San Francisco

Monday morning, I headed into the Mission district. With an hour to kill, I walked past El Pollo Loco and the Carlos Club (“commuters welcome”), to the Café La Bohème, one of my old haunts. I threaded my way through the couches and tables with derelicts playing chess to get a cup of coffee.

In the corner of the cafe, I spotted something new. There was a computer terminal with a sign saying “SF Net” and a message on the screen indicating I should inquire at the counter. I paid a dollar and received a ticket with a code on the back that entitled me to fifteen minutes.

SF Net had the usual PC-based access, but decided to add bullet-proofed terminals in places like La Bohème and the Brain Wash, a combination Laundromat, diner, and bar. The terminals had a screen built under a glass table top and the keyboard was covered with plastic.

This was your basic BBS, but with a California twist. After entering the code for time, you were asked for a handle. I chose “Carl.” You could then chat with online users, post messages to bulletin boards, send mail, or even buy and sell used CDs.

Aside from the obligatory Love Chat, a digital singles bar, SF Net boasted a large Metaphysics and Astrology area. Messages from people like Spud Muffin and Venus Anemone examined the relative merits of Jupiter and Mars to our daily lives.

Image Finishing my coffee, I walked through the Mission, past a man piling whole butchered hogs into the back seat of his station wagon, and cut over to 23rd street to Brewster Kahle’s gingerbread Victorian house. Brewster was the architect of the CPU of the Thinking Machines' CM2, one of the most innovative computers on the market. He was also a former member of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, home of Marvin Minsky.

After delving into the arcana of message-passing protocols for massively parallel processors, Brewster turned his attention to the much more difficult problem of finding and using information on networks. The result was the Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS).

The living room of Brewster’s house was packed full of books on subjects ranging from the works of Goya to those of Marvin Minsky. This was not surprising, since Brewster viewed himself as a publisher and WAIS as the ultimate publishing platform.

WAIS has three pieces. A server has documents and makes them available to the world, perhaps for free and perhaps charging for access. A client gets these documents from one or many servers. Clients and servers communicate using an enhanced version of the Z39.50 protocol, originally developed to search online card catalogs.

Brewster ushered me into his office, where he sat down on a beat-up old easy chair and balanced a keyboard on his lap. The screen and rollerball mouse were conveniently nearby, making this a highly comfortable work or play station.

There was no need to start up his WAIS client since it was already up and running. Deployed for only a few months on the Internet, WAIS was quickly becoming a part of people’s routines, and had certainly been integrated into Brewster’s daily work.

Brewster typed in a query: “Is there any information about Biology?” The query was sent, in its entirety, to the server of servers that Brewster maintained, Servers of servers were no different than document servers, they simply kept a list of other servers and a description of the information they maintained.

We got back a list of servers throughout the world that had information on biology, such as a database of 981 metabolic intermediate compounds maintained in the Netherlands. At this point, we refined our query and sent it out to many servers simply by pointing to them on the screen. Servers returned lists of document descriptions; pointing to those documents retrieved the full text.

WAIS makes very few assumptions about servers or clients. In our query, we used natural English. The server has indexed documents by keyword and parsed our query to form the lookup. There is no requirement that a WAIS server handle natural English, it can simply take keywords, SQL queries, and even do fuzzy matches to correct for poor spelling.

The documents stored in the server can also vary. They can be simple ASCII text, as in the case of things like the RFCs. Or, the documents can be in the Macintosh PICT format, PostScript, or might even be some virtual document, dynamically generated from a database at query time.

Likewise, the clients can range from simple to complex. At the most basic, the client used Telnet and VT100 emulation, an interface known as simple WAIS (SWAIS). Clients can be much more intelligent. On a Macintosh or NeXT, complex queries on multiple servers can be monitored in a simple intuitive manner. Queries can be saved and periodically re-executed, allowing updates to information to be periodically generated.

Most users of WAIS use a Macintosh interface called WAIStation, not surprising since Apple worked with Thinking Machines on the initial prototype of the system that was tested at Peat Marwick.

WAIStation uses two metaphors to structure the user interface: storage in folders and searching as a conversation. You started a search by asking a question. You get back document descriptions, and those results are used to refine the query. Eventually, the query returns the information the user wants. The query can then be stored in a folder where it can be pulled up later and re-executed.

Queries in WAIStation can also be passed by looking for documents “similar to” those already found. The conversation thus consists of asking for documents by a query or by example and pointing to one or more servers. Servers can be remote, or can be local document stores such as the entire hard disk or a folder containing all e-mail ever sent or received by the client.

WAIS, with over 10,000 users in 24 countries by the end of 1991, requires, for decent performance, at least a 9,600 bps connection into the network. A local WAIS environment can easily be put together using Ethernet, either as an alternative or a supplement to the Internet-based servers, useful in places where Internet connectivity had not yet achieved the necessary bandwidth.

When I talked to Brewster, he was working with Apple’s Advanced Technology Group on an even fancier interface called Rosebud, named after the sled in Citizen Kane. Rosebud would use a newsroom metaphor for the user interface.

Users would give assignments to reporters, a process like the WAIStation query dispatch. Different reporters can specialize in different assignments. The user would then look at the results from a “newspaper” window, which would show the documents recovered by different reporters. Reporters can be instructed to re-execute their tasks on a periodic basis, allowing the newspaper to be dynamic.

Several other client interfaces also exist. NeXT would be shipping one with every workstation. XWAIS uses the X Window System and was similar to the WAIStation. Other interfaces are available for GNU Emacs and DOS platforms.

The number of WAIS servers that had emerged in a few months on the Internet was truly incredible. It started with a couple of databases from Thinking Machines, holding things like manuals and bug reports. Thinking Machines also uses WAIS as a corporate information system and even saved all messages from all mailing lists for future queries.

Other databases that had emerged ranged from CERT advisories to weather maps to archives of USENET bulletin boards to the entire text of the Koran, the Bible, and the Book of Mormon. Three cookbooks, a huge poetry database, Supreme Court opinions, and even the CIA’s World Factbook were online.

Between June 1991 and the end of the year, WAIS spread to include over 160 databases in 8 countries, including (of course) Finland, Norway, and Australia. Brewster described WAIS as “uncontrolled and uncontrollable,” as any good service should be. For example, Finland had started keeping a server of servers and soon it might be necessary to dispatch queries looking for servers to several different places.

Brewster’s goal was to enable anybody with a computer, even a lowly PC, to become a publisher. The first PC-based WAIS server had recently gone online, running in somebody’s basement, and Brewster was quite excited by the prospect.

Brewster’s interest in publishing was personal as well as professional. His fiancée ran a printing museum and in the basement was an old printing press. For entertainment, friends went downstairs and made calling cards. The only requirement was that they leave one on the wall. Cards from people like John Quarterman and Michael Schwartz adorned the walls of the basement.

After a Salvadorean lunch of pupusas and empanadas, I bid Brewster goodbye and went down to the South Bay to thank Sun Labs for the use of their machines and inform them of the ITU’s imminent assassination of Bruno.