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Jbum interview by SuperScoop

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A famous inerview by Secret Palace Reporter SuperScoop for Palace Planet back in 2001. Q. Many people on Palace have heard of you, but for those who don't know....What was your actual role in the creation and development of Palace? Could you give us an insight into your background and how you became involved? Also, what was the inspiration behind it?

A. I conceived, designed and programmed the

first version of the Palace when I was an employee of Time Warner, from 1994-1995. Initially, I worked with Damon Williams, who made most of the interior rooms in the "mansion" site. I programmed the Macintosh client/server (and later the Unix server). I made the smileys.

The Palace began as a personal project. I had used text-chat systems since the early 80's, and had experienced some (bad) 3D "virtual reality" systems of the early 90's, and I felt there was significant room between the two extremes to make something compelling, yet not prohibitively complex, engineering wise. I wanted to make something that would be fun, that I would enjoy personally, and therefore it would allow for a great degree of self expression.

I wrote a short proposal and gave it to Time Warner, which I called "The Game Palace" - this is the origin of the name. In the proposal, I took my original idea and modified it into an interactive TV casino thing, in an attempt to interest the suits at Time Warner. They weren't interested, but I was encouraged by the management at my division to continue pursuing the idea, and I built a prototype on the Mac which worked on the local area network.

The "Pokerden" one of the rooms for "the Game Palace"

When we tested it on the employees (administrative assistants and so on), it was a hit, so development continued. It evolved into an Internet-oriented system over the course of the next year, and was eventually opened to the public in November of 95. At this point, Time Warner owned it.

Although I created it, by the time the Palace was released in '95, it was the product of hard work of a team of individuals, including Eddie Rohwedder, Mark Jeffrey, Elaine Alderette, Damon's brother Doyle and Robert MacDaniel.

Q. I understand that the company who originally developed Palace software then sold the rights to the product on to another company, or were taken over and so the product became the property of the new company. What happened exactly and how did this effect you personally?

A. As a Time Warner Employee, developing the product on their nickel, I never owned it. The Palace was eventually bought from Time Warner by Intel, who in turn "spun it out" as a separate company, "The Palace Inc". Softbank (a Japanese VC consortium) also funded the company and held the majority of the stock.

Mark Jeffrey (who had been the business & public face of our team - the "Steve Jobs" to my "Woz", as it were) and I were considered "cofounders" of the company, but that was really more of an honorific - neither of us had a significant amount of stock or control. The CEO was a former Intel exec named Mike Maerz.

I was officially CTO (chief technical officer) but from that point on my involvement diminished. I'm not really cut out for management.

Like many Internet start ups of the time, the company, under Maerz's direction, struggled and flailed, trying to fulfill elusive goals. The business plan was modified frequently as the company flinched at imaginary competition or minor problems. It was thrilling at times, but also painful to witness.

Q. So then how did Communities.com come into the equation? And how did this effect you? Were you still actively involved at this point?

A. I left The Palace Inc shortly before they officially "ran out of money" after a (3rd?) round of financing didn't materialize. This was in late 1997, early 1998. Softbank, the principal investor owned three similar companies: OnLive, The Palace and Electric Communities. Shortly after I left (but certainly not because of it - I was superfluous at this point) Softbank merged those three companies (financial black holes all of them) into one company, which was headquartered at Electric Communities' site, and eventually became Communities.com. Since the Palace was the only product generating income (but not a profit), it because the de-facto product of the new company. Communities made the decision (which I applauded at the time) to make the Palace free. They struggled on for a few more years, and eventually went under.

Q. There was a lot of controversy about the effect of making Palace free, and the effect of large numbers of children suddenly coming on-line. Now that this is all in the past, what are your genuine views about this?

A. It is easy for an online community to achieve a degree of harmony while it remains small and exclusive. It is difficult for an online community to achieve harmony and simultaneous attract large numbers of people, because large numbers of people are, by definition, diverse. It is difficult to maintain diversity, and requires a certain amount of social engineering, good community design and luck from the get go. The Palace was not really designed to handle huge numbers of people well - in a social sense. This is something that MSN and AOL do very well. They accomplish it by creating a large portal that attracts a large number of people, but simultaneously dividing the people into small compartments that don't interact with the other compartments at all.

This allows people to cluster into small groups, where they can find a certain amount of harmony. The Palace's design encourages people to flit from room to room. This is fun, but is also causes social unrest, as different tribes conflict with one another. The old'uns and the young'uns are just two of those tribes that conflicted.

So AOL and MSN are simultaneously large and granular. And this works for them. The Palace was neither large enough, nor granular enough.

Q. In your view, was there a way to make Palace both profitable and free to the public, without following the route that CC took?

A. No. Or at least not without adding "unpleasant" to the mix. I think "profitable and free" can't co-exist (although perhaps I'm unimaginative). I *do* think it would have been possible to make it profitable and extremely cheap. The initial $25 dollar business plan would have worked if the company had been extremely small - essentially a garage operation. I would have preferred it this way, certainly.

What killed the Palace was the grand scheme to be the "killer chat app" - to win the chat game. To return value to the investors.

Most organizations feel restless if they aren't massively growing. Perhaps this is a genetic impulse we have as a species (e.g. it's bad to be "counter-productive"), but it often works against us. It certainly worked against the Palace community. I'm reminded of the book "Ishmael" here.

Q. Do you feel at all possessive about the Palace software, being 'your baby' or do you now see it as just another project from years ago?

