December 9, 2008

Mother of All Demos.

Networked collaboration, videoconferencing, digital text editing, hyperlinks, a pointing device (superficially resembling a rodent) called a “mouse,” surely are familiar to the average computer user today. But on this day, 40 years ago, some 1000 participants of the Fall Joint Computer Conference had their minds blown as they were exposed to all of the above for the very first time, during a 100 minute demonstration now known in hacker lore as The Mother of All Demos. At a time when most people thought computers were purely for computing, this was the stuff of an interactive future decades away.

The team that launched this point-and-click revolution in 1968 was led by Dr Douglas Engelbart, founder of the Augmentation Research Centre (ARC) at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California. Engelbart had spent twenty years trying to secure support for building a working prototype of an interactive, collaborative computer system that would allow people to work collectively to solve complex problems. What his team unleashed at the San Francisco conference was the oN-Line System (NLS), the very first attempt to put these ideas into practical form.
It was a gamble: Englebart and his team didn't yet have a fully developed system, and had used research funding without official approval.

The presentation wasn't only successful, but so far ahead of computing at the time, its technology so convincing, that it directly contributed to the personal computer revolution of the 1980s and the development of the World Wide Web in the 1990s. But while many of the NLS components and features, such as the mouse, hypertext, the graphical user interface, multiple windows, information organised by relevance, integrated text and graphics, two-way video and teleconferencing are now ubiquitous, the NLS itself was far too oriented towards extremely powerful systems and highly specialised operators to become the standard system its creators envisioned.

Unlike many of their contemporaries, Engelbart’s team wasn’t interested in automation but augmentation, not merely designing a tool but a system for working with knowledge. They strived to change the entire process of how we work, think and interact with data, as well as the machines we employ for that purpose. Today, the basic premise of the NLS permeates modern computing, but its scope is yet to be fully realised; while their presentation inspired much of the hardware and software now widely used, the manner in which the ARC team used the NLS to collaborate is presently just being introduced with the evolution of web communities and services like social-networking sites, video sharing sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies.

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