Saturday, March 12, 2005

PLATO Notes, Microsoft Groove, and the curious history of software

This is a bit more software-centric than my usual 'Notes' postings, but it's really not about a particular technical issues, rather it's an interesting and topical ancectdote about how software evolves. Once upon a time I thought software largely came from the imagination of a few people. Sometimes it does (for better or worse), but most complex software projects have a long and often unrecognized legacy.

Groove is in the news today, it's a software solution recently acquired by Microsoft. Ray Ozzie, the CEO of Groove, will become Microsoft's Chief Technologist. Microsoft's involvement has created the recent interest in this "new" software.

Groove seems new, but it's been in development for at least six years. It's not six years old, however, because it's an offspring of Lotus Notes, which was developed in the 1980s. But it's not twenty years old, because it's really a descendant of PLATO Notes, which was developed at the University of Illinois in the 1970s atop the 1960s (1950s?) PLATO platform. So it's thirty years old. Heck, one could argue that it's really a child of the Memex (1945), so it's about sixty years old.

This is what Kapor of Lotus/spreadsheet fame wrote about the connection of Groove to PLATO:
Mitch Kapor's Weblog: Microsoft Acquires Groove
Ray has been a colleague and friend for over 20 years. He came to Lotus is 1982 with the vision of Notes already in mind, having been inspired by the PLATO system he used as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois...
Kapor's posting led me to a Google search, and thus quickly to a history of PLATO Notes, a pre-PC system for communication and collaboration. The history is well worth reading for anyone who develops or works with complex software systems, or who is just interested in the history of ideas. There are lessons there about electronic community (10 million hours!), about open source development, about the software development process, about software evolution, about software-as-platform -- and more besides.

There are also some minor personal serendipities here. I am writing this on a blog, a modern version of the kind of collaborative community that PLATO pioneered. I live in Saint Paul, and PLATO Notes was commercialized by a Minneapolis company -- Control Data. I have worked with many Control Data veterans who no doubt have connections to the CDC PLATO team, but, in addition, I have a longstanding interest in collaborative software systems (warning: old web pages). About 8 years ago my interest led me to review several alternatives and to comment on the work of David Woolley and his web conferencing guide.

David Woolley, as a young man, created PLATO Notes in 1973; he wrote the article I mention above. David is also a leader at Minnesota e-Democracy, which I've long appreciated. I shall have to send him a note of appreciation.

Update 3/15: David Woolley corrected some errors I made in dates. Thanks David!

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