The Network is the Computer

Welcome back and apologies for the delay in getting this latest blog out, seems when you have 3 young boys the holidays are kind of big.  In the latest issue of Wired an article appeared recalling the launch by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison of the “Network is the Computer” initiative.  Given where I am in my timeline and remembering this period fairly well it seemed a good time to reflect, comment and look forward.  When the internet age launched there were no lack of big ideas.  It also launched the period of anything but Microsoft (ABM).  At this time Oracle and its flamboyant CEO, Larry Ellison were not that well-known in most technology circles.  Like so many ideas at the time, the idea of the “Network as the Computer” was not a bad idea at all, it was just ahead of its time.

For those who read my blog let’s recap what this idea was and possibly put it in the context of today.  The idea was simple all your date and applications could be run off a server on the internet and the desktop would not have to do much just render the pages as they came across the web.  To go back further in the history of computing your desktop device would be a “dumb” terminal, like those green screens many people had used in the seventies.  As the article rightly pointed out this would sell more Oracle databases and make Larry famous, which was important to Larry.  I will say I admire Larry Ellison I think he is incredibly smart, a sharp businessman, who has led Oracle to incredible success.  Oracle is also the one software vendor to stand the test of time in competing against Microsoft.  He is also the consummate playboy and may have the world’s largest ego.  After Larry presented his idea, a lot of companies jumped on board, primarily IBM and Sun Microsystems.  They had a lot of buzz going.  In the tech industry generating “buzz” is paramount to success.

Sun Microsoystems really jumped on this bandwagon.  They were hell-bent on taking down Microsoft.  No one in the industry was more focused on this than Sun (I will focus on Sun in an upcoming blog).  They developed a terminal for the “Network is the Computer” initiative and launched the device to the world.  It was an elegant “dumb” terminal. They even managed to sell a few,  However what I remember was the pictures of the boxes being removed from customers after a failed trial.  These circulated around Microsoft so pretty much everyone saw them as a Microsoft employee was there at the scene to take the photo’s.   Still early in the digital camera age as they were not prevalent at time.

IBM started down the path, but then CEO Lou Gerstner, backed off and redirected IBM back into services.  As the saying went “No one was ever fired for going with Big Blue”.  I give Gerstner a lot of credit for redirecting the ship at IBM and generating the success they have seen that continues to this day.  The lesson for IBM was, do not forget what you are known for and good at.  Today’s Microsoft may want to revisit what IBM did in the mid nineties. They remain one of Microsoft’s biggest competitors.

What were the limiting factors?  Well at the time it was still early in the dotcom bubble and what was really happening was a build out of the internet infrastructure.  Fiber was being laid down all over the globe.  Data Centers were popping up all over the place.  You learned a lot about railways as they had what was known as “Right of Way” and a lot of fiber that was laid down ran next to the train tracks.  The build out of the internet was often compared to the expansion of the rail roads in the latter 1800’s.  Finally there was the “last mile”.  This was what ran into your home.  At the time and still today three entities own this (Telecommunication Carriers, Cable Companies, and the Utilities).  The problem was what we have today was still early on so very few had Cable Modems or DSL Lines.  So despite all this infrastructure build out to deliver these services, the service was still very slow and frankly not very good.  Not just the speed but the applications being delivered.

Today this idea has resurfaced in the form of cloud computing.  Where cloud has it right is it is not billing itself as a replacement to the PC, but focusing more on the value to the end customer.  This initial effort has been led by Amazon , but in the last couple of years everyone has jumped on board – Microsoft, Google, IBM, etc..The economic downturn we are still in has helped drive the value proposition for cloud computing – off load your IT costs and save money.  We are still at the early stages of cloud computing – having presented the Microsoft version to customers, many know they need to do it as costs are driving decisions, but they do not know which applications to offload, let alone which cloud platform to trust. 

What the network is the computer and today’s cloud computing offer is just an updated version of yester years mainframe, which is a centralization of computing.  I fully expect and predict down the road when we master multicore computing and have a processor with 16, 32 or 64 cores, development will shift back to the client.  When you have that kind of horse power on a client PC, someone will figure out how to leverage it.  If you go back through the history of computing these things tend to be cyclical.  At one point the industry focus’ on centralized computing and at other times it moves back to the end-points.

The “Network is the computer” was a big idea, like so many things in the dotcom era, however I truly believe that the tech industry is built for big ideas.  Most times they don’t pan out however they lay the foundation for great work to be spun off from the initial development or to be re-introduced later and greater.  Remember Microsoft started as a big idea, “A PC on every desktop and in every home”.  It took 20 years but through many efforts it eventually came true.  With the explosion in data (video, digital pictures, music etc..) the idea of the cloud is ripe for both the enterprise and end users.  Even my wife is concerned about our data and asks me if there are online back up services.  Tech people create the ideas, but end users drive the market for those ideas to success or failure.  Have a Happy New Year everyone!!

Montreal – MGX 1996

Following up on my last blog I guess it is time to return to the fun of summer and the Microsoft Global Sales Summit.  This is still during the good old days when they were still lots of fun.  The 1996 sales summit was in Montreal, Canada. I will say I really liked Montreal and the whole French-Quebec feel.  The event was tied up into two tracks – there was the first 5 days which were the technical tracks and then the second 5 days which were sales.  If you did the tech track you stayed for the sales track.

Prior to going to Montreal I had interviewed for another sales position in Telesales, which was as a Channel Sales rep.  I interviewed with a person who would be an eventual VP, the late Paul Bazely.  At the time he owned the whole telesales operations.  By this time Director of HQ Sales had become a good stepping stone for people looking to move up in the organization.  Because of my technical background and one of the hiring managers history in my current role at the time, I was well positioned to get this job and early in my journey to Montreal I received the offer.  I will be the first to say and my wife will verify I am terrible at interviewing, so this success was great.  I should also add that in April of 1996 I had married my girlfriend of two years Jean.  So going to Montreal I was kind of excited. I was to attend the tech track the first five days.  I would really come to enjoy the tech track at MGX as  it was a great way to get educated and get a sneak peek of what was coming down the technology pipeline at Microsoft.

The tech track was more business like than the sales track.  You went to the conference center each morning and looked at the schedule and whatever interested you went to attend.  I attended a session on setting up NT as a DNS Server (all done from the command line).  We had sessions on SQL Server 6.0, SNA Server, Exchange Server and lots of compete sessions.  My roommate was Roland San Nichols, (another to file away in the where is he now category).  The days were sessions and  box lunches.  The evening’s were parties and bars.  The last night of the tech session was geek fest.  Microsoft rented out a bar  and provided drinks, food and entertainment.  The entertainment was two girls performing acrobatics on a rope.  Very erotic scene in a sea of geeks.  Nobody seemed to mind.

After the geek fest the sales people showed up and the executives.  When the sales folks showed up the scene changed dramatically.  We got hot food instead of box lunches. The opening night was the welcome reception in a square that Microsoft had rented in the middle of Montreal.  The theme was as best I could tell “Cirque De Soleil”  with lots of artists on stilts, acrobats, magicians, clowns, ..etc..Also lots of food and booze.  All my friends who were on the sales side from my building showed up and every field rep from every corner for the globe was there.  Once sales showed up the event become a little more upscale, a bit more raucous, and in general a whole lot more fun.  How everyone showed up for 8:30 am sessions is beyond me.

The opening executive keynote was Steve Ballmer.  How events started in those days was much different then more recent events.  The first set was some of the troop from “Stomp” the musical.  They were out on stage doing a big set with big sticks when half way into, bursting onto the stage wielding a big stick (and a big body) was Steve Ballmer.  He looked like he was having a blast yelling and screaming and pounding his big stick.  Once he stopped he went to the podium and started to address the crowd in French.  It lasted two lines and then he quit.  I think part of the reason is Microsoft had just purchased a Montreal based graphics company called Soft Image.  I speak very little French and though Steve may be Harvard educated I don’t think his French was very good. It was good he switched back to English.  I don’t remember much of what Steve had to say and that is probably because all Steve had to say in those days is Microsoft had another great year.  Next up was Jeff Raikes, head of World Wide Sales, in what would become his standard MGX dance routine, done to the tune “Gansgters Paradise”, but renamed “Windows Paradise”.   This entertainment brought together the theme for 1996 – “Kill Netscape”.

I guess it was great that Netscape had received all this attention from Microsoft and they never really stood a chance once they were in Microsoft’s eyesight.  The Montreal MGX put them in everyone at Microsoft’s target list of competitors to go after and the best part was they were number one.  At this time Microsoft was still very able to rally the troops to a cause.  Microsoft was still nimble and the global sales summit was a great setting to get people excited.  Microsoft was still a very focused company at the time, something that would aid it time and time again.

During the evenings it was just a matter of finding where the  party was happening.  Sometimes your own group would sponsor an event or a product group would.  Always drinks and food.  Usually a very nice setting.  Since we were in Canada you could go out and buy Cuban Cigars, something that everyone seemed to do.   I was not too interested as I did not smoke (I have not touched tobacco since I was in Denmark in November of 1992).  I did get a day where Roland and I toured a little of Montreal.  We went out to the Olympic grounds.  Too bad that Montreal had the Olympics in 1976, if you remember the seventies, it was time of concrete structures, unlike today’s modern marvels like the Bird’s nest in Beijing.  It was rather run down. 

As we entered the last day of MGX it was time to get ready for the big all night party before we took off.  The party was a black tie affair and they had a company come and fit us for tuxedo’s.  We went to a designated hotel and got fitted for the tux and then picked them up the day of the event.  Before that all happened we had one final presentation which was the key-note by Billg.  With each passing year  the entrance seemed bigger and grander.  A bunch of lights on stage flashing, smoke all over and then in the back of the stage with a little backlighting a figure would emerge.  Hands always up around his chest and folded.  I always got the impression that no one was more surprised by all the fanfare then Bill himself.  Bill’s speeches were usually about two things.  What the current technology landscape looked like and how he felt Microsoft was positioned.  The second was where he saw the future headed and how Microsoft fit into that future.  I always felt this type of presentation was Bill at his best.  I frankly hated it when he talked about products and had Product Managers come up and do demo’s.  I found it boring and more suited to a VP or GM.

Well the party finally happened.  There were three different rooms for sit down dinners.  Europe, Asia, and North & South America.  Earlier in the week for entertainment we had Donna Summer (she had some audio malfunctions).  However following the dinner we had some group I had never heard of.  They were a rock orchestra.  They had three singers and tackled the classics from Led Zeppelin, The Who and Queen.  When they did Queens “Bohemian Rhapsody” they brough the house down.  Those Europeans love their Queen.  The rest of the evening was a series of dance halls, loud music and drinks.  I heard the next morning that Bill was playing on the escalator.  Those were the days. 

I had a great time in Montreal.  I really liked the event, the city the people, and Microsoft was on a big roll.  I flew home with only thinking of my wife and “Jem le Quebec”.


A few weeks after Windows 95 was launched there was a big buzz on Wall Street.  It was for a company called Netscape.  At that point in time Netscape made a browser (this word browser was new to the masses) called Navigator.  I had played a little with Navigator at work.  It was pretty cool, this being just to randomly search for things on the web and find interesting stuff. When you launched the browser it took you right to the Netscape homepage and away you went on the new super highway — the internet.  I remember writing at the time, “Microsoft has just launched its most successful product and 3 weeks later the landscape has changed with the IPO of Netscape Communications”.

Upon many years of reflection I think it is safe to say that despite the eventual downfall of Netscape, their place in history is secure.  Tim Berners-Lee may have invented the web, but Marc Andreeson brought it to the masses. There is a lot to talk about here, so let’s begin.

