Internet Innovators: Dave Taylor

Internet Innovators: Dave Taylor

Category: General

Back in 1995-96 I worked for BoardWatch Magazine, covering the world of Bulletin Board Systems and the fledgling Internet. One of my favorite parts of that job was interviewing prominent netizens of the day. Some may boast about being self-made men, but Dave Taylor is one guy who could honestly call himself "net-made." Still very much active in online ventures, you may find his comments from "back in the day" quite interesting.

But it's really been a two-way street, since Dave has had a hand in shaping the Internet as well. While at Hewlett Packard in the 80's Taylor help to administer Usenet in it's early days; and also wrote the Elm Mail System which has grown to become the most popular ASCII-based mailer on the Internet.

Since leaving HP, Taylor has worked as an editor and writer for SunWorld, Computer Life, and Internet World magazines. He's also the founder of Intuitive Systems, a consulting firm that helps companies develop marketing strategies and build better software systems.

One project of Intuitive Systems that you're probably familiar with if you travel the Internet at all is The Internet Mall(tm), the central spot for shopping on the Internet, with over 2000 stores.

Dave Taylor is the author of several books, including Global Software, Teach Yourself Unix in a Week, The Internet Business Guide and most recently, Creating Cool Web Pages with HTML.

Recently I caught Dave in material form long enough to get in a chat about life, the Internet, and well... everything.

Doc: How long have you been using the Internet, and what first attracted you to the online world?

Dave: I first logged into the Internet in 1980 as an undergrad student at UCSD. Back then it was really just ARPANET, and all the Usenet groups were named "net.*". Everything was a lot smaller and more intimate then, and looking back I laugh because we used to be able to "read Usenet".

One of my favorite groups was, because in those days you could actually have interesting conversations and make friends with other group members. We even organized regional parties and enjoyed meeting face-to-face, things that seem impossible with the breadth of todays' Usenet.

In the mid 80's I was postmaster at HP and served as a member of the legendary "Usenet Cabal", which loosely administered Usenet and came up with the "Big 7" naming convention we use for the newsgroups today. So I've been involved with this stuff for a long time.

The thing that attracted me to the online world? I'd say it was the easy connectivity that allowed me to chat with other people sharing common interests. Where else for example could you find a bunch of people who were reading the same book? The big lure is being able to find other people doing the same thing at the same time and share that experience.

Doc: Is it true you still use a vintage XT with a 300 baud modem?

Dave: Actually it's a Mac Plus with 512K but I'm thinking of upgrading to a Fat Mac. No really... I currently use a Mac Centris 650 with Radius color monitor and a Courier V.34 modem to go online.

Doc: When did you first start the Internet Mall project?

Dave: It all started as research for an Internet World article in early 1994. I was asked to write about companies doing business on the Net and was surprised to find that there wasn't a body of data already compiled.

I started the Internet Mall with 34 listings in February of '94, and it has since grown to include information on over 2000 companies. I get 10 or 20 new entries per day which I enter into FileMaker Pro on my Mac, and from there I can do all kinds of interesting things with the data including the creation of the 270 separate HTML files that comprise the Web version of the Internet Mall.

Doc: Any flames from hardline anti-commercial types?

Dave: Surprisingly, no. There is the occasional grumble from a person whose listing was rejected because it fell into the category of get-rich-quick, MLM, etc., but overall the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and favorable.

I've seen a lot more people comfortable with the idea of commerce on the Internet in the last 18 months, and with the recent end of the NSF's involvement there is no longer any prohibition on commercial traffic on the backbones.

Doc: I've always maintained that one has to earn the right to do business on the 'Net by first contributing something of value. In a nutshell, what's your philosophy for doing business in cyberspace?

Dave: You've got to remember basic business ethics - there's more to it than making a fast buck off the next guy. In the Internet community you have to fit it, help out and offer something of value to customers besides what you're selling. It's just like the real world where the laundromat and supermarket have to be involved in supporting community projects. BBS operators who do stuff for friends and neighbors know all about this. Sponsor a FAQ, give something back, have fun and you're more likely to succeed.

Doc: The visibility you've gained from the Internet Mall has certainly been "good for business". Let's be brutally honest- did you think at the outset that it might be a good tool to help you market yourself?

Dave: No, I really didn't. It was never meant to be a personal marketing tool, but one thing I have found is that many people who do selfless things on the Net end up getting recognition. Take Gleason Sackman or Scott Yanoff for example. Their efforts with Net-Happenings and Special Internet Connections have gained them a lot of visibility.

Doc: Kevin Savetz recently took some heat in for soliciting commercial sponsors for FAQs he has authored. What's your take on this?

Dave: I wasn't aware that Kevin had gotten any flack along those lines, but I personally don't have a problem with that type of thing so long as every effort is made to avoid conflicts of interest. A Hard Drive Purchasing Guide FAQ sponsored by Quantum might not be such a good idea for obvious reasons.

It's critical for FAQ authors to have unimpeachable integrity because the Net community does rely on the information that is offered via the 3500+ FAQs that are floating around out there. The FAQ is one such example - it offers a few giggles but also some really good info on STD's, when to see your doctor, etc. It has no commercial sponsors, but a company like Trojan would be a natural there.

Doc: Tell me about your new book "Creating Cool Web Pages Using HTML".

Dave: There are some really excellent books about the Web, but the problem is that they all seem to be written by technical people for technical people. They make the assumption that you understand a lot about the Internet, computers, editors and so forth. That's fine for techies, but not so good for teachers who just want to help their students publish their work on the Web, hobbyists interested in learning more, or anyone else not technically inclined.

My book is intended to be a comfortable tutorial for the layman that focuses on the basics of HTML, demonstrates proper usage of the various tags and shows the results of common mistakes such as forgetting an anchor or not closing a list. I take the reader on a tour of some well-done sites, examine the HTML source and comment on it. There's also a section on how to create graphics for your Web pages.

This is a "Web Pages for Dummies" kind of book, although I never liked that particular title: what makes someone who doesn't know a subject a dummy? It'll come with a disk that includes the WinWeb browser and lots of sample HTML and graphics.

Doc: So what makes a Web site cool?... And while we're at it how about sharing the Top 3 Coolest Sites from your hotlist.

Dave: To me, a cool Web site is one that combines an attractive design with lots of useful information presented in a way that makes sense given the strengths and limitations of the medium. There's a big difference between data - which is just "stuff", and information - which the subset of that stuff that is of value to you at the moment.

A cool page is not just a list of someone's 37 favorite links. It's where someone has taken a complex topic and formatted the information so that it's really useful and easy to follow. My Top 3 would be:

Yahoo -

The Internet Mall -

The FAQ Archive -

Doc: Have you had any really cool experiences using the Web?

Dave: Well, yes. Recently we were faced with the prospect of finding a house in the fast-paced San Francisco real estate market. Since we're in Indiana that could have proven difficult, not to mention expensive. But I found the Palo Alto Weekly on the Web, and my SO browsed through the classifieds every few days. One afternoon she found a good listing, called them long-distance, and we set up a time to meet and see the house a few days hence. When we visited the house in Redwood City, California, we found out the landlord was also a computer writer and it worked out very well. We'll be moved in by the time you read this!

Doc: You've also dabbled in the shareware scene... and most recently you've done something unusual by offering a package with full source code included. Tell me why...

Dave: Embot (my e-mail autoresponder) is a Unix utility so it's almost impossible to pre-compile a version for every known platform. It's not like DOS where you can ship an EXE file that works on any PC, so you really have to supply source code. The shareware scene is really intriguing to me... it's disappointing that so few shareware authