Improving Communications

For its first few decades, the Internet was a creature of the global telephone network.  Bell Labs had pioneered a way of using telephone lines to let computers talk to each other by dedicating an electrical circuit for the purpose, it worked, but was an inefficient use of the telephone network.  

For the first century of telephony, telephone cables out on utility poles contained massive bundles of tiny individual wires.  What the folks at Bell Labs did was come up with a way to configure the switching equipment in their central offices (COs) to setup a permanent electrical path between any two points.  

Paul Baran invented packet switching to make the Minuteman control system dramatically more difficult to render inoperable, and gradually his approach was implemented in the old phone networks.  But, the accounting and billing for those networks would take much longer to change.  Even in the optical cables that started to be deployed in the latter part of the 20th century, units of capacity were measured in the number of logical circuits that could be supported.  When a business wanted to link a computer to the Internet, they would lease some theoretical unit of capacity at a fixed monthly rate. 


But change was in the air in the 1990s.  Over the coming decades three massive networks were going to converge.  Telephony, the Internet, and cable television were going to become one combined service at the physical network level.  This presented some obvious opportunities to make life better for everyone, including private citizens and businesses.

One of the things I had learned at P-3 was that when it comes to the way individuals communicate with each other there are some very strong personal preferences that come into play.  Trampling on these both reduced an individual's sense of well being, and an organization's effectiveness.  People work best when they are within their comfort zones.


Communications preferences at the individual level are spread across a continuum of modalities.  Some folks prefer talking and some prefer text or writing.  Many people are not very good at listening or correctly interpreting what someone else's words are intended to convey.  On top of this, we can often be very sloppy and imprecise in our language.  In one of his popular books for children, Robert McCloskey put it this way:

"I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."


The messaging or email system Boeing needed had to be more than just another texting platform, and a guaranteed annoyance to people who are voice-centric.  It had to be a foundation for enabling more effective communications.  I need to learn more about telephones before getting started.


As it happened, I was attending the last Network World conference and show at the Dallas Convention Center, when I noticed that a third of the space was occupied by a Computer Telephony conference.  While I was credentialed for the one, I spent most of my time at the other.  I met several people there including Bob Fritzinger, who would become my very good friend and partner.  I also and learned a lot about phone systems, telephone answering. and voice mail.  At that computer telephone show I would also learn a lot about digital photography and the electronics involved in video sensors.  The video sensor part is another story, but it is worth nothing here that I was not the only one at that time who saw text, audio, and video as all being critical to the future of a communications system's infrastructure.

At the start of my journey into messaging for the whole company it had been my working assumption that we would probably use Lotus Notes as the foundation.  It was programable, and almost infinitely flexible.  Some of the out-of-the-box applications that came with Notes were a mess, and the messaging system was a total disaster, but Lotus had just purchased the cc:Mail company, and Ed Owens, the genius programmer who had created Higgins was working at cc:Mail.  Also, Mary McCarthy, one of the nice folks from Lotus, was giving a pitch every chance she got about a new product that Lotus was working on to be called the Lotus Messaging Server (LMS).  It was to be available in a basic version with advanced messaging based around the cc:Mail technology.  There would be a more capable version with all of the application programming flexibility of Notes.  It sounded perfect.

I was attending another conference of the Electronic Messaging Association (EMA) at the Anaheim Convention Center, when at an evening party hosted by Microsoft I happened to overhear a conversation among some Lotus folks arranging a visit to their hotel pool across the street.  So I quickly went back to my room, changed and beat the Lotus folks to their pool where I just hung out on the side of the hot tub after a taking a swim.  They gradually came in and ended up around the same tub and acted as though I wasn't even there.  It was like being the White House butler, which was great.  I needed to know how these people thought and went about their work.  It would not be the last time I ended up being a fly on a wall that no one paid any attention to.

The folks from Lotus, which was located in Cambridge, MA, spent a huge amount of time making fun of the folks from California in general, and cc:Mail in particular.  They made it perfectly clear that they had no intention at all of working with them, let alone perverting their beloved Notes to include the advanced messaging technology their company had just purchased.  I had a problem.

Back in Seattle I shared what I had learned with the rest of the team that worked for Joe.  Roger Mizumori had some friends at Microsoft and had heard a rumor from them that they were going to start over from scratch and build a new messaging product.  Maybe we could work with them.  Roger setup a meeting.

