thought of little ski lifts running up the mountain, you know. People wearing these beautiful leiderhosen and yodeling. I really did have those images. And then I got the culture shock of 280. I mean driving into the Valley was an amazingly depressing thing. And, you know, it was like - well, whatever. And I worked -
Bob: No leiderhosen to this day.
Dave: No, you hardly ever see leiderhosen on El Camino. And so I worked my way through the organization at Apple. I had a meeting with Steve Jobs and with John Couch, who was the VP of Software Engineering. And I offered them both my Outliner and my database. And they wanted the database. I developed an Outliner, and I didn't mention that. Outliner and a database. I offered them both, and they wanted the database, and I said, "Don't-" I was 24 years old, so I was really stupid, and I said - like all 24 year olds are stupid this way. I said, "No, no, no, you don't want the database. You want the Outliner."
Today, at 50, I would say, "Give 'em the database. Let 'em have the database." Keep the Outliner. My reasoning was they had just gotten their first floppy drive. Up until that point, they had had a tape drive, and the floppy drive was really slow, and it could store 140K. You know, that's - well, not a whole lot of data can fit on 140. Even in 1979, you know, it was not exactly what you would think of. It was something to be putting databases on.
So I went down the street and found a company called Personal Software, which was actually looking for an Outliner. And that was the most amazing coincidence imaginable, because nobody, it turns out, was - except for them - looking for an Outliner. And nobody but me had one.
Bob: Now was that Dan Fylstra?
Dave: That was Dan Fylstra, and Dan got it. Dan understood outlining, and it was amazing. I mean it wasn't like - and I even - before I told him what it was, I asked him to describe what an Outliner is to me, so that I wanted to sort of like to figure out whether he really knew it or whatever. And, yeah, he described it to me, and I said, "Wow." I was pretty impressed that he had figured it out, and so it was - a lot of people say bad things about Dan Fylstra. He wasn't a great guy for running a business or whatever, but - and I don't know if that's true or not, 'cause he never really did get a chance to run the company. The VCs sorta took it away and ran it themselves.
But he sure did understand software. And so I did a deal with him, and - but it didn't end happily. Basically, the company grew really, really quickly, and he was very quickly replaced by a guy from Intel who really didn't have a good feel for software, and he knew it. And then to really run a software business, I think we know now that you really do have to like software and you have a feel for it and whatever. But, at that time, it was a feeling was, well, you could like just be - have an MBA and run a software company and that would be fine. But, you know, so-
Bob: For those who don't have the long memories that we do, Personal Software was the publisher of VisiCalc.
Dave: Oh, right, yes, you mentioned that, yeah.
Bob: You know, the first spreadsheet.
Dave: It was a juggernaut.
Bob: The monster Apple II program.
Dave: Yeah, no, that was the other thing. That was the reason why I wanted to go with them. Once I - I mean I wanted - I was very interested in working with 'em, because Fylstra understood the Outliner, but the real reason I wanted to work with him was I got to demo VisiCalc, and I felt like I was looking into the mind of God. I mean it was like, "Wow." I mean, and still, I get goose bumps, right? I mean it - you don't - there are very few moments like that in a career where you're sort of whole point of reference shifts. You get a whole new look at the way the world works, because what they were doing was something that I only thought I was doing. Which was they were designing user interfaces.
You know, if you'd asked me, I woulda said, "Hey, my software is really easy to use." But I hadn't tested it. I hadn't done the thing that I needed to do to really make it ea - and, to be honest, neither had they. They had taken a big leap in user interface with VisiCalc, but it was still really early, and they only had 32K to play with, which isn't a whole lot of user interface.
The next guy that came along, Mitch Kapor, who was also there. Now, Mitch really did - he took it to the next level. And Mitch, of all of us, were - I mean this - Personal Software was kind of like - it's happened to me a few times. Been very lucky in my career to have been in this kind of a place a few times where basically so many great people were there in one place, that it couldn't like hold all of them. And it had to blow apart, and everybody went on to do something else that was great.
I mean so Mitch was there, and he was doing a program called VisiPlot, and, which was not -
Bob: Which he did, what, Tiny Troll and it became this -
Dave: It was called - you have a good memory. It was called Tiny Troll, and they bought it, and they turned it into VisiTrend/VisiPlot. And the thing that was really cool about those programs was, was that they had this really interesting user interface with cursor that moved over the commands, and the commands - then when you moved your cursor over the command, it explained what the command was.
Even that wasn't the big deal. The big deal was the mind of Mitch. I mean what Mitch taught me was he would take - he'd sit - you could sit him down with a piece of software, and he would reach into his shirt - jacket pocket, take out a little notebook, put it down next to him on the computer. He would sit there, type a little bit, use it, and then he would take a little note, and he would sit down and type a little bit more. He would use it some more, take a little note. And when he was finished, he had a to do list. And that was if you did all those things that were on the list, and you brought it back to him, he would do it again. Okay?
