Build­ing a world on­line


The Nation - - NEW CHAPTERS -

TO HIS­TO­RI­ANS of tech­nol­ogy, the story of the In­ter­net – essen­tially, the story of how our cog­ni­tion and cul­ture be­gan to merge with ma­chines – is of­ten fo­cused on hack­ers and soft­ware en­gi­neers. Who wrote the code? Who did it first? And then who did it bet­ter?

To be sure, there’s plenty of tech jargon in Brian McCul­lough’s “How the In­ter­net Hap­pened”. You can find out who got the first iPhone call and who posted the first YouTube video. Yet McCul­lough takes a broader view, show­ing how a hand­ful of pow­er­ful com­pa­nies – all of them Amer­i­can, in his telling – came to dom­i­nate web tech­nol­ogy. In his story, the In­ter­net didn’t hap­pen only be­cause of wiz­ardly cod­ing and cheaper com­put­ers. It also hap­pened be­cause of serendip­ity, fail­ure, friend­ships and blood feuds. And through it all a rain­fall of cash (from ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists, Wall Street and in­di­vid­ual share­hold­ers) eased a glide path to suc­cess.

The sem­i­nal event – the “big bang”, in McCul­lough’s view – was the Netscape IPO on Au­gust 9, 1995, when the stock of a fairly ob­scure com­pany ped­dling a seem­ingly ar­cane prod­uct went on sale. By the end of the first day, a cor­po­ra­tion that had no sig­nif­i­cant prof­its was worth $2.1 bil­lion. If you fol­lowed the IPO when it oc­curred, McCul­lough’s retelling might seem over-fa­mil­iar. In­deed, some read­ers might see McCul­lough’s his­tory as too ob­vi­ous, as we move from the Netscape techquake to the suc­ces­sion of en­trepreneurs who be­came rich and fa­mous in the years just af­ter. We all know the names: Jeff Be­zos, Steve Case, Jerry Yang, Pierre Omidyar, Larry Page, Mark Zucker­berg. We all know their sto­ries. Or at least we be­lieve we do.

Yet McCul­lough’s book adds to our un­der­stand­ing by ex­plain­ing how star­tups’ his­to­ries were in­ter­locked and how en­trepreneurs and CEOs bat­tled one an­other not only on a tech­no­log­i­cal and cul­tural play­ing field but in the fi­nan­cial mar­kets too. The busi­ness clashes were fierce, with Yahoo re­ject­ing of­fers from Mi­crosoft, and Google (and later Face­book) re­ject­ing over­tures from Yahoo. Ev­ery web en­tre­pre­neur seemed both cocky and para­noid. Mean­while, al­most every­body lived in fear of that em­i­nent phi­lan­thropist Bill Gates, who never hes­i­tated to crush a com­peti­tor or ac­quire an up­start. Yet when en­trepreneurs did man­age to avoid the dark lord of Red­mond, their com­pany’s growth could be as­tound­ing. “In the twelve months of 1998,” McCul­lough re­minds us, “Yahoo stock re­turned 584 per cent, AOL 593 per cent and Ama­zon 970 per cent.” In fact, dur­ing the 1990s, AOL’s stock ap­pre­ci­ated 80,000 per cent.

Of course, it didn’t al­ways last. Some of the most in­ter­est­ing mo­ments in “How the In­ter­net Hap­pened” oc­cur when we meet again the al­ready-for­got­ten play­ers of the early days. Re­mem­ber the search en­gines Ly­cos and Ex­cite, or van­ished dig­i­tal pub­li­ca­tions like Feed or Suck? Or what about those prof­it­less but hy­per­tro­phied crea­tures of the dot-com boom, such as the­ In 1999 a com­pany called Pix­elon raised $35 mil­lion, McCul­lough notes, to de­velop video and au­dio stream­ing. But even if the idea had been tech­no­log­i­cally fea­si­ble in an era of lim­ited band­width, the com­pany’s founders seemed more in­ter­ested in par­ty­ing than build­ing out their tech­nol­ogy. Pix­elon spent $16 mil­lion of its startup kitty “on a com­pany launch party at the MGM Grand in Las Ve­gas that fea­tured per­for­mances by KISS, the Dixie Chicks, Sugar Ray, and a re­union con­cert by the Who”.

It’s re­mark­able that af­ter the smoke cleared we were left with some­thing truly new. One of the les­sons from McCul­lough’s his­tory is that some of the also-rans of the early years gave rise to the dom­i­nat­ing busi­nesses of to­day. To take just one ex­am­ple, (later Over­ture) was prob­a­bly the first search en­gine to come up with a plau­si­ble bid­ding sys­tem for pay­ing ad­ver­tis­ers. Google al­ready had a pow­er­ful search en­gine. But McCul­lough as­serts that only by hav­ing “cribbed” from Over­ture’s tem­plate for ad­ver­tis­ing – and then im­prov­ing on it – did Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s young com­pany be­come im­mensely prof­itable.

Such his­tor­i­cal tid­bits help us see that to­day’s tech ti­tans didn’t ar­rive on the scene as su­per­hu­man. Peo­ple we now think of as orac­u­lar – Bill Gates, but also Jeff Be­zos and Mark Zucker­berg – were pro­pelled by good ideas and good tim­ing. But they were mostly mak­ing things up as they went along. Many of th­ese lead­ers could never have made it to ex­alted sta­tus, McCul­lough re­minds us, with­out deputies do­ing a lot of the grunt work. At Ama­zon, there was Shel Kaphan, “who would go on to write much of the ini­tial struc­ture that would be­come the Ama­zon site”. At eBay, Mary Lou Song was es­sen­tial in “cul­ti­vat­ing the com­mu­nity” that proved fun­da­men­tal to the site’s suc­cess.

All of which is to say that the his­tory of the In­ter­net has al­ready been re­fracted too much by myth. It was messy; it was ugly. He­roes of­ten looked like fools, and vice versa. McCul­lough ex­its on the point that the beau­ti­ful things that ul­ti­mately epit­o­mised the In­ter­net’s evo­lu­tion – the iPod and iPhone – prob­a­bly didn’t hap­pen ex­actly as we re­mem­ber ei­ther. Steve Jobs didn’t want to open his on­line mu­sic store to Win­dows users – the move that ul­ti­mately sparked Ap­ple’s re­birth – un­til, ex­as­per­ated, he told those ad­vo­cat­ing the change at Ap­ple: “Go do what­ever the hell you want.”

He was even re­luc­tant to do the iPhone un­til he was per­suaded by some of his top en­gi­neers. Even­tu­ally he gave the green light. And what re­sulted was the most prof­itable com­pany in the his­tory of the world, ex­cept for maybe the Dutch East In­dia Co.

Do you want to ar­gue about the last point? We all have the In­ter­net now. So go ahead, Google it.

How the In­ter­net Hap­penedBy Brian McCul­loughPub­lished by Liveright Avail­able at ma­jor book­shops, Bt898 Re­viewed by Jon Gert­ner

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