Thirty (yes, 30!!) years of OmniGroup.com, 100 Episodes of the Omni Show, AND the 5th anniversary of this podcast? We try to contain our excitement as we reminisce with Ken Case. Various guests from past Omni Show episodes also send their greetings.
In this episode, Ken and Andrew time-travel to 1992...when it took all morning (and 35 floppy disks) to install an OS, Steve Jobs was at NeXT, and the internet was limited only by our imagination (and corresponding modem speeds).
While many things have changed over the last 30 years, at least one thing's been constant: our love of creating great tools that make people more productive.
Here's to you — our community — and here's to another 30 amazing years.
Some other people, places, and things mentioned:
Colter Reed: Hi, this is Colter Reed from episode 81 of The Omni Show. Congratulations Ken and company on 30 years of making some amazing products. We love what you do, we love what you enable us to do, and we are so glad that you're just getting started.
Andrew J. Mason: Hey there everyone, and welcome to our 100th episode of The Omni Show. Oh, hold on. And now there's confetti all over me. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and if you're just joining us, you could not have picked a better episode, so stick around. And that fun intro from Colter Reed and our intro music was just a little bit different, because this is a little bit different of an episode. We do have a few other guests from past shows checking in, just like Colter. And I don't know about you, but life moves so fast these days. It's important to really take a few minutes to reflect on how did we get here? And so what better way to celebrate you, our listeners, than to invite the man who's seen the entire journey thus far to join us. Ken Case is in the house today. Ken, thank you so much for joining us.
Ken Case: Oh, thank you. Good to see you, Andrew.
Andrew J. Mason: And sorry about the confetti. Well, it turns out that the 100th episode is also aligned with what happens to be the 30th anniversary of something really, really special. Why don't you share about that event?
Ken Case: Well, sure. Let me first of all say thank you for having me here, and I guess to all of our listeners for inviting us into their lives as part of this conversation. The event, of course, that you're alluding to is that we registered omnigroup.com 30 years ago, and that was really the moment at which we decided that was our identity as a group of people. We were The Omni Group.
Andrew J. Mason: I love that, because there's this moment of solidification. This is who we are, even if the roles change over time, this is who we are in name. And do you mind DeLorean time traveling with me back about 30 years, and just set the stage. What was happening for you guys at that time? How did you end up where you are? Because this has been a journey, and there's been a lot of people kind of jumping on board the time machine as we've been traveling, so maybe not everybody knows this story.
Ken Case: Sure. Well, maybe just set the stage a little bit. In 1992, most computers were not yet on the internet, or at least not full time. Maybe they were exchanging email with the internet, or you'd connect up briefly, but most people didn't connect up that often because they didn't have anything to connect to. We didn't have the World Wide Web yet, or I should say we did on the NeXT platform, but nobody else did, and there were not a lot of people using it, even on the NeXT. You'd play around, and oh, that's kind of neat, and then like, okay, now I'll go back to my FTP client or my Gopher client, because that actually had content that other platforms could share with you and so on.
Ken Case: So when we registered this domain, it was primarily for email, maybe for hosting an FTP site where people could download our software, and there was no www.omnigroup.com. But I do think it's useful to talk a little bit about that past, just because so much has changed, and yet some of our core identity, I guess, as a company is still really very much the same. And I think it's interesting to see that identity go through all of those changes, but that's easier to do if you understand what the changes were and what was different.
Andrew J. Mason: That's a great distinction about what changed versus what hasn't changed. And I want to ask a question about that. But first, I have somebody else that wants to check in.
William Gallagher: 30 years. You mean there was a time before Omni? Congratulations, Ken. Congratulations, Omni. I'm William Gallagher from episode 81, and I would not be doing all the things I'm doing, all the things I'm loving doing, if it weren't for OmniFocus.
Andrew J. Mason: William is so great. So do you mind pulling that apart? What really has changed in the last 30 years, and what has remained the same for you guys?
Ken Case: Yeah, I was thinking about this question a little bit just because we were approaching this anniversary. And I was reminded of this poster that NeXT put up, and I think they also had it in their magazines and so on, around what they thought the breakthroughs would be in computing over the next decade, over the '90s. And so their poster said, in the '90s, I've actually got it right here, went down to the garage and pulled it out. In the '90s, we'll probably see only 10 real breakthroughs in computers. Here are seven of them. So what were some of these breakthroughs that they were talking about? Well, the first one was they're saying the NeXT computer is the first computer in the world to use read write erasable optical storage. And so at that time, most computers weren't using CD-ROMs yet. That didn't come out for a few more years later into the '90s.