And then this idea of successive refinement of user interface, and of using, of actually using the software - the developer actually using the software - as a way of improving it, because the feeling was, well, you know, and this was where Personal Software went way wrong. Okay? They started hiring all these guys from the Pentagon, and they had all this real engineering culture for specifying software. And their feeling was, "Well, you just never - it was all hands off." The engineer never actually used the software. It was crazy.
I mean, and so Mitch's attitude was quite the opposite, is that if you don't use the software, you're just simply never going to get there. And he was right. And I adopted everything I could learn from him, every - every idea there with - and it was a key element for success. I mean up until that point - and then the next thing, which nobody had taught me, was to actually have the guts to sit there while a user uses your software. Okay, and don't say anything.
Bob: It's terrifying, isn't it?
Dave: It is, no, it's incredibly depressing and revealing at the same time. I mean the first time I did it, the guy said - I realized - he didn't even have to say anything before I understood exactly what the problem was. He said, "The software doesn't say anything to me." And he was right. It just sat there. Didn't actually say anything. Well, there's a clue. Maybe the software should say something.
Bob: Maybe it should.
Dave: Maybe, and then, of course, I've learned that is that the first thing that the software says to you is - well, of course, the Mac was, you know, ultimate. The first thing it said was, "Hello." You know, hi. I mean brilliant. You know, this beautiful thunderous sound, "Hello." It worked.
I was there at the rollout, too, in 1984. That was another moment when there were all these - this confluence of incredible people in one room on one day. And it didn't work. Just like Personal Software didn't work. Well, the first Mac didn't work either. But it still brought together an incredible group of people, which did end up going onto - you know, I met - not all the people that did it ever got credit for having done it.
I mean the history focuses on just a handful of people. And the truth is that it was actually a much greater group of people that were involved in doing that, so - And then the other place was Wired. I was a contributing editor of Wired in 1993-1994. And that was another one of those places where - this was the sort of - the culture, Internet culture sort of birthing ground. And Louis Rosetto had - like Dan Fylstra, like Steve Jobs - had a sense for how to bake a cake out of personalities. And the people that he brought together there were just absolutely incredible.
Bob: How did he reach you? How did he find you?
Dave: Well, gotta fast forward. I mean I started a company and went through all these iterations and finally got to success, sold the company out to Symantec. Right, we went public, and I was lucky. I made enough money that I didn't have to work. I started a new company, UserLand Software, and learned all the lessons of being a second time entrepreneur, which really hard lessons.
Bob: What are they?
Dave: Oh, there's one basic lesson, really, is that, when you're a second time entrepreneur, you try to achieve success on your terms, right? In the first time through, if you did achieve success, it wasn't on your terms. You know, the world screwed you 50,000 different ways, okay? And you're pissed off about that. You're very angry that you had to like to be - oh, Steve Ballmer has this great phrase called "BOGU" which stands for, B O G U, which stands -
Bob: Oh, Bend Over and Grease Up.
Dave: And he was very good at that. That was his secret to success with IBM. That's how they managed to run circles around IBM is Steve didn't mind handing him the soap, whatever. Does he clutch his knees or his ankles? Anyway, well, there's an awful lot of BOGU in being a successful entrepreneur, and so the second time around you go, "Well, I'm not gonna work really hard. I'm just gonna be smart, 'cause I know I'm really smart. And I'm gonna have - I'm not gonna have to make do with an inadequate computer, and we're gonna have a really good PR firm, and they're gonna take care of the PR issues for us the whole time through. And everything's gonna be done first-class. We're just gonna do it the right way this time." As opposed to, "Well, it didn't work."
Fact is that you always got a competitor that's willing to do all the awful things that you have to do to be successful, and the fact is to achieve that level - any level of success, I think you really do have to burn yourself out. I really do. I don't think there's a shortcut. And so that's the - that seems to be the story that a lot of second time entrepreneurs go through. I think they - that we all end up learning that one. And so -
Bob: And most of them aren't successful as second time entrepreneurs for that reason.
Dave: ________ none of them are really. I mean it's just - second time entrepreneurs, you might as well just skip it, because - yeah, I just don't see there's a way to do it. I mean it - it wasn't, you know, I guess the answer is it wasn't so - really wasn't so great the first time. I mean the lessons you learn are good lessons, and they serve you equally well whether you decide to be an entrepreneur again or not.
And so I ended up leaving UserLand in, I guess it was late 1993. The company didn't end, but I left it. I still retain majority ownership of it, but I couldn't continue doing it. It wasn't working, and it turns out to be one of the best decisions I ever made, because that was the - the end of 1993 was a perfect time to be free, to have your eyes open and to be able to go around.