Lets first talk about the wiz kid Marc Andreeson.  He was the type of character people like Billg feared. Bill was always saying he worried about competing against the next Microsoft, a bunch of young and hungry kids.  Marc was in his early 20’s and seemed to fit the mold.  The industry immediately touted him the new Bill Gates.   When Netscape launched however Marc was not the President or CEO, he was the CTO.  The CEO was a former FedEx exec named James Barksdale.  I will come back to him later.  I think ceding that control by Marc was a fundamental mistake.  But he was young.  Technology companies need to be led by technical people.  My former company Microsoft no longer believes this as they value business leadership more, Ballmer is a big fan of Jack Welch.   Put a great technical leader in front of technical people they will follow them, but I digress yet again.  Marc was the technical leader at Netscape and after the IPO the industry seemed to hang in the balance, waiting for Marc to utter words that would lead the industry to the future.  After all he was the new Billg.  When he finally spoke we all waited and he said, “Netscape is going to go after corporate email”.  Fighting words for Microsoft and IBM, but not exactly visionary.  Ok, frankly it was stupid.  At the time IBM and Microsoft had combined cash reserves of $22 billion.   Not to mention they had sales forces with relationships already out their selling IBM Notes and Microsoft Exchange.  However it the short run a lot of companies put their email decisions on hold waiting for Netscape’s email offering. I heard this from a number of Microsoft sales reps at the time. Netscape was still young and small and did not have much of a sales force in place. It was probably a bit unfair to put all that weight on Marc’s shoulder.  Unlike Microsoft which took a number of years to become a recognized name, Netscape was more or less an overnight sensation.  In the end I think Marc has been a one hit wonder, but it was a mega hit and I am sure he is not on welfare.  The expectations were very high and I don’t think, like Bill, Marc had a chance to grow into the position.  His learning curve was very steep. 

I made a note of the Netscape CEO James Barksdale, who became a rather visible figure during the DOJ trial.  I am not a big fan of technology companies in general being run by business people.  To be clear companies like IBM I don’t consider technology companies, their primary driver is services.  But other companies like VM Ware, Oracle, Google etc..need technical leaders to rally the troops and get them excited about the future..  Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin went out and got Novell CEO Eric Schmidt (former exec at Sun Microsystems and a very technically bright guy).  Eric had strong credentials.  In the case of Netscape, with Jim Barksdale they were getting a business savvy guy, but he was not at all very technical, nor could he lay out the strategic future for Netscape.  Marc Andreeson and others were needed to do this. If you want to go back in history look what happened to Apple when Pepsi exec John Sculley was brought on board.  In the end Jim spent all his time complaining about Microsoft’s unfair business practices and forging alliances with other Silicon Valley companies to bring the case to the DOJ.  That will be his primary legacy, he motivated a bunch of lawyers to brink a landmark case against a legendary company.  It will be remembered, but it’s not very technical.

I noted earlier when you launched the Netscape browser if took you to Netscape’s home page.  During that time Netscape would do press releases saying 10 million people had visited the website.  In terms of making money though they were trying to sell the software, like Microsoft sells software in a box.  Two quick points to make here:

  1. Competing with Microsoft in the packaged software business was literally going into the Lions den, in short suicide.
  2. What if they had given the software away and focused on search and all those users going to their home page…just a thought

The quote that Marc Andreeson will be best remembered for is “Make the browser where people will go to work and reduce Windows to a set of buggy device drivers”.  It rankled everyone from the top to the bottom at Microsoft, but here is where I may rankle people at Microsoft, in time that will be true.  If you look across the landscape of what is happening in computing more and more is focused on the web, virtualization, and mobility, and less is being asked of the operating system.  As  I have said and a colleague at Microsoft said after loading Windows 7 “I just don’t know how excited I get about a OS upgrade anymore”.  Today over 70% of all development done is web-based development.  Could anyone today start a business without a web presence? In time Marc’s quote will be right on, it was just ahead of its time. 

As for Netscape, well during the DOJ trial they sold and were purchased by AOL.  In the end it was a perfect mess.

Finally, like it or not we owe Netscape a big thank you.  They launched the internet age.  Internet time began back when they did their IPO  in the fall of 1995.  That clock will race forward faster than anyone can imagine.  There will be benefits.  There will be consequences.  But we cannot reset the clock we just have to drive forward or maybe the internet will drive us?

Launch of Windows 95

The biggest event in Microsoft history was the launch of Windows 95.  Make no mistake about it.  I don’t care what Ballmer, Sinofsky, Turner or whatever other exec you want to parade out and say xyz product was bigger.  I don’t care that Microsoft says Windows 7 is the best OS they have ever made (they would be correct on that point).  Windows 95 was huge.  To put it all into perspective before we get to the launch event itself we should understand where the industry was at the time before Windows 95.

