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Weekly Column

Butt-out Netscape and AOL!: Don't You Know I Have a TV Show Airing This Week?

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

I only get to be ruthlessly self-serving a couple times each year, but this week, Netscape and AOL had to try and ruin it by merging. Hah! Here is the 30 second version of AOL/Netscape, followed by the two minute version of "Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet."

It seems odd on the surface for high-tech companies like America Online, Netscape Communications and Sun Microsystems to be talking this week about mergers and the redistribution of products. After all, this happens to be precisely the moment when Microsoft Corporation seems to be struggling in its anti-trust suit being tried in Washington. With AOL, Netscape and Sun generally living in the anti-Microsoft camp, why take actions that Microsoft can use as evidence that competition is alive and well in PC-land? It's a simple matter of survival.

Sure, Microsoft's position in the trial before Federal Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson has been weakened by damning testimony from supposed Microsoft allies Apple Computer and Intel. Microsoft was hurt even further by the videotaped testimony of its own Chairman Bill Gates, who somehow managed to create from scratch over the last 23 years the world's most valuable business, yet claims to have done so without ever knowing a definition for the term "market share." Then there's the matter of the preliminary injunction against Microsoft in a separate suit brought by Sun, forcing Microsoft to remove Java programming from nearly all its products. With so much gleeful revenge to go around, why risk the distraction of a merger?

It's because high tech companies operate in hyper-accelerated Internet time, which is seven times normal speed, while Federal Courts observe judicial time, which is somewhat slower than normal and comparable to time at the Department of Motor Vehicles. This makes Judge Penfield Jackson no more than a picador in the estimation of Silicon Valley, distracting Microsoft with small jabs and pin pricks, but unlikely to do any real damage. By the time the courts would force Microsoft to substantially change its way of doing business, Valley wisdom says Netscape could be dead. Hence, this week's proposed deals.

Here is what's in it for the companies. Netscape, having been forced by Microsoft to give its Web browser away for free, has recast itself as an Internet "portal" site like Yahoo. Portals help users find their way around the Net, and generate revenue by making those users read ads along the way. But if bloated Netscape wants to be like Yahoo, it has to look like Yahoo. And that would require another restructuring, major layoffs, and a probable blow to the price of Netscape shares. It's much better to sell the company to AOL for today's price plus a bit.

For its part, AOL wants Netscape's portal business and free use of the Navigator browser, which both frees AOL from any reliance on Microsoft and dumps AOL content onto the screens of millions of Navigator users. But what prompted AOL even more was Microsoft's recent repositioning of its Microsoft Network (MSN) directly against AOL. Sure, MSN has failed twice already, but cyberlore says Microsoft finally gets things right on the third try, and Microsoft has money to burn.

The probable broker for this Netscape-AOL deal is Sun, which gets to flesh-out its business application offerings with those of Netscape in return for a royalty to AOL. Sun puts no money up front for this software written by the very Netscape people who would have been otherwise laid-off. This product acquisition makes Sun the equal of Microsoft for Internet server software on all platforms, and serves the secondary purpose of ending Netscape's recent flirtation with Linux, an operating system that's scarier to Sun than Microsoft because Linux is FREE.

With Sun and AOL both stronger competitors as a result of the deal, and with Netscape no longer a visible factor, Microsoft has already shouted to Judge Penfield Jackson that the merger negotiations alone are evidence enough that there is plenty of competition. In large part, Microsoft likes this deal. Weird, eh?

You ain't seen nuthin' yet. For the truly weird, check out "Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet."

Nobody could have predicted it, or at least nobody did predict it. A bureaucrat in Washington — a psychologist — was in charge of the world's largest budget for computer research, which sounds impressive, but back in 1968, was less than $40 million per year. And too much of that $40 million was going to buy mainframe computers for acquisitive academics. Buy one professor a computer and you've suddenly got to buy computers for all the professors. So Bob Taylor — the psychologist — decided to make them learn how to share. He wanted a computer network that would allow those without computers to log-on to computers at other campuses and research labs. What came to life one year and $1 million after Taylor's brainstorm was the Arpanet — predecessor to today's Internet. For less than the U.S. military was spending in those days for body bags, they changed the world, though it took the world another 25 years to notice.

The people who built the Arpanet, and later the Internet, weren't always thought of as such pioneers. My friend Jim, who was also at MIT in those days, saw networking as the province of losers. The really sharp people like Jim were doing much more interesting work. This networking stuff was just — well, it was just plumbing.

The plumbers, for the most part, worked at a little company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. IBM and AT&T had both turned down the job. IBM didn't see that it was a big enough business, while AT&T flatly said it couldn't be done. The folks at BB&N in Cambridge, who didn't know it couldn't be done, had by the time the contract was issued, nine months to make into a working system what had to this point been just an idea in the heads of academics in California and England. The idea was called "packet switching." Instead of connecting computers one to another like telephone calls, packet switching took each message, cut it up into uniform chunks, sent each of those chunks off in a separate electronic packet or envelope, often by separate routes, then reassembled the original message back at the other end. Imagine a marching band travelling by taxicab and you'll get the idea. Packet switching made possible a continual high-speed flow of data throughout the network. Amazingly, it worked.

