Early days of networking – false starts and unfulfilled dreams


A monster called “digital workflow” raised its hairy head as the film editing business moved to the desktop in the late 80s and early 90s. A whole slew of companies tried getting it sorted. This was the beginning of the learning curve. Save Project was an important and not yet automated function. The first digital editing project I did used laser disks as media storage. The 35mm film negative was transferred to 12-inch disks that each held about 25 minutes of silent video.

The engineers at Avid figured out a lot of things early on — mostly by watching film editors work on film the way they always had done and creating a workflow that echoed their habits and nomenclatures. Smart right? They did it so that the people who would use it could use it. But the high cost of storage meant that managing those large “bricks” of media data was a whole new and critical business. The film images were stored at very low resolution – but the metadata (not a word in general use yet) indicated how to find the clips on the original negative. I created a content management system (also not a name yet) by grabbing still frames and connecting them with their own metadata – actor names, scene description, frame number, edge number etc etc and storing the whole lot in a HyperCard stack. We shared this searchable library on CD ROM.

Meanwhile Avid was frantically trying to get the systems in each edit room to connect with each other. In order to share projects had to output to a cassette and carry this physical object to another room by “sneaker net.” They engineers were up and down ladders outside my office – running fiber, cables, routers, all the tricks of the trade. But after about 6 months they beat a retreat – stymied for the time being.

I had called Bell Labs to see what they were up to in the digital networking area. I was excited to hear back from them. “Would you like to come by and see something we are working on.” But of course. So three of us made the road trip to one of the world’s key centers of innovation. We were ushered past security to a conference room where we were shown a piece of hardware by some breathless engineers. They had no idea what it would be useful for. And of course we didn’t understand what it did. So we told them what we wanted to achieve and left them trying to build a bridge from what they had built to the world we lived in. Nothing further came of that.

So anyway, networking happened. But it was slow and narrowband. Broadband would follow haltingly. In about 2000 I was working with a startup that wanted to provide streams of video to its end users. But who could enable this? How to price this? My conversations led me to a startup out of MIT called Akamai.

I told them what I wanted to accomplish. I had projected numbers of streams and file sizes – broken it down wearing my producer hat. They said they’d come to NYC from Boston to meet with me. So now I am in a conference room with a dozen brainiacs in black suits (black t shirts too probably but I am not sure of that detail). I talked in what I believed to be English. They were talking in tech/biz speak, very, very fast. I think they got what I wanted to do – but they had no idea how to manage that or to put a cost on it. Nothing came of that either. But there was a lot of branded swag. ( I still wear their fleece neck turtle during a polar vortex.)
That was shortly before I was recruited to Digitas to be their “broadband guy.” The CEO, David Kenney, who now runs Weather, had come from Bain to take them public and had decreed that there should be such a person. But in hindsight nobody there actually knew what that meant, or what that person could do in their narrowband world – this would all be future think. Video was our dream, but in those days if any single jpeg exceeded 25 kb our client’s servers couldn’t handle it! There was no broadband penetration that would deliver any kind of ROI to their consumer facing clients. And with the bursting of the tech bubble, the money experimenting was gone, gone, gone.

So there you are. Long ago and yet not so long ago. Networking, video, all this works seamlessly now. We take it for granted. These were first steps and false starts. People trying to make it happen. When I see a new product nowadays I often say, “Wait. Didn’t we already do that 10 years ago?” The answer usually is that we had thought of it and tried, but it took till now to make it real.

Our dreams our always bigger than our capabilities. That’s what drives us forward. Never give up. If at first you don’t succeed, try try try again. But you knew that, right?