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My Last Conversation with Larry Tesler

It is with great sorrow that I note the passing of Larry Tesler, a computer scientist often credited with inventing copy and paste (or at least the particular method and names that stuck to the idea of moving digital text from place to place). I’m particularly sad to learn this fact only now, since I consider copy and paste to be among the most significant technological innovations of the last half-century. It turns out that, in the real world, we repeat much of what we say and do over and over again, and being able to duplicate and update data easily remains a massive boost to productivity. Had I realized this fact back in the mid-1990s, when I interacted with Tesler, I would have had a chance to thank him in person.

Larry Tesler
Image of Larry Tesler by Yahoo! Inc., licensed under CC BY 2.0

We owe other technological innovations to Larry Tesler too. While he was at Xerox PARC, Tesler originated the term “user-friendly” (while pushing for ease-of-use in user interfaces) and was the inspiration for the much-used acronym WYSIWYG. In some circles, he was best known for evangelizing the idea that software should be modeless—his license plate read NO MODES. (With modeless software, all actions should be available at all times, rather than the user having to enter a particular mode to perform them.) I encourage you to read the obituaries published in the New York Times and at Cult of Mac, and the Twitter reminiscences of Chris Espinosa and Martin Haeberli.

In 1980, Tesler left Xerox PARC to join Apple, and he worked there until 1997. During that time, he led the Newton Group, became Apple’s Chief Scientist, and was the vice president of AppleNet, which was tasked in part with developing and promoting Apple’s Internet strategy. It was at the end of his tenure there that I corresponded with him, since he and I were both on a private Net-Thinkers mailing list that discussed issues relating to Apple and the Internet.

It’s telling how much things have changed, I think, that an Apple vice president would speak freely on even a private mailing list that included a writer like me. (At that time, apart from publishing TidBITS, my Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh book had sold about 400,000 copies, and I had just penned a MacWEEK column entitled “The Emperor Has No Strategy” that had ruffled feathers with Apple executives.)

To give you a better sense of who Larry Tesler was, I’m going to reprint an email conversation he and I had on the Net-Thinkers list back in February of 1997. In retrospect, it must not have been that long before he left Apple, although I have no record of that in my email archive.

I write about how Tesler was reportedly changing positions

Subject: Re: Internet changes at Apple
From: Adam C. Engst <[email protected]>
Date: February 21, 1997 at 1:40:50 PM EST
To: Multiple recipients of <[email protected]>

Hi all,

Just noticed this comment in a MacWEEK article by Stephen Howard at:

http://www.macweek.com/mw_1108/nw_exodus.html

Tevanian’s software engineering group includes the Mac OS and Rhapsody, interactive media, and Internet. The interactive media group is still run by its previous head, Carlos Montalvo, while the newly combined Internet and enterprise section is looking for a boss.

Apple Chief Scientist Larry Tesler has joined the new Technical Office currently run by Hancock; the former Internet czar is no longer involved in Apple’s Internet product development.

Interesting move – I wonder who will end up leading the Internet efforts at Apple?

cheers… -Adam

Annoyed by the perceived criticism, Larry responds defensively

Subject: Re: Internet changes at Apple
From: Larry Tesler <[email protected]>
Date: February 22, 1997 at 5:27:47 PM EST
To: Multiple recipients of <[email protected]>

At 12:09 PM -0800 2/22/97, Adam C. Engst wrote:

In this situation, I think there’s actually a good bit of difference between someone who knows the networking community and someone who knows the Internet community. Networking is high-end technical stuff, and while that’s great, that’s not what’s important in the Internet nowaday for Apple. Apple needs to focus on people, not wires.

Garry’s shown that he knows the Internet and can even (horrors!) participate in discussion groups in email and on Usenet.

Garry is also an experienced manager, and very popular with developers and with enterprise customers.

Flame on.

Despite press misstatements (first time that’s happened), I am still Apple’s Internet honcho today.  But I, like some of you, look forward to the end of my tenure.  I’ve really had enough of listening to people born after I became an ARPAnet user, who’ve never conversed with me beyond narrow topics, and who have no idea what Apple decisions I have had and not had authority over, making judgements about my Internet knowledge.

