TERRY MURDEN reviews The Web Before The Web, by Ian Ritchie
Long before Gareth Williams, Nigel Eccles and Mike Welch, the instigators of Skyscanner, Fanduel and Blackcircles, became synonymous with Scotland’s tech sector there was one man who could justifiably be regarded as its godfather. Ian Ritchie is not only a veteran of more than 50 start-ups, he was there at the beginning of the personal computer and the internet, helping pioneer the technology that underpins the systems, network and devices that nowadays we all take for granted.
The Web Before The Web is a fascinating account that straddles his early years in the 1970s as a software engineer for ICL at its research base at Dalkeith Palace through to the sale of his business to the giant Mastushita corporation of Japan two decades later.
Ritchie is that rare individual who has combined a deep expertise in software with a bold willingness to look ahead to the next big idea, and a crucial grasp of the commercial demands that can turn an idea into a successful business. As such, this is a tale of how computing changed the world, but also a journey that is rich with personal anecdotes, lessons hard-learned, and experiences he could not have anticipated.
Along the way he recalls his first meeting with Tim Berners-Lee who tells him about “a project he has been working on”. There followed a number of other meetings with the man credited with inventing the WorldWideWeb which he envisages “ultimately being used by almost everybody”. Ritchie admits that, at the time, “I thought this to be a rather ambitious goal”.
Berners-Lee had been drawn to Ritchie’s involvement in the development of hypertext, the technology that sits behind most internet-based transactions. It was an idea which had its roots in the work of a Kent-based academic who was to become one of many players, mainly in the UK and USA who would play a significant role in the evolving landscape of personal computing.
Dismissed in its early days as something that would be limited to office secretaries, the creation and universal adoption of the PC was the driver for Ritchie who reached out to the likes of Bill Gates, then running a modestly-sized business called Microsoft, to secure business for his Edinburgh-based start-up, Office Workstations Ltd (OWL).
Building on the work of the Canterbury academic Peter Brown and a Pittsburgh-based company’s work on graphic interfaces, OWL developed a hypertext product called Guide which caught the attention of another growth business, Apple. At a MacWorld trade show in San Francisco he witnessed the comedian Robin Williams turn on his magic to deliver a Guide version of a Robert Burns poem, complete with pop-up translations of Scots words.
“That kind of endorsement you just can’t buy”, says Ritchie, noting that by the end of the first day of the convention, Guide was in the top ten best-selling Mac software packages.
While celebrity endorsements added dollars to the balance sheet, it was the engineers in Scotland and the salesmen in the US who transformed the company, and like all companies there was a fair share of personal casualties along the way including a finance officer who was fired for stealing, and a Scot who had been a rock band roadie and a key player in the early days of Microsoft before joining Ritchie’s firm and later falling from grace.
Negotiating with overseas companies included one case of subterfuge and a regular need to be aware of how to survive in the US technology world. “Expect everyone to try and screw you, particularly the larger corporations, and you won’t be disappointed,” he says.
Likewise, he learned the hard way when dealing with shareholders, and concludes: “You must love your investors, even when they are a pain in the neck”.
Throughout the ups and downs, which included a “fish catching” experience as part of a night entertaining Japanese businessmen, and an intriguing tale involving the codebreaker Alan Turing and buried silver, Ritchie’s determination to succeed is apparent.
As he says: “No one had built this kind of technology before, but we were pretty confident that we could invent the future of online engineering publishing, and indeed we did”.
This is a richly entertaining read that will appeal to anyone interested in the growth of the tech sector and the deal-making process.
The Web Before The Web, by Ian Ritchie, is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback versions