20 Years Ago: A Personal History of the Early Days of the Web

1994 was an historic year (both for Silicon Valley and for me). This kicks off a series of posts that try to capture some of the magic from that year, when the web began its transition from something just for science and academia to an exponentially-growing interactive medium for everybody. (Originally published in four separate posts in the first half of 2014 on therealmccrea.com.)

20 years ago, I got my “golden ticket” into Silicon Valley.

I had graduated from Stanford Business School seven months earlier, but between an economy still slowly emerging from recession and having an undergraduate degree that was neither engineering nor computer science, I was struggling to find a full-time job at a tech company. But by December of 1993, I had somehow managed to land a very promising contractor position at Silicon Graphics in the “low-end” division that had recently launched the company’s newest product, the Indy workstation. And that proved to be quite fortuitous in a number of ways.

First off, Silicon Graphics was going to have its first-ever presence at MacWorld Expo a few weeks later, and, strangely, everyone seemed keen to let “the new guy” take the marketing lead, not just for the low-end division, but for the company as a whole. (This, despite that I didn’t know any of our products in depth, had never been to MacWorld, and hadn’t organized a major trade show presence for any company, ever.) There was a lot to do, with great urgency, and there would be a big spotlight on my effort. So, whether I succeeded or failed, the results would be spectacularly visible.

Second, the guy who hired me as a contractor, the Indy product manager, was already eyeing his next role, a chance to participate in the birth of a new division within the company, something called Silicon Studio, that was setting out to create high-end authoring software for interactive multimedia content. (Translation: video game creation tools.) But for his transfer to be happily accepted, he had an obligation to find a back-fill for his current role. And so, when I managed to not screw up our debut at MacWorld, I essentially got hired and promoted at the same time, stepping into the shoes of the guy who had signed me to a “try-before-you-buy” contract just weeks earlier!

Soon, I would enthusiastically tell anyone who would listen that I was thrilled to have “the best job in Silicon Valley.” Why? Because I was the freakin’ product manager for the newest, sexiest, highest-volume product for what was clearly the hottest company in Silicon Valley. I know it’s hard to believe now, but in 1994 Silicon Graphics was so hot that it was featured in a BusinessWeek cover story, breathlessly entitled “The Gee-Whiz Company”.

In that feature, Robert Hof would describe us as “the most magical computer maker on the planet” and then go on to report:

In an industry marked by huge hype, Silicon Graphics is the genuine article: a truly innovative company with clearly unique products. “They’re the new Apple,” says Morgan Stanley & Co. analyst Steven M. Milunovich. Then, mulling Apple’s recent struggles, he corrects himself: “The Microsoft of computer graphics.”

So, there I was, no longer searching, having landed at the best possible place, with the best possible job. That alone was enough to make January 1994 a very memorable month, but there was one more door about to open for me. And it was to a far bigger opportunity — but one that would take me more than a few months to fully grasp.

It started with an invitation in the mail to a party celebrating Wired magazine’s first anniversary.

[Photo credit: The Original Wired Magazine, 1993 on Facebook.]

I was a Wired fanboy. I’d read every issue cover-to-cover, and even tried landing a job there a few months earlier. So I was thrilled to get an invite (likely only as a result of spending a lot of Silicon Graphics marketing dollars at MacWorld). The event was in San Francisco, in a huge brick warehouse on Third, near Wired’s headquarters in South Park. Back then, there weren’t very many startups in San Francisco; that was yet to come, with Wired to serve as “ground zero” for the City’s emergent “dot-com” scene.

At a time when most people thought of technology as boring or nerdy, Wired managed to make computers, software, and networking seem as edgy as a new designer drug and as wild as a rave (at a time when those were a thing). So, dressed all in black, I put on my new Doc Martin boots, and headed out from my Lower Haight apartment, ready to rock.

Looking back now, I can hardly distinguish that particular party from many others in the ‘90’s — dark setting, loud music, drinks, packed crowd. What I do vividly remember, though, is meeting Jonathan Steuer, who worked at Wired and had the tantalizing title of “Online Tsar”. I suspect he is the very first person I handed a business card with “Indy Product Manager” on it. Once he read my title, Jonathan got very excited.

“You’re the Indy product manager?” he asked. “I really want to use Indys as the web servers for a project I’m working on.”

“Awesome,” I replied, without missing a beat. “Just one question — what’s a web server?”

