Brushes with fame, how I (barely) missed Steven Sinofsky, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs visits to a wired, well-connected Cornell University

Posted by Paul Braren on Nov 12 2012 (updated on Mar 9 2013) in
  • Windows
  • Wired Cornell:

    “When Sinofsky started talking about the phenomenon he’d seen at Cornell ... it caught my attention.” Bill Gates

    Today, just a couple of hours ago, we learned Steven Sinofsky has left Microsoft:

    Windows head Steven Sinofsky leaves Microsoft - The Verge
    Less Than a Month After Launch, Windows 8 Head Steve Sinofsky Departs Microsoft - ABC
    WINDOWS BOSS STEVEN SINOFSKY OUT AT MICROSOFT - Business Insider

    It's a bit surprising, even given his apparently difficult ways. Why? Well, there were so many articles about him being the Heir Apparent that appeared throughout 2012, including this particular article: Meet the Next CEO of Microsoft: Steven Sinofsky Is the Heir Apparent, Business Insider. Part of the related story really grabbed me tonight. I remember hearing about this legendary Sinofsky visit:

    In 1994, on a visit back to his alma mater, Sinofsky was stuck at Cornell during a snowstorm. While he was there, he saw how Cornell was taking advantage of the Internet with email for undergraduates and online course listings. He dashed off an email to Gates with the subject line “Cornell is WIRED!” emphasizing how important the Internet was becoming. Sinofsky’s email kicked off a chain of events that eventually led Bill Gates to write his famous “Internet Tidal Wave” memo in 1995. That memo caused every Microsoft product group to start building Internet connections into their products and paved the way for Internet Explorer to be bundled into Windows, kicking off the consumer Internet revolution.

    The reason this excerpt is of particular interest to me is that I was actually at Cornell University during that amazing era, 1989 to 1994. I was just starting my IT career in 1993, and wasn't in on Sinofsky's visit in early 1994, on the other side of campus. Yes, I didn't even hear about the visit. I was a worker bee, busy working in the Cornell Information Technologies department, helping get students online using Cornell's unique in house "Bear Access" for POP email, course catalogs, Usenet newsgroups, and anything that else that ran over TCP/IP. We were pioneers, using Sportster modems for off-campus access, and mostly 10Base-T on campus.

    My focus was DOS and Windows users. So I guess you could say I helped smooth the rapid build out and adoption of networked DOS and Windows based PCs. Helping Cornell get "WIRED", as Sinofsky described it. An admittedly small role, but certainly a fun way to start a career in IT. I had a fat pipe to the Internet myself at work, and remember the moment well, when a colleague a few feet away stumbled upon Mosaic, the first web browser, with a graphical interface. We knew that was the way to go.

    It was an amazing era, being at the forefront of something we knew was big. Those were the wild west days of the early Internet. Kind of got that same feeling again, watching those wonderful scenes in "The Social Network."

    CU-SeeMeAndGoogleHangout

    Was I using Windows 3.1 much myself? Yeah, but it wasn't able to multitask while networked. So I was also testing CUSeeMe group chat software on NT betas, and OS/2, the master multi-tasker of its time. We were able to use group video chat, in black and white, but with audio, over dial-up! Flash forward to today, and anybody can do group chat in glorious color, from 36,000 feet:
    TinkerTry.com/google-hangout-testing
    TinkerTry.com/rrpg

    Turns out Cornell's important role in computing history was intertwined with Apple/NeXT as well. Steve Jobs visited the spectacularly beautiful Ithaca NY campus in February 1989, and I moved to Ithaca in August of that same year.

    More fun articles about those days:

    Steve Jobs visit to Cornell, February 1989
    www.macgui.com/usenet/?group=96&start=8177&id=1432

    Oral and Personal Histories of Computing at Cornell, Larry Fresinski, Recollections, 1969 - 1996:
    www2.cit.cornell.edu/computer/history/Fresinski.html

    Steve Jobs comes to campus and does a tremendous dog and pony show. We have pictures of the NEXT cube which apparently followed the IBM-like logo since it was done by the same people and that's why it had the same kind of characteristics, signed by Steve Jobs. I think we ultimately gave that picture to Cornell's Johnson Museum to be hung there since it obviously had some value. We had the single largest installation of NEXT machines in Upson Hall...

    So it was in August of 1994 that I returned back to settle down in my hometown in central Connecticut, to a new job training corporate resellers on the merits of OS/2 and networking. I look back on that era now, realizing how fortunate I was, and finding new joy in recounting these tales. And now, back to the future, which I've always been quite fond of.


    Mar 09 2013 Update: Cool little bit of reminiscing by Robert Scoble and Leo Laporte at this spot on This Week In Tech 404, where they actually talk about CUSeeMe for a bit!