You know, so I spent a few months just falling apart and going crazy, 'cause I'd burnt out so thoroughly. And then I popped up for air, and I started doing what I often do when I don't have anything else to do, which is just go knock on peoples' doors and ask 'em what they're doing. And I had enough of a track record in the industry at that point that pretty much people would take my call and they would let me - they would tell me what they were doing. And so I went basic - I went all around. I went to Microsoft. I went to Motorola. I went to IBM, to Apple, and, you know, lots of small start-up companies and whatever. Sort of found out what everybody was doing.
And then a friend of mine, Sally Atkins, who was the CTO at Stanford at the time, which was not a big position then. I think today it probably is, but then it wasn't. And she said, "You gotta check out this thing called the Web." And so she took me on a tour through - she showed me the Palo Alto Times on the Web. She sent me down to see the guys at Santa Cruz Operation. This is before they sold out - became this pariah of software industry. They were good guys then. And they showed me HTML and FTP and HTTP and SMTP, and I remember really well the epiphany when I realized that, "Wow, this stuff is really simple. This stuff is so transparently simple." It's so simple that you can't believe that's all there is to it.
And, at the same time, the software industry, the Microsofts and the Borlands and Apples and IBMs and, you know, the open doc consortium was kind of like the epitome of - that was that generation running out of gas, basically. They were building specs that filled bookshelves worth of - they explained to me that open doc was basically what they did was every company had a bookshelf worth of documentation for their formats and protocols.
So all they did was they just took all the bookshelves and put them together and called that open document. And nobody ever looked to see how they fit together, if they do fit together. They just didn't fit together.
And I felt that, and Microsoft was doing the same thing, with MAPI and OLE and OLE automation. It was all this crap. And HTML and the Web browser was doing all of that, and the docs for HTML were practically non-existent. And so I wrote a piece. I was sending out e-mails to friends of mind. And I wrote a piece called "Bill Gates versus the Internet." And it was basically saying, Bill Gates - I don't know if - we can't use dirty language probably.
Bob: Sure we can.
Dave: Oh, we can?
Dave: Well, it said basically, "Bill Gates, You're Fucked." I mean it's like - it didn't' quite use those terms, but, you know, everything you're trying to do isn't going to work. And you might as well like give it up. Or like whatever. And it was like a freedom - ah - I'm not giving you advice, Bill Gates, I'm just saying, "Wow, I'm free. I can do all this." Not of least of which was that I was able to send out these e-mails to people. I was publishing. And I didn't need a publisher. I was just sending 'em out.
And the most amazing thing happened was within like a half hour I got a response from Bill Gates. And he was classic Bill Gates. It was just sort of whiney and, you know, and irreverent. I mean," No, you know, you think we're gonna sell any fewer Expedias or Flight Simulators just because you can send e-mail to people?" So I ran it, and that opened peoples' eyes. That sorta turned their heads around. I said, "Wow, you know, this is a medium that's quick, and it can be incredibly spontaneous, unedited, no filters." There's Bill Gates, and Bill Gates didn't mind. Bill Gates kinda liked it, I think, you know.
I didn't get an e-mail from him that said, "How dare you do this without permission." That's not Bill Gates. Bill Gates sort of is a dice roller. I admire that about Bill Gates, that he really doesn't worry too much about things like that. That's good. And I think that he would - two or three years - I think it was two years later, he had his famous come to Jesus meeting where everybody came down - came up to Redmond where he explained how they're - he's gonna turn the whole company around, and everything's gonna be directed.
In other words, it took him two years to basically agree with that DaveNet that all the crap he was doing wasn't working, and now he needs to go redo the company. And he's still fighting that battle. He still is trying to turn that ship back to 1992, before the Internet, and it's still not gonna work. And that's why Jim Allchin just quit, or was fired, your choice. Finally, I think that's run out of gas. That they realize that they can't get back to that place. They can't -
Bob: Well, tell me more about this. He, two years after he read what you wrote -
Dave: Well, I don't think there was a connection between the two, by the way. I don't want you to think -
Bob: Well, no, no, no, I'm not suggesting that, necessarily, though you were there.
Bob: He did read what you wrote.
Dave: He did read that, yeah.
Bob: And there were certainly many more influences that affected him.
Bob: And during that time period, he came to understand - I know he has his weekend, epiphany weekend where he searched the Web and saw the Louvre, and, you know, that was it.
Bob: So he came in and said, "We're doing it differently." But now you're suggesting that he's tried to go back to the old way?
Dave: Oh, they're always trying to go back to the old way. I mean to Microsoft, it's - the Internet, the Web is a very nasty joke. It's sort of like just the moment when you achieve complete world domination, God up there is having a really great laugh at your expense, because just at that precise moment when you're sewing the whole thing up, okay?
Dave: He pulls the rug out from under you, and all of a sudden none of the things that you've worked hard to gain control over matter anymore. It's like it - I mean Bill Gates, if you study the life and the - I mean I've been listening to Bill Gates speak since 1980 was the first time heard him speak. And all the time his theme has been - I mean there's gonna be a great tragedy written about Bill Gates someday, okay? I think he is our generation's tragic figure. I mean that he - his idea - he's the son who was going to not repeat the mistakes of the father. In this case, the father being IBM.
