An Interview with John Markoff
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Koman: One other point is that you talked about the PC being a "deformed" manifestation of Englebart's original idea. There was no communication, just a box on your desk that could do certain things. And I remember talking to Brewster when he was working on WAIS with Apple and the accounting firm and he has this story of sitting at Apple and asking the Apple engineers, "How do you connect to the time server?" And they just looked at him and said, "You really come from a different world, don't you?"

Markoff: Even then.

Koman: That's the late '80s. So, was the whole PC era this sort of deformation of the internet idea, even before there was ARPANET and we're just sort of getting back to a good model here.

Markoff: Yeah, the person who first made that argument to me was Alan Kay and I think I quote him in the book as saying, the difference was people who read and people who didn't read. And his argument was, this entire vision was available for anyone who wanted to look at it--it was in all of the PARC research papers and people only took away part of the idea. And I think that's true to an extent but I also think there were economic realities. The vision of the network was there but you had these scaling things that had to happen before the network would really be there and it was only when the network emerged at a cost that made it transparent that these other things took off.

So Jobs made some design decisions for the Macintosh. He would argue--he did argue to me in 1983 when I was at BYTE magazine and I was brought in for the briefing--that the Macintosh had a network. He missed it with the Apple II but remember AppleTalk? He thought that all these machines would be AppleTalked together ... They couldn't afford to put Ethernet in the boxes because of the cost of the semiconductors. I think it was a little bit chicken-and-egg rather than completely missing the vision. I think Kay was right that Jobs focused so much on the display that he may have missed some of the other things but certainly he had bright people like Tesler around him who did have the whole vision, so I think it was economics as much as anything

But I do think that the real insight was that of people like Kay--and maybe Stewart Brand was the first one to get this really--that computing was making the transition from being a calculation tool to being a medium.

And that's one of the things that Doug really didn't get. Doug's view, at least from Alan Kay's point of view, was that computing was like an automobile, it was something you drove through information space. And Kay's view was that computing was the universal media. And that was the real insight about what personal computing would become. Not the fact of a single personal computer like the LINK or the TX0. There were personal computers in that sense but they were calculation tools, they weren't media players. And it was the culture, people like Brand who wanted to use these tools in new ways who discovered the modern sense of personal computing.

Koman: There's this tension between the primacy of the personal computer and the primacy of the server or the mainframe. Today we tend to agree that a powerful PC is a lot less interesting than a networked computer at basically any processor speed. And there's also a sense that the PC has brought a lot of problems to the user and to the local network, like spam, viruses, spyware, so we spend a lot of time protecting machines. Yet it seems like we wouldn't have gotten to this point without the layer of creativity that the PC gave us. Macs were about desktop publishing, visual creativity, being able to create things on your PC. Creativity as a base feature of what you would do with your computer, I guess, comes out of the entire PC era but it still seems like we're trying to get back to that very connected world where you sort of do want to timeshare on mainframes.

Markoff: Right. These things kind of bounce back and forth, from central to decentral to central. You know, the sense that I got that that culture that you described, the creative culture of the early PC world is sort of re-emerging in this new connected world, really came home when I went down to O'Reilly's Emerging Technology conference in San Diego, where I really had a sense that the platform had moved up a level and it was happening at a higher level than just the individual box. Things like and Flickr and what have you are a real representation of this next wave of innovation.

Koman: You make a point in this article that this stuff is now pretty cheap.

Markoff: Yeah, is one guy in a garage, almost. Two guys in a garage. Or a guy and a girl in a garage. You can infect and effect the whole world. To me, that's a big deal.

Koman: So what does Engelbart think of the world today?

Markoff: There's a bit of bitterness and sadness in Doug. He's getting a little senile; I think he has a bit of Alzheimer's. He frequently doesn't recognize me when I see him. The guy's 80 years old. But that event that I spoke at at PARC really turned into a Doug fest. That wasn't the intent but that's what it became. People were coming up and asking him to sign the book and I think he understands at some level that a lot of this directly came from his work and it would just be nice if he would be at peace with that.

But because of his personality ... you know, he set out to do something in 1950 and he doesn't think it's finished and that makes him sad. That's the good side and the bad side of whatever strange personality he had that was passionate enough to keep slogging on over all these years.

Richard Koman is a freelancer writer and editor based in Sonoma County, California. He works on SiliconValleyWatcher, ZDNet blogs, and is a regular contributor to the O'Reilly Network.

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