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Weekly Column

Everybody's Wrong: When It Comes to the History of High Tech, the Truth is Often Buried (by the PR Department) and Forgotten, Only to be Learned Over and Over and Over Again

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Back in the dim recesses of the early personal computer age, I visited the garage where Apple computer was born. It was 1977, my first day of work at the company, which was still in its first year of existence. There was some equipment stored in garage at the Los Altos home of Steve Jobs' parents, and I was one of the guys asked to bring that equipment over to the company's first real office on Mariani Avenue in Cupertino. It was the only time I ever visited the garage.

Eighteen years later, I was shooting "Triumph of the Nerds," and we decided to stand me up in front of that same a garage to make a point about the humble origins of Apple. When we arrived at the correct street the director asked, "Okay, which garage is it?"

I didn't know.

"But you were here before," he said in surprise.

"That was 18 years ago," I said.

"But it was Apple Computer!" he continued, as if that would compel me to remember.

"It was six bucks an hour," I countered. "Who knew they would be successful? I sure didn't."

Remember, this is the same director I later attacked with a two-by-four in "Plane Crazy."

Eventually, we found a piece of gaffer tape left on the curb by a Japanese TV crew that was better prepared than we were. So, based on our confidence in Japanese TV, we were able to get the shot.

The point of recounting this embarrassing little story is that the business of technology moves so quickly, the people who staff those businesses are so young, and high tech employment is so transient that most companies don't give a thought to their own histories until it is too late. By then, the artifacts of early product failures are all gone, the documents are shredded or lost, the old hands are retired or alienated and no longer talking. Worst of all, a headstrong corporate PR department has typically emerged with its own sanitized version of that history, which is then recycled through magazines and books enough times to be taken as fact when it is mainly baloney.

These were the thoughts that came to me this week as I watched a videotape sent to me by a friend. The tape was from the spring of 1996 and showed a brown bag lunch talk at America Online by Marc Seriff, one of the company founders and its chief techie for more than a decade. Seriff was that day two weeks from leaving AOL to start a new life back in his native Texas, where he is a successful angel investor and civic activist. He told the group at AOL that day that he was retiring and he meant it.

The quality of the tape isn't very good, but the subject is fascinating — "Daddy, Where Did I Come From?" It's all about the origins of AOL as a company and its technology.

Here's the short version. Seriff was originally hired to work for a startup called Digital Music run by Jim Von Meister, who also founded The Source, an early competitor to Compuserve. In the era of Napster and Gnutella, the Digital Music story is fascinating. There are no new stories. Digital Music was a company that delivered commercial-free digital music over cable TV systems in the pre-CD era. Using a Digital Music service called the Home Music Store, you could even download whole albums and store them on your tape recorder. All this was with the permission of the record companies, which even provided digital masters of the content. Funding for Digital Music came from — you guessed it — the Osmond Family. Digital Music was rolling, it was hot, right up to the point where the president of Waxie, a big music retailer, wrote a letter to the editor of Billboard magazine calling Digital Music the death of retailing and asking all the record stores to fight it. As Seriff put it, "Two weeks later, Digital Music existed only in a cigar box." That was $20 million in venture capital down the tubes.

Undefeated, the founders of Digital Music revived some work they had done on sending data over some otherwise-unused bandwidth on the Digital Music transponder. They came up with the idea of downloading video games to Atari 2600 game machines. The result was a new company called Control Video and a 1200 bits-per-second download/50 pits-per-second upload modem that sold for $70 at a time when computer modems of that speed cost $695. The Control Video modem (grandly called the Gameline Master Module) worked only in the cartridge slot of the Atari 2600VCS, and allowed users to download games for a dollar apiece — games that could be played over and over as long as the game console wasn't turned off. It was a great idea, but required a massive amount of work to build a back-end system and then standardize the games to run in RAM, instead of ROM. "Some of the games periodically erased themselves, which made no difference when running from ROM, but didn't work in RAM. The publishers generally didn't have source code, so we had to reverse-engineer game after game to make them work."

Control Video's GameLink was introduced with great fanfare at the Consumer Electronics Show, where the company used a hot air balloon as a billboard. Unfortunately, that was the quarter when Atari announced a $1 billion loss and declared the video game business to be dead, taking Control Video with it. Control Video trashed 40,000 modems in a dumpster behind its Vienna, Virginia headquarters. Having spent $12 million, it had only $40,000 in revenue, $15,000 of which came from selling that hot air balloon.

Out of Control Video sprang Quantum Computer Services, which became AOL. The story goes on and on — through the Q-Link online service for Commodore 64 users, to AppleLink for Apple II's and Macs, to AOL — but what's fascinating about it is how significantly it varies from the more official accounts. In the official histories, Jim Von Meister and Digital Music are forgotten. Steve Case is presented as the guy who was brought in to save Control Video while Seriff says he got his job solely because he was the brother of the company's lead VC. "When your venture capitalist tells you to give his brother a job, you give his brother a job even if his only experience is testing toppings for Pizza Hut."

Who is correct? My money is on Seriff, who at that moment in 1996, had proved everything he wanted to prove, had made all the money he'd ever need, and was speaking to an audience of AOL employees who ought to have known if he was spouting nonsense. For the record, Seriff also credits Steve Case for much of AOL's later success. And he makes continual references to a 1996 BusinessWeek cover story on AOL that he (and the audience by their reaction) found to be seriously flawed. But what story will later historians buy? The BusinessWeek version, of course.

The sad thing is that mine is one of only 12 copies of the tape to exist. It documents a fabulous success that rose out of $32 million worth of failure. It shows a company of techies who enjoyed what they were doing even if the grand plan seemed to be in continual transition. And that's how it always is in these companies. Hardly anyone — especially the founders — ever knows where they are really headed.

There must be tapes like this from other companies. I want them. If you have one, please make me a copy. I'll create a shrine for them online so the world can see how things really were, and how they weren't.

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