From a OS perspective one needs to remember that even though Windows 3.0 and Windows 3.1 had been huge successes there were essentially two things that limited it, primarily visa vi when you were comparing to a Mac.

  1. Windows 3.1 and earlier all had one thing in common, they were built on top of and dependent on DOS.  Memory Management which was so critical in those days was controlled by the Mac killer — DOS.   I will say this over and over again.  You can love your Mac it’s great stuff, but to lose to DOS, from a technical perspective, is shameful.  Don’t tell me Microsoft was stupid when Apple had it burnt in their forehead.
  2. Windows to this point was a 16 bit OS.  The Mac was 32 bit which meant theoretically the Mac should be much faster than a Windows-based system.  Windows 95 was going to a be a 32 bit OS.  For the non-technical folk the easiest way to think of this is a 2 lane highway versus a 4 lane highway.

The PC at the time of launch was really starting to take its place in day-to-day like.  The vision of a PC on every desktop and in every home was starting to come into view. People in general were getting used to and excited about technology.  To work at Microsoft at this time was like being a rock star.  Did not matter what you did you were there.  You were at the cutting edge.   the nineties was the golden age of the geek.

Windows 95 was code-named “Chicago” in beta.  We had played around with it in my group.  It was cool.  The UI was radically different from Windows for Workgroups 3.11, which we were all running at the time. It really took the graphical user interface to the next level at Microsoft.  It really has not changed a whole lot since that release.  The best story from the beta was in Chicago, when BillG had his demo guy, Chris Capposella launch the demo only to have the “big” crash occur.  Chris has gone on to become a successful exec at Microsoft, but that was his shining moment of fame.

Two of the primary drivers behind Windows 95 were Brad Silverberg and Brad Chase.  When they stood onstage earlier that summer in Toronto for the Microsoft Global Sales Summit (I was not there but I saw the video), they received the loudest and longest standing ovation from the Microsoft sales force I had ever heard.  I realized watching that neither would likely ever accomplish something so huge again in their life.  Both have since left Microsoft, Brad Silverberg launched a venture capital firm.   He leads a cushy life from what I understand.

One of the key new features to Windows 95, which remains in the OS to this day was the “Start” button.  Leading up to launch Microsoft needed to do advertising.  As the story goes BillG was at an event where also in the crowd was Mick Jagger.  Bill liked the idea of using the Rolling Stones classic “Start Me Up” for the ad blitz so he asked Mick, “How much would it cost?”.  Keep in mind today we take these type of Rock Star meets corporate America for granted.  In those days it was not quite so common (not to say it did not exist – Michael Jackson and Pepsi had been around for years).

The launch day that October was truly amazing.  Starting at midnight with crowds lined up all over the country the amount of media buzz was overwhelming.  Granted I was local, so in the Seattle area the coverage was over the top.  Every TV station was covering the event and the soccer fields at Microsoft had been transformed into a circus seen complete with a big top tent. The event had a host, none other than Jay Leno.  The Stones, “Start me up” was blaring everywhere and all the time.  Helicopters were flying overhead all day long.  It turned into a complete frenzy as radio reports stated to say that Keith Richards had been sighted at the airport (this proved to be false), which just added to the hysteria.  Outside the tent were booths set up for Microsoft partners to show off demo’s of their Windows 95 products.  Billg was on TV from that morning until the evening, doing interview after interview.  There was food for everyone.  It was just a huge party.

Compare all this with the Windows 7 launch, it was just a different ball game.  I also think the metrics of success have changed.  When I watched Steve Ballmer on the today show at the launch of Windows 7. Matt Lauer asked him, “So why should I buy Windows 7, I mean what is so great?”  Without hesitation Steve responded “Faster boot time”.  As I get older perhaps I get jaded, but that was not exactly the most exciting or interesting of answers.  I honestly do not get tha excited about OS upgrades anymore.  At the end of the day the OS needs to support my devices and run my apps.  Beyond that there is not a whole lot of excitement in an operating system.  But when the industry was younger and before the internet the OS was a really big deal.