And, well, joke's on you, Bill. You repeated the mistake. You did exactly the same thing that they did. You tried to turn the clock back. You can even find the microchannel architecture. It's called Hailstorm. You know, there was a moment when IBM said, "Okay, enough of this PC crap. We're gonna take control again, and we're gonna shut down all you cloners."
Well, didn't work. And Microsoft said the same thing. "Well, okay, you didn't wanna buy our network. You went with this crazy thing called the Internet. Well, it doesn't have an identity system, so now we're gonna impose our - instead of 50,000 different identity systems, we're gonna impose our identity system, and you're all gonna get behind us.
Well, no. We didn't get - nobody got behind 'em. Nobody would, you know, not that he had a credi-
Bob: That was Passport or-
Dave: Yeah, Passport, Hailstorm, the whole nine yards. Right. Not that he had a credible pitch, 'cause he didn't. His whole thing, at the same time he was being convicted of anti-trust. And the depriving of air supply was a pretty good argument against ever like signing up with anything Bill Gates wanted you to do. He didn't even have a good pitch. I mean, you know, I was actually expecting more. That the pitch would - I didn't think the pitch would work, but -
Bob: Well, but it's the second time entrepreneur syndrome.
Dave: I don't think those rules apply.
Bob: He wanted it to be easier.
Dave: I don't think it applies to Bill Gates. He's not a second time entrepreneur. These are different rules. He's in a whole different place. No, these rules-
Bob: Where is - what place is that then? Where is he?
Dave: Well, that's a whole 'nother thing. Let's spend an hour talking about that some day. I'm not -
Bob: Okay, another time.
Dave: I mean that - I have to give that some thought as to where he is. He's a fascinating figure here. I mean he's got longevity. Right now, I think he's still sulking. I think he's still pissed off about the - not being appreciated well enough for all the things he's done for us. And the anti-trust thing was a classic example of that. He doesn't get that he deserved that - that he earned it. That it was - that there is some incredible hubris. Sure, he went to go see the Louvre, right?
Dave: He had - I totally believe that he went out and actually learned how to use the Web, but I don't think Steve Ballmer did, okay? And I think it's hubris to - in whatever year he put Steve Ballmer in as CEO of Microsoft, when the Web is still exactly where we are at - to put a guy in as CEO of the largest technology company who doesn't even use the damn thing.
See, this is breaking the fundamental rule, and Bill Gates knows that's the rule, and he's screwing us. And this is like - this isn't a leader. This is Mr. Burns, you know, from the Simpsons. This is a miser who is just doing this to spite us. I'm hoping someday that Bill Gates decides to rejoin the human race and tries to do for this industry what he's doing for medicine. You know, I mean it's nice what he's doing to try to cure all those diseases. When he talks about that, you go, "Well, he's a mensch," right?
Dave: You know, "He's a good human being." But when he talks about software, he's not a mensch. And his leverage here is so much greater than it is in healthcare. He doesn't know anything really about healthcare. He hires experts to teach him about it, and he does - probably does what they tell him to do, and he adds a little bit of his brilliance. 'Cause he does have an incredible mind, right?
Dave: But if he really wanted to make software work, if he really wanted to overcome the legacy of IBM, he could do it. But it would have to be generous. He would have to open his heart, you know, and he hasn't been willing to do that yet, I don't think.
Bob: No, I'm not sure we'll see it.
Dave: Well, whatever. It's not our problem, really, because the world has moved beyond that. It was certain that at some point, given enough time, it would heal itself. And I think we've now moved to that point. I realized a few days ago that I'm using Gmail as my primary e-mail thing. And then I became a beta tester of Yahoo!'s new mail client. And it's wonderful. It's better than Gmail, right?
Dave: And I go, "Wow, here I've got two really good product development organizations competing to give me better software, and neither of them is Microsoft, and neither of them is Apple." And I go, "This is it. We've escaped - we've gained escape velocity. We-"
Bob: Well, not only that, neither of them is charging you anything.
Dave: Well, okay, well, you think that's really that important?
Bob: Well, I mean -
Dave: I think they are charging me. They are.
Bob: But it's a factor. I mean, you know, they're in business.
Dave: No, no, but they are charging me. They are. I mean the ads are there, right?
Dave: I'm seeing ads. I don't think they're not charging me. I think they're charging me. I don't think that's important. I would be happy to pay for those things. I don't think that - no, what I like is, I think that software developers - this goes sorta back to what we were talking about at the beginning - is that software developers, you know, we - I don't know if we got - no, I didn't - we were singing Alice's Restaurant before. I hate that, 'cause you never should talk before you do a tape of something, right? 'Cause now I'm gonna refer back to what we talked ________.
