Saturday, January 23, 2010

(empo-tymshft) Ten years ago - gas and nets (Dave Winer, Bill Gates, Oracle, and Sun in 2000)

Dave Winer has just posted a note recognizing, among other things, that he was one of the first two bloggers to be invited to Davos, way back in 2000. Of course, they weren't called bloggers then - in one of the items that Winer wrote at the time, he referred to himself as a "web guy."

I should note that Dave Winer and I have one thing in common - both of us visited Switzerland in 2000. Of course, he went to Davos early in the year, and I went on a personal trip to visit family friends in the summer. But both of us made the same observation. I'll let Winer tell it:

But the cutest thing is that in Switzerland bubbles in water are called "gas" so when a waiter wants to fill you up, he or she asks if you want some gas, and this makes me break out in guffaws of loud American laughter. I'm laughing out loud as I write this and I wonder if my roommates are pissed that their next door American neighbor is laughing so loudly at 1AM (4PM back in California).

Several months later, when I arrived in the Olten area, I quickly learned the phrases "mit Gas" and "ohne Gas."

Needless to say, Winer didn't constrict himself to solely making linguistic observations. In another piece that he wrote at the time, he described the differences (circa 2000) between his view of the computing world and Bill Gates' view of the computing world. Since ten years have passed, it's interesting to read what they had to say at the time. You can read the whole thing here (including the exchange between Winer and Gates), but here's a small portion.

Gates echoes many of the ideas you've heard in this column, the power of the personal computer must not be overlooked in the rush to the Internet. He debunks the "myth" of Network Computing as promoted by Sun and Oracle, he says we should check with their customers to find out if their vision had materialized. Gates is confident that it hasn't. I am too, but Bill, don't be so quick to write off Network Computing. It's the engine behind the growth of Yahoo. And while the web browser is a very limited user interface environment, it's not so limited that you can't build a powerful easy to use publishing system around it, as we have.

Having read this just a few days after the European Commission gave its approval for Oracle's acquisition of Sun (see my Thursday post), I found this ten-year old piece particularly timely. Yes, so many things have changed, but in a sense they've remained the same.

Perhaps it's appropriate to repeat something that I said back in October:

Basically, ever since computers were invented in the 1940s or the 19th century or whenever, the computing industry has oscillated between two different models of computing:

* The Benevolent Model, in which a central service provides everything that the users need, including programs and processing power. All the user needs is a dumb terminal, something that acts as a dumb terminal, or something even dumber like a punch card reader. The central service takes care of everything for you. There is nothing to worry about. Dave?

* The Rugged Individualist Model, in which a computer user doesn't need anybody else to do anything. A single computer, in the possession of the computer user him/herself, includes all of the power that the user needs. We don't need no central service; we don't need no thought control.

Now obviously these are the extremes, and there have been some computer trends (like client/server) that somehow combine the two. But it still seems like we alternate between the two models, and now the cloud computing model has us all leaning a little more toward the centralized model.

And no, my reference to "Dave" in "The Benevolent Model" had nothing to do with Mr. Winer.

And Winer probably wouldn't describe the universe in these terms, because at the time (and probably today) he believes the people who use network computing can be rugged individualists. Granted that there has to be plumbing and infrastructure to support these individuals, but in Winer's ideal world, the plumbers and infrastructure builders would impose a very limited amount of control (just the bare minimum necessary to allow society to function).

So Winer and Gates both believed in rugged individualism, but Gates believed at the time that you needed to possess all the horsepower yourself, while Winer believed that the horsepower could be somewhere else - or, using a common term today, in "the cloud."

But what has happened in the last ten years? UserLand is still around. Microsoft has evolved (as Microsoft always does) and now offers more networky software, SharePoint being an example. Sun has stayed true to its "the network is the computer" mantra, but hasn't been able to survive the ups and downs of the market. And Oracle has expanded its "stack" (see my old mrontemp post) in all sorts of directions, with hardware apparently being the next step.

P.S. If you want to go back even farther, and perhaps get some vindication of my "rugged individualist is NOT the benevolent dictator" model, let's go back further into Dave Winer's archive and take a look at this exchange between Winer and Oracle's Larry Ellison in 1996:

...Larry Ellison, chairman of Oracle, took the stage with the conference host, Stewart Alsop. As he explained his concept of the Network Computer, or NC for short, his song said I'm great, you're not, here's my idea, love it or leave it. I'm taking over. Meet the new boss. Me!

Ohhh, the crowd didn't like it. Boos and hisses. The rumblings were awesome. I looked to the left and to the right, forward and back. Everyone is angry with him. Great emotion was swelling up in the audience. I got up, took the mike and asked the question I thought everyone wanted answered. Why would anyone want to use this? Amazingly, Ellison hadn't addressed that point. I doubt if it ever occurred to him that peoples' wants could enter into the equation. To him, it was enough that *he* wanted it. What we wanted was not the point.

Who presented at the conference the next day? Sun's Scott McNealy.

But he is just as arrogant and clueless as Ellison, just not as easy to expose. He says that all you need from a computer is four commands. You don't need a PC, you probably don't need to store anything. It's not your computer it's the company's. Love it or quit.

Well, I've seen Sun's software, and I remember PCs when they were as simple (i.e. feature-poor) as McNealy's JavaOS NC is, and he wouldn't even be able to compete with the software that commercial developers were making in the mid-to-late 1980s, much less the software of the mid-to-late 1990s. So much has been learned since then, and none of this is reflected in Sun's NC OS.

Now of course this was in 1996. Network computing protocols have become much more powerful, and there are very robust programs (the aforementioned SharePoint, for example) that operate within a browser.

But the whole issue of control, an issue near and dear to Dave Winer's heart, still remains. Can you have (using 21st century language) a cloud computing model in which the individual still has freedom? Or does your cloud computing provider attach too many strings to your experience, thus limiting your capabilities?
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