Computer History Living Well in San Francisco

One of the advantages of living in the San Francisco Bay Area—a longtime hub of technological innovation—is the ability to attend events that add to one's knowledge of the evolution of computer and Internet technology. Earlier this year, I was able to attend one of the Computer History Museum's Speaker Series, which featured Steve Case, the founder and former CEO of America Online. The informal talk was led by Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal's Personal Technology columnist.

The Case-Mossberg discussion was introduced by Donna Dubinsky, a trustee of the Computer History Museum and a technology veteran who was, notably, the founder of Handspring. Dubinsky says the Museum is in a state of evolution since moving into its new building in October 2002, and working to build its significance. Its already extensive collection includes exhibits dealing with software, hardware, underlying technologies, graphics systems, networking, the Internet, and much more. A focal aspect of museum activities is its active lecture series, which Donna described as "nostalgia for geeks."

The Museum's excellent Web site provides a record of lectures that goes back to the first four talks given in 1998 and continues through the current listings of forthcoming events. The list reads like a hall of fame of companies and individuals who made a significant impact on the evolution of the technically driven environment we live in. Presenters have included the founders of Intel, Palm, Adobe, Apple, Borland, Osborne, Rolm, and Inktomi, to name a few. Internet pioneers such as Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee, Brewster Kahle, and Craig Newmark have spoken.

Topics include "The computing environment at Livermore Labs in the 1970s," "Lessons learned from Toy Story and A Bug's Life," "The Story of Java," "The PalmPilot Story," "Pioneers of Venture Capital," "The Origins and Impact of VisiCalc," the 40th anniversary of the IBM 360, the story of the Mars Exploration Rover Project, and lest I forget, an interview of Stanford University president John Hennessy by Bill Gates.

The Case-Mossberg conversation offered an excellent example of how the series offers illumination of both the history of technology as well as its ongoing impact. Mossberg led Case through the early days of the online consumer, Case's background with P&G and Pizza Hut, and how it influenced him. Case also described his first computer experiences with a Kaypro and modem accessing "The Source," which he described as "slow, expensive, not much there, and way too hard to get connected." Even so, this early experience convinced him that "communications would become a key application for personal computer users."

Case seemed happiest talking about the early days of AOL. "AOL had members; other services had users," Case said. The "initial content of AOL was community, which was powerful and it was free," he said, claiming that AOL "popularized instant messaging and chat rooms" before the Internet became widespread. Case felt that "being naïve was an AOL development strength." Case also described the AOL transition to flat-rate pricing, saying, "we did it because we had to. The market was moving that way."

The topic of the well-documented AOL-Time Warner merger fiasco was particularly insightful. Case admitted it was beyond the abilities of the management team, including him, to overcome the gaps in corporate culture and the "siloed" mentality of the multimillion dollar Time Warner units. "If you want to blame someone, blame me," he said. His vision of the combination of the Web, its future, and the potential for combining and offering content via the online medium "did not provide an accelerated path to the Internet for Time Warner."

Steven Brewster, director of marketing and communications for the Museum, says there are really two distinct Speaker Series: the "Computer History Museum Presents," of which the Case-Mossberg conversation is an example, and "Odysseys in Technology." The Presents Series places more emphasis on the social impact of the computing revolution and its effect on the human experience. The Odysseys Series stresses the technical side, offering authentic experts who have driven transformational achievements in the computer technology-related world. Together, the two offer an exceptional opportunity for educational outreach where students or would-be entrepreneurs can actually see, listen to, and interact with key individuals who have driven the computer revolution.

According to Brewster, "the lecture series are tangible examples of how the Museum is fulfilling its vision," which is "to preserve and present for posterity the artifacts and stories of the information age." Brewster explained, "the lecture series contribute to the historical record by both preserving and building content. The lecture series creates community around the Museum by bringing history to life."

The Museum is both physical and virtual and the lecture series are no different. Videos of the talks typically are posted on the site 60 to 90 days after the event. If you find yourself in the San Francisco Bay Area, be sure to check out what's happening at the Computer History Museum. You may find yourself face to face with technology's living history.