Scripting News for 3/12/2007

An untold story of UserLand 

What a long story, and today I can tell a piece of it that has had to remain under wraps for the last year or so.

First, a summary of how UserLand came to be.

In 1988, I had an idea for scripting software on the Macintosh.

I loved the Mac for its graphic ease of use, but I missed the user-level programmability of Unix, and felt that combining the two would yield great results. I wanted to turn applications into toolkits, to let you combine a word processor and database with an outliner and a spreadsheet to make an integrated app that’s customized to how you or your organization works.

Technically, the idea worked, but as a product it failed. By 1993, I was ready to move on, so I did, I left UserLand and later in 1994, discovered the wonders of the web, and I wanted to figure out how to use it as a communication system for people. In 1995 or 1996 I got a prophetic email from Mason Hale, who had discovered Frontier and thought it would make a wonderful environment for CGI scripting. He was right, but I came to wish I had never gotten that email. Seriously.

I revived UserLand, without cleaning it up at a corporate level. I poured money and time into it again, and the results were pretty fantastic. News sites became weblogs. Cross-platform inter-application communication became XML-RPC and then SOAP. XML syndication became My.UserLand and RSS. Edit This Page became Manila. Lots of innovation, but the company went through two boom cycles and never participated in the bonanza. Looking back, there are a lot of reasons for it, and one of them was that I should have taken the time to get a fresh start in the mid-90s, and I didn’t do it it.

Finally in 2002, at age 47, after struggling through the release of Radio 8, I collapsed physically, was lucky to have survived, and as I recuperated from major heart surgery, I decided to quit UserLand, to leave behind all possible upside, just walk away from it, glad to have gotten away with my life. Once again, I made the same mistake. I should have hired a new attorney to document the transition, but I thought that everyone involved would be glad I survived, and would understand that I was finally moving on, for real.

Then in 2003, after everyone but Jake Savin and Lawrence Lee had left UserLand, my brother and I decided to revive the company. Again, for a third time, I made the mistake of not carefully creating a legal basis for this. I thought everyone understood what they had agreed to do, and we would all do it. Again, I should have taken the time to get an independent attorney to look at the deal, but I didn’t.

By 2005, weblogs.com, one of the many sites I was caring for personally, as a labor of love, had been growing exponentially. A year earlier it was doing 100,000 pings per day. By the spring of 2005, it was doing two million. I had reprogrammed the server a dozen times, each time stripping out functionality, buying more hardware. I hired a contractor. It co-existed with competing ping servers from well-funded companies, and I came to realize more and more over time that, as an individual, I was way out of my league. Weblogs.com was becoming something a person couldn’t operate, it required the resources of a company.

One day, when I was living in Florida, I happened to be talking with Keith Teare, an old friend, who was doing consulting work with VeriSign. I broached the question, would they be interested in taking over weblogs.com. He asked, and they said yes. It took a few months, and here’s a key point, this time I did get new lawyers to do the deal, including Mike Arrington (a friend who is now famous for the awesome TechCrunch weblog), and along with some great people at VeriSign, we put together a careful deal to transfer weblogs.com to VeriSign.

The day the deal was leaked was one of the best days and one of the worst days of my life. Through all the incarnations of UserLand, I had one lawyer, Jack Russo, and he was very angry with me after the deal. Before I could even talk with him, he was threatening to sue. All the turns in UserLand, that I had done informally, were now coming back to haunt me.

Eventually the threats turned into a real lawsuit, filed in Santa Clara County Court, around the time I was buying the house in Berkeley. I’ve spent over $40,000 in legal fees defending myself, while Russo presumably spent much less because he’s a lawyer. I think that was the central part of his strategy, he knew I would have to spend money to defend myself, where he wouldn’t have to.

Anyway, I wanted to write about this here, and I almost did several times. But on Friday, we got a decision from the court that agreed with our position, so now I feel that the future is pretty clear, and that if I want to clean up the mess that UserLand has become, now I have the ability to do so. It will still cost me personally many thousands of dollars, but it’s a price I have to pay for having cut corners over the years. If I want my freedom, a bunch of lawyers and accountants and the government have to be paid. So be it.

