[vcf-midatlantic] hypertext tools from the 80s

Herb Johnson hjohnson at retrotechnology.info
Sat Oct 23 03:56:52 UTC 2021

> https://fibery.io/blog/hypertext-tools-from-the-80s/
> An Interesting Follow up from to the Sunday VCF East 2021 'Ted' Talk.

The author of the linked document, actually wrote it in April 2021, it's 
not strictly a follow up. The author makes a claim, that Xanadu was too 
ambitious, too hard, took the wrong ideas in the wrong direction. It 
picks a known winner, and sets that as the target.

Unfortunately, that's a typical mistake to make in retrospective 
history. That's blaming the past, for not being the future yet. Then 
asking "why didn't those losers look forward and be like what won?" 
Hindsight is easy.

Maybe - because the resources available in the future, *weren't 
available in the past*? Maybe - the vision that won, simply matched what 
was possible and available at the time?

I could spell out, what was available in 1991 (the Netscape/WWW/HTML 
era). And what was / was not available in the 1980's when Project Xanadu 
was working in Ann Arbor MI. But it's just too long to detail.

I'll just have to say - Xanadu in the 80's didn't have the PC hardware 
or software or graphics of 1991 PC's. (Even Windows became productive by 
1991.) Or high speed dialup modems. Or a just-released private access to 

Or millions of PC users who already were doing desktop publishing, 
graphic documents, business data processing and content (spreadsheets). 
Or who were calling up BBS's at night to exchange PC programs, or 
calling COmpuserve to post in discussion groups.

Universities, their content, their servers and networking, that was also 
a resource for early Internet-ing.

So: Netscape glued that all together, into a browser on a PC under 
Windows, onto a network, with graphics. The networking, connected all 
that content (initially from university computers), by fast dialup, 
under graphical-mouse control.

Netscape needed ALL of that, to work on 1991 technology. And: most of 
that was "free" (or already paid for, or newly available like that 
Arpanet, or part of your monthly phone bill).

That's how a "killer app" works. It glues things together, to make a new 
service or product, that sells like crazy. But it can't happen, until 
it's about to happen, until everything else is ready.

As for Xanadu? almost NONE of that technology I just described - 
hardware or software or networking or graphics or storage or memory - 
was commonly available in the 1980's. What was available, was expensive. 
Most people reading this list, can look at their own shelves, or 
memories, for what was available then.

So: The world wasn't ready, and then it was ready.


As for the argument that "Xanadu was too ambitious".

The interesting thing I got from Ted Nelson's VCFed talk, was that 
Netscape and its kin, some "wysiwyg" systems prior to it, actually 
watered down what a "hypertext" version of *traditional* paper 
publishing could have been.

They reduced it to something that looked simple: a single column of 
text, a static page. ".. what you get *when you print a page on paper*", 
Ted pointed out.

Ted envisioned interactive screens, on his first view of a *terminal in 
the 1960's*. It wasn't what he wanted; it was his vision of what could be.

So the counter argument to "Xanadu was too ambitious" is, "Netscape 
wasn't ambitious enough; but it was implementable on the available 
technology". The bad news, says Ted Nelson, is that the 1991 
implementation became the standard; and now we are stuck with it, and 
it's become normalized.

It's an interesting observation. It suggests to me: What can we learn 
from computing *before* Netscape? Or even about information, before 
computers? The past, as a learning opportunity today.

Regards, Herb Johnson

Herbert R. Johnson, New Jersey in the USA
http://www.retrotechnology.com OR .net
preserve, recover, restore 1970's computing
email: hjohnson AT retrotechnology DOT com
or try later herbjohnson AT comcast DOT net

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