I was surprised and delighted to come across a White Paper called “The Camelot of Collaboration” that documents the use of a now-forgotten technology called VAX Notes within the late-lamented Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC).
Collaboration comes naturally to many today given information presented on blogs, social networking sites such as Facebook, the stream of updates from Twitter, and the wide array of web sites maintained by corporations and individuals to publicize products and causes. In fact, we live in a world where information is available in a bewildering number of sources, should we feel the need to go looking. As always, the problem is to separate out the good information from the misleading, something that has existed since man first started to publish.
But going back into the world of the 1980s, information was not so easy to obtain. Sure, we had books and magazines to read, but the thought of being able to get immediate up-to-date information that could help to resolve a problem just did not exist. Except, of course, inside DEC, where VAX Notes, a collaboration technology made information available to employees around the world as long as they could get to their faithful video terminal and connect to DEC’s internal network (DECnet).
As the white paper tells, in August 1989, some 10,355 VAX Notes conferences were active inside DEC, 390 of which were dedicated to employee interests such as “Good restaurants in the South of France”. But the majority of traffic went into the 9,965 conferences set up to discuss matters relating to DEC technology, such as the inner workings of VAX/VMS, how to best configure TCP/IP services for VAX/VMS, or even how to connect PCs and Macintoshes to VAX servers. The best thing about VAX Notes was the way that the people who engineered products would respond to questions that arose in the field, meaning that someone working in Hong Kong who encountered a problem with a product could ask a question in the appropriate conference at the end of their working day with a real expectation that the question would be answered by engineering in the U.S. by the time they came into work the next day. And if engineering couldn’t answer, some other DEC employee probably would.
None of this seems earth-shattering now, but considering that all of this happened when telephone calls were expensive, the Internet was a loose collection of academic systems connected by dial-up modems, browsers had not yet appeared, and email was restricted to people who required a business reason to be assigned a mailbox. It’s just awesome how far we have come since 1989 and how advanced VAX Notes was at the time.
I have a special reason for remembering VAX Notes in 1989 because I was the project leader for the work done to integrate VAX Notes with ALL-IN-1 Version 2.4 in that period (John Rhoton, who has since gone on to become a well-respected cloud computing strategist, wrote a lot of the code to integrate the two products). Most of the work was done in DEC’s European Technical Center in Sophia-Antipolis, France or the European Office Engineering Team in Turin, Italy and then integrated with the rest of ALL-IN-1 in DEC Park Reading, England. I enjoyed this project enormously because it brought the best internal collaboration tool that DEC could offer to a much wider audience outside the company. Regretfully, neither the native version of VAX Notes nor the integration with ALL-IN-1 really took off outside DEC. I don’t think this was the fault of the technology, but rather that a collaborative ethos did not exist inside other companies in the same way that it did inside DEC.
Another interesting comment from the white paper was that the effect of Windows and Microsoft technology and the growth of the web eventually “gutted the technology infrastructure for collaboration”. Looking back, I think this statement is too strong. A poor PC client for VAX Notes certainly contributed to its demise as more users moved to Windows, but it’s also true that the web offered other sources of information that were became more important as customers moved from proprietary technology to more general standards (think of the transition from DECnet to TCP/IP). In addition, within DEC, there was also the wider use of some other collaborative technology such as email distribution lists and even Exchange public folders (DEC eventually had tens of thousands of public folders, many of which were used for short periods and then left to linger in the public folder hierarchy). Some VAX Notes conferences still persist, not least those offered with a web interface by the Encompass U.S chapter, part of the HP users group, at http://encompasserve.org/anon/htnotes/.
Len Kawell wrote Notes-11 (his LinkedIn profile says that this work was done “in his spare time”) and later worked with Ray Ozzie on Lotus Notes. Notes-11 was then taken on by Benn Schreiber and Peter Gilbert as a “skunk works” project within DEC Central Engineering and resulted in VAX Notes. After the first version of VAX Notes was complete, Benn Schreiber moved to the DECwest group in Seattle to work on the famous PRISM project with Dave Cutler. DEC eventually canned PRISM, Cutler moved to Microsoft (where he is now a Senior Technical Fellow) to create Windows NT, and the rest is history.
The early versions of Lotus Notes traced a direct connection to VAX Notes in not only the name. Think of databases being equivalent to conferences and you see what I mean. Of course, Lotus Domino is much different now than it was in the early days, but a link can still be traced back to VAX Notes in its technical ancestry.
Collaboration was just one of the aspects that made it great to work at DEC in its heyday. It’s just such a pity that DEC came to the end that it did, largely due to some poor strategic decisions by management as well as some “interesting” bets on technical direction. As always, hindsight is everything…
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