Yesterday I helped Doug Englebart video conference to Reboot7 in Copenhagen. Since I had to bow out of speaking there, was the least I could do. And seeing how all the valley is doing is reinventing something Doug implemented a long time ago, it was, as always, an amazing experience.
From talking with Doug, while most of his great ideas have been implemented (we were in his office at Logitech) -- he views his work as an unfinished revolution. Over the years he has seen the industry become infatuated with feature after feature, but never fulfilling our full potential. The oNLine System [aka the NLS] is still operation on his desk (recall the demo occurred before even the Internet was born, and when Arpanet came around NLS was the second node, and he invented the thin client) and he continues his mission with vigorous optimism for open source.
I demoed Socialtext, Flickr, del.icio.us and other social software we love for Doug. Played with hyperlinks, talked Purple Numbers. Dug deep into tagging -- which is remarkably close to the use of keywords in NLS. Discussed differences of personal productivity to group productivity. Demonstrated some of the interface innovation with Ajax in the web. Of course he groked it:
In 1965, Engelbart told me, "we had developed a way of sending email, and making any word of a document into a permalink, which could be linked to any other document or word and easily published to others. Essentially we had blogs and wikis."
At the core of Doug's design philosophy is augmentation (change behavior) instead of automation (ease of use). Listen to his thoughts on how WYSIWYG is actually clumsy, for example, and consider how the computer is a tool in the context of users.
Think for a moment about how commercialization really occurs in the Valley. We develop products for mainstream adoption and pay particular attention to market risk. One of the greater perceived risks is requiring a change of behavior on the part of users. This product risk is one of the most common reasons for a VC to say no, and in many cases for good reason -- if a product actually requires people to learn how to use it, who knows if they will? Doug points out that if diffusion really worked that way we would ride tricycles instead of bicycles.
It's not just that Doug was disruptively ahead of his time, it's that the Valley is really engineered to produce sustaining innovations.
We herald the PC revolution, but we should remember that it made us forget to share. Timesharing enabled groups to share a common pool resource, sharing that, which impacted social dynamics. With PCs, we were left on our own, however empowered. When isolated, Microsoft imposed constraints that led to the formation of computer clubs. If you want to understand open source, and in fact, the entire social wave of innovation we are in the midst of -- have a little homebrew.
Open source presents an opportunity for the unfinished revolution where social signals can drive production. Doug is optimistic that the community can build new augmentation capabilities and that there is a role in commercialization for making things easier to learn. The pace of social innovation has certainly accelerated in recent years and even business strategy is shifting from automation for competitive advantage. There is a renewed interest in Doug's concepts for developing new capabilities.
Perhaps just in time, as the pace of societal change is growing beyond our capabilities to fathom. In Doug's own words: But we are not getting collectively smarter – spells disaster – maybe I can contribute to that – to contribute to our collective ability to understand and cope with complex problems.
UPDATE: Silicon Valley Watcher has an interview with Doug on how the rise of the PC killed funding for his work.