Bob: We could sing again, but I think it would be a waste of time.
Dave: Well, okay. There's this great song by Arlo Guthrie called Alice's Restaurant, and the first lyric is "You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant." And it's a wonderful theme song for software developers, because that's the attitude a software developer should have about users, is that you can get anything you want. Whatever it is you want, that's my job is to give it to you. Okay?
And we get so far away from that in our industry, and when we do we get really sick. You know? And you get all these pretensions from all these guys who say these things that make your eyes glaze over, so that you don't understand what the hell they're talking about. Right?
Dave: And this is the method of Silicon Valley. This is why I left Silicon Valley. This is why I don't wanna come back to Silicon Valley. This is why I live in Berkeley, and I'm not living in San Jose. And why I may leave in six months, because it's so hard to get away from this idea that programmers are gods, and you poor user, should sit at their feet and should accept whatever gifts they give you. That's wrong.
The answer is we wanna - I'm a developer, and I want to party with you, and I'm only gonna have fun if you're enjoying what I'm doing. And if you're not, I wanna know why, because I wanna make the software fun for you, because that's how I have fun. Okay?
And so that's what - now if you - I've never met the Gmail guys, okay?
Dave: But I have a funny feeling that they would agree with that, okay?
Dave: Why? Because they use their software. I have met the Yahoo! Mail guys, and I know that they get it. I mean these are delightful young people. I mean I'm proud to say that as a old fart of the software industry, guy who you say has been here since the trees were little seedlings, right?
Dave: I'm glad to say that we're gonna be leaving this industry in the hands of people like the guys doing Yahoo! Mail, because they don't have any pretensions about having the answer. They think the answer is in all of us, and that we're gonna work together to figure it out, and that works. And that's where I'm happy. Apple actually does work, okay? It's the exception to the rule. It is the you sit at his feet and you receive the word of God. Okay. I personally can't stomach that. I cannot sit in a goddamn room with Steve Jobs doing that. I wanna puke, you know?
Dave: It grosses me out, but there are a lot of people who like it, and his art is impeccable. I mean I did finally break down and buy a Mac, and I got it, and I like it. Hey, it's a nice computer. It feels good. It's - I like my Sony VAIO, too, but the Mac's a good computer. He breaks the rule, and he gets away with it. But nobody else does.
Bob: Well, there can only be one of those at any given time.
Dave: There really shouldn't even be one. Well, you see, his fatal flaw is the iPod, right? And the iPod's wonderful. It's breaking the market in every - it's breaking it wide open. But it's breaking it wide open for somebody else, because he's playing the damn game the same way he always does. He can't get spread out far enough to actually be the guy who continues to run it later. He's doing it again.
He probably knows he's doing it, okay. And he's certainly cleaning up. And we'll pay attention to whatever he comes out with next. That's for sure. And it probably will be great, so, you know, but that's his fatal flaw. But it's probably one that he factors in. Jobs factors in, probably.
Bob: While we still have time -
Dave: How much time do you-
Bob: I don't know.
Bob: I don't know.
Dave: All right.
Bob: But let's get to RSS.
Dave: Oh, RSS, right, yeah.
Bob: Because, you know, that's sort of in the kind of second chunk of your career. This is what you're best known for.
Dave: Is it? I don't know.
Bob: I thought so.
Dave: Yeah, okay.
Bob: What do you think you're best known - I mean other than raconteur and lover.
Dave: I don't know. I have no perspective on it. I'm a great guy. That's what I'm known for. No, I don't know. Sure, I probably am best known for RSS. Yeah, I mean RSS - so you wanna know how R -
Bob: How did it come about?
Dave: How'd it come about, okay. Well, it was kind of an accident. It wasn't like I said we need - like I envisioned any of what's happened with RSS. At the beginning, I didn't. Basically, there was this guy from Microsoft, Adam Bosworth. He's no longer at Microsoft. Who was pestering me. I've known Adam for a very long time. He was one of the original, like me. He's a greybeard. Even though he doesn't have a beard. An original Silicon Valley guy.
He did a database. I think it was called ANSA, and he sold out to Borland, and then he did - I believe he did a spreadsheet for them, and he did the database for Microsoft. I think he did Access.
Dave: Yeah, he did Access. And then he became the XML czar at Microsoft. And he's - Adam is a great evangelist. I mean he understands how this stuff works. It's that you work the - you never take no for an answer, and you decide what you want, and you just go doggedly get it. And you don't give up, and he decided that I should be doing XML, that he needed me to do XML. And so he came to visit me. I lived in Woodside at the time, and he came down to visit me. He was this big, you know, honcho at Microsoft. And, of course, I met with him. I know him. I like him. He's a great software designer, and always happy to meet with a guy who knows what he's doing with software.
