It was 1995 and chat, on the web, was possible. It wasn’t the most elegant solution at the time, but it could be done. I met a few friends that way on a site I can no longer remember.
One day at InfiNet Pete Desnoyers and I were talking about it and we collaborated on a pretty simple web based chat server. He wrote the initial Perl code, and I designed the interface. We called it Talker, and we stuck it online on a Sun workstation that was being underutilized.
Talker was interesting in several ways. It didn’t have a database behind it, we did it on a flat file system. Basically, we created directories and wrote the messages as little text files in the directory. The software would load the most recent messages, and delete the older ones.
It sounds like it would have been crowded but you have to realize that they weren’t coming to chat in the same room. Talker allowed users to create custom chat rooms and they were hidden so unless you knew the room name, you couldn’t find it. There was no directory of chats. Talker was where you and your friends had a private room for whatever you wanted to talk about, and the messages would be there when you got back.
Talker had an easter egg. There was a secret room that was Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Slim’s is the club in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance the twist. We were all fans of the movie, so the room name was fun. But not only that, but when you went into Slim’s you were presented with a new skin on the chat page that I made just for my friends.
We had a lot of good conversations in there.
InfiNet, of course, had no understanding of what they had. They saw Talker as a resource hog where 10k people were coming in a day and the server couldn’t be used for anything else. I tried to point out that it was a perfect spot to sell advertising for, but they thought it wasn’t worth the effort.
Oddly, at one point they had another company offer to rewrite it in a more efficient manner. They showed me the result and it was mundane and boring and had missed one of the major human touches that made Talker stand out. When you spoke, you moved around the room.
It was just a simple thing, but it made the whole thing feel good. When they replaced it with their Python, the humanity was lost and it wasn’t compelling at all. All too often people forget they are designing for others, and not themselves. Little touches can make huge differences.
Eventually Talker was shut down and the name was taken by some other service that wrote something they called Talker.
Talker, and CSotD, were the two things I created that were on one of the other most popular pages on the web at the time, Netscape’s What’s Cool page. I think I was the only one with two things on there.
Netscape contacted me and wanted to help me create a version of Talker where the connection to their browser stayed active and you didn’t have to load a page to keep the chat going. I was really excited about this new technology and what we could do with it. InfiNet, well…
InfiNet only seemed to understand proprietorship. They wouldn’t let me work with Netscape on this because they were afraid that Netscape might hold some sway over anything I created and try to claim ownership.
Yep those Navy boys just had no understanding of open source efforts, or code sharing, or anything like that. They only had eyes on their dollar signs and I couldn’t do it, because this thing we might have created might cause them a fictional money loss.
That was one of those eye opening moments that revealed just how badly the company I worked for didn’t understand the future that was coming and really didn’t want to know. I’ll be writing more on that in a future piece. Some of their decisions were astoundingly misguided.
However, I did get to use Talker technology to make something really cool (that word again) for one of the newspapers I worked with.
Automating a scoreboard and tying it to a webpage wasn’t going to happen in time for the 1995 NCAA Basketball Tournament. I try to never let impossible tasks prevent me from doing them.
So, I created a graphical version of a basketball scoreboard sliced into pieces so that the scores could be changed on the fly. Underneath the scoreboard was a custom version of Talker. The reporter at the events was on a laptop connected via dialup modem. He updated the score as the games progressed as well as added color commentary and interacted with people who were in the chat with him.
I think we pulled it off well.