inessential by Brent Simmons

InternetWorld Spring 1997

I wish I remembered this guy’s name.

In early March 1997 I attended Spring InternetWorld in Los Angeles. I was working at UserLand Software, for Dave Winer. We were attached to Apple’s booth at the show; we were demoing a new piece of group web publishing software — that ran on Macs — called Content Server. (The basic idea: drop a text file or graphic into a folder on a shared drive, and the system would do the right thing: render it as HTML and upload it to the website.)

Gil Amelio was still CEO — he even gave a keynote at the show. But Steve Jobs had just come back, and the announcement that the NeXT OS would be the next Mac OS had been made. (We were a little freaked out that the new OS would require an astronomical 128 MB of RAM.)


Dave and I were talking to some guy — a smart guy, as I recall, older than I was, who’d been around the industry for many years — and this guy told us that we were wasting our time with website-building technology. By the year 2000, he said, there would probably be only about half-a-dozen websites.

He said: you know PathFinder, right? With that and a few other sites like it, there is simply no need or demand for anything else.

Dave and I didn’t agree, of course. We expected an explosion in small websites, from individuals to small companies to small publications. It seemed like the problem was that it was still too hard to make websites.

But this guy said: no, that’s not it at all — it’s that nobody wants to make or visit those websites. It’ll just be a few giant sites that survive.

I wish I remembered his name, because it’s so much like that famous (but perhaps apocryphal) statement from Thomas J. Watson: “I think there is a world market for about five computers.”

The thing is, this guy wasn’t alone. Picture 1997. There were even people who thought the web itself was a fad, and that there’d be zero websites by the year 2000. But the idea that it would follow the path of other industries — with tons of small players at first and then consolidations and mass extinctions — sort of made sense, if the web was like anything else.

But it wasn’t.

Nobody knew that for sure, though.

Bonus memory

One night at the conference Apple held a party at the Whisky A Go Go on the fabulous Sunset Strip. (I always have to say “fabulous” because of the opening to X’s live album at the Whisky. “Hellooooo, everybodyyyyyy, and welcome to the Whisky A Go Go on the fabulous Sunset Strip!”)

Steve Jobs had just put a bullet in OpenDoc’s head, and there were some OpenDoc engineers at the party. I remember talking to one, whose name I didn’t catch or don’t remember.

I was glad about OpenDoc going away, but I didn’t say that. (OpenDoc made Java apps look slim and fast and stable.)

We were standing, drinking pints of beer. I asked him what he thought, and he said it was a shame, because there was so much great technology in OpenDoc, but he understood needing to cut costs.

“What are you going to do?” I asked.

“Who knows,” he said, and then stared down into his beer. “I’ll think of something.”

I don’t know what he did next. It’s likely he was laid off. It’s also likely he’s had another couple tours of duty at Apple since. Or went on to found a startup and make millions — or lose millions. Who knows.

I remember thinking how brutal the tech industry can be. One minute you’re working on technology you think is great, and the next minute you might be wondering where to sign up for unemployment checks.

What was his name? What happened to him?

Another bonus memory: fast-forward to 2000

In late 2000 Dave and I attended eDevCon in New Orleans. I remember some of the people I met there: Tim Bray, Dori Smith, Nat Torkington, Steve Gillmor.

The conference was put on by Fawcette, and Dave and I met one of the Fawcette guys in the hall — he had invited Dave to speak, and I was there for the ride.

The guy — with a huge smile, talking very quickly, on his way to somewhere — says, “It’s so great to meet you! I love you guys’ blogs, how you write every single day. I could never do that!”

This guy — well, I remember his name, and I do know what happened to him. Turned out Robert Scoble could write every single day.

Final bonus memory

At the end of eDevCon I spotted Jeffrey Zeldman in the hotel store. I went and introduced myself to him — as he was, I don’t know, looking at the mints or magazines or something. I told him what a big fan I was and how much I admired his work for open standards.

Right at first he had the exact look of someone who had a lot of fans at these kinds of things and wanted to just buy a thing in the store and be left alone for just one goddamn minute for a change. But there was me, another fanboy. And then he was gracious and nice.

I remember thinking: how weird it must be for him, to be interrupted by fans at random times at these things.

And I remember thinking it’s not something I would ever have to worry about in the future.