But the people the Arpanet was meant to serve hated it. Having the ability to share mainframe computing power meant that there would be fewer new mainframe computers, annoying those already suffering from mainframe envy. And the professors who already had their mainframes, generally at prestigious places like Harvard and MIT, didn't want the riff-raff from lesser institutions stealing their computer time. But they needn't have worried, because the Arpanet was never used that much for mainframe sharing. The killer application for the Arpanet was e-mail.

By 1973, the Arpanet was connecting thousands of users at hundreds of institutions. The technology of packet switching had been redesigned a number of times and wasn't all that different than what we have today. This was despite the efforts of some European brainiacs who thought that a nice big committee could come up with a new system that would run oh, so much better. Not! What was still missing, though, was speed, mainstream users (it was illegal to use the Internet unless you were a doing government research), and a compelling application for those illegal non-academics.

Speed came first to offices in 1973 at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center with the invention of Ethernet. Amazingly, the Computer Science Lab at PARC was run by a psychologist — the very same Bob Taylor who ordered the Arpanet. There are only 25 people in the computer industry, and Bob Taylor is most of them. At PARC, Bob Metcalfe and others invented Ethernet, a fast way of linking computers to printers and other computers. Ethernet used packet switching, but ran up to 200 times faster than the Arpanet. For all its brilliance, Xerox generally didn't capitalize on its inventions, so Bob Metcalfe left and started a company called 3Com to bring Ethernet to the world.

In Provo, Utah, three contract programmers at a failed computer company invented a way to use packet switching and Ethernet to allow office computers to store information on a common server. Their product was called Netware and it created a little Internet in each office. It also caught Microsoft completely by surprise.

By now, it was the mid-1980s, and the Internet was controlled by the National Science Foundation. But it was still out-of-bounds for you and me, still too slow, and still too hard to use for normal people. But then Len Bozak could never be described as a normal person. Len, who looks like a very tidy little bartender, was married to Sandy Lerner and they had two cats. The question of the day was, "Who had fed the cats?" Both Len and Sandy worked at Stanford University and both had e-mail, but their two systems were not interconnected. The technologies were too different. In fact, there were more than 20 incompatible e-mail systems on the Stanford campus. Faced with this problem, the rest of us would have picked-up the phone to find out if the cats had been fed. But Len isn't like the rest of us. Instead, Len invented the multiprotocol router, making it possible for those 20-odd systems to interconnect. Then he, Sandy, and some friends "borrowed" a few miles of coaxial cable and wired the 16 square mile Stanford campus into a single network of networks — an Internet. The company they eventually capitalized with credit card debt — Cisco Systems — is worth more than $60 billion dollars, and does for the world what Len and Sandy did for Stanford, making today's high-speed Internet possible.

Then in 1987, a wonderful thing happened. Congress made it legal for regular folks to communicate over the Internet. Now a commercial Internet was possible, even it still didn't seem necessary.

Now we're in the early 1990s, and a nondescript British computer guy was facing a similar problem of dissimilar systems at CERN, the European high technology physics lab in Geneva, Switzerland. What Tim Berners-Lee wanted to do was not exchange e-mail — that problem had been already solved by Len — he wanted access to the data on his desktop computer from any other computer at CERN, no matter what make or model that computer was. So Berners-Lee invented a common computer protocol for all the systems to speak to each other — the HyperText Transport Protocol (HTTP) — and a vocabulary and syntax for describing documents to any computer — the HyperText Markup Language (HTML). In a long tradition of computer science, what Berners-Lee did was for his own use, yet it was quickly seen as useful by others. He grandly called it the World Wide Web.

By the mid-1990s, a cornfed University of Illinois undergraduate named Marc Andreessen was working nights doing programming at the Supercomputing Center in Champaign-Urbana. Bored, he and his fellow programmers decided to write an application for easy viewing of documents written in Berners-Lee's HTML. The result, called Mosaic, was the first Internet browser. Distributed for free on the Internet, Mosaic soon had more than a million users. Jim Clark had just resigned from Silicon Graphics, the workstation company he founded, and was introduced to Andreessen. On a whim, Clark hired Andreessen and the two founded Netscape Communications to commercialize the browser.

Microsoft was to this point blissfully ignorant of the Internet. With the exception of e-mail, Microsoft would have had no Internet applications at all except that Mary Gates — mother of Microsoft founder Bill Gates — served on a charity board with the CEO of an early Internet Service Provider. Microsoft got its first high-speed Internet connection not because of any perceived outside commercial threat, but at the insistence of Bill's Mom.

Soon there was an outside threat to Microsoft, and in fact more than one. Netscape's success brought the Internet to the attention of the world. Sun Microsystems opposed Microsoft with an Internet-based language called Java that on some level was a threat to Windows. So both companies had to die. Film at 11.

See, the story goes on and on and on. It's like a soap opera, only this soap opera is real, and has changed our world.

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