Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Truly Trivial: What technology was the subject of 1968's famous "Mother of All Demos?"

The Xerox Alto workstation, first to use a gra...Image via Wikipedia
One Dec. 9, 1968, a watershed moment in computer science and consumer electronics took place: a technology demonstration now known as The Mother of All Demos. The events of the MoAD arguably lit the fire that eventually set forth the technological, cultural, and economic conflagration that was the invention of the modern personal computer. It's just that no one really knew it at the time.

A pair of researchers named Douglas Englebart and Bill English coordinated to MoAD under the somewhat immodest title of "A research center for augmenting human intellect" at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. In attendance at the FJCC was Butler Lampson, who went on to help found Xerox's Palo Alto Research Conference (PARC) in 1970. Two years after that, Lampson wrote a memo titled "Why Alto?" which outlined his vision for a new type of computer -- the Xerox Alto -- based in part on what he saw at the Mother of All Demos.

The Xerox Alto is rather infamous in computing circles. First for the many modern technologies the Alto integrated into what we now recognize as a modern personal computer, including a computer mouse, Ethernet, file servers, and a graphic user interface with a desktop metaphor. Second, because Xerox decided there wasn't a market for the Alto and refused to produce it commercially. The latter point is often considered one of the great missed opportunities in business history.

You'll likely not be surprised to learn a young engineer named Steve Jobs got a first-hand look at a prototype Alto at Xerox Parc in 1979, and it inspired him to build the first Macintosh. The Mac, in turn, so impressed Bill Gates that he originally licensed part of its GUI for Windows 1.0, which Gates himself later licensed for IBM PCs with some multibillion-dollar, world-changing success. (Though there was some rather ugly fallout from the Windows vs. Mac similarity, some of which still rages today.)

Thus, you can draw a straight line from the Mother of All Demos to whichever personal computer -- be it Mac, PC, or a GUI flavor of Linux -- sitting on your desk right now. Lost in all the fervor, however, was the actual inspirational technology displayed at the MoAD.

What technology was the subject of 1968's famous Mother of All Demos?

The MoAD was the coming-out party for the awkwardly acronymed oN-Line System (NLS), a computer collaboration system that sought to solve many of the user time-sharing problems facing the common mainframes of the day. The NLS was revolutionary for many reasons, but it is best remembered as the first practical application of two technologies still used today: Hypertext and the computer mouse. Just for added benefit, the NLS also sported raster-scan monitors, screen windowing, an early type of groupware collaboration, and an ancestral form of what we now would consider a PowerPoint presentation (though we'll forgive NLS the last point).

Put more simply, the NLS incorporated many of the collaborative information management concepts that drive wikis and shared online documents today, and it did it using input (keyboard and mouse) and output (windowed screen content, hyperlinks) methods that define computing today. The NLS was decades ahead of its time.

Englebart, who was the presenter of the Mother of All Demos, is the inventor of the computer mouse, and it was his oft-overlooked collaborator, English, who invented the mouse ball. Englebart and English developed the NLS's revolutionary tech, but it was their theatricality in unveiling the technology that earned their presentation the title Mother of All Demos -- albeit more than 25 years after the event.

Englebart borrowed a massive projector from NASA and hooked it up to his NLS terminal in the San Francisco convention center, then connected that terminal to his NLS mainframe at Stanford using leased phone lines (a serious investment in the late 1960s). When Englebart used his terminal to access hypertext data, the audience saw his inputs and returns in real time, which was both groundbreaking technology and showmanship. Even more mindblowing, the audience could see the offsite communications with Englebart's groupware collaborators in Menlo Park simultaneously. It was like watching someone with a modern wireless laptop and digital projector co-edit a Google Doc -- in 1968!

Thus, author Steven Levy retroactively dubbed the event the "Mother of All Demos" in his 1994 book Insanely Great, and the name stuck. Unfortunately, the demo was better than the NLS as the system didn't use a conventional keyboard, but a chord keyset that required significant training to use. For all its data organization and display prowess, the NLS was simply too hard to program and it was overtaken by more practical mainframe timesharing software. Thus, the MoAD is widely remembered for its historical significance but the tech being demo'd is forgotten.

Style over substance, with an impact measured best in who it impressed and inspired rather than in what it actually produced. Basically, the Mother of All Demos was the ancestor of every tech startup investor pitch ever made. And like most such VC placations, the product on display was relegated to the dustbin of the Truly Trivial.

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