What’s free, and what’s for sale.
It’s 1990, there’s no web to surf and to get software, you have to drive to a store called Egg Head, a store where zero of the apps Apps are free.
Paul Jones is a prolific thinker. Paul is Clinical Professor in the School of Information and Library Science where he directs the Masters of Science in Information Science (you can read more about Paul here).
At AppStorey, we’re interested in something different. Paul created some of the earliest web pages ever written, right on his NeXT cube. After Tim Berner-Lee’s early visit to UNC in 1991, Paul found himself deeply involved in the earliest web. At this time, Paul was leading a lab called network services research group at UNC in the Office for Information Technologies and was largely focused on software standards. Before Netscape, before Mosaic, Paul used the “www.app”, the earliest web running only on NeXT Computers. Paul’s unusual understanding of the economics of software, and the traditional economics of finance made him spectacularly adept at understanding why the web was so important.
“The beauty of the web is the very thing that made it non-commercial…don’t block out the other protocol, but make a way you could get everything” —remarks Paul Jones for AppStorey “what people really wanted to do [was…] exchange these things and relate their research together.”
You can still see Paul’s original personal web page online even today. See Paul’s earliest personal web page, republished here:
You may not know that the earliest web had no columns, no fancy layout, no inline images and no color. That’s right no color. The web ran only on the NeXT Computer which was at that early time, entirely black and white.
You can see Tim Berners-Lee’s demo page (considered the world’s first web page) here:
By 1990, the maturing software industry lead by Microsoft was getting rich and powerful using a simple tactic of private file formats, and proprietary software sold in boxes at retail stores. This seemed only natural, and certainly was proven to be highly profitable form of retail.
The private file formats also meant you could not exchange written information between computers without paying for software and adopting compatible hardware the software vendors supported.
In 1990, there was a software crisis, a growth of computing needs that far outstripped the results the software industry was able to achieve at that time.
There was a bottleneck of knowledge transfer.
Paul believed, along with a few other computer visionaries, that there was a profound effect that software unlocks only with open source systems and open standard formats. In 1990, Paul would count himself in a minority within a world where the industry giants were governed by the guiding principles of commercial control at the expense of knowledge transfer.
In a world of proprietary document formats, reading something written by another person was a serious problem. To read an electronic document, you first need to purchase – and continue to purchase software that is compatible with the file’s format. If you wanted to receive said document you’d need another program to transfer a package of files, and a third program is needed to to unpack it. A never-ending game of formats and updates that simply prevented transfer of knowledge.
Reading and exchanging computer documents was a closed ecosystem with a lot of time and technical challenge.
But wait. Isn’t “freeware” ignoring the potential value of commerce? Are the proponents of such things simply foolish or anti-capitalist such they are blinded? Or were these the very people who saw the future of retail and commerce. A future where finance and commerce are adapted to a world wide web that is both free and open-source. Your mobile phone would not exist or even be possible if there was no web, freely transferring data between computers.
Ironically, the companies that stuck with the short-term strategy of private formats, were dwarfed by the advent of open systems and open software and open protocols. Some of the largest companies on earth today, are internet services based on the web and App Store.
The web was the beginning of the end for the old way of software dominance. Even the strongest of standards could not hold out after the mobile smart phone revolution. The new platforms cut off the old guard of software strategy and pushed the world head-on into open protocols and open standards for fundamental computing tasks.
Commerce could now use the web to freely transmit information and use electronic distribution via an App Store to protect digital rights online.
These two legs are what the mobile world of today stands upon, and both were created on the NeXT Computer.
The world we live in today, was really created by a counter-culture of visionaries like Paul Jones who understood that sometimes in the world of software, what is free, is really what’s for sale.