Good Idea, Wrong Time

Dec 7, 2013

I've been debating for years to even write this post. It's about the dumbest, most idiotic thing I ever did. Or rather, the one I didn't finish.

In 1996 ICQ appeared as the first real mass market text based instant messaging application. Soon thereafter in May of 1997 AOL released AOL Instant Messenger, which was the first real graphical messaging app and started the market segment still seeing new products created today.

But back in 1994 my team was finished developing Deltagraph after five years worth of releases as the publisher wanted to move in a new direction. I was trying to come up with something we might write that we could sell to a publisher to keep the team intact.

Now you have to realize that in the 1980's and 1990's before the rise of the internet generally you had to sell software to distributors with disks in boxes. There wasn't any way to do easy distribution like today with the web, GitHub and App Stores. Since we didn't have a lot of money we would have to find a publisher for anything we built.

I had had an email account since 1984 when me and my boss got accounts on a local newspaper bulletin board experiment. Over the years I had seen a little Unix and knew you could message people in the OS. I'd even written what was essentially an email client at my first job at General Dynamics (for corporate email access on Apple II's). So I had some experience with communications.

We had worked on Trapeze, Persuasion and then Deltagraph over 8 years so we had a lot of experience on the Mac platform. Remember too that Windows was not really a viable OS until around this time; most new applications first appeared on the Mac.

So I thought it might be cool to do something different. I knew a little about AppleTalk, which was Apple's MacOS networking stack. TCP/IP of course was becoming more mainstream but we tended to stick with Apple focused solutions.

AppleTalk had some limitations, namely you could only address a limited number of devices (32 originally, by this time it might have been 255). It did support bridges, so you could deliver information across a bridge to another network.

I thought it might be cool to be able to talk to people over the network with a nice graphical interface, and send pictures, take polls, etc. The name I came up with was Intercomm. It sounded like fun so we started working on it.

The design would be a graphical client, with a distributed set of servers, one handling each network if you had multiple networks. Message would be sent to the last known server that had communicated with whoever you wanted to send the message to via the server you were using. If that user would not connected, the server would store the message and deliver when they reconnected. The messages themselves could be text, pictures (PICT format, long dead now) and polls, like you could collect votes on where to eat lunch. I also though it might be cool to have some kind of bulletin board functionality, where you could open a board and people could contribute messages and the members could either communicate in real time, or read the messages later. Of course I had seen bulletin board since that first one in 1984.

Sounds so quaint today.

Keep in mind there wasn't anything like this yet on the market. In fact there was no market at all. We worked on it (along with some other ideas) for a few months but money was running low and I decided to follow another interest on my own (build a trading system). My partners took the idea and the unfinished prototype and showed it to a couple of publishers, but no one was interested. It seemed to make no sense to people since you could just pick up the phone and call someone; typing a message seemed so pointless. In fact I probably would have said the same thing.

So when AIM came out I was hit by what I had missed. I had the right idea but at the wrong time. I also had the wrong network of course, since AppleTalk wouldn't survive the decade except as legacy. TCP/IP was the stack of the future. I am sure we weren't the only folks with this kind of idea but it still pains me today to know I could have had the first example of what is still a big market.

Such is life. Sometimes you wind up singing Right Place Wrong Time and writing lamenting blog posts. I am sure I am one of probably millions of folks who had a good idea too early for the marketplace and gave up.

What burns me more sometimes is that had we published it even just for kicks somehow we might have killed someone's future software patents by providing commercial prior art. As it is nothing was saved when my former partners eventually liquidated the business assets.

Into everyone's life a little d'oh must fall.