Tuesday, June 15

Notes towards Memoirs of a Bit Player

Everyone, they say, has a book in them. I daydream about mine, which would be about the interesting and semi-famous silicon valley people I have known (even if they're from elsewhere). In my daydream, each chapter has an anecdote about somebody who is either now or once was well-known, or at least should have been. The catch is, I would have had to be present at (preferably a participant in) the occasion that the anecdote describes.

I can immediately think of several anecdotes that meet the criteria, which is encouraging. But every time I think long enough, I realize that I can't even come up with ten such occasions. This is discouraging. But that's enough to make plenty of grist for this blog, right?

Before I tell you the story, remind me next time to tell you about the time I saw HIC in an Italian suit and Henry Baker explained why. But not now. For this chapter, which we could call Oh, Shit, the date is May 1981. Gather around, children.

In those days, the moral equivalent of COMDEX was NCC, the annual National Computer Conference, which was sponsored by AFIPS (you probably haven't heard of them either). At its height there may have been 100,000 attendees, enormous for the industry then. All the important computer industry announcements were made there and there was a refereed conference proceedings published. People would do anything to get booth space on the main floor rather than in one of the offsite tents. Space was a more-or-less fixed price per square foot, but location priorities were assigned by attendance seniority.

The conference that year was in Chicago, at whatever passed for a convention center then. There were always rumors about who was going to announce what cool product. I was interested in a lot of things rumored, like Digital's successor to the KL-10, the Jupiter. DEC didn't announce it then, and in fact announced Jupiter's cancellation two years later, breaking my heart and the hearts of many others.

But what I was most excited about was the impending announcement of the Xerox Star workstation.

I worked at Fairchild Lab for AI Research then (a.k.a. Fairchild AI Lab, with the more telling acronym) — a pretty cool place to be and within stone-throwing range of Xerox PARC. Not that we would have thrown any — the gods lived there, as on Olympus: Thacker, Lampson, Taylor, Kay and the rest. (Note who the rest included! Deutsch, Sproull, Teitelman, Ingalls, Bobrow, Simonyi, Metcalfe, Warnock, Tesler...)

I knew about the wonders they had produced: bit-mapped graphics, Ethernet, the mouse, gui w/ overlapping windows, laser printers, Smalltalk, Interlisp, Press and on and on. But. You. Couldn't. Have. Any. Of. It.

So here I am, in Chicago, wearing suit-and-tie (1981, remember), standing shoulder-to-shoulder geek-to-geek in Xerox's booth, about to see the first-ever public demo of the Star workstation. Apparently, some new Prometheus had gone to PARC, spirited away their secrets to SDD in El Segundo, and was now making it possible for mortals to obtain these wonders. Even to just see them might be enough.

I'm standing there, getting the demo of my life. On tiptoe, peering over the heads in front of me I see, for my first time, not only the mouse, but the desktop metaphor. Not only bitmaps, but WYSIWYG. Not just networking, but file servers. There's only one thing spoiling my perfect reverie. The guy standing to my left, his shoulder pressing into mine.

This guy just won't shut up! I mean, the Xerox demo guy (who is very good) is talking and the guy on my left keeps talking too, sotto voce, no, louder than that. Oh, shit. Fuck me. Shit. Holy Shit. Oh, Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, shit, fuck shit. Oh shit. He just won't stop.

I've had about all of this I can take. I tear my eyes away from the demo in front, swivel my head to the left and get ready to tell this jerk to shut up. It's Steve Jobs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Put "It's Steve Jobs." on a new line.

Works better for drama.