Today Steve Green is a lifelong pizza industry authority and the publisher of PMQ Pizza Magazine, available in print or at the PMQ website.
In 1990, there’s no web to surf and when you wanted pizza delivery, you dialed a telephone. This was when the life of Mr. Steve Green was going to take an unexpected turn and crash into Steve Jobs, The Smithsonian Institute and pizza history.
Join us now as AppStorey uncovers the true and untold history behind the most influential computer of all time, the one that allowed the first online pizza delivery to become reality.
Steve Green sits down at the table with AppStorey to share an authentic taste of pizza history doing a deep-dish dive into the origin of today’s global pizza delivery business. So pull up a chair, grab a slice, and prepare to learn where all of that GrubHub really comes from.
Steve Green’s life story might have little to do with the Smithsonian or the history of modern computing for that matter, if not for a job he accepted at a Seattle startup called CyberSlice.
CyberSlice is the founding father of GrubHub and stands historically as the connection between our modern mobile world and the very inception of online delivery via the web.
If you’ve ordered food online, you’ve used technology first assembled by this Seattle startup.
The inspiration of CyberSlice (according to the founders) was from the 1995 cyber mystery thriller The Net, starring Sandra Bullock who’s character Angela Bennett orders a pizza online using a website called Pizza Net.
This was a memorable moment in the film, which by all accounts was laughable.
The real-world engineering requirements for this concept, it turned out, would be anything but laughable.
CyberSlice wanted to allow customers to order their favorite pizza pie, select sides or choose toppings —all by filling out web forms. Engineers would have to create a persistent data model capable of accounting for literally any type of restaurant menu.
CyberSlice wanted to list only local restaurants, and to define delivery zones using global GIS data years before Yahoo or Google Maps. Engineers would have to calculate using the curvature of the earth’s surface in order to estimate distances, and fetching GIS data required use of raw query languages to identify delivery zone boundaries.
In 1995 there was nobody who could say for certain if this would work, or if it were even possible.
When the CyberSlice servers and application infrastructure were fully operational in late 1996, Steve Jobs would set the stage by inviting the press to an event where he would make the first online food delivery, made by a mystery pizza delivery person unaware of any historical significance.
CyberSlice was the first service to have successfully routed food to a delivery location using online web computer technology. The technology partner behind this feat was Steve Jobs and his NeXT Computer.
Steve Jobs stated that more pizza would be sold over the web than by telephone, and according to Steve Green that prediction has come true with the majority of pizza sales today coming via digital means.
Once the online delivery cat was out of the bag? It could never go back.
The NeXT sat at a crux in computer history, squarely staking out the territory of both a server and a personal computer, or what was sometimes referred to as a personal workstation. This ability to play on both sides of the court, combined with highly advanced object-oriented development tools gave NeXT unique and compelling technological advantages for client/server applications.
At this early time of the web, it was not at all possible to use web forms to run the entire business. The web was simply unaffordable in terms of engineering effort and complexity of operation. Applications on the web were far too crude to offer industrial reliance. CyberSlice needed sophisticated applications on the desktop for their staff to rely upon everyday, and on top of this, CyberSlice needed a real moonshot of a web application to make placing delivery orders possible.
Printers, plotters and paper sent via the US Postal Service performed tasks that today we would think of as digital maps and computer networking.
The process of registering a new restaurant took weeks. If things went well.
In today’s mobile computing world, it is rather difficult to imagine a time when a computer business relied upon hand written responses scrawled on printed forms or folded maps all exchanged via the USPS.
Tools for building world-class desktop applications that had networking and database connectivity along with a web programming counterpart, simply didn’t exist outside of NeXT. NeXT had unequaled object oriented technology and visual interface builder tools unlike anything available.
Being the platform upon which the web had been invented, meant there was simply no greater expertise to be found for this kind of challenge than engineers who were experts in NeXT. These same developer tools were used to create the App Store and, post NeXT Apple merger (just 17 days after this demo), these very same tools created Apple’s iTunes music store, the Mac OS X operating system and the iPhone, along with all the apps on it.
Computer tools first assembled on NeXT are now the standard across the industry, universally adopting Object Oriented programming and visual interface builders as the norm. No computer was more ahead of its time than NeXT.
Thanks to Steve Green for his careful curation of historical documents, we at AppStorey can get a taste of CyberSlice promotional and restaurant materials including screen shots of that original website as we note some interesting things about it.
Today’s computer screens have more than ten times the number of pixels and far larger screen sizes than their 1990’s counterparts. You can readily see how small web pages needed to be in order to be useable at all. The “heavy” CyberSlice art and design would break all but the most advanced and recent web browsers of the era —best viewed through Netscape Navigator 3.0 or Internet Explorer 3.0. According to Jesse Tayler (one of the developers who created CyberSlice) engineers preferred OmniWeb as this was the browser native to NeXTSTEP.
Even on the best computers available, by modern standards the service seems painfully slow. Watch here as Wiley Hodges, himself a NeXT professional, expertly demonstrates the service at Apple’s 1997 Developer’s Conference.
At AppStorey, we are lucky to have some vintage materials that provide a view into the world before online services and mobile computers. A world that bridges the past with the present.
Many of the ways business was done at this time in computer history are surprising and even fascinating.
Here is a Quick Reference Card for Restaurants responding to the CyberSlice telephone voice menu system, because Restaurants did not use computers or have internet access.
CyberSlice provided a printed brochure to explain how online ordering works, including a simple glossary for the many people who had not yet heard of this new “world wide web”, or related vernacular.
CyberSlice provided a printed merchant information form sent in the mail, because the web was not yet sophisticated or affordable enough to allow restaurants to sign up online. Paper forms were received via US Postal Service and upon their return the information was entered into computers by pools of data-entry clerks.
In today’s GrubHub mobile world of apps and maps, it is hard to imagine a time when delivering pizza using the internet was hard to imagine! But it was.
It was a dream —an impossible moment quite literally from a science fiction film.
Some may confuse the distinction of the first online food delivery. There were earlier attempts of course, and E-commerce was a reliable option online already, Amazon had done business on the web for nearly two years. Pizza Hut experimented with a bare bones concept that avoided the heavy lifting technology of maps and GIS. This experiment would be limited to the residents of Santa Cruz, California and did not represent the technology inventions necessary to route food to a delivery location using online, web computer technology. The original web form from this experiment is hosted here https://www.pizzahut.com/assets/pizzanet/home.html of course, the service is no longer active.
In the end, history was made yet again on NeXT; CyberSlice is the startup origin story behind today’s GrubHub and was historically curated as part of the Inventions of the 20th Century curation in Computer Science at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
You didn’t know.
Join us on a journey into the true and fascinating history of the earliest web. The computing world of today still contains true and untold stories, stories of creation and invention that changed the world we live in. These inventions were all made on one computer, History’s Greatest Computer, a computer that made history more than it has been a part of history. Until now. AppStorey, The Interviews.