Day: July 9, 2018

Babylon 5 – Triumph of the Nerds – tape 2171

Before the first programme, one of those Channel 4 character idents featuring Richard Biggs.

First, an episode of Babylon 5. It’s one of those really interesting episodes that starts with a dispute over docking fees.

This is A Day in the Strife. A delegation of Narn have come to take over as leaders of the Narn on Babylon 5, since the Centauri have occupied Narn. They also want G’Kar returned to Narn, although he has asked for asylum.

Londo remains one of the more complex characters. He began as a comedic character, but here he’s the appalling conqueror. It’s quite upsetting if you’ve been following the show.

Doctor Franklin is looking tired, as the medical staff is being stretched, and here he’s showing signs of taking drugs to get energy.

A probe arrives at the station, asking for answers to various scientific questions. If they answer them, they’re promised cures to all known disease. If they fail to supply answers, the probe will explode, taking the station out with it.

But Sheridan thinks it might be a berserker, looking for advanced races that might pose a threat, and taking them out preemptively. Sure enough, when they don’t send the answers, it leaves, and when they transmit from a safe distance it explodes.

It’s a smaller episode, still setting up strands for later in the series. This was season 3, probably the best season of the show.

After this, recording continues with the final episode of Triumph of the Nerds, Robert X Cringely’s documentary about the rise of personal computing.

It opens at the launch of Windows 95, hosted by Jay Leno.

Cringely explains how the user interface innovations in Windows 95 were invented 20 years ago, and takes us on a history tour of the Graphical User Interface.

It goes all the way back to Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center).

One of PARC’s innovations was putting beanbags in the offices. They really did invent everything,

He finds an original Xerox Alto, from 1973.

He talks to former PARC researchers. Some of them, like John Warnock, would go on to greater fame. He was a co-founder of Adobe, bringing us PostScript, High quality digital typefaces, and basically made the Laser Printer possible.

Of course, Xerox never tried to commercialize their inventions. “They could have been the Microsoft of the 90s” says the man who saw the PARC demos, and realised exactly how important they were – Apple’s Steve Jobs.

He demanded that his whole technical team be given a demo of the system. One of the lead researchers, Adele Goldberg, one of the developers of Smalltalk, the system that ran the Xerox Alto, refused at first, because she knew the company was giving away “the kitchen sink”, and she would only gave the demo if they ordered her to do it.

It’s interesting to look at even a glimpse of the kind of demos they would have seen.

Bill Atkinson was one of the developers who saw the demos.

PARC fellow Larry Tesler says “after an hour looking at demos, they understood our technology and what it meant more than any Xerox executive understood it after years of showing it to them.” He would eventually go to work at Apple.

Jobs’ first attempt at building a computer with that technology was the Lisa. It wasn’t a great success, and Jobs’ management style rubbed everyone the wrong way, so he was removed from that project.

At around the same time, Jobs hired a new CEO, an experienced man, head of Pepsi Cola, to run Apple. “Do you want to sell sugared water all your life, or do you want to come with me a change the world?”

Macintosh developer Andy Hertzfeld talks about how Jobs pushed everyone for perfection.

But Apple were under threat from the IBM PC, launched in 1981.

Jobs needed software to run on the Macintosh he was developing, and one of the people he went to was Bill Gates of Microsoft, then a much smaller company mainly knowing for supplying DOS to IBM.

But after its launch, the Mac wasn’t a success. It didn’t have the killer app. Until John Warnock came along with the Laser Printer.

But that was too late for Jobs. It came down to Sculley and Jobs clashing over the company’s direction. Jobs thought the board would side with him, but they went with Sculley. “What can I say? I hired the wrong guy.”

It’s interesting to wonder how things might have been different. On the one hand, Apple without Jobs languished for years. Jobs founded NexT and Pixar. And when he returned to Apple in the late 90s (after this programme was made) he built the original iMac, brought NexT software into the Mac with MacOS X, and then brought out the iPod and iPhone. Would any of that have happened if Jobs had stayed at Apple? Would it have happened earlier?

I’d miss Pixar, in any event.

Steve Ballmer talks about how Microsoft lost ground by working too long with IBM, but he was bullish about Windows 95 and its future. He wasn’t wrong.

I wonder if there are any famous faces in the Windows 3 development team.

Bill Gates even teamed up with Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks.

The end of the programme looks at the future, which was the network. Cringely talks to Larry Ellison of Oracle. He’s the Gavin Belson of this story. He’s talking about ‘information appliances’. But he’s not wrong about the fact that software should be sold on the network, not in cardboard boxes. Ellison has always seemed, to me, to be the closest thing the software industry has to a super-villain.

After this episode, the recording stops. It’s a short tape today.

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