Sunday, March 13, 2005

You've Come a Long Way, Gray Lady

This evening I picked a wet copy of the Sunday New York Times off of my driveway for the last time in my life and threw it in the trash barrel for pickup tomorrow morning. I had already read the NYT this morning, not in the slush on my driveway but from the comfort of my living room without getting my hands wet or dirty. I did this, of course with my notebook computer and a Wi-Fi/broadband internet connection, something that would have been nearly inconceivable just a decade ago. This has become so ingrained into my routine that last week I finally cancelled my pulp and ink subcription to the Sunday Times. You've come a long way, Gray Lady.

In Spring of 1994, I was working for Nolo Press, a publishing and software company in Berkeley, California. We were in the business of getting self-help legal information out to consumers - mostly through books, increasingly through software and with plans to do so online. In March of 1994, however, "online" meant via BBS, America Online and Apple's eWorld, a soon-to-be-doomed AOL-like service from Apple for which I toiled many hours behind the scenes.

We'd also heard whispers by then of something called "the web" and it sounded like something we needed to find out more about. One of Nolo's founders, Steve Elias, a great Berkeley visionary thinker and problem solver had contacts at a place in San Francisco called ConflictNet where work was being done on this mysterious "web." He would arrange for a meeting where we could go and see what was happening there.

One beautiful, crisp Spring Bay Area morning, my boss, Nolo Vice-President of Software Albin Renauer, Steve Elias and I hopped in a car, lattes and organic birdseed cookies in hand, and headed across the Bay Bridge to The City.

ConflictNet was located somewhere South of Market - a portentous location for one of the first internet companies on the face of the planet, indeed.

They wined us and dined us (more organic birdseed cookies and espresso drinks, probably), and showed us the focal point of their project at the time: Snippets of headline news in HTML pumped out over a 56k line and displayed in a Mosaic browser. It was breath-taking. It was exciting. It was the future.

Ever the realist, however, I can remember throwing a wet blanket over our excitement during the drive back to Berkeley from San Francisco:
"Yeah, it was all well and good, but first of all, who on earth is ever going to be able to afford a 56k line, and who is ever going to want to read more than a page or two of text on a computer screen?"

Ah, to be 24 again and so sure of myself.

How times have changed.

The discussion is no longer about whether or not anybody will be able to afford a 56k line, but rather about whether or not broadband over WiFi should be a service provided by the state and possibly free. While widespread acceptance of eBook devices has stalled, every day more and more people around the world are, like me, throwing away their last pulp-and-ink copy of their favorite newspaper and reading tomorrow's edition online. The dynamics surrounding the distribution of news and information are constantly changing, and innovations in this area are rarely without an internet component.

Tonight, the New York Times is printing one less copy of tomorrow's edition because my subscription has ended. I could have never imagined this day coming now, so relatively soon, back then in March of 1994. If I only knew then what I knew now...

The last 11 years have been quite a ride, nothing short of revolutionary. In the grand scheme of things, however, 11 years is just a blip on the screen. We have only just entered into this new information era.

Today I threw away my last soggy copy of the Sunday New York Times. What will it be tomorrow?

I can hardly wait.

[Cross-posted to]