Ken Case: And even then, they weren't using rewriteable CDs or optical media. They were mostly using like 20 megabyte or 40 megabyte hard drives. So just the amount you could store on a computer at that time was very, very different from now. And of course, we were using much slower network connections as well, so it's not like you could go access that information from somebody else's computer instead. So there was no way to create something like this podcast, because there's too much data. You couldn't fit in on your tiny hard drive. If you could, well, how are you going to get it to everybody else? They couldn't transport over their slow 19K modems, and so on. If you were lucky, a lot of people were probably still on 4800 baud modems or something. Maybe even 2400.
Andrew J. Mason: Yeah, super slow.
Ken Case: So in that time, we didn't have always-on internet connections. E-commerce really kind of meant mail order over email, if you connect to things. But more people were still doing business over the telephone instead or using actual mail order with physical letters being sent around. So it's in that context that we started our company, started building software, and software is still being delivered on floppy disks in a lot of cases. Because again, you don't have CD-ROMs yet standardized, and you're not downloading it, generally.
Andrew J. Mason: Oh my gosh. We're so spoiled because I forget how long stuff used to take. You would pop a floppy in and then get some coffee or take a shower, or just something where you come back and say, "Is it done yet?"
Ken Case: Yeah, I'm trying to remember now how many floppies the new NeXT operating system came on, when we upgraded from 1.0 to 2.0.
Andrew J. Mason: Yes. And the giant packets, where it's like 17 of 35.
Ken Case: It was just this collection of floppies you had to put in one at a time and then eject, and put the next one in. I mean, we did have these optical discs on the NeXTcubes, but then NeXT decided that was actually impractical. It was too expensive, and they made their cheaper NeXT stations, which only had floppy drives in them. So we went back to the smaller media there for a while.
Tim Stringer: This is Tim Stringer from Learn OmniFocus. To everyone at Omni, congratulations on your 30th anniversary, and many thanks for helping me and many other people around the world live fulfilling and productive lives.
Andrew J. Mason: Okay, so this is really interesting, but where did you find yourself in all of this?
Ken Case: So in that context, some of my background was coming from the university world and these larger, I wouldn't say I was on mainframe computers, I was mostly on back size computers, which are many computers of that era. And many computers being computers shared among maybe dozens or a hundred people, as opposed to the mainframes that were shared among hundreds or thousands of people. And so in the university environment, a lot of those computers actually were on the internet and was always live, and kind of getting spoiled, so that was the environment that I really wanted to work with. And NeXT, as they were bringing this stuff over, point two here was that NeXT made the power of Unix accessible to mortals on their list of seven innovations. They built this computer system. Steve Jobs referred to it as an interpersonal computer, rather than a personal computer.
Ken Case: So he felt like the Macintosh that he'd introduced at Apple was the personal computer. And then NeXT was, well, his words were the first computer designed from scratch to be an interpersonal computer. So it had that, it had built in audio, which most computers, again, because they didn't have that much storage, they didn't necessarily have great sound cards built in or anything else. They would play the old computer audio that you might think of from Nintendos of the '80s. You wouldn't hear somebody's voice. And so when you plugged in your NeXT and you launched it and you had email already set up, you had a message in there from Steve Jobs, and it had a little audio attachment that had him talking to you and welcoming you to the NeXT world. That was really kind an amazing moment.
Steve Jobs: Hi, this is Steve Jobs. I want to welcome you to the NeXT world. We think you're going to love this computer. It's got the most advanced applications of any computer shipping today, and it's the first computer designed from scratch to be an interpersonal computer.
Ken Case: But it really spoke to us, because I had worked in computing and communications at the University of Washington, and communications over the internet was kind of a big part of my focus from developing Relay for BITNET, which was sort of the predecessor to what became the Internet Relay Chat, IRC. And also writing like a simple bulletin board software where students could exchange notes with each other or with faculty members and so on. So you could post things that everybody else there at the university could see and start developing rooms and so on. So this notion of using computers as a communication tool to work with each other and collaborate with each other was really kind of a big focus for us. In fact, one of the first apps we built for the NeXT as a team was Will wrote a newsreader for NEWSnet new, which was kind of like a worldwide bulletin board, where everybody would share these posts, and they would go around the world slowly, sometimes over dial-up. Sometimes it wouldn't get there for many days to get to the other end of NEWSnet and back.
