Where's It All Going?     Bored of Directors


Many people within Autodesk have long been aware of Ted Nelson's work and the efforts to implement the Xanadu hypertext system. Before his involvement with Marinchip and later Autodesk, Lars Moureau met Ted Nelson in Stockholm and was instrumental in getting his books translated to Swedish and published in Sweden.

At the Hackers' Conference in October 1987 I spoke to Roger Gregory, President of Xanadu Operating Company, which was formed to implement Xanadu, about Autodesk acting as a beta site for a commercial Xanadu system. As we continued the discussion there and at several subsequent meetings, it became increasingly clear that a partnership between Xanadu and Autodesk might be beneficial to both parties; Autodesk had the financial resources and distribution to implement and launch the product and Xanadu had the technology and talented people who could build it. A Xanadu system could easily solve the data and project management tasks that Autodesk realised it needed to solve for users of its products, while offering them much more than just a drawing manager.

We eventually decided that Autodesk would purchase 80% of Xanadu and fund the development of the product. Ted Nelson came to Autodesk as a Distinguished Fellow, both to guide the development and promotion of Xanadu, and to explore other areas of research. What follows are the remarks I made at the press conference at the West Coast Computer Faire where the alliance between Autodesk and Xanadu was announced.

Statement for the Autodesk/Xanadu Press Conference

by John Walker
April 8th, 1988

The age we live in has been called many things: the Space Age, the Computer Age, the Atomic Age, the Age of the Microchip. But perhaps the most accurate appellation is “the Information Age”.

Most of us have witnessed, in our own lifetimes, the unraveling of the genetic code, the uncovering of a new level of structure of matter which may, at last, prove “fundamental”, cosmology transformed from a branch of philosophy into an experimental science, and through exploration by resourceful robots and brave men and women, our base of knowledge growing from one Earth to dozens of worlds.

As our fundamental knowledge has grown, so have our capacities to apply that knowledge through new technologies. It is now obvious to any thoughtful person that our powers are so great and our resources so large, that sound judgement based on accurate information is the most essential ingredient in the continuing progress of our technological civilisation. Yet often it seems that this unprecedented explosion of information has outstripped our ability to store, process, think about, distribute, and apply it. As our future becomes more dependent on making the right choices in highly complicated problem domains, the nineteenth-century means of communication we still largely use: professional journals, libraries, and mail, become increasingly inadequate as vehicles to store, transmit, and mediate the growth of human knowledge.

Over two decades ago, the idea that there might be a solution to the problem not yet named the “information explosion” began to form in the minds of a few technologists. The confluence of technological advancements in computers and communications, coupled with an understanding of how humans distill knowledge from a sea of information and the centuries—old literary tradition led these thinkers to imagine a new medium to represent knowledge. Theodor Nelson, one of the first to explore the potential of this medium, coined a name for it, “hypertext”, and gave its realisation the name “Xanadu”.

In 1964, Xanadu was a dream in a single mind. In 1980, it was the shared goal of a small group of brilliant technologists. By 1989, it will be a product. And by 1995 it will begin to change the world.

Much work remains to be done to realise the potential of Xanadu—it will take the Xanadu development team 18 months to field the first Xanadu system. This will be followed by a steady stream of releases bringing added power, capacity, and flexibility to Xanadu users. As these first users explore the potential of Xanadu, they will help define the market for true hypertext systems, a market which barely exists today. But as Autodesk has demonstrated, much can happen in five years.

Five years ago Autodesk began delivering computer-aided design technology to the desktops of designers around the world. Our first product, AutoCAD, has become the de facto standard for computer aided design, and has created a large market for computer aided design tools for personal computers. Autodesk's sales have grown from $17,000 in 1982 to more than $79 million in 1987, and Autodesk has been named the Number One Hot Growth Company in America by Business Week magazine in each of the last two years. Autodesk's success has come from identifying new ways the personal computer could be applied to solve the problems people encounter in getting their work done, then developing, marketing, distributing, and supporting products which solve those problems.

