If you’re reading these lines it’s because of this man. He’s Dave Winer, the inventor of blogs and RSS syndication, two of the backbones of the web. Often controversial, always challenging, this is the story of what got him inspired to do it all.
I was outside the computer science building at the University of Wisconsin one day in 1978 smoking with a fellow grad student, Gary Sevitsky. He talked about the editors for the language Lisp and how they understood program structure. I thought this was a great idea. So I spent the next year writing a structured editor for another language, called Pascal, running on Unix.
I showed the outliner to my housemates, all liberal arts students, English, theatre, psych, social work, and they liked it, and thought they could use it. I said no way it’s for programmers. But the next day, as often happens with ideas I reject when I first hear them, I realised they had a point. Maybe the editor didn’t need a programming language.
When I left school I started fresh and made a structure editor, this time in a now-ancient operating system, the UCSD P-system, hacked to run on another ancient system, CP/M. I also made a relational database, and connected the two in some interesting ways. I looked around Madison and there was no way to sell the software, but I was reading BYTE and many of the ads were for companies in nice sounding towns like Mountain View and Sunnyvale. I looked them up and they all seemed to be in the same area, so I moved there. I had pictured idyllic mountain communities, with parks and vineyards, happy people and beautiful sunsets. When I got there it was like Long Island. When I was in Madison, I made friends with people at a very new company called Apple who had just licensed the P-system, so I went there, and worked my way into see Steve Jobs who said my outliner was shit but they wanted to buy the database. I said no way.
A lot of things happened in between but eventually a few years later I started a company to market the outliners, and eventually it was successful and I sold it to Symantec, and we went public and I made a bunch of money.
Then I went back to the original idea — the programming language with the outline editor. And instead of a relational database I made an object database, another fairly new idea (at the time). Then I made the language, a new one, to work with the database in a very intimate way so it was easy to write code that worked with large data sets. Then I worked with Don Park to make it possible to control Macintosh apps with the programming language. This eventually became Apple Events, and Apple competed with us with the vaporous AppleScript, and I shut the company down. After a while I was looking for something new to work on.
I was tinkering around one day with some scripts, and my friend Marc Canter, the father of multimedia, was having a big press event in San Francisco, so I wrote a script that sent the announcement of the event to all the people I had business cards for. There were many big shots on the list, because I had been going to computer conferences for years and chatting up all the icons of tech at the time. After the press event, I sent Marc’s follow-up to the group. Then a few days later, I remember exactly where I was, I was driving up highway 280 toward San Francisco in my new BMW which I loved (very powerful car, made me feel powerful) when I had a flash. I could use the scripts to send out my own ideas, not just Marc’s. I honestly don’t know why this didn’t occur to me before.
I had written a letter to John Sculley at Apple and Jim Cannavino, the guy who was running IBM at the time, saying they should get together and IBM should stop making OS/2 and Apple should let them have the Mac OS, and they should try to offer an alternative to Windows which was becoming a juggernaut. They had never responded. I figured the letter had gone straight into the trash. So I published it. Then I wanted to write about PDAs and about how everyone was getting them wrong, so I did, and as with the previous screeds, I sent them to my friends with my script. A friend of mine from Apple, Randy Battat, who was running the Motorola PDA division wrote me an email saying I was wrong, and here’s where I had the second epiphany. I didn’t even ask. I did a very light edit of his email and sent it back out to the people I had sent my email to. The response was amazing. Everyone was into it. I collected their responses and sent those back out to the list. It was so much fun! I was a publisher. And it was easy.
I was on fire. I woke up one day and wrote the pivotal piece called “Bill Gates vs the Internet”. In the story, I said if I could do this, anyone could. And I wasn’t using any of the ridiculous bloated standards of the tech industry to distribute my ideas. I was using some very airy protocols, that didn’t do very much. Looked at another way, they did a lot. You could have it be simple, and unencumbered and also be very powerful. I figured Bill Gates, who was coasting to victory with Windows 3, after defeating IBM, was actually doomed. I published it. Then something great happened. Gates read my email, and responded with a total Bill Gates rant, and of course I sent it back to my readers. I would say that’s roughly when blogging was born. I know some people disagree. But from that point on, no one questioned the power of an individual with a net connection and a scripting language.
And by the way, I was right — Gates was doomed. He didn’t know it then, but a few months later he wrote his version of my piece called The Internet Tidal Wave. To his credit, Gates is a great listener. Not exactly a blogger, but close.
What Was It is a series of short interviews co-hosted that asks the luminaries of science and technology what inspired them.
Image by David Sifry/Flickr