The story of the Boeing 777 and the company's relations with United Airlines play into this.  The program was edging toward its first flight, and they were a close customer of mine.  In fact, they were funding my work.  After the NT disaster (that's how the BCS brass viewed it) I ran into a very interesting budget challenge.  The way funding for AR&T projects worked, is that about 40% of the organization's budget came from corporate, through the head of BCS.  The rest was directly sponsored by other parts of Boeing.  After my success with NT, word was sent down that I was not to get any more money from the internal budget.  If I was going to continue my projects, I had to find my own budget.  I suspect that the expectation of the bass was that this would slow me down.  It actually had the opposite effect, and gave me a lot more freedom.  All I had to do was find an operations group on either the defense or commercial side of Boeing to fund my work.  It also meant that if I found my own budget, then I my project plans only required approval from my budget source.  Well, I already knew a lot about the defense side of Boeing, so I went to Peter Ringland, the IT manager for the 777 program, which was in its early development stages, and Pete agreed to provide my whole budget.  

When one is very successful over a long period of time, one runs the serious human risk of becoming complacent and a bit arrogant.  Humility requires deliberate work and nurturing.  Boeing arrogance on the commercial airplane side of the house had gotten out of hand in the  early 1980s, and many of the customers were not happy with us.  When a sales team went to visit United Airlines, which had once been a part of the Boeing Company before it was broken up by congress in the 1930s, United explained that they didn't like our airplanes and they didn't like us.  So some big changes were made.  After a "lets make up and play nice" meeting over dinner, execs from Boeing and United had signed "the napkin agreement."  It was framed and was still hanging on the wall on the top floor of the 40-87 building when I retired.  It was called "working together" which was Allan Mulally's approach to just about everything.

The new way of working together would have Boeing providing spacious offices for key customers in our engineering buildings in Everett, starting with United.  These customers could attend our meetings, walk through the factories, and comment and recommend whatever changes to our plans that they wanted.  Well, at our meeting with Microsoft, Elaine Sharp, their product manager for Exchange, told us that they had been impressed by what we were doing on the 777 program.  They made us the exact same offer.  We were to have an office in building 16 on the Microsoft campus, and we would have regular meetings with their development teams as they built their new messaging product.  What a difference from the folks at Lotus, who would soon find their bosom buddies at IBM!  Microsoft was singing our song.  

Once again, it is all about the people, how they think, and where they are going, not about where they are at the moment.  Whatever Microsoft was starting to build, that's the direction we were going.  The more we learned, the happier we became.  They even hired Jim Alchin, the author of Bayon's "Street Talk" directory, to get a directory into NT and Exchange.  Elaine and the team at Microsoft which was led by Brian Valentine, quickly demonstrated that they were serious about the "working together" way of doing things.  

During our very first meeting with the development leads for what they were calling the "Touchdown Server," they explained that it was their intent to package the product the same way MS-Mail was being sold.  MS-Mail was the renamed Network Courier product which had been made by a small company in Vancouver, B.C.  Elaine, who had started out with British Telecom and was from the U.K., had come into Microsoft through that acquisition.  After the presentations by the Microsoft team, they went around the room asking for comments from the five "working together" customer representatives.  They called us the Bravehearts after the Mel Gibson movie.  I went last, and gave them a little explanation of how I saw the market forces lining up, and the political headwinds we all faced.

I explained that they should not think of the Notes team as our biggest competitor.  We still had to win the war for distributed computing with the IT executive and CIO crowd.  To them, the small machines were toys and everything that really mattered was on the "big iron."  They didn't understand Moore's Law, and were basically clueless about the revolution in integrated circuits that had been going on for the past two decades, and what it meant for the future of computing.  They were finance guys, and not very good ones at that.  What I told the room at the Bravehearts meeting was that to win this war, we needed to outperform the mainframes and the applications that ran there.  We had to bury IBM's Office Vision.  That meant that we had to change our thinking about fragmented packages.  The group calendar and personal information management functions had to be part of the baseline product, along with email.  And, the core architecture had to make it possible to eventually take over the voice messaging function as well.  When we met again a few weeks later, every last element that I had suggested had been added to the baseline specification.  We had definitely picked the right team.

The Exchange roll-out in Boeing was wildly successful.  And once again, I rolled over the the objections of the BCS brass who had decided to go with Notes.  Their decision got reversed when it when out to the two chief architects councils.  We did the right thing.  The first Boeing Exchange server was setup under a table in my office using the beta 1 release, and has been continuously upgraded and expanded from that beginning back in 1995 to this day. 


Unified Communications was next, or so I thought.