"Xanadu Products Due Next Year"

(Originally published on Newsbytes Daily and in the "BYTE/BIX Special Report: West Coast Computer Faire" newsletter, 1988)

by Jeff Merron

The first products based on the Xanadu hypertext concept will ship in 18 months, Ted Nelson and his Xanadu team announced at the West Coast Computer Faire. Nelson told the audience that the time has come to "get this mother out of the closet and onto people's desks and into their minds. We're a member of the Golden Vaporware Club, along with Alan Kay's Dynabook." Xanadu just last week got an infusion of financial support when AutoDesk (Sausalito, CA), makers of AutoCAD, bought into the project. (Industry watchers were surprised at AutoDesk's taking an 80 percent stake in Nelson's project.)

The Xanadu Hypertext System, said Nelson, would create "a new unification of applications. We're going to create a uniform data structure that developers of all types of applications can use." A preliminary Xanadu Hypertext System will be delivered to research institutions and developers in late 1988, according to Xanadu's Roger Gregory. "We have something that's real," he said. "You can see that it's real because it crashes."

"We're looking at Suns, Macintoshes, and PCs as platforms," Gregory said. Xanadu will be "an open architecture system. Our access protocols will be fully disclosed and published," said AutoDesk chairman John Walker. Nelson added that "Xanadu is a write-once system. A new version is a new thread."

The atmosphere at the press conference could be described as giddy. Nelson and his followers seem as if they have found "IT" and appeared very happy to have the financial backing of an established company like AutoDesk. But aside from the promises that something would ship within the next 18 months, something that will allow you to link ideas and information in interesting ways and with a common data structure, it was very unclear what this product will be. The success of Xanadu -- like several others recently announced that rely on databases with a generic data structure that can be access by diverse "front ends" -- will rely on third-party developers. Nelson announced no clear plans for courting developers.

That's all there was to the story I sent in. I hinted at how bizarre the Nelson's presentation was, but didn't go into detail, because I didn't understand it. (Still don't.) There were some people surrounding Nelson dressed in what appeared to be Roman Toga candidas. Everyone in the room who wasn't worshipping Nelson (there weren't too many of them) seemed genuinely interested -- Nelson was considered brilliant and strange, but he made pronouncements about Xanadu that were so simple and lofty I didn't know what to make of it. 

It wasn't like Hypertext was such an extraordinary idea back in those pre-Web days, because Apple had already released HyperCard, which made it relatively easy to create documents with all kinds of links and all kinds of data (text, images, animation, etc.) And there was tremendous skepticism about Xanadu, since even as early as 1988 it had a long history of hype, but nobody had seen it.

The story I wrote was posted on Newsbytes Daily a day or two after I submitted it to my editor. Newsbytes Daily was part of BIX, Byte's online service. This delay wasn't due to technical reasons -- it was simply because I filed the story on a weekend, and my editor didn't see any reason to rush. I spun eight or so stories out of this conference, with the topics including HyperCard, "desktop presentations," and Windows.

More on the Xanadu project:

Wikipedia: Project Xanadu 

Wired: "The Curse of Xanadu," by Gary Wolf (June 1995) 

Project Xanadu (The Project's Home Page)

Review of Computer Lib/Dream Machines, by Theodor H. Nelson (aka Ted Nelson), published in the second issue of Byte, Sept-Oct. 1975

More about Byte and BIX: 

Wikipedia: Byte (magazine)

Byte (sort of) -- Would love to see some real Byte archives, from the best days of the magazine

Langa.com: The Web site of Fred Langa, who was editor-in-chief of Byte back in the late 1980s. He hired me to work as a news editor at Byte in 1987. A good guy.