Ken Case: But yeah, this then just started building other tools as a company that would help people leverage the platform and communicate with others from tools for viewing other images. There weren't standard image formats yet. NeXT used PostScript and TIF files, but some other computers were using GIF files or GIF files, I guess the [inaudible 00:09:53]. And so we wrote the tools that could actually view those image formats on the NeXT, that everybody started using. And that was kind of how we got to know a bunch of the rest of the community, as well as hosting some of the big mailing lists around the community, like the NeXT programmers mailing list. If you wanted to develop for the platform, then you would sign up for next-prog at omnigroup.com, and start exchanging email and learning how things work.
Kourosh Dini: Hey, this is Kourosh Dini from episode 65 of The Omni Show, and lover of all things Omni. I understand it's the 30th anniversary of the registration of omnigroup.com and the 100th episode of The Omni Show. I just wanted to say congratulations to everyone at The Omni Group. You guys rock. The dedication and detail you put into your apps is just fantastic, so thank you.
Andrew J. Mason: Ken. I've always wondered too, what would you have created, or let me say it this way. What software didn't you create that you've always wanted to?
Ken Case: There's so many. We've always been interested in a lot of different productivity apps and different directions. We've also been interested in more recreational apps, communication apps. Obviously, we built a web browser at one point. I wish that we'd had time to keep more up to date. That would've been fun. But in terms of an app that we never built and never shipped and that I feel like I still miss today, it would be a good native communications app, like the stuff that we used to build for the bulletin board that we wrote, or the Relay software that we wrote for interactive communication. Something that is in that space of really letting lots of people communicate with each other and keep track of the threads and so on. But with leveraging the native capabilities of the computer, not just least common denominator, the way most of those things are now, because they're generally web-based.
Thomas Vander Wal: Congratulations, Ken, on episode 100 of The Omni Show, and 30 years of the omnigroup.com. This is Thomas Vander Wal from episode 77, and an avid user of OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle for coming on 20 years.
Andrew J. Mason: Let me circle back around, because we took a left turn with that counterfactual question about what software you would've developed, but you haven't. We talked about what's changed in the external environment. What hasn't changed for you over these last 30 years?
Ken Case: For us, we're doing this so that we can make people more productive. We can help them just enjoy their computing experience more. They can use these as tools, as the bicycle of the mind, is how Steve Jobs used to put it. And that it's a great, there's still some of the most fun tools to work with, and help you get a lot done in the process. So you can both have fun and get a lot done, and that's always kind of been two of our touchpoints, is that we wanted to make great software that helps people be productive, but also that they can enjoy using and you can have fun along the way. And hopefully we can have fun building it.
Jimmy: Hey there, this is Jimmy from episode 84 of The Omni Show. Happy 30th birthday, Omni Group, and thanks for helping me keep my (beep) together since 2007.
Andrew J. Mason: Anything else over these 30 years that just checks that timeless box for you?
Ken Case: Well, one of the biggest things, I guess, would be this notion of community and really wanting to help bring people together, and also make them more productive, which is also the reason that we started this podcast five years ago. This is also the five year anniversary of the podcast.
Andrew J. Mason: What? I had no idea.
Ken Case: Yeah. We started the podcast, partially in the aftermath of Macworld Expo shutting down, because that had been a place where we would have this community where we'd go physically to a centralized location while everybody else is going there too, and we'd get a chance to meet other developers, to meet our customers, most importantly, and for them to meet us. And that ended in, I think the last Macworld Expo was in March of 2014. And so in 2017, as we were looking at starting this show, that was kind of one thing, at least it was on my mind. Let's find a way to help reintroduce ourselves to our customers so that they can feel like there's another person on the other side of that screen, and it's not just some keyboard that you're interacting with, or device that you're touching.
David Sparks: Hey, this is David Sparks from Episode 67. I just wanted to say congratulations to the Omni Group for episode 100. And also congratulations to Ken Case and the crew over at the Omni Group for continuing to make some of the very best software. I love your stuff and use it every day. Keep up the great work gang.
Andrew J. Mason: Well, Ken, I'm honored to be a part of this story and a part of this podcast. Did you have anything you wanted to share with our audience?
Ken Case: Well, I just want to say thank you to everyone who's listening, everyone who's ever used our software, especially those who have reached out to us and told us your stories, because that, as I've mentioned earlier, that's what keeps us going. Really enjoy hearing from you how our work might make a difference in your lives.
Andrew J. Mason: Well said, Ken. I couldn't have said it better. Thanks for joining us.
Ken Case: Thank you.
Andrew J. Mason: Hey, and thank all of you for listening today too. As always, you can drop us a line at The Omni Show on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you there. You can also find out everything that's happening with The Omni Group at omnigroup.com/blog.