PLATO and Lotus Notes

The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture (Brian Dear 2017; Pantheon) is strong when it comes to describing the collaboration features of what today we would call a “platform” (it was just a “computer” then!):

Experimental chat programs existed in various time-sharing environments prior to PLATO IV, even including a primitive TALK program on PLATO III. Most followed the line-by-line style of messaging programs that arose in the decades to come, including Unix’s Internet Relay Chat, AOL’s Instant Messenger, Apple’s Messages, Google Chat, and Facebook Messenger. This meant that when you typed in your message to someone, the recipient did not see your message until you were done typing all of it and then sent it. Brown hated this type of typed communication, and was determined to design Talkomatic to exploit PLATO’s Fast Round Trip. The result: character-by-character chat using TUTOR’s “common” function to share one user’s typed message with another. As one user typed some text, the other user saw those text characters appear live, one by one.

What made online consults particularly remarkable was the fact that they took advantage of another new feature the systems staff added. TERM-talk required modifying the system code so that the typed output from one user showed up on another user’s screen, and vice versa. Well, what would happen if you sent all of the output of one user’s screen to the other user’s screen? Today it’s called “screen sharing,” but on PLATO, decades earlier, the feature was known as “monitor mode.” With monitor mode and online PSO consultants, it was possible for a TUTOR programmer to get expert help within seconds.

Perhaps the most significant feature was “notesfiles”:

Over the next three years, Woolley would continue to add features to the Notes program. By far the most notable change occurred in the early winter of 1976, when Woolley announced to the world that he was expanding Notes so that there would no longer be just three “sections” of the program, one for system announcements, one for help notes, and a general notes repository, but, instead, the program was being redesigned so that there could be any number of notesfiles, on any subject imaginable. The Notes program would become the engine that managed and presented these notesfiles, but there could be, and soon would be, thousands of notesfiles, each dedicated to a specific subject.\

They had Facebook and Twitter, essentially, in the early 1970s:

Dave Woolley added a DATA key option that enabled users to go through notes and responses chronologically. Another systems programmer released a special -jumpout- feature that enabled PLATO authors to write their own programs that took advantage of a “cycler” tool that would roll through a given list of notesfiles and only show you what you had not already read. … Rick Blomme then directed John Matheny, another CERL systems programmer, to create a centralized, more efficiently designed, system-supported utility, which got the name “Notesfile Sequencer.” It was an enormous jump forward— another catalyst that not only accelerated a PLATO user’s productivity, saving them enormous amounts of time, but in a way contributed to the general “acceleration” of PLATO users themselves. As the sheer amount of information and conversations kept growing, users could not keep up, and needed new tools to help them cope. With the Sequencer, users could create a personal list of favorite, must-read notesfiles, be it five or five hundred long, and the Sequencer would then automatically step through every single notesfile and only show the user those notes and responses the user had not yet seen.

Consider the impact of another PLATO system feature, Access Lists, on the online community. Access Lists were customizable lists of users for whom access should or should not be granted or restricted to some file on the system. The notion of access control had been around forever— starting with passwords on files to protect who could view or edit a file. Every time-sharing computer system had to deal with security features like these; PLATO was no different. With the explosion of new notesfiles on PLATO in 1976, it was possible to designate one or more “directors” of a notesfile, as well as who had and who didn’t have read/ write, read-only, or even write-only access to it (= psonotes = would be write-only to all users except the PSO staff, and served as a place to privately ask a question or report a concern to the PSO consultants). That led to a general-purpose Access List facility that could even be applied to a TUTOR lesson. A file’s owner could specify custom definitions of access, which might have special relevance for that file only.

The author doesn’t over-sell this, though:

Woolley argues that the center of the universe in PLATO was the “what”— be it a game, a lesson, a notesfile on a certain subject, or whatever. Present-day social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook are completely different, having architectures entirely focused on the “who”— you as user are the center of the universe for these services. You can “friend” or “follow” other people, and the system will keep track of them and aggregate their status updates on your “feed.” PLATO did not have social networking tools like friending, following, sharing, or likes.

Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes, was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois and worked as a PLATO programmer.

Ozzie was by now [1980s] keen on doing his own new program relating to online collaboration among teams, which he initially called “MX,” the ideas of which had been floating around for a while but were now beginning to dominate his focus. MX eventually got a new code name, “Echo,” only to eventually get another, “Notes,” named intentionally after PLATO Notes. Ozzie wanted to take the ideas he had seen work so well on PLATO— tools for team collaboration and productivity— and bring them to the workplace, where it was abundantly clear by the mid-1980s that workplaces everywhere were going to be filled with networked PCs.

Lotus Notes, the official name of the product when it finally shipped, offered email, calendaring and scheduling, an address book, access lists, document commenting, online forums, anonymous notes, the equivalent of a Notesfile Sequencer, a database, and programming tools to build custom applications within the Notes environment. The Iris team took a pile of PLATO ideas they’d lived and breathed at CERL and transferred them into a Microsoft Windows environment for the PC. But however impressive the final product, it was the kind of tool that required an entire organization to be trained on and commit to— it didn’t work if only small clusters of employees used it. That meant an entire organization had to change their behavior and reengineer itself in order to fully exploit Notes’s features. Lotus decided that even though the product was for workgroups, it was not going to work well for small workgroups— who would install it? Who would administer it? No, it was better suited for an enterprise. To make that abundantly clear to the marketplace, the company set the starting price for the product at $ 64,000. Their first customer was Price Waterhouse, who were so impressed with the product they ordered a historic ten-thousand-user license, the largest single order for a software program in the computer industry up to that time. Other corporations soon followed with their own orders.

Ozzie’s little company was purchased by Lotus for $84 million in 1994 and then Lotus was purchased by IBM in 1995 for $3.2 billion. Eventually more than 120 million people would use Lotus Notes.

More: Read The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture

6 thoughts on “PLATO and Lotus Notes

  1. > Eventually more than 120 million people would use Lotus Notes.

    Correction, should read: “120 million corporate employees were forced to endure Lotus Notes over their kicking+screaming objections”. If you’ve had the pleasure of using it, you’ll know what I mean.

  2. Too bad the USSR did not know about the “Facebook” of 1970’s otherwise we would have had a Russian president in the White House by now and today’s Facebook’s default language would have been in Russian.

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