The Future Comes to Town

It is sometimes tempting, when you are older, to act as if you were an earpiece to history. I hate to say it, but some monumental events in the history of the world actually traipsed by me in full close-up, and I didn’t even say “wow”…until now. Though it is a little late, looking back from this grey beach on a remote Pacific shore in Canada, I can see that significant personalities and significant events did roll by. Only now am I considering what a parade it has been.

I had decided to start my new company in Seattle because that is where I wanted to end up. Boston had had some beckonings in that both Harvard and M.I.T. had me do several presentations. Harvard suggested I might apply as an instructor, which is what people with unique subject expertise and startup companies with no money sometimes do. Given the solid logic of Boston, of course I chose Seattle. At the time, in 1983, I had hardly heard of Microsoft. A  years before I had presided over the “non-introduction” of Philips CD-Rom at the Nebraska Videodisc conference, which CPR had also won as “best application so far” or some such. This “non-introduction” is inside humor for when everyone hears about a new product and the manufacturer wants them to hold off buying decisions but won’t say how long.

My small company, Ixion, consisted by 1984 of a few people who thought interactive media might be the future. Ixion was the Greek who offended the gods and for that was strapped for eternity to a revolving wheel (– like a videodisc. The black humor symbolism was of course lost on all but the most arcane of observers). The CardoPulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) simulator was well behind Jane Sallis and me, left back in Dallas with the American Heart Association when we came to Seattle. There were a couple of other folks who had been instrumental in getting the funding and new business, but after a few months the new car smell of this enterprise had worn off. We were selling interactive media, and most people said “what’s that?” 1984 Seattle was still more of a fishing, timber, and airplane city, and had not yet evolved into a hi-tech mecca.

Meanwhile I’d sold my family of five on coming to Seattle. I wanted to get the kids out of Dallas before they became Texans. Brenda liked the climate because it was reminiscent of Ireland, and the hills suited her running. Liam and Galen liked the nearby skiing. And Deirdre, at four years old, liked anything everyone else liked.

We stumbled onto a huge house that had been on the market for a year because the owner had been a high stakes, high-living bank VP who left his bank billions short in questionable deals. The house had been a party house with a view of the water and the mountains on a clear day. Lucky for us….The scandal of its owner left it with a taint, and over the year the market price had descended way down until it dangled just above our outside range. Through some banker’s contortions, like a contract to deed, we took it off their soiled hands. The boys ran around the big house testing the intercom systems and listening in on everyone else who was for the time unsupposing.  For years there were interesting sounds within the walls — maybe the intercom or, maybe we had ghosts of investors , still looking for 50 cents on their lost dollars.

Because the CPR simulator had had some following in the press, Microsoft invited me to speak at their conference a couple of years later — the week they went public. The night before his Initial Public Offering, a 27-year-old Bill Gates hosted a dinner for the speakers in the back lawn of his modest bachelor home in Seattle. Something like chicken and rice on paper plates with four people at each card table and folding chairs. I found myself at a small table with Bill Gates. Rumor was that Ross Perot had tried to buy him out for 2 million but now Microsoft was going public, the very next day. I had thought we were going to hear a lot of new tech stuff at dinner, but all Gates wanted to talk about was how to hold on to all of these good people he had working for him. Many local people bought Microsoft stock right out of the gate, but I was too smart for that…

The portion of the evening’s speaker program was on data storage, and was supposed to deal with CD-ROMs as the “new papyrus” (which was the title of a now classic book buried somewhere). Before the presentation, we speakers were honest with each other. “Have you ever made a CD-ROM?” “No, You?” “I’ve made a videodisc” “Wow, you can go first.” Truly the rest of the cast of speakers seemed to be theoreticians while I had done a videodisc which was not really the data storage device that everyone touted, but for now was close enough.

Let me take a short detour about the videodisc. Philips of the Netherlands, one of the world’s giant companies, had the patent on the videodisc and through Sony and others were trying get the world to make applications on it.  In 1984, this videodisc was truly the superkid stepchild laid on the doorstep of technology, a newborn which was bigger and stronger than anyone in the family, to the point that no one knew what to do with it. Computer programmers had no vision of what to do with 54000 video frames except to store pictures. Movie producers had no idea of how to use computer access except to show movies and sequence parts of them like chapters. Finally the videodisc failed because, as the angel said, with the world in the palm of our hand — we failed this time because of a failure of imagination.

That is why, in my wild and bizarre fashion, I had a small measure of credibility with both groups during that first Microsoft Conference in Seattle in 1986. The CPR simulator, which Jane Sallis as a producer make sparkle, showed what random access video could do, and appeared continually interesting to both software and video groups…a go-between for a while.

