Almost Facebook?

December 22, 2011

Did David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale, invent a precursor to Facebook only to be undone by a failed launch strategy preferred by his investors? 

The Economist reports that Dr. Gelernter’s 1991 book Mirror Worlds – which brought him unwanted and tragic attention from the Unabomber – would later inspire him to form a company of the same name that envisioned an online medium called “lifestreams.”

More than two decades ago, Dr Gelernter foresaw how computers would be woven into the fabric of everyday life. In his book “Mirror Worlds”, published in 1991, he accurately described websites, blogging, virtual reality, streaming video, tablet computers, e-books, search engines and internet telephony. More importantly, he anticipated the consequences all this would have on the nature of social interaction, describing distributed online communities that work just as Facebook and Twitter do today…

In 1997 he and his colleague Eric Freeman formed a company, also called Mirror Worlds, to develop an approach called “lifestreams”—a graphical user interface intended to replace the windows and files of conventional computer desktops with an elegant chronological stream of digital objects.

Looking like an endless Rolodex, a lifestream would extend from the moment of your birth to the day of your death, containing every document, photo, message or web page you have ever interacted with—all in a single, searchable stream, and held safely online. Individual items could be shared with other people. “When I want to make something public, I flip a switch, and everyone in the world who’s interested sees it,” says Dr Gelernter. “I could also blend millions of other streams into mine, with a simple way to control the flow of information so I’m not overwhelmed. It would be my personal life, my public life and my confidential electronic diary.”

If that sounds an awful lot like Facebook, the similarities become almost eerie when Dr Gelernter explains how he hoped to release lifestreams into the world. “I wanted the company to build software for college students, who are eager early adopters. It would be designed not only to eliminate file systems but also to be a real-time messaging medium. Social networking was the most important aspect of it. Starting with Yale, we would give it away for free to get undergraduates excited about recommending it to their friends,” he says. But Mirror Worlds’ investors decided that it would be better to focus on corporate clients, and the result was an organisational tool called Scopeware. It sold modestly to a few large American state agencies, but never took off. Mirror Worlds ceased trading in 2004, the same year that Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook.

It’s not entirely clear from the story precisely how (and who) the launch strategy was chosen, and as the saying goes, “success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.”  In our experience decisions such as that one are less about control and more a matter of chemistry:  robust debate leading to some kind of consensus which includes contingency plans – with enough credit or blame to go around when the dust settles.

We’ve often written that predicting technology trends is not for the weak at heart – and that’s before one tries to protect the IP and find a way to profit from it.  There are reasons we affectionately call the really early stage of investing adventure capital.  It’s a long and difficult journey from idea to successful business, during which failure can be counted on to make at least a cameo appearance; so over the long term partnerships will have mistakes (and successes) that are “his, hers, and ours.”

The full article is a fascinating read about Dr. Gelernter, his belief that computers are still too hard to use, and his patent battles with Steve Jobs and Apple.



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