Results tagged “aol”

Talking to Steve Case

February 25, 2014

I had the chance to interview Steve Case for Social Media Week the other day, and though it was a brief conversation, I was really pleased with how it went. Steve's earliest work on Quantum Link, a predecessor to what would someday become AOL, was formative in my understanding of what computers could be used for, and it was great to get to talk to him in some depth about that.

At the other end of the spectrum, it was also truly refreshing to talk to a tech billionaire who recognizes the social obligations that the tech industry and its leaders have to their communities. Whether it was talking about how to truly address the high unemployment rate for which the tech industry bears some responsibility, or discussing immigration in a broader context than simply importing more programmers, or more fundamental issues of inclusion and opportunity, Steve didn't shy away from any of it, and I think it makes the conversation well worth watching.

There's a peculiar and unsettling feeling that arises when looking up background information for a piece and finding a blog post I wrote more than fourteen years ago as one of the top results.

One of the dead links from that post led to the text of the message Steve sent to Quantum Link subscribers just before the service shut down in November 1994:

Dear Members,

As you know, QLink was originally launched in November, 1985. In the years that followed you, as our loyal members, have helped us build a unique online community for Commodore computer users. I want to thank each of you for your contribution, your support and your feedback over the years.

The computing industry has changed dramatically since those first days of online communications. Commodore ceased to produce Commodore brand computers in 1993. Sadly, the company has recently closed its doors entirely. The Commodore computer, once a leader in the industry, has been replaced by faster, more powerful systems. Many software vendors no longer support the Commodore operating system.

Now we find, with great regret, that we simply can no longer support the QLink service. It has become impossible for us to maintain the product up to a standard of quality that we can be proud of. Many of you I'm sure have noticed a diminished level of product quality in the last few months due to these technical limitations. Without technical support from the industry, we are not able to add new services, fix existing problems, or prevent new ones. Therefore we have made the sad decision to discontinue QLink as of November 1, 1994.

We would like to thank each of you for your long and continued support and, if at all possible, keep you as part of our online community.

If you now have the ability to use America Online (PC-DOS, Windows or Macintosh), we invite you to convert your membership to one of these other systems. For details on what these versions have to offer and the system requirements needed to run them, see the document in this area entitled "Converting to America Online."

For details on the last month of service for QLink, important dates and billing information, see the document in this area entitled "Your Final Bill."

We have enjoyed serving you. Thanks again.

Steve Case


People Connection

Also courtesy of the Web Archive is this old page that captured many details of the Quantum Link experience.

Quantum Link Music Astoundingly, the full-screen loading images that we watched while waiting for Quantum Link content to download at 300 baud were only 368×240 in resolution. A few highlights of images that I remember especially well include the People Connection (chat) and Music screens.

And of course, the one image I saw most often was the main menu, which is both completely analogous to, and completely different from, the home screen on my phone that I use every day.


Blackbird, Rainman, Facebook and the Watery Web

October 9, 2007

I've seen a number of people make reference to Facebook's application platform without knowing a lot of background about some historical examples that might be useful to learn from. So, since I remember a good bit of info about these things, I figured I'd share it for future reference.

In 1995, Microsoft believed that its proprietary development tool, codenamed "Blackbird" would be the dominant platform for creating rich online experiences. While it would eventually evolve into a tool that created reasonably standard HTML, Blackbird's ability to make attractive and pleasing aesthetic experiences for MSN was considered a no-brainer to replace regular HTML for anything that needed to seem polished. It wasn't an unreasonable assumption at a time when most browsers were showing ugly text on a plain grey background with almost no advanced layout or design.

In 1999, AOL believed that its proprietary development tool, called RAINMAN (Remote Automated INformation MANager) would be the dominant platform for creating rich online experiences. While it would eventually be replaced by tools that created reasonably standard HTML, Rainman's ability to make attractive and pleasing aesthetic experiences that integrated seamlessly into the AOL client was an effective replacement for HTML for tens of millions of users who wanted a polished and social first experience on the Net in the late 90s as they first got online. This wasn't an unreasonable constraint to impose on the experience at a time when having a rich interactive experience meant downloading complicated browser plugins for video, or configuring temperamental client software just to read email.