Most of that year I busied myself with trying to get some kind of business for my new company. Jane and I made a stunning demo disc, where you could play a shell game over and over with the on-screen huckster, spot and stop shoplifters who were using all manner of deceptions to slip items into pockets and purses, and adjust the flame on a welding torch. The fact that I could control everything on the disc from a small TRS80 Radio Shack notebook computer made it even more compelling, and exquisitely portable. My business got generated by having potential clients say “Hey, could you do (this or that) with this thing?” Too often, however, I would fly to Columbus. Ohio for a meeting and see nothing but glass eyes across the conference table. Unless this new technology did exactly what they needed with their exact product in their exact situation, people mostly could not make the conceptual jump.

I also began to understand why the young Bill Gates was paranoid. Managers from his newly public company came trying to entice my best people away. One of the Microsoft managers, seeing me eating with a group in a local restaurant at lunch, actually bragged straight to me that he was hiring one of my best programmers. Computer folks may have education, but that doesn’t necessarily bestow class.

Gates himself was a different matter. He had a sort of naïve graciousness, that some programmers are fortunate enough to retain. (Joke from back then: Q: What’s the difference between programmers and terrorists? A: You can negotiate with terrorists.) I was invited again as a speaker the next year, and this time it was for the world’s primo CD-ROM conference. The event was at the downtown Sheraton in Seattle and there were separate rooms for various subjects. For my presentation there was a curious requirement, that I found out at the last moment. I could show slides and talk about videodiscs, but I could not show an actual program with one. This I discovered was because the CD-ROM, or any other kind of data storage and manipulation, still wouldn’t be half as fast or look half as good or be half as dependable as the videodisc. If you want a truly techie reason, it was because the world Microsoft wanted was all-digital, and the world the mass public understood was still analog. (If you didn’t need this explanation, that’s OK too.)

Anyway, money creeps in. The speakers’ dinner the next year, in 1987, was in a penthouse suite overlooking the city. It did feel a bit more exclusive looking out at the  world silhouetted against the reddened skies of sundown. Exclusive, but no more fun than Bill’s Backyard Dinner the year before. After this penthouse dinner the group began to mull about what they heard was happening downstairs. Unbeknownst to anyone, the Philips company from the Netherlands had rented the auditorium in the same hotel for that evening, and the word was out that they were going to introduce their new CD-I, (Compact Disc – Interactive,) disc product on that stage, for this group of speakers, and others they could round up.

A few of the speakers commented that Philips chews up and spits out small fry like Microsoft, This Philips introduction was clearly an affront and a challenge to any leadership Microsoft was taking, which was very little at all beyond pronouncing themselves a leader. I happened be right next to the (now) 28 year-old Gates outside the penthouse dinner when he was accosted by a Mr. Telza of Philips. (The name is an approximation) Telza wanted very much for Gates to announce to the speakers at the dinner that the Philips CD-I product was being introduced that night in the  hotel auditorium downstairs. This was obviously to show Microsoft’s newly pronounced software leadership challenged at his own sponsored conference by the international hardware leader and patent holder. If Gates resisted, it would show weakness. If he gave in, it would show he was cowed by Philips.

He pondered the situation for just a moment, and then I was surprised at the non-chalance with which Gates answered, “Sure, we’ll have them go down and see it.” The Philips man looked a little surprised with the quickness of the answer, and then he ( and I) knew it was the perfect one. Without further words, Gates was saying that his speakers, of high caliber, would know if CD-I was any good.

They went, and it wasn’t. At that juncture, CD-I was largely vaporware, put in to get attention built on some kind of technical innuendo that such a thing could possibly be done if anyone wanted it.  Beyond that dinner, I never worked with Gates or ran in his circles, but I have always admired how he handled Philips that night. My business went into medical simulation and his into business software, and paths didn’t cross again.

There is a final irony, however. I learned from some other videodisc practioners that one of them had been hired in hush-hush secrecy, to back up announcements made by Gates at yearly events, touting new Microsoft direction. The new Microsoft software product often would have bugs and would have crashed their computers right there on the big stage when Gates was out there presenting and showing off new products on the huge screens for audiences of thousands. Such crashing was not fun, for anyone…So…

The videodiscs which were “backup” could be made to work perfectly every time in linear precision. So it happened, (if my rumoring friends are truthful,) that clear up to the year 2000, videodiscs were always used instead of the real program on a real computer when the images and sequences were mission critical. Show biz folks might find that comparable to Milly Vanilly lipsyncing whole performances. But I thought it was fine. Like my friend Stan Jarvis always said, if you believe it can be true, you are justified in imitating a future reality.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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