A. It was my baby, and was certainly the highlight of my career to date. It also eventually wore me out, in the end.

Q. Despite the downfall of CC, the Palace community is still active though somewhat fragmented. Do you think, in its present form it will eventually fade and die, or can you see any development that will give it a new lease of life?

A. It is 99% certain to fade and die - or mutate into something else, due to a new piece of software. The only way it could be saved in its present form would be for some other entity to take over the existing software base, which I doubt will happen -- nor do I think it necessarily *should* happen - the Palace didn't succeed for a reason - it should be allowed to die a natural death. It would be nice, though, to see some decent visual chat software out there. Right now, the most appealing way for me to chat is still using text-based systems.

Q. There are regular rumors and counter rumors of various groups who are trying to develop and improve the software, or even buy the rights to it, so that they can do this as a genuine business enterprise. Are you aware of any genuine and credible attempts to do this or is it just wishful thinking?

A. I'm not aware of any credible attempts to buy the rights, but I'm out of the loop on that one. I'm aware there are a few folks tinkering with writing new software. More power to them.

Q. In the light of experience, with hackers, cloning, ban jumping etc, would it not be better to re-build Palace from the ground up and start again? Or can these problems be addressed by, for example, re-writing the server-side software to eliminate the use of hacked Clients? (I'm not a technical wiz, but you get the idea.. Can it be saved, or should it be abandoned/ replaced?)

A. If one wanted to preserve the Palace experience (which, again, I'm not sure is the correct approach), perhaps the ideal route would be to acquire the rights to the software, and then rewrite it from scratch, without fear of being sued for duplicating the good parts.

All successful (successful in the sense of attracting large numbers) community software suffers from being hacked. I've been using MSN chat a lot lately, and they are constantly being hacked. AOL is hacked. Any large community gets hacked. Some of the security holes in the existing palace could and should be certainly fixed, but you can't create a permanent solution through programming alone. Hacking is a natural consequence of creating a community which rewards hacking on a grand scale. The best solutions are social, rather than technical, and I'm not sure they can be "engineered" by anybody.

In real life there is nothing to prevent people from behaving in the despicable ways they sometimes behave online, but it occurs far less often - society has built up a set of implicit rules for behavior in real life - we don't have that yet in virtual communities, and it will probably take a long time to build.We can start by finding ways to minimize the rewards of shocking behavior.

Q. It seems that there are now just as many Palaces as a year ago, but they've become isolated from each other. Is it possible with the current technology to create multiple active directories so that anyone could create an active directory and find other busy Palaces, or even their friends online?

A. If all the palaces "checked in" to a centralized site, but that centralized site, in turn provided a list of active sites to other servers (via http or ftp or whatever), you could have multiple palace lists. I see nothing wrong with using non-Palace software to keep track of your friends (e.g. ICQ, MSN Messenger, AIM). When ICQ first appeared, it seemed like an obvious thing to create a Palace-like module for creating ICQ chat rooms. I still think this is a good idea. A few folks have created visual chats for IRC, although I haven't seen any good ones yet.

Q. Do you still chat to folk on Palace and visit various Palaces?

A. Only once or twice a year. It's too tempting for me to be "jbum" on the Palace, but this isn't fun for me anymore. I prefer text-based systems where I can be anonymous. Also, I think there's a tendency on the Palace to devalue text, and frankly I'm better with words.

Q. What did you like most about Palace?

A. The ability to easily create impromptu shared fantasies. Like when Chrissy (a wizard I knew) gave everyone avatars that turned them into jars of Peanut Butter ("Goobers" actually).

Q. What did you dislike most about Palace?

A. Evidence of cultural barrenness. Like going into a room where everyone looked like Fabio or a Victoria's Secret model. The inability of people to accept cultural diversity. Also, there are a lot of folks that spend most of their waking hours in chat-space. Although I can relate (and there were times when I've done it myself) I suspect it's symptomatic of depression.

Q. Would you be interested in writing a new chat program one day, or have your past experiences with the 'politics' of Palace put you off? Or any other reason?

A. Hmm. I think I would enjoy writing chat software for a living, and if the right job offer came my way I would seriously consider it. However, it no longer interests me as a hobby, because I've already done it. In my hobbies I am mercurial and fickle. I change hobbies very often - it's the process of learning new things that I enjoy.

Q. What are you doing these days? Any new and exciting projects we should look out for?

A. I don't have any major exciting projects at the moment.

I'm working on Interactive TV apps in Burbank, and occasionally teaching at Art Center in Pasadena.. Last June I gave a guest lecture on "Random Numbers and Computer Art" at UCSD. In the course of writing the lecture, I developed an interest in Kaleidoscopes. I started learning how to make them, and I also started working on both a 2D and a 3D Kaleidoscope simulator. It looks pretty, but I think real Kaleidoscopes are prettier.

(get Jbums Kaleidoscope Screensaver here: Screensaver)

I recently moved, and have been without TV for a couple months. I've been reading Tom Stoppard plays, and about orchids. I suspect I'm getting a bit burned out on writing software, because my recent hobbies have tended to be non-computer-related, which is unusual for me.

Q. And finally. A quick thank you from me, and many many other people for that spark of inspiration that created Palace chat.

A. Your welcome. Thank you!

For anyboy intrested in Jbums work, you can see more about him at:Jbum.com His Palace history page can be found here: Palace history

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