I got an update from LinkedIn and saw a colleague and it triggered this thought. A long time ago when few people had any form of Net access and PC-based browsers were still just a dream, this colleague invited me out for dinner one night. He wanted to talk about creating a startup to exploit what he saw as an exciting new opportunity. I listened, asked a few questions, and wasn’t convinced there was any opportunity. Well, Greg, you were right and your foresight of what was to come was right on.
What Greg was talking about was PPP, which he described as a “wedge” in protocol stack and, more importantly a revolution that would change the world. Now I’d actually designed and coded the POC of a critical piece of intranet data sharing, actually a remote file system hidden below an access layer. So I was familiar with the idea of a protocol stack but this was the first time I’d heard of a “wedge”. And Greg had already introduced me to Netcom, a dial-up (28.8k), character-mode ISP in San Jose which provided a vastly superior capability to AOL. But using your client in character-mode made using the nascent web (Tim had defined it by then but there were only a handful of actual servers) awkward and graphics effectively impossible and thus denied Netcom users much access to what only a few university users, with direct connections were getting, esp. through the first versions of Mosaic.
So what PPP did was allow the dial-up character-mode connection simulate a directly wired IP connection. Thus anything that would work on a dedicated connection could now work from a dial-up PC home connection. Big deal I thought, some arcane networking feature now available as a home user but no real content or capability to do anything with this connection (it was a build-it-and-they-will-come situation). That was my lack of vision of what could be built on top of this otherwise purely technical feat. Netscape had a bit stronger vision and so launched the whole web world we know today, no longer limited to a few universities and government facilities, but now available to the general public. And back then the big thrill, as a home user, was to find some way to get your employer to pay for the then very expensive ISDN connections with their whopping 128K bandwidth.
Of course with PPP as the way to get “real” home networking and then some “app”, i.e. Netscape to actually render HTML and especially graphics, broadband now had a ready market to drop that new service into. And the rest is history. Mark Zuckerberg was still in short pants and Steve Jobs was getting kicked out of Apple when all this was created and somehow the world managed to get by without them.
So Greg was a visionary and I was not. But this was at a time where probably less than 10,000 people even knew what all this was about, hardly the pioneering days, but certainly the early adopter days. The public, if they used anything at all, was in love with “you’ve got mail” and so few were aware of the explosion that was about to occur. In my history with technology nothing else compares to this, no other invention had so much impact on so many. The kiddies today think it all began with iPhone (or maybe Blackberry) but the tsunami had been building for a long time before that. One other person that Greg and I worked with described, for a different technology (that didn’t explode), how this was all like pond scum; that is, perhaps only a single cell of algae invades a pond, then it divides, and its progeny divide. For a long time nothing is visible, then one of the doublings occurs and suddenly the pond is now green. A biologist studying the pond could have predicted this, but for most of us it comes as a surprise.
So sometimes technology is like that. It bubbles on out-of-sight to all but a few who happen to be in right place at right time and actually with their eyes open. Then one day it hits that critical mass and bursts into the consciousness of the public. So if you think you’re a visionary simply predict what will be the main thing the public will be doing ten years from now (clue, it won’t be Facebook).