AOL was always secretive about Rainman, and remains so to this day, even though Rainman has been largely retired in favor of standard HTML, which has let AOL open up much of its proprietary content to the public web. But Microsoft really wanted to get the word out about Blackbird. There were even conferences for developers, to promote Blackbird for their applications. Ironically, MSN would reverse direction from Blackbird almost immediately after launch, eventually building much of its original content around a small vector plugin called FutureSplash. One big reason you have Flash in your browser right now is because MSN aggressively distributed millions of copies of the FutureSplash plugin with all of their client software, and eventually, with Windows itself. But that's a whole 'nother story.

Back in late 1995, the venerable Release 1.0 newsletter offered an analysis of Blackbird that's well worth reading in its entirety. Some highlights:

Microsoft's challenge is to make MSN flourish soon, so that it won't be eclipsed by more open systems, making Blackbird irrelevant, or at least obsolescent. ... The question at hand is whether Microsoft's networked-application architecture makes it beyond MSN's walls and becomes more commonly used. The innovations Netscape is introducing, described above, make this a difficult task. This is where the battle between proprietary operating systems and the Internet is being fought.


Microsoft wants Blackbird to be an inviting environment for third-party tools. The pace of technological change will help. Connectivity will change all standalone applications, making many obsolete. With Blackbird, Microsoft is attempting to offer traditional Windows applications a viable path to re-create and re-validate themselves in the networked world. ... Blackbird has its own representation format, the Blackbird Markup Language (BML), which is a variant of HTML enhanced to be OLE 2.0-aware.

In 2007, Facebook has released its proprietary development platform, codenamed F8. Blackbird was to provide better presentation, and Rainman promised better social abilities, than open standards of their time made possible. F8 promises a combination of both aesthetic and social capabilities, with the key feature of the platform (presented as an "innovation") being the social APIs for friends lists. F8's ability to create broadly-distributed social applications that integrate seamlessly into the Facebook environment offers an experience that, for now, exceeds what publicly-available social APIs can do. It's not an unreasonable behavior that people are building and using applications on the platform today.

  • Just like Blackbird, Facebook's APIs offer more features than the available open standards do today.
  • Just like Blackbird, Facebook's APIs have inspired conferences and development toolkits and a lot of reactive responses in the industry.
  • Just like Rainman, Facebook APIs offer native integration with social functions like buddy lists.
  • Just like Rainman, the user experience for integrating those applications is far easier than the equivalent behavior on the open web.
  • Just like Rainman, Facebook's APIs support applications that have millions of users, users that the conventional wisdom says could never be displaced.

It's not true to say that Facebook is the new AOL, and it's oversimplification to say that Facebook's API is the new Blackbird, or the new Rainman. But Facebook is part of the web. Think of the web, of the Internet itself, as water. Proprietary platforms based on the web are ice cubes. They can, for a time, suspend themselves above the web at large. But over time, they only ever melt into the water. And maybe they make it better when they do.

Some links:

  • We're opening up the Social Graph. Six Apart, where I work, is committed to helping create, promote, develop for, and popularize the open standards that will be needed for helping grow social platforms from Facebook or anyone else.
  • The O'Reilly Radar Research Report on Facebook's application platform. Interestingly, given the Release 1.0 report I quoted above, that publication has evolved into Release 2.0, which is now an O'Reilly publication.
  • Jason Kottke on "Facebook vs. AOL". He covers much of the fundamentals that I've discussed here, and helped inspire me to offer some more concrete examples of the history of these sorts of efforts.
  • Somehow I'd missed it at the time, but Scott Heiferman had drawn the analogy to Rainman first. I still feel people aren't very familiar with that point in web history.
  • Graphing Social Patterns, the conference on Facebook and its applications that Dave McClure is currently hosting.
  • The circle of web life, another similar historical lesson.