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The Coming Software Shift
a further image of the end of the world, take him in the fall of 1990
off to Austin, Tex., for two semesters at IBM. They were going to
take over the 3D graphics market, they were going to win the Malcolm Baldrige
Award, they were going to blow Silicon Graphics [the regnant Silicon Valley
3D workstation company] off the map, all in six months. Andreessen
began by doing performance analysis and moved on to work on the operating
system kernel. In mid-1991, after constant delays, the company was finally
ready to ship a world-beating 3D engine. But the new IBM machine turned
out to be four times slower at seven times the price of the equivalent
Silicon Graphics hardware that IBM had bundled a year and a half earlier
with its RS6000 RISC (reduced instruction set computing) workstation.
Austin IBM returned to the drawing board and Andreessen returned to Illinois
to get his degree.
In both commercial and academic settings, Andreessen thus had the good
fortune of working at the very heart of the old order of computing in
its climactic phase. As Andreessen saw it, little of long-term interest
was going on at either establishment. But both did command one huge and
felicitous resource, vastly underused, and that was the Internet. Designed
for all the wrong reasonsto link some 2,000 scientists to a tiny
number of supercomputers, it had exploded into a global ganglion
thronged by millions of people and machines.
Many people saw the Internet as throbbing with hype and seething with
problemsClifford Stolls book, Silicon Snake Oil, catalogs
many: the lack of security, substance, reliability, bandwidth, easy access;
the presence of porn, fraud, frivolity and freaks guarantees, so he says,
that no serious business can depend on it for critical functions. But
to Andreessen the problems of the Internet are only the other side of
its incredible virtues.
By usual standards, says Andreessen, the Internet was
far from perfect. But the Internet finds its own perfectionin the
millions of people that are able to use it and the hundreds of thousands
who can provide services for it. To Andreessen, all the problems
signaled that he was at the center of the sphere, gazing in wild surmise
at a giant hole in the middle of the worldthe supreme
opportunity of the age.
Andreessen saw that, for all its potential, there was a monstrous incongruity
at the heart of the Internet. Its access software was at least 10 years
behind. PC Windows had penetrated all the desktops, the Mac was
a huge success, and point-and-click interfaces had become part of everyday
life. But to use the Net you still had to understand Unix. You had to
type FTP [file transfer protocol] commands by hand and you had to be able
to do address-mapping in your head between IP addresses and host names
and you had to know where all the FTP archives were; you had to understand
IRC [Internet relay chat] protocols, you had to know how to use this particular
news reader and that particular Unix shell prompt, and you pretty much
had to know Unix itself to get anything done. And the current users had
little interest in making it easier. In fact, there was a definite element
of not wanting to make it easier, of actually wanting to keep the riffraff
The almost miraculous key to opening up the Internet was the concept of
hypertext, invented by Theodor Holm Nelson, the famously fractious prophet
of the Xanadu network, and son of Celeste Holm, the actress.
A hypnotic speaker, with a gaunt countenance and flowing golden hair,
Nelson seems an Old Testament Jeremiah from Central Casting as he rails
against the flaws and foibles of current-day computing.
Hypertext is simply text embedded with pointers to other text, instantly
and fully available by a point and click. For the source of the concept,
Nelson quotes an essay by Vannevar Bush written in 1945 and read to him
by his father as a boy: The human mind . . . operates by association.
With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested
by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web
of trails carried by the cells of the brain. Projecting this idea
from a single human brain to a global ganglion, Nelson sowed the conceptual
seeds of the World Wide Web.
Andreessen can explain both the power of hypertext and its slow emergence
in commercial products: Xanadu was just a tremendous idea. But hypertext
depends on the network. If the network is there, hypertext is incredibly
useful. It is the key mechanism. But if the network is not there, hypertext
does not give you any of the richness. Hence, Apples HyperCard
and similar schemes failed to ignite. The link is not hyper if it is restricted
to your hard drive or CD-ROM. Connected to millions of computers around
the globe, it becomes exponentially hyper.
The other thing about hypertext, says Andreessen, is
that, even on networks, traditionally it had been developed by theoreticians
and people very deep in the computer science community, and they tended
to worry very deeply about problems like, Well, what happens if
the information moves? As Gates put it in 1992: The
idea of locating things that move by their properties and dealing with
the security and efficiency issues, including using replication to do
this stuff well, is a very tough problem. Thats what Windowss
Cairo is all about. Three or four Ph.D. theses talk about this, but a
commercial system has never done it.
Andreessen brings the issue down to earth: Youve got a pointer
at a piece of information on the network, but Joe, whos running
that information, moves it somewhere else. Computer scientists would take
a look at the problem and say, Oh, the system doesnt work.
On the Internet, we look at that problem and say, Oh well, heres
another 20,000 pointers that do work. And maybe we can send email
to Joe and hell put his information back. In other words,
you dont wait for Cairo or Xanadu to try to solve every problem.
You go with the fabulous flow of opportunities.
Nelsons idea led to what Gary Wolf, a contributing writer of Wired,
calls one of the most powerful designs of the 20th century
a universal library, a global information index and a computerized
royalty system. But Nelsons quest for perfection led to a 20-year
adventure in futility. The opinion of the Xanadu people to this
day is that the Web and the Internet are much too simple.
They dont solve the problems. For instance, the links arent
fully bidirectional. You dont know exactly whos pointing to
your page, and theres two ways to look at that. The way that Ted
Nelson looks at it is Thats bad! The way that I look
at it is Thats great! All of a sudden anyone can point
to your page without permission. The Net can grow at its own rate. You
get the network effect, you get Metcalfes Law, it spirals completely
out of control.
Isnt That Fantastic?