Fast Track To The Ground Floor
Interview with Rich Young
One of the hottest companies in Silicon Valley is the SoftBrain Corporation founded by business genuis Rich Young. I interviewed Young at the Hard Disk Cafe, at their San Melvino-di-Burpo headquarters. Over a casual lunch of blackened tofu and garlic meringue pie we discussed SoftBrain's unique position in the industry.
What was SoftBrain's first big product?
We were working on a virtual application architecture for a virtual machine architecture that ran on the Orc 6000. This was back before the PC. We called it the Frank Brain Personal Access Manager or SPAM for short. Initially it was a combination database, report writer and hunt-the-wumpus. And it was very flexible. It wasn't real stable, but it had multi-tasking. You could crash two or three sessions at the same time. But the Orc was really a dog. It had this random interrupt problem that--
A random interrupt problem. It used to crash a lot, rather upredictably. You'd move the mouse and you'd get different results in recalculations. A double click might kill a wumpus or it might bring down the whole system. It was pretty specatular, actually. Random screen patterns. Noise on the speaker. We wrote a little daemon that would continuously check to see if SPAM had crashed and then restart the process where it left off. Half the processor time was spent recovering from crashes before the user noticed anything. The daemon was written in our own language, SoftBrain Pseudo Assembler, known as SPASM, and that ended up being the big seller. It was our fast track to a ground floor opportunity. We never actually sold a single copy of SPAM. Ok, one copy. I gave my Dad a good price, ya know? But without graphics it never caught on. I still think SPAM on X could be pretty hot.
So what happened?
We thought about releasing SPAM as a video game, but the marketing folks were against it. Too much risk of data loss. But then I think about Windows and I think it could have been a big hit. We could all be using a wumpus based operating environment. But we decided against it since there were a lot of technical hurdles to overcome.
We lost the source code.
Sounds like it was a bit ahead of its time.
Oh yeah, plenty. We also had a user input device that was really revolutionary, called a moose. It was bulky, but very accurate. Once you trained the moose to recognize your gestures it was very loyal. Heck, I've got one and I still can't get rid of it, ya know? But it was just too big for use on a typical desk. It required its own desk. Actually, it required its own office. And it kept eating the floppy disks. I think it could make a come back though, maybe with the smell systems. Could be a powerful combination.
Yeah. Say, you're looking at a budget proposal. Is it gonna come up roses or is it horse potatoes? Smell is the most effective way to convey that information. We developed a system called SoftBrain New Olfactory Technology, or SNOT, and it works with all of our applications. e like to call it "scratch 'n sniff for the 90s."
Who else is doing smell-based systems?
Megasoft has announced their system, MUCUS (Megasoft Universal Computer User Smells). But SNOT's running today and MUCUS is just a hack.
What else is in the labs today?
We're developing lots of new technologies. Virtual reality accounting systems. Self-help virus software. Floppy disk dry cleaning systems. Multi-tasking single user mail systems for schizophrenics. Sometimes we're out there on the leading edge for quite some time, just waiting for the customers to realize they have these unsatisfied needs. And sometimes we have to invent the needs too. But what's important is to improve the lives of our users. We think of it as technology for the common man. Democracy in computing. World peace in the office of the future. That sort of thing.
That's very abstract. What sort of products are we talking about?
Very advanced screensavers. We're developing a screensaver based operating system. And we're working with a leading hardware vendor to create a dedicated-purpose screensaver PC. We've also got some work going on in the labs to create new types of machines called PDAs.
You mean Personal Digital Assitants?
What we're working on is Personal Digital Appliances. Everyone's always talking about when computers become appliances. We're actually going to make it happen. Forget computers. We're going to embed Windows on a new breed of consumer electronics. The first one will be a Windows hosted portable capuccino maker. The great thing about it is that after a couple of capuccinos, Windows really starts to fly. It'll be a tremendous producitivty boost for office workers.
What do you think of object-oriented technology?
I think its a start. But things get really interesting when you get to the idea of actor-based systems. Each one is capable of executing a script. Then you have agents that take care of the negotiations. The actors form unions and if they don't like the script, they walk out on the director. If it doesn't catch on for programming, we'll sell it as Sim-Hollywood.
What are the most important lessons you've learned?
You've got to value the work of others, share decision making responsibility, create an environment where good people can make a contribution and beat the tar out of anyone who crosses you.
To what do you attribute your success?
Mostly to having a lot of money.
But what's most important to you?
Well you know, its not the money. You can have money and fly your own plane and buy rolex watches and throw them away rather than reset the time, but that doesn't really mean anything in the long run. I mean, I could be just as happy with $50 million dollars, ya know? You've got to stop and smell the roses. Or if you're too busy at least buy the roses and record them with the smell system.
With all your success, you're not without your critics. In the 1991 biography "Rich Young, Mean and Bossy", Kitty Kelly called you "a lucky dumb bastard." Care to comment?
Luck has nothing to do with it. Ya know?
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