The Windows 95 launch was one of those events that will likely not happen in the industry again.  Within the month a IPO would launch for a small company called Netscape.  The dawning of internet time was upon Microsoft and the industry would march toward overdrive, but that is the next blog.  Have a great weekend:-)

Hans Henrik Hoffmann December 12, 2009

Novell – A nice disaster

What can one say about brilliance and stupidity.  When I started at Microsoft the kings of File and Print servers was Novell.  There were a few others like Banyan Vines and Artisoft (they were peer-peer network service) and Microsoft had Lan Manager.  Microsoft in 1993 had released Windows NT 3.1 Advanced Server, to compete against Novell.  But Novell was the king. Novell was led by the aging Ray Noorda.  In time he was more of a liability then an asset.

Novell at the time had done a couple of things real well.  Unlike a lot of companies that had built consulting services around their network offerings, Novell built a huge partner channel.  they had Certified Novel Network Engineers, who carried around these red books (I could not resist comparing this to Maoist China).  When you look at the Microsoft partner channel today a lot of how we started was what we copied from Novell, 

A big event occurred in 1993 when Novell acquired the Unix Systems Labs from AT&T.  I think the reason was clear and tha was what Microsoft had done with NT.  I addition to NT being a file and print server it was an application server.  Servers are just like desktops, they are only as valuable as the applications tha run on them.  In desktops you have things like Office.  On servers you run things like ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) or CRM (Customer Relations Management) software, databases (Oracle, DB2, SQL Server etc..).  What Novell intended to do was unify the Unix vendors and share a common platform.  The reason was at that time every Unix flavor was slightly different – you had Solaris, AIX, HP UX and a bunch of others.  The intent was right as they realized the threat from Microsoft was very real.  However the idea and execution was sorely lacking.  Sun would figure this out later with Java (but that is a later Blog entry).  In any case Novell went to a major Unix conference with the idea of Unix  unification.  No one listened.

Novell had some other good ideas here.  They were working in Novell Directory Services (NDS), but they made the port from NetWare 3.1 that they provided an opening for NT and Microsoft’s active directory service.  They also were working on Novell Embedded Systems (NEST).  The idea was simple – if you are Coca Cola and service vending machines it would be nice how many cans you need to stock of if you can wait until the next week?  It was a bit ahead of its time.

Years later I had a chance to be in a room with Bill Gates and he talked about this.  Microsoft was very scared that Novell would take the Unix code and port it to Novell NetWare and make NetWare a app and file and print server.    Bill was quite animated as he held one palm  up and slapped the other down “all they had to do was port the Unix app code to NetWare and we were dead, I mean all they had to do …” repeatedly slapping his hand. 

Finally another stupid thing that Novell did was at the protocol level.  Remember this was before the internet.  The standard protocol the internet uses is TCP/IP.  Novell however used their own protocol IPX/SPX .  When Microsoft shipped NT, they support three protocols NetBui, IPX/SPX and TCP/IP.   It is such a trivial thing, I am not sure what advantage a protocol gives you but Novell proved to be stubborn on this one for no good reason.

In the end two decisions killed Novell.  Not making NetWare into an app server and not supporting TCP/IP.  the latter cost them a place when the internet revolution began.  They had a new  CEO, Eric Schmidt, who replaced Ray Noorda.  He tried to fix this but then was eventually lured away to a small company called Google.  He has done pretty well

When I look back at the nineties I think Microsoft always did a better job then the competition in keeping the bigger picture in mind.  Time and time again it seemed Microsoft’s competition could not seem to predict the direction technology was headed.  To me it seemed pretty simple and straight forward what was happening, but I guess to many it was not.

Well ee are moving pretty rapidly through a lot of interesting stuff.  Sometimes with some sex and sizzle and sometimes just a picture of the technology landscape.  Upcoming topics will be Windows 95 launch, Microsoft Global Sales SUmmit 1998 (the greatest), the DOJ, when I rip apart the Windows Mobile division and much, much more.  Let me know if you enjoy and thanks for following.