And I said, "Well, you know, this is gar- I'm not gonna do this." I told him it's like this is the province of big companies, and you guys are gonna screw it up, and I told him all the stories I told you about bookshelf-size specs, and how that you guys are just gonna completely mess this thing up.
And so he said, "Okay, well, I'll just come back." And so he came back, and I told him the same thing again. "I'm not gonna do." Fourth time, I said, "Okay, I guess I have to do something here."
Bob: Four times he came?
Dave: Yeah, he came four times, and so after-
Bob: Why did he need you?
Dave: I don't know. He - well, he had - I can tell you what he said. I don't know. I mean he said that he had an intuition that XML and Outlines were very similar things. And I was sort of the acknowledged expert on Outlines.
Dave: In the computer world, basically, and - or he was acknowledging me as that, and he sorta had an intuition that I would do something good with XML. I guess he was right, right?
Dave: I mean, and so what happened was, I started looking around for things that I could XML-ize. Just what data do I have lying around that - 'cause that's the idea basically. You know, XML is a way of creating file formats. It's really not a very glorious thing. It's really kinda simple, you know.
Dave: It's - all these guys think of it - I didn't quite understand what the hell these guys were talking about. It sounded like they were talking about a programming language.
Dave: But it's not a programming language. It's a file - it's a way of creating file formats, and that's what I thought then, and that's what I think now. And I think that, in the end, that's what really it is. And so I had - I did a thing for site changes that would keep track of all the pages that changed on a website. Actually, that is now something that Google is doing. And this was in 1997. So that was a good idea, but I didn't stay with that one. Didn't work too hard on it.
Then I did a thing called Scripting News Format, which was a way - an XML-ization of my blog which is Scripting News. And www.scripting.com. And so every day when I published Scripting News, in addition to the HTML version, it would produce the XML version. And so my thought there was, "Well, this is - now it's not a chicken and egg. So I'm gonna publish in this format. I'm gonna publicize it. I'm gonna say, 'Okay, anybody wants to build an application off of this, great, go for it.'"
And very little uptake in the - this was late 1997. And then during 1998, Vignette, which was a contact management company, did some experiments with it, and there were some open source developers that did some stuff. Not very much at all happened. And then in early 1999, I started getting some e-mails from people at Netscape. And they were pretty excited, and they showed me the things that they were doing, and I didn't quite understand what they were doing. But they were reading Scripting News. That was for sure. And they were producing it inside of what they called a virtual newspaper.
It was kind of - it's hard to explain, but they thought of the computer screen as a newspaper, and they partitioned, and gave each source a piece of that. And they - I thought they were adopting Scripting News format. From what I could see, that's what it looked like. Instead what they were doing was they were reinventing the wheel. They were coming out with a format that was totally wholly incompatible with mine.
And so when I finally saw it, I was very angry with 'em for doing this. I go, well, what's the point of going first if, when the second guy comes along and they do it completely differently. Now, this, as it turned out to be such a major insight that it's - the guy who goes second has the power to create the standard, not the guy who goes first. The guy who goes first sits there helpless while the world decides whether or not they're gonna adopt that.
So that's where I was. That was my posture. And I couldn't do anything about it, except it turns out I could. And what I decided to do was to embrace their format, and to deprecate mine. And, basically, what I did was, first I sucked in all of the features that were in their format that weren't in mine. Okay?
Dave: And I came out with Scripting News, version 2.0. And that was like a shot across their bow. Okay? At the same time, I said, "I'm gonna support RSS, your format, in everything I do, and I started an aggregator called MyUserLand.com, which is kind of the precursor of all aggregators that are out there today.
Theirs was kind of like the precursor of MyYahoo!, but even now, MyYahoo! Is gravitating towards the other model, 'cause it really works better. And they saw the shot across the bow and something happened inside of Netscape, and they returned the favor. They took all the features out of Scripting News format that weren't in RSS and came out with RSS 0.91, which was exactly what I wanted them to do. At which point I said, "I'm killing Scripting News format, and I'm wholesale adopting RSS 0.91. I'm going to only do RSS 0.91 now.
And I got myself into the position to be the second guy. I ratified that, and that became the standard. Okay?
Bob: That's funny.
Dave: At that - yeah, well, it's actually - it's funny. It is funny, but it's also - there's a - it's like an Aesop's Fable almost in the sense that you could really do powerful stuff with this, and I used that technique over and over again, and it really works. Which is basically, what you do is you throw your ego out the door, and you say, "I don't care what the damn thing's called, and I don't care what the tags are called either."
And, you know, and later on, in 1998, actually, earlier, sorry, I had a - I did work with Microsoft on something called XML R. Then it became XML RPC. Later became SOAP. And we actually had a rule during the collaboration that we're gonna always go for the worst possible name for every element. And that ended all the arguments where people would say, "Well, I've got a better name." I said, "Well, but that's not the point. You could tell me you have a worse name and I would listen to you. But if you've got a better name, I don't wanna know about it." And so -
Bob: That's with the assumption that the worst name will be the most memorable? Or the worst -
Bob: Or the worst name will - it's inevitably gonna be replaced.