OK, I don’t know what you or Richard Ford or Chuck Shotton knows about the Internet.  But the opposite is also true.  We each have a shallow understanding of the breadth of the Internet and a deep understanding of the parts that most interest us.

Do I have a clue about the Internet?  The AppleNet web site is actually useful.  My group is pretty good at keeping it up to date.  And despite my consuming day job, I’m a heavy personal user of the net.  I buy stuff over the net.  I manage several hobbies, friendships, and assets over the net.

I follow over a dozen Internet mailing lists and post to most of them.  For a while, I ran one list myself.  I am in process of starting another that I’ll run.

I founded a mailing list site two years ago that has grown to 80 lists with 20K “consumer” subscribers.  The subject of these lists, unlike net-thinkers, is not the Internet, not protocols, not wires.  The subject of these lists is people and their beloved hobbies.

I have had to deal with spammers, copyright infringers, warring list owners, absentee list owners, sadistic moderators, untrained operators, overloaded hardware, and every other possible thing that can go wrong when you have eighty Cyberspace communities whose members share nothing in common but an obsessive interest in one narrow subject.  But I love it. The Internet is what humanity has yearned for since the first tribe of homo sapiens became so big that they had to split up and forage out of earshot from one another.

Don’t let the above defensiveness inhibit you from criticizing me on public mailing lists.  I find most criticism of me amusing, but sometimes, someone has a poignant comment that I can learn from.  And it’s always fun to see your own name in print, even on a Most Wanted poster or an obituary.

Flame off.

Luckily, Adam, you’re such a likable guy that I can’t stay mad at you for long.

Larry

I clarify that I wasn’t criticizing him, and then do so (sort of)

Subject: Re: Internet changes at Apple
From: Adam C. Engst <[email protected]>
Date: February 22, 1997 at 7:28:42 PM EST
To: Multiple recipients of <[email protected]>

At 2:27 PM -0800 2/22/97, Larry Tesler wrote:

Despite press misstatements (first time that’s happened), I am still Apple’s Internet honcho today.

Hmm. Reports of your job change were greatly exaggerated. 🙂

[…personal description of Larry’s Internet usage deleted for brevity…]

YES!

If you want some constructive criticism, Larry, it’s that you haven’t said this before. I don’t know the extent to which most people on this list know you personally, but I suspect that most people, like me, have never actually met you in person or interacted in ways outside of your job (and I count personal Internet use in that category). As I scroll through the back messages from this list, I see primarily names of people who usually show up in the lists I’m on, people I see at every Macworld Expo, and people I see at any event related to Mac Internet stuff. We all know what the others do, at least to an extent.

For you, until I read your message, I had relatively little idea. You have a job title, and your name appears in articles about Apple frequently, but neither of those facts says anything substantive in Internet terms. User and administrator experience does say a lot, and the main thing remaining is to see if we can get you to come to some of the Internet parties at the shows so we can meet in person (me and anyone else who hasn’t had the opportunity). None of this is corporate PR stuff – the Internet parties are generally just a bunch of net geeks doing what net geeks do best – networking, ranting, and combining the two into potentially cool projects.

The Internet is about people, and even if you can’t meet everyone personally, networks of friends spread far and wide. My theory is you can never have too many friends in this world.

Don’t let the above defensiveness inhibit you from criticizing me on public mailing lists.  I find most criticism of me amusing, but sometimes, someone has a poignant comment that I can learn from.  And it’s always fun to see your own name in print, even on a Most Wanted poster or an obituary.

When it comes right down to it, we’re all very much on the same side. We may have different viewpoints on the details, but all that means is that we have a chance to learn from one another. What I find most interesting about lists like this is that the discussions that start can give me additional ideas or ways of looking at the issues.

Luckily, Adam, you’re such a likable guy that I can’t stay mad at you for long.