How could I, a product manager at a company that sold high-performance UNIX workstations and servers, not know what a web server was? The simple truth is that in January 1994, I had never seen nor heard of the web. Hardly anyone had.

Through a bit of online archeology, I now know that the total number of web servers in existence at the time was less than 800 — and they were almost all of the “.edu” flavor, hosted at places like CERN and SLAC. And although there’s no count of how many people were on the web at the time, my best estimate is 3.7 million.

The web of January 1994 is largely gone, and cannot be re-constructed. But, believe it or not, in that month some folks at Georgia Tech’s Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center did what must be the very first web-based survey attempting to characterize the users of the “world wide web”. James Pitkow and Margaret Recker were trying to learn things like: which browsers were people using, how frequently were they surfing the web, and some basic facts about who those early adopters were (and to see whether, as they believed, the web would be a better platform for surveys than email had been).

And even more surprising than knowing such a survey was done so early, is discovering, as I did a few days ago, that the original survey and its results are still online!

So, let’s use those survey results to travel back in time to a very different web than the one we experience today. First up: gender. Apparently, the web of January 1994 was, to put it mildly, a bit of a boys club. Males accounted for a whopping 95% of respondents. I assume this says far less about the web than it does about the professions that were among its earliest users. (Physics, I’m looking at you!)

And these folks diverged from the mainstream in another significant way. They were not surfing the early web on commodity hardware from the old “Wintel” duopoly. No, 92% of them were on UNIX workstations (and most likely enjoying always-on broadband connections via Ethernet, versus slow, intermittent connectivity via dial-up).

Remember the browser war, when Microsoft and Netscape fought each other, tooth and nail? Well, that was still quite a ways off, as Netscape did not yet exist, and Microsoft had no plans for making a web browser. Nonetheless, the browser question offered no fewer than five choices, listed alphabetically (Cello, Lynx, Mosaic, Other, and Samba). As it turns out, that was three choices too many. Mosaic, developed by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina at NCSA and released less than 12 months earlier, had completely taken over, accounting for 97% of respondents! (The remaining 3% were using Lynx, a text-based browser developed by Lou Montulli, Michael Grobe, and Charles Rezac at University of Kansas).

It’s also interesting what the survey reveals about the utility of the early web. With fewer than 800 total servers on the web, it’s easy to imagine that usage would be fairly infrequent. Quite the contrary; 20% of respondents used their browser more than nine times a day! Another 18% accessed the web 5 to 8 times a day. And another 42% reported one to four times a day. Together, that’s 80% of early users finding the web so essential that they used it every single day.

You can see all of the graphs here, and read the full paper here. Who knows just how representative this data is of the whole of the web at the time? But as far as I can tell, it is the only such dataset of its kind from that time period, so let’s be thankful that it exists, is online, and can be read by modern browsers.

A few months passed between when I first heard about the web in January 1994 and when I actually saw it for the very first time. And that’s probably a good thing, since early 1994 was the exact period of time in which “dot coms” exploded on to the world wide web, rapidly extending the diversity of web content far beyond its original subject matter, particle physics.

In April of 1994, when I finally downloaded Mosaic, I headed straight to the one site known to make it super-easy to discover and experience all of that new and diverse content: Yahoo. But I didn’t get there by typing “yahoo.com”.

It is true that the site had just embraced the short, fun, and memorable name, Yahoo, after operating for a few months with the unwieldy moniker “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web”. But, hard to believe now, once they chose the new name, Jerry Yang and David Filo did not immediately secure the Yahoo domain. (In fact the site would not start to operate as yahoo.com until January 1995!) As a result, all of us who heard about Yahoo by word-of-mouth sometime in 1994 had to also know and correctly type the URL associated with Jerry’s workstation on Stanford campus: akebono.stanford.edu/yahoo.

Below is the Yahoo I saw (or as close as we can now get; this screenshot is from some unknown date between April and December 1994). It may look ungainly to you now, but for me, and for so many others, this was the page that made the web a case of “love at first site”:

With this proto-Yahoo, if you had interest in a specific site or topic, you could quickly navigate the site’s hierarchy and find what you were looking for. But if you were curious, bored, or just new to the web (as most of us were), the awesome top-level navigation was where the action was. With the total number of servers on the web doubling every three months, What’s new? What’s cool? What’s popular? and “Random link” provided the perfect options for exploration and serendipity. Like so many others, I quickly became addicted, coming back multiple times a day to find new sites, and to watch the exponential growth of the web across a large and growing number of content categories.

