The first “electronic content management system” I ever saw was back n 1980 when I had to transcribe a 600-page crappy novel I wrote in college. The school hired a typist who had a Wang word processor – basically a mini-computer with floppy disks the size of Frisbees. I sat at that thing after years of using an electric typewriter and a bottle of Wite-Out and my mind was blown forever when I realized “Cut-and-paste “on that thing was as awesome as a New Guinea cargo cultist seeing a Bic lighter for the first time.
Then I landed in the newsroom at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune and was told to figure out the new Hastech editorial system. I mastered that thing and was the unofficial newsroom guru who knew all the keyboard shortcuts and could split a screen into four different windows with a couple ninja moves of my fingers. Then PC Week and Atex came into my life. Then Forbes into more Atex, dialing in with a 1200 bps modem using a command line utility called “Send-Fetch”, Quark for page layout. And on and on until the dawn of the Internet in 1994 when Mitch Kapor showed me his private Internet connection in his Kendall Square office and let me see the wonders of TCP/IP, Gopher, Veronica, WAIS, Pine, Usenet and finally, the World Wide Web.
The Web was pretty obvious. I mean duh-level obvious. The underlying technology wasn’t proprietary (I think TCP/IP is the most important single technology of the 20th century), the network topology was designed to survive a nuke (but not a baby monitor or web cam), and anyone could get into it for low to no money. When Kapor showed me a website with a picture and a blue underlined word that led to another website with another picture and more underlined blue words I instantly saw the future of electronic publishing which had been tempting publishers for over a decade.
I decided to figure it out. I had been messing around with hypertext, using Microsoft’s engine for building its help-pop-ups to turn the rules that governed yacht racing into a hyperlinked, interactive product. But the Web was different so I shifted my reporting away from PCs and multimedia CD-ROMs and mainframes and focused on the commercialization of the Internet. I started reading and that led me into the world of mark up languages and document processing.
I became a serious SGML geek (Standard Generalized Markup Language). I was all over document mark up languages and found myself in deep discussions with Charles Goldfarb, the Father of SGML, the ISO standard for page description formats out of IBM that was the ancestor of HTML. Goldfarb wanted me to ghostwrite a book with him about SGML. I wanted to build a website.
SGML and Goldfarb introduced me to the the late Yuri Rubinsky, who founded a company in Toronto called Softquad that developed the first commercial HTML authoring tool – HoTMetaL. Yuri gave me beta access and I used HoTMetaL to develop the first prototype of Forbes.com in the winter of 1995 – the super crude and ugly version that ran on a ThinkPad and an Iomega Zipdrive which I demoed to the Forbes brothers before being told “Nice job kid, now here’s a ticket to Columbus, go run our CompuServe project.”
Oh the agony, but I wasn’t deterred. Messing around with HoTMetal led me to Charles Ferguson and Randy Forgaard at Vermeer Technologies and a sneak peek at FrontPage, the first wysiwig web building tool which I wrote about in Forbes and kept a close eye on as Microsoft acquired it in 1996 for $133 million. Ferguson went on to write a book about the Vermeer experience called High St@kes, No Prisoners and produce and direct Inside Job which won an Academy Award for best documentary.
While I was losing my soul at CompuServe and also managing Forbes’ Prodigy deal, I was still spending my free time on web stuff. I worked on a DIY content management system for Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Flyfishing. My partner, Thorne Sparkman raised some money to pay some coders in Berkeley to give us the tools to manage a very popular niche community site. We wanted to extend page management capabilities out to the fishing guides who sponsored the site, so they could have their own web presence under our umbrella. It worked. Sort of.
When Forbes.com launched we coded the site by hand (basically using Notepad to write the page source code) – via the webmaster John Moschetto and the graphics department under Dustin Shephard and TK – eventually testing tools like Dreamweaver and other site builders. We looked at Vignette after that CMS was spun out of C-Net, but the requirement to have a TCL coder on staff who could manage and build page templates soured us. Forbes didn’t have the cash to buy a CMS, so in all my time there from 1995 to 2000 we were pretty manual, using some database publishing to automate production, but always wishing for something with workflow and version control and other nice things that were always in reach, but never in house.
We knew we wanted dynamic content. We wanted pages that could display real-time stock quotes, charts, pages that would let visitors to Forbes.com sort its list of the Richest People in the World by country or industry. We did it. Bill Gates even used our database of the richest people (which he led by the way ) in his demonstrations of Microsoft’s IIS webserver capabilities (we were early ASP fans).
Then Forbes.com co-founder Om Malik turned me onto WordPress in 2001 after I launched this blog on Pyra Labs’ Blogger, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.
After the bubble popped in 2000 I bailed on Forbes and was on the team at McKinsey that built one of the first global knowledge management systems under Mussie Shore – the former Lotus engineer now at Google. That was pretty effing slick and supported a digital asset management system, streamed audio and video, and pulled together the company’s army of consultants and their Powerpoints into a pretty nifty project called Business Knowledge Services. We were into digital asset management, and multimedia publishing and all that stuff. Search was key.
2005, I went back to media, this time at International Data Group – the late Pat McGovern’s tech publishing empire – where I was on the team that started to “federate” the company’s 300-some publications onto a common platform. I turned off a DIY content management system that was the equivalent of life-time employment for the only person who knew how to work it, and was part of CEO Bob Carrigan’s big move to federate the entire tower of babel under IDG’s CIO Nancy Newkirk on Interwoven Teamsite. The politics were brutal so I left.
I left for Lenovo before IDG’s Interwoven platform was implemented, but I called up Interwoven’s sales engineer – Tom Wentworth – and let him sell me another Teamsite license for the new Lenovo.com as it made the transition from IBM.com/PC to its new home as a serious ecommerce site that could match Dell’s configure-to-order system. The problem there was massive. Global web production for 60 countries over 28 languages and total anarchy and ill-will as the country marketing teams wanted control over their digital identities but headquarters wanted some efficiencies and brand discipline. We were struggling with the concept of a web “Center of Excellence” and a “site factory” before some marketer or “thought leader” decided to coin those words in their marketecture.
Next: The Revolution Against Our Sphincter Overlords