🙂 Thanks, Larry. I know you read this list, and I know you read it on weekends, and even if the reports of you stepping down as Internet top banana were true, I wouldn’t have expected you to sign off immediately. The fact is, I wasn’t criticizing you (ad hominem attacks have no place on the net), and if you look at what I wrote, I wasn’t even criticizing at all. I was merely offering my opinion of what Apple should look for if they were looking for a new Internet honcho. I think those comments are still on target for whenever you do decide to move on (unless Apple’s decided that Internet honcho is one of those positions for life 🙂 .

cheers… -Adam

Larry walks back his defensiveness and shares more geek cred

Subject: Re: Internet changes at Apple
From: Larry Tesler <[email protected]>
Date: February 23, 1997 at 3:03:26 AM EST
To: Multiple recipients of <[email protected]>

Adam,

Thanks for the clarification of your intentions.  Like anyone, when I get defensive, it’s usually unwarranted.

It’s true I ought to spend more time at geek parties.  Good advice.

To be clear, I am still Internet czar today, for lack of anyone else to do it, but that is probably not going to last for long.  Once we’ve finished the current restructuring, there may be a spokesperson who plays that role, and I don’t expect it to be me.  In other words, the newspapers were not wrong about the plan, just the timing.

I didn’t start the mailing list site just for kicks.  Well, mostly for kicks.  But I really thought Apple could launch a profitable business based on the site.  Since Apple’s financial performance never left funds available to invest in the site, talking about it would not have helped Apple’s business one bit.  It might have let Internet folks understand me better, but my job wasn’t to sell myself to fellow geeks, it was to sell Macs to customers.  Maybe one thing I learned the past year is that to do the latter, it might be necessary to first do the former.

Thanks for getting me thinking about all this.  It’s a good time for personal growth.  16 years at Apple and 51 years on the planet, but still tons to learn.

Oh yeah, while I’m spilling my geek credentials…

There’s this language called HTML, based on SGML, based on, …, based on early markup languages like “Runoff” and “PUB”.  PUB was the first to support an extensible set of tags embedded in the text.  PUB was used by lots of grad students in the ’70s to do their dissertations.  It was also the immediate ancestor of TeX and of Scribe.  I designed and implemented PUB solo at Stanford in 1971, and distributed it to other universities via FTP.

I also designed and implemented the Smalltalk browser at PARC around 1976–the first widget I know of that was called a browser and had paned windows.

So the web owes me for markup tags, frames, and the term “browser”.

I’m a user interface guy, not a protocol guy.  I have implemented some protocols–one for a remote method call interface for Smalltalk around 1977, and one for Commodore Pet-to-BBS reliable file transfer around 1978–but protocols are not my shtick.

In fact, since I came to Apple in 1980 and entered management, I’ve only had a few opportunities to write code at work.  Programming is mostly confined to vacations, and on most vacations, I’d rather do something else.

“Enough about me” as they say.  I’d like to resume reading about net thinkers’ ideas for a better Apple Internet future.

See you at a party.

Larry

I close down that thread and redirect the discussion

Subject: Re: Internet changes at Apple
From: Adam C. Engst <[email protected]>
Date: February 23, 1997 at 1:16:52 PM EST
To: Multiple recipients of <[email protected]>

At 12:03 AM -0800 2/23/97, Larry Tesler wrote:

To be clear, I am still Internet czar today, for lack of anyone else to do it, but that is probably not going to last for long.  Once we’ve finished the current restructuring, there may be a spokesperson who plays that role, and I don’t expect it to be me.  In other words, the newspapers were not wrong about the plan, just the timing.

We’ll all be interested to hear what you go on to next, then. And, it sounds as though the discussions about what kind of person Apple should look for next aren’t entirely unwarranted.

I have to think about what having an Apple Internet spokesbeing (rather than someone who’s actually making decisions – walking the walk, if you will) means. My initial gut feeling is that it’s mainly a bad idea if the person doesn’t fit the categories we’ve been discussing, although they wouldn’t have to be an experienced manager at that point. In fact, a high visibility, knowledgeable spokesbeing who could reliably be identified with Apple’s Internet efforts wouldn’t be an entirely bad thing, as I think about it more. Of course, there would have to be some very real communication with Apple management or people would burn out of that job like fireworks, as they felt they weren’t doing anything useful.