Dave: No, no, it doesn't matter what the name is. That's what it's based on. I want to end those arguments.
Dave: I want to get to closure so we can deploy. I don't care what the damn thing's called. You could call it something that's completely nonsensical, and the world will figure it out. It's just the worst thing is to have it called two different things. That we can't do. So by throwing out Scripting News format and saying, "Okay, I'm just going with RSS," that settled all the arguments right then and there.
And then something really weird happened. Netscape blew apart. They completely disappeared off the face of the earth, and - but the thing was that that, this was like the summer of 1999. There was enough uptake in RSS 0.91 for it to just go all the way. And every year since then, I mean it's required a lot of, you know, this - it's been a really rough ride. I mean RSS has been one of the most embattled formats that there ever has been, because a lot of people wanna own it. And it can't be owned. I mean it just is not something that can be owned.
But the geeks always wanna to have to learn that. They just have - they keep trying, but it doesn't work. And it just refused to get - refuses to be owned, and I think the moment at which it gained complete, utter escape velocity was when The New York Times supported it. At that point, you know, it not only had - I mean the power of RSS, why it is so incredibly strong is because it's this level playing field that works for the bloggers, and it works for the professionals.
It's one place where all content can come and be treated as an equal. So that if I subscribe to the Times, that's not going to get - and I do, you know, ________. It's not going to get any more prominence than Boing-Boing is gonna get, you know.
And that creates an incredible dynamic and a lot of good tension between the two. The professionals didn't figure this one out until like the end of last year, that this was what was going on. But it sorta snuck in there, and, in the end, it was very good for them. It was good for everybody, basically.
We need to repeat that. That scheme we're basically, what you do is you keep doing what you're doing, but you allow everybody else - I mean this is the secret of MyYahoo!. This is why MyYahoo! has become - their website's become the juggernaut of the Internet news industry. They're growing at an enormous pace, because they're the only news site that points offsite.
The New York Times doesn't do it. CNN doesn't do it. NBC doesn't do it. MSN doesn't do it. All of these big - I mean there used to be a healthy competition between all these until Yahoo! embraced RSS, at which point they started flying off the radar. And now most of their users don't know that they're using RSS. Most of them just, "Oh, this is MyYahoo! and it's really cool. What it does is great." They don't even get that they're pointing offsite. They just like it, because they can get everything to come right there. And that's really the lesson.
That's sort of like everywhere where you get a chance to bring everything in under your umbrella, you're crazy not to do it. It just turns out to work. It turns out to be the right way to go. That's why exclusive developer programs - that's why conferences that are invite only, that's why subscription firewalls, for pay firewalls don't work. That's why you're just killing yourself when you do stuff like that. So that's all the lessons of RSS. But it's been incredibly good teacher, right?
Dave: Inclusion, yes.
Bob: That's what it's about.
Dave: Inclusion, absolutely. Be inclusive, right. Where it's exclusive, you're hurt - it's not gonna work. That's the Internet. And you might argue, actually, that that has always, even when we didn't call what we were doing the Internet, that really was what we were doing. That was why the Apple II worked. That was why the Lisa did not work. That's why the Mac worked, you know. That's why ultimately the iPod is doomed. Because the iPod only allows a very, very slim amount of participation by the outside world. And, I guess it's a temporary thing. The music industry needed that kind of - sort of control over it in order for them to let that thing do what it was doing. But, long-term, it doesn't have a future in that way.
And I think part of it is the paranoia of the music industry, and part of it is that Steve Jobs really doesn't like open platforms. And, ultimately, you know, he's quite happy that - but something like the Archos that runs Linux, and it's completely wide open. Supports - has Wi-Fi. It has every port known to man on it. That it's not a - I mean nobody's heard of it. Doesn't matter. That's the kind of product we're gonna end up using, because it's just - 'cause somebody's gonna come up with killer app for all those - you know, whatever, anyway I'm rambling.
Bob: You know, what it seems to me is that the key there is you could say the Archos or something like it.
Dave: Yeah, of course, yeah.
Bob: But when it's a closed system, it's the Archos period.
Dave: Right, yes.
Bob: So, you know -
Dave: Yeah, one of the things that's like totally depressing about the iPod is all the car manufacturers that are building in iPod compatible ports there. That's crazy, you know? USB, please, you know? I mean don't do that. That's so bad.
Bob: Now, where are things going from here? You know, what's the future hold?
Dave: We have a lot of work left to do. I mean a lot. I mean there's, you know, okay, so we've got RSS, and it looks like RSS is going all the way.
Dave: I mean people say, "It's only got 6 percent penetration in terms of like only 6 percent of the populace knows what it is. If that's true, and I don't believe it is. That's just too high a number to believe. It's just an amazing thing that it's gotten so far in such a short period of time. I think it's going to be the way people get news, and I just don't see that there's any other way it can work.