What sorts of cool, new sites might one discover via Yahoo?

One of my early favorites was “IUMA” (short for the Internet Underground Music Archive). Years before Napster, this site let you discover and download digital music (in the MP2 format) from hundreds of indie bands. Hard to believe, but CNN had already done a short piece on them in March 1994. Well worth a watch:

I’d love to show you more of the web from Spring of 1994, but almost all of the sites that inspired me then are now long gone.

By the summer of 1994, just a few months after landing what I asserted was “the best job in Silicon Valley,” I was already thinking of moving on. How was that possible?

Silicon Graphics was still the hottest company in the Valley — and getting hotter. Our much-ballyhooed interactive television partnership with Time Warner was getting close to launch (and stilled seemed like a good idea at the time). We were hard at work on the Nintendo 64, the world’s first 3D game console. Video server partnerships had just been announced with AT&T and Japan’s NTT. And our market cap now topped that of rivals Sun and DEC.

But things were not so rosy for Indy.

In some ways, we were still recovering from an imperfect launch the prior year. The big plan for Indy was to dramatically increase sales volume by hitting a much lower price point. Instead of the $10,000 price tag of its predecessor, the Indigo, Indy’s strategic mandate was to break the $5,000 barrier. And Indy did just that, tiptoeing across that magical line with an entry-level configuration priced at $4,995. There was just one problem — that config, with only 16 MB of RAM, wouldn’t boot.

Yes, all around the world, customers excitedly opened their beautiful blue boxes labeled “Serious Fun,” smiled at the bright blue “pizza box” inside (and its accompanying juggling balls), and eagerly set up their system, complete with the trailblazing digital “IndyCam.” But when they powered up their sweet new workstation, its paltry 16 MB of RAM (critical to hitting the price and margin targets) was not enough memory to load the all-brand-new-and-maybe-not-quite-finished 5.1 version of the operating system. So it would just hang. Outrage ensued.

Of course, soon additional memory was shipped for free to irate customers. And the base configuration got bumped to 32 MB of RAM. By the time I joined, that “imperfect launch” was behind us, but Indy now faced a much larger and harder problem to solve — actually achieving the very ambitious volume goals set alongside its pricing strategy.

Indy’s volume problem was really a classic “Catch-22”. From a hardware perspective, Indy was truly a multimedia monster: 64-bit RISC CPU, video-capable 100 MHz system bus, integrated video camera, and enough inputs and outputs that the headline from one ad was “Any port in a brainstorm”.

And multimedia authoring was a super-hot market, driven by the explosive growth in sales of interactive CD-ROMs (such as “Mad Dog McCree,” a Western shootout simulation game which gave rise to my industry nickname) and the popularity of Macromedia’s flagship authoring tool, Director. Imagine the breakout sales that could be driven from a marriage of Indy’s multimedia hardware and Macromedia’s multimedia software! Alas, Director was a Mac application; it was not available on IRIX (our flavor of Unix). And all efforts to persuade Macromedia to port to IRIX were to no avail. Why? Not enough volume.

Lack of volume also meant tepid support from Adobe. There was a version of Photoshop running on IRIX, but it was a generic port via some tool called “Latitude”. It didn’t take advantage of our sweet GUI, nor was it very fast.

I very much wanted to find a way out of Indy’s volume Catch-22. But finding a new “killer app” willing to play nice with us seemed like a big job. I knew I couldn’t do that and handle all of the day-to-day tasks of the Indy product manager.

As luck would have it, I got the perfect opportunity to act on my desire for a new role. In August, Jim White, the well-regarded marketing leader for the mid-range workstation division (maker of the company’s Indigo2 “cash cow”), was named director of marketing for our division, filling a position that had been vacant for a few months. Jim’s charter was to re-invigorate the efforts to make Indy a high-volume platform.

After Jim was introduced to the team and gave a great pep talk, he came up to each of us individually for a quick chat. I think he asked me something like, was I “liking the role of product manager?”. His positive energy and unblinking you-can-trust-me eye contact inspired me to do what many at Silicon Graphics would consider career suicide. I told him there might be a better role for me than product manager.

“And what is it you want to do?” Jim asked.

“Marketing with a capital ‘M,’” I said. “I think our breakout growth opportunity will come from a new market, and I’d like to focus on looking for it.”

“Okay,” he said. “Go find us a new market.”

To be continued…

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