ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Hey, I Was Here First —

Advances in technology, software or hardware or whatever, come from a lot of locations. More importantly, the version of the advance that becomes the most well known is both lauded as that person or group’s accomplishment, and criticized as a lightweight rehash of a previous technology that existed before it. This happens over and over; we use the web but forget Gopher, we use XBOX Live and forget Starpath, we laud photoblogging and forget Pixelvision. Yet none of those earlier technologies are really even the same as their antecedents; they just have that eerie sense of coming from the same place in our collective brains.

Invention mostly comes of interest in Patents and awards. Being the first in and of itself is not generally profitable, but could potentially be in the right hands, with the right marketing and shark-like attempts to quash anything similar. It also, along the way, has a lot of pride with having made those first baby steps into something bigger than the person who created it. This pride can turn into anger and shock when someone after you announces that they themselves have discovered what’s only an incremental change from your discovery.

I’m all about history, so let’s use some recent history.

In the 1980’s Mark Herring created .QWK Packets. This is one of those “of course” discoveries that changed the face of BBSes forever. Not everyone partook of them, and the need for them went away with the Internet (sort of), but they stand as a real example of going about a problem and “fixing” it. If you want a self-contained lesson in advance of an experience, this is it.

The problem with single-line BBSes is that very thing, the single line. When someone is online with the BBS, nobody else can be on. If that person is sitting at the prompt, they are by some standards taking away time from other people. On a BBS that is particularly popular, time that someone isn’t logged on could be measured in minutes out of a day. So, if you want to respond to messages, check your mail, consider it, and reply, you’re suddenly running up against things like imposed time limits, and your own typing speed. This is a problem, and it needs fixing. And Mark Herring fixed it.

Basically, he created a format and a client that would take all the messages that were unread on a BBS, and all the private messages/mail that came addressed to you, and enable you to download them as one big clump. This format, .QWK, would send down these changes to your client. Then, you could immediately disconnect from the BBS (you’d only be on for a few minutes), read all your new messages, read all your mail, and then compose your answers, right there, in a nice text editor, with instantaneous response (instead of the subtle but noticeable delay through a modem). Having composed these messages to your complete satisfaction, it was simply a matter of auto-dialing the BBS again until you connected, and all your responses and replies were uploaded to the system along the same .QWK packets and sprayed across all the message boards.

This changed everything; now BBSes could stop being mostly single-point terminals with folks waiting a person to conduct their business before everyone tried to get on again. Now they were drop-off centers, with people able to connect and drop off their “pack” and pick up another “pack” and disconnect. This fundamental change of the BBS experience can’t be discounted; and once this technology was added, nobody who used it really wanted to go back.

Mark told me of one unintended artifact of .QWK: People who were unable to type with their hands, (for example paraplegics with sip-and-puff typing software) could write out long and intense messages and responses with nary a care about the BBS time limit and other users waiting; they could come across exactly the same as everyone else on the BBS, since their messages would look exactly the same as if they could type at 100 words per minute. He was very proud he wrote something that would facilitate that, as he should be.

I interviewed Mark for the Documentary, so I spent some time learning how the packets worked, including the fact that saved .QWK packets on floppies and old hard drives are inadvertent archives of BBSes. So they were pretty fresh in my mind when I started paying attention VERY recently to RSS feeds.

Sorry that I’m so late to the RSS party; I hope there’s some cake left. I got my hands on feedreader, started looking for the secret handshake on all these weblogs and news sites I’d been browsing rather fervently, and finally figured out how all you maniacs can keep track of 100+ weblog sites at once with actual time left for eating and sleeping. It also solves the problem of getting to someone’s site to pick out the newest information from stuff you’ve already read, and trying to remember which site had an essay you wanted to read (thanks to the search function). I was delighted when I finally understood what was going on.

But did Mark discover this “first”? Is he the father of the concept of News Aggregators? And did what Mark create rate as the “first”? What about Usenet? Does a newsreader count as more of a “first” than Mark’s first, even though they weren’t used for BBSes? And what happens when you figure out who was “first”? Do they get a prize? (Well, they get interviews by a guy like me, but you can ask them if they think this is a prize). This is what I’ve come to call “The Game of Firsts”, where people lay claim to a discovery or a creation and then someone comes along and argues that another technology, lacking some features but having others, was “first” before them.

This expresses itself BBS-wise with, in time order, Ward Christensen’s CBBS, Community Memory, PLATO, and Telegraph Operators. Each one can lay claim to being the “first” BBS, but you have to play some games with what comprises that term. Do computers need to be involved? There goes Telegraph Operators. Is the dialing of a phone line vital to the experience? There goes PLATO. Is it important that anyone in the country be able to dial in? There goes Community Memory. My documentary will only glance upon the first few of these “proto-BBSes” before settling on Ward, simply because I had to declare an arbitrary point of the story. But in doing so, I am setting myself up for quite the fight. There’s nothing I can easily do about that, other than make sure that I don’t dismiss these earlier technologies as feeble or irrelevant to the story.

It is the most unavoidable and yet most wasteful of debates; which technology came first, which was better, which one “should” have won. I understand advocacy as an expression of joy and of spreading information, but not as a tool of harassment and jingoism. It’s been around so long (Apple vs. IBM vs. Commodore vs. Atari, or even Ford vs. Chevy) that I guess it’s part of being human. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

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