Consider it this way – the President of the U.S. in theory embodies all these amazing characteristics. Unfortunately, one of them has to be a tremendous skill as a campaigner, which doesn’t really reflect on how good a President he or she will be. Many people have said that it would make more sense to separate the campaign from the office – a great President might be lousy on the campaign trail, and if that’s true, we suffer.

Thanks for getting me thinking about all this.  It’s a good time for personal growth.  16 years at Apple and 51 years on the planet, but still tons to learn.

Doesn’t it bug you? I’m only 29, and I know that I know vast quantities more than I did when I started TidBITS when I was 22, say, but I remember being comfortable back then that I always knew the answer. Now all I know is that every question has multiple answers. Drives me nuts.

So the web owes me for markup tags, frames, and the term “browser”.

Cool!

In fact, since I came to Apple in 1980 and entered management, I’ve only had a few opportunities to write code at work.  Programming is mostly confined to vacations, and on most vacations, I’d rather do something else.

Seems a shame, in some ways. I think a lot of companies get hurt because they don’t have a technical track that matches the management track. Many of the great programmers get sucked into management because it’s the only way they can continue to rise in the company.

“Enough about me” as they say.  I’d like to resume reading about net thinkers’ ideas for a better Apple Internet future.

Here’s a question for everyone then. To what extent does Apple’s Internet future rest on Apple itself or on outside developers? Think about the question for a bit. The future of using the Internet on a Macintosh may be very different from Apple’s Internet future, although they may have been the same in the past.

See you at a party.

It’s a deal.

cheers… -Adam

Postscript

So, Larry Tesler, wherever you are now, I hope you’re amused at seeing your name in print here, even if, as you suggested, it’s in an obituary. Thanks for copy and paste, for NO MODES, for HTML’s ancestor PUB, for browsers, and for being a good guy. I wish we’d had a chance to hang out at a geek party.

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Comments About My Last Conversation with Larry Tesler

Notable Replies

  1. I was fortunate to meet Larry just the once, very briefly, and took the opportunity to thank him for inspiring me to always build modeless user interfaces after I read his original PARC papers while working on AI research in the early 80’s. He seemed bemused that somebody would remember such work from so long ago and that it had such an effect.

  2. Back in 1995 when my 7 year old son wanted to learn to program his own computer games there was nothing available that was suitable for that age group. Larry led the group that developed Cocoa. When Apple decided to abandon the product (and reuse the name for the transition to OS X), they made it available for free download. When Larry left Apple, he started Stagecast to develop Stagecast Creator into a commercial product. I was starting an internet store in 2001, and he graciously allowed me to carry it in my store. I spoke to him on the phone a few times when he was with Amazon. I thought he was a generous guy. He was also heavily involved with the guerilla project in the Santa Cruz Mountains when I lived in the Bay Area.

  3. Thanks for posting this Adam. It’s fascinating to be reminded of what it was like at the dawn of the Internet when we were still feeling our way around. It’s hard to fathom that not even 25 years ago buying stuff on the net was a sign of geek cred. I made my first Amazon purchase on December 30, 1997: five Star Trek novels.

    ad hominem attacks have no place on the net

    Sigh. Such idealists. We had no idea…

  4. I think I may be able to outdo you here. I purchased items over “the Internet” before there was a “world wide web” (at least before anybody outside of CERN had heard of it).

    My first Internet purchase was buying a music album (a cassette of The Buggles’ Adventures In Modern Recording) by e-mailing someone running a store via news groups and an FTP site where you could download a text file containing the catalog. I send a mail message asking about availability, he replied with the price. I mailed him a check. He mailed me my tape.

    This would have been some time about 1989, if I remember correctly.

  5. Indeed. I still believe this, but clearly I am in the minority.

  6. Clearly. But at least you’ve carved out your own little civil corner of the Internet. I’m grateful.

  7. My grandfather used to one-up Sturgeon’s Law and say “90% of everything is garbage, including 90% of the remaining 10%”.

    This is painfully obvious on the Internet. There are web sites and apps and forums for absolutely everything. And 99% of it is garbage. But that simply means that the good stuff (including this site), when it is discovered is all that much more valuable.

  8. Perhaps in a minority Adam but certainly not alone.

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