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PageLink, an early browser proposal.

Funny what you find when you go through the old boxes in the garage when you are moving house. An early piece of Internet history that never made it off the drawing board but was an early browser/iPhone/laptop combination device. Keyboardless, with the facility to download pages, navigate links, have bookmarks and be a mass market consumer product that allowed people to view custom news. We take this for granted with Digg and the likes today, browsers and hi-tech phones. However, this proposal was put together in 1989 and drafted as a patent application in April 1990, in the days even before a proposal by Tim Berners-Lee for research into a hypertext project. Also in 1990, it was almost a year away (13 March 1991) before Digital even launched their own PCs.

The story of this project kind of began at University in the mid 1980s. I didn't particularly much like command line driven operating systems and on the University VAX was always writing programs to isolate myself from the command line, perform meta commands and make life simpler. One relic of that time which is still running 23 years later is I didn't like the cold way the computer told the time, so I changed it to conversational English, then into conversational Scots Gaelic, it was posted to usenet in 1993. When I joined Digital in 1987, it was more of the same command line driven tools which were frequently extended. About the only remaining tool I wrote from that time was a way of doing secure copies between machines, posted to usenet many years later in 1993. So having got fed up with simple commands, the introduction to windows in about 1988 or so was a progressive step I welcomed. Initially it was DECwindows, then X Windows. Of particular interest was an application called Bookreader, which was an online help system with hyperlinks. I thought this had a lot of potential. Looking back, the period 1989-1992 for me was clearly one of those periods I would certainly class under the "well I could have been a multi billionaire by now if I had seen the full potential of those ideas.". First off there was 1989, winning an award from Shell Livewire and appearing in the local papers with a "computer based automatic job matching service", 4 years ahead of the first to launch, Jobserve. although to be fair the ESPC I mentioned in the business plan already had a computerised matching service in the 1980s for houses. Then there was PageLink in 1990, an award from Digital's founder Ken Olsen, and a personalised view of the daily news (not quite a blog but getting there) first published the same day as Tim's paper. Those days, two things prevented me from going it alone. One was that I had been headhunted by a group within Digital in the USA and was trying to relocate there so didn't want to put down too many roots in the UK and the other was that the spirit of the net back then and indeed much of what I chose to do was to have good non commercial ideas and give them away. The first was campaigning for smoke free areas in pubs (came to pass eventually 17 years later), then the "news from Scotland" publication, then setting up the UK's first guide to getting online in 1992, a listing in e-mail addresses of the rich and famous followed by writing the FAQ for the soc.culture.celtic and soc.culture.scottish newsgroups, still going strong. Looking back and especially at the size of my (very large!) mortgage now, I think I might have been better doing things that earned a bit more money but there you go. Pagelink and the UK Internet List were both written in Reading, England, maybe the houses get a blue plaques one day :-P

So to the patent. The research for what would have been the net's first job matching service in 1989 (the business plan I still have makes interesting reading talking about using email to the general public!) had got me interested and not long after this Digital had been looking for ways to up its profits because it was in decline due to the rise of the PC. They launched an employee involvement scheme to improve the company's effectiveness so I suggested an idea in two parts. 1. making use of the military grade security they had to securely run two operating systems on one piece of hardware. 2. Renting out one of the operating systems to the general public and making use of Digital's 50,000 strong computing network (then the world's largest private network) to make some money (ie a commercial SETI). The kudos of getting an award from Ken Olsen, not long after Fortune had called him "the most successful entrepreneur in the history of American business" for that idea got me thinking when the next scheme came along and that was sponsorship for patentable ideas.

So there I was using the Bookreader software, interested in patents, rather bored of my job configuring networks and waiting for my work visa for the US to come through. The idea of being able to view pages of documents around the house, save paper and navigate them in a new hypertext style was appealing. I proposed the idea as a patent and it was met with encouragement. The plan then changed to make more of the emphasis on hardware so it became bundled as a hardware device supported by software. After progressing to that stage, the ongoing problems at DEC then caused a departmental reorganisation and the person sponsoring my idea was moved elsewhere. His replacement said the idea was "pie in the sky" and wouldn't back it. Remember this was coming from a company where even the PC was treated as a waste of time for years. Shortly after this patent application stalled, my plans for going to the US changed. Deciding to remain in the UK my efforts were then spent promoting the Internet. Having first gained access in 1983, I remember promoting in 1987 the virtues of the Internet to a PhD computing student at Cambridge University. So when I came to leave Digital in 1992 and knowing I would be remaining in the UK, I set up the UK internet list - a small piece of history as the UKs first guide to getting online and a guide that was especially designed to eliminate "pay per message" charges and replace them with flat fees. What happened in parallel was that another colleague left DEC to join ICL and later told me about a "new service called Jobserve" that was set up by two ICL colleagues and seemed to be doing quite well (later to become the UKs most profitable company). Also in parallel, a friend from high school, John Giannandrea had made his career from Dunblane High School where we both had a common interest in computing and had followed the course I had tried to take and had got a job in the US. He later became Chief Technology Officer for a little known startup that was Netscape. Two years prior to the netscape floatation I wanted to know what was happening with hypertext and I wrote "Xmosaic allows a hypertext document to have links to files on machines across the world. This technology is very exciting ....". Too right. If only I had been in California rather than back in Edinburgh where famously my LinkedIn connection Ian Ritchie was turning down Tim Berners-Lee's request to commercialise the browser.

So the PageLink device didn't move forward. Jobserve took off, Netscape took off and as for me well I ended up launching the UK internet list as a result, going back to University to come first in the UKs first degree in Object Technology, invented a broken link preventor, got some management interviews with Google, Amazon and and now work as an independent consultant. So I got some kudos and others got the big bucks. I still have great ideas, so anyone looking to back the next big idea (rated as "the next Google") please get in touch...

All that remains of the proposal in 1990 was these papers in the garage and a copy I think on an old TK50 tape that probably can't be read anymore even if I could find it. So these are the scanned in pages (sorry for the images) that I found. Some interesting highlights include:

Page browsing, following links, phone functionality (fax), shaped like a laptop (more than a year before DECs first PC), no keyboard (like iPhone), store bookmarks (like Netscape), etc. Other comments such as personalised news (digg, etc) are mentioned as of course the revolution in advertising which would follow (Google, etc)

I was going to write more and tidy this page up, etc but the iPod touch launch made me think that sticking this page up today would be relevant. More than 17 years later, the consumer finally has a portable touch screen mass market web browser. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. This isn't meant to be any particular claim to fame or detract from anyone elses work, as any academic and/or researcher will accept (and was the basis for the original google model) we build on the works of others, and others will follow after us and build on our work. This simply represents a snapshot of time and some early browser history from 1990 that until now has laid in a box in a garage gathering dust and it is perhaps of interest to historians and researchers of that time as to what was going on then and how long it has taken for some of these ideas to be brought to market.

Sorry this has turned into a longer introduction than expected, memories from long ago sometimes do that.

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