The Curse of Xanadu is an article in the June ’95 issue of Wired magazine, about a project I was involved with in the early 90s. I am mentioned near the end of the article.
There is one quote of mine that makes me outright grit my teeth. It was pretty stupid of me to declare “it doesn’t matter how bad your back-end is.” Of course it matters. It matters a LOT. Let me get a clue next time I get interviewed nationally.
Another misstatement was my saying that “a centralized system was no solution to anything.” Xanadu was intrinsically built to be as decentralized as the Web is now–each server was potentially autonomous, and could gain and lose connections to other servers. If anything Xanadu was technically more decentralized than the Web, since it provided for local adaptive document caching. At the time, I thought that the Xanadu folks wanted to keep the data structures a secret (and therefore keep centralized control over Xanadu), but I have recently learned that quite a few actually wanted to disseminate the deemed-proprietary algorithms.
The clue I most needed was to moderate my emotions. The interview with Gary was the first time in about fourteen months that I’d talked about Xanadu, and some frustration came up and spilled right out. Gary ran with it. I wind up sounding like a golden boy who knew better than all the fanatic Xanadudes.
It’s not like that.
I learned an enormous amount during my time on that project, and I may, in a few months, be working again with some of the ex-Xanadu programmers. I might have felt, in my interview frustration, that “this was silly all along”. Aspects of it were, as everyone agrees; it was a (cough) unique intellectual property situation. But the entire endeavor was the most exciting project in the world, and there’s much yet to be done. (In a very real sense, I’m still working towards Xanadu’s ultimate aims: an online world of knowledge. So are all the ex-Xanadu folks, and in a way, so is everyone involved with the WWW.)
Gary’s article portrays the architects as disinterested in and/or contemptuous of the Web (“What the Web is doing is easy”). This is not accurate. The ex-Xanadu guys are passionate about hypertext and very interested in the Web; because something is easy does not mean it’s not valuable. The arc of Gary’s article is served by making the Xanadudes seem detached from and unconcerned with the actual online Internet reality, but that’s not completely square with the truth.
Balance is sometimes secondary to making a good story… a good thing to be aware of when you read anything. Hopefully the Web will allow more responses like this, providing other context. (The ultimate letter to the editor: no editor needed!)
Speaking of alternate views on the Web, check out my discussion of better links on the Web.