We believed in 1982 that the time was right to deliver computer aided design to any creative individual with a personal computer. Today, we believe it's time to place the dream and potential of hypertext in the hands of the millions of people whose productivity, creativity, and achievement can be amplified by such a tool.

We believe that Xanadu is not just the first hypertext system, but the only system that has the potential to serve the individual, the workgroup or small company, the large corporation, and eventually the entire world as a repository for information in all forms: text, graphics, sound, animation, scientific and engineering data, and more. Xanadu acts as a tool for the human minds which must find order among the chaotic barrage of information that inundates us. Xanadu allows people to work together more productively in ways that existing electronic mail, databases, and online services only hint at.

Xanadu has reached the point where theory must move into practice, design into implementation, and prototype into product. Autodesk and Xanadu are forming this alliance because we share the belief that Autodesk's financial, marketing, distribution, and manufacturing resources, coupled with the vision, concrete design, implementation experience, and the talent and energy of the Xanadu implementation team can bring an initial Xanadu system to the market within 18 months.

The Xanadu design is unique in that it rejects from the outset all limits on generality, capacity, and extensibility. Implementing it in its entirety will be difficult, protracted, and expensive, but no system less ambitious can be as useful, as powerful, or as important for the long term.

Following the first Xanadu product, we will, as with AutoCAD, follow the guidance of the market in delivering increasingly powerful Xanadu systems to an ever-widening community of users. Our near-term commitment to deliver small-scale Xanadu systems in no way signals a retreat from the dream of the Xanadu global library. Autodesk and Xanadu are embarking on this venture with the goal of expediting the achievement of Theodor Nelson's original vision, and to build a successful business which will continue the development of Xanadu to the global library and beyond. As with AutoCAD, every byte of information stored in the first Xanadu system we ship will be able to move onward to future systems, new computers, and growing networks, and will take its place in the ever-growing body of human knowledge stored in the Xanadu system.

As with AutoCAD, Xanadu is an open architecture system. Our access protocols will be fully disclosed and published. We will encourage others to invent innovative ways to encode, store, retrieve, and organise information stored in our ever-growing address space. We will rely on the judgement of customers in a free market to decide what are the best approaches, and we will heed that judgement as the best guide for the future development of the Xanadu system.

The promise of hypertext is self-evident. The visionary scope and technological soundness of the Xanadu design implements that promise in its fullness. The talent of the Xanadu team and the resources of Autodesk will bring that design to market in 1989.[Footnote] And the Xanadu era will begin.[Footnote]

Ted Nelson Joins Autodesk

This is the press release we issued on the event of Ted Nelson joining Autodesk.

Autodesk Announces New Fellowship

Sausalito, California, April 8, 1988 — Autodesk, Inc. announced today the appointment of Theodor Holm Nelson as a Distinguished Fellow. Ted will work in the Technology department at Autodesk's Sausalito office. Mr. Nelson, a world-famous visionary in computing, is one of the original developers of the hypertext concept and coined the term “hypertext” itself in the early 1960's. In 1979 Mr. Nelson joined with several others to found Xanadu Operating Company to develop hypertext as a commercial reality. Autodesk announced earlier this week that it had agreed to acquire an 80% interest in Xanadu.

Ted, a prolific author, has written numerous volumes, two of which are considered classics in the field: Literary Machines and Computer Lib/Dream Machines (recently re-issued by Microsoft Press). “Autodesk has always been committed to be the technological leader in the software industry,” said Eric Lyons, Director of Technology at Autodesk. “We look forward to Ted's agile and prolific mind helping us to achieve that goal.”

Ted Nelson—the man TIME magazine called “[one of] the brightest stars in computerdom”, the man Howard Rheingold, in Tools for Thought, called “the most outrageous and probably the funniest of the ‘infonauts’ ”, the man Playgirl's American Bachelor's Register called “the mad poet of computerdom”—Ted Nelson, maverick software designer, flamboyant legend, idealistic prognosticator, eloquent generalist, and now Distinguished Fellow at Autodesk.

Ted Nelson is where he belongs.[Footnote]

Where's It All Going?     Bored of Directors