I learned a very important lesson here, one that my friend Jason Calacanis said at the OPML Road Show in NYC in 2005. If a deal is worth doing, it’s worth documenting with a good agreement. Anyone who is doing business with me these days knows that I have embraced this ethos wholeheartedly! Wish I had been following it through the 80s and 90s. A word to the wise. :-)

Got the EVDO 

The EVDO card arrived today. It took a bit of fussing to get it working, but it does work now.

When I use it downstairs I only get two bars on the connection strength graph, and it disconnects so often as to make it useless. Upstairs I get five bars and it’s stayed up for over an hour now.

It’s a lot slower than my DSL, slower even than DSL over wifi. Disappointing, but the tech support person at Evdoinfo assures me that it’s normal.

I’ll run some formal performance tests and report back.

8 responses to this post.

  1. Dave, I’m curious what purpose or need you’re trying to fulfill with the EVDO connection. At best, it’s going to give you about 1.5 Mbps, which is slower than 802.11b WiFi (which is 11 Mbps theoretical, about 5.5 Mbps real world). I’m only asking because you seem surprised by the relative speed; remember, the intent isn’t to replace your home wired broadband (although you could do that if you want to sacrifice speed); the intent is to give you solid access when away from your wired connection. Not trying to be a ‘nudge’ here; just trying to understand your expectations. ;)

    Reply

  2. Well, for some reason I thought it would be faster. Nothing to reveal here, I was up front as to why I wanted it, to replace Starbucks and T-Mobile. It does that, but with a tradeoff in performance and a gain in convenience and cost (if you include the cost of Internet access in some hotels).

    Reply

  3. Dave:

    Thanks for that great piece on Scripting News today. I am actually glad that you got out of Userland long enough to take care of yourself. I happen to think that the world still needs Dave.

    I’m sorry to hear of the difficult situation over the past year, but I’m encouraged – for you and for those of us who rely on Frontier/Manila – that something new may come of this. I used Frontier starting at about the time you turned into a web tool and before Manila became part of it, and these tools have been a integral part of my use of the web ever since. In fact, at what might be regarded as the high water mark for Frontier/Userland I persuaded my college to adopt the system for providing faculty web sites, and we successfully used it to create several hundred of them.

    Recently things have seemed to be in a state of limbo at Userland. (And I think we now have more of an idea about why this happened.) Despite Lawrences efforts to help me resolve a variety of issues, it has seemed that the resources weren’t there to stop Frontier/Manila from falling behind, much less to make it the powerful tool it once promised to be.

    I hope that one of the outcomes of your announcement may be a renewal of Frontier/Manila. Despite the introduction of other newer tools, nothing has been able to replace Manila for me.

    Take care,

    Dan

    Reply

  4. Hello Dave,

    What I did not understand from the story is: where did this lawyer that sued you came from?

    Miguel.

    Reply

  5. He was UserLand’s secretary, a board member, its only lawyer for its whole existence, and my personal attorney since the mid-80s.

    Reply

  6. Dave,

    Thanks for all you have done. It means a lot and it has changed everything for millions of us.

    – J

    Reply

  7. Very interesting stuff Dave. Might explain a few things.
    So, if I read that right – Userland were suing you for selling the ping servers to Verisign? Or just the lawyer?

    Collapsing must have been horrific. And all that followed. Any warning signs that people should look out for?

    Thanks for everything you’ve given.

    Also glad to see you’re aware of the OPMLeditor / IE7 thing.

    Reply

  8. Also, oddly enough – I was about to write a blog post yesterday about audio.weblogs.com on how it’s just not as good as it used to be imho.

    So many repeat pings in the changes.xml – so many url which are not feeds. No idea what those submissions are even doing in changes.xml !
    eg: someone is clearly pinging it with an old libsyn hosted Rockerboom feed every 10/15 mins or so. I would have thought the server would have ignored it by now.

    I built ping.podcast.com last week.

    Reply

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