Okay, but that's just news. What about knowledge? You know, have we really done anything to get knowledge onto our networks, and, no, we really haven't figured that one out yet. The best that we've got are search engines, which are pretty good. I mean they're a lot better than what we had 10 years ago. I mean if you look at the rate of progress, it's just phenomenal what we've accomplished in such short period of time.
But I spent two years at Harvard University, and one of my goals, and I was - didn't achieve what I was trying to achieve. Uh, but, ironically, they're doing it now that I'm not there, which is fine with me. I mean I wish I had been there to see it, but the idea was - is that let's get all those minds at a great place, a great university like Harvard, which really does have like incredibly brilliant people. Let's get all those people sharing what they know in a way that we can all use it. We can all benefit from it.
That's our challenge. Can we get it so that the - our information resources can answer all reasonable questions? We're nowhere near that. I mean get - take - let's say you were driving to Los Angeles tomorrow, and you wanted to know which route has the most Starbucks on it. A perfectly practical question, because you wanna get on the Internet as many places as you want. You might wanna pick up a cup of coffee along the way. There's no way to ask that question. But yet you know that there will be a way to ask that question.
Bob: Um-hum, sure.
Dave: You know that that's coming very, very soon, right? But these are all things that we need to do. And we - I think that maybe the biggest thing we need to do is we need to learn how to work with each other. We need to learn how to stop being jealous of each other, so that we can all like get to these wonderful places. And I think when we do finally get to it, what we're gonna realize is that all that information we didn't really need in the first place.
We needed to learn how to do - is to work with each other. That's really the secret to it. Because, you know, we've got all these problems we need to solve. They've been put there for a reason. We have to figure out global warming. We have to figure out overpopulation. We've got a few diseases that are getting ready to run rampant through our population. We're going to need to know how to solve those things in order to solve those problems. We're gonna really need to know how to work with each other.
Yeah, so we've gone about as far as we can go at not working with each other. Right?
Dave: I mean look what happened in New Orleans. I went to school in New Orleans. I love that city. I mean I love it, and I pity it, and I hate it. I mean it's all at once. It's a very emotional place, you know? And - but look what happened. I mean had this most dramatic future. That's why it was such an intense place. Because it had that in its future. Everybody knew it.
You know, Bush likes to say, "Well, who could've foreseen the levees were gonna break?" Everybody who lived in New Orleans knew the levees were gonna break. I mean they broke in 1927. They blew 'em up. So I don't know. Is that a big enough disaster to wake people up? Probably not, but something's coming along. And the Internet is part of our solution. It's part of our manifest destiny as a species. We're going to use that effectively.
Bob: So what do you do 50, age 50 and beyond to make that happen?
Dave: Well, what I'm doing right now, I had an enormously, incredibly successful day yesterday. I mean a milestone day. If you interview me 20 years from now, I will tell you about that day.
Dave: Okay? Because it was so incredible what happened. We - I went driving a new format. It's not really that new. It's called OPML, and it's not that new, because it was - I created it in 2000, which is really the same year - it's one year after RSS, basically. So it's pretty - and it's not that new because there are millions of OPML files out there. Because it's the standard format that's used for exchanging subscription lists of RSS.
And it's also going to be instrumental in the sharing of knowledge on the Internet. That's what it's designed for. It's designed for things - for information that doesn't change very frequently. Whereas RSS is designed for churning through things that are changing all the time.
And so I did a collaboration with a user, a friend of mine, Mike Arrington, who has a site called TechCrunch. And Mike is a brilliant guy, but a user, not a - definitely not a programmer. But he's courageous and he's brilliant, and I told him, "Let's do this and don't worry about how it's gonna work. And just do it." And he did it, and I connected it up to Scripting News, the way I - I don't have time to go into all the details about how it all connected up.
And that led to another idea. And then Robert Scoble, who works at Microsoft, got excited about it, and he figured out - he's also a user, and he said, "I want this," and he described what he wanted, and then two developers, all in the space of like three hours, implemented exactly what he wanted in Movable Type and WordPress, which are two really popular platforms.
And, you know, that was the moment when all of a sudden collaboration started working in this space. Never worked before.
Bob: So the world changed yesterday.
Dave: Yeah, absolutely.
Bob: September 29th, 2005.
Dave: Yeah, in what I think was a remarkable way. And the thing that was remarkable - and it was the same kind of change that I was - that we were doing in podcasting a year ago. Podcasting went through exactly this kind of transition where there was this moment when, "Wow, they work together." And it worked.
Dave: And this is the same kind of moment, so-
Bob: I hope we don't have wait 20 years to come back.
Dave: Yeah, okay, cool.
Bob: Thanks a lot, Dave.
Dave: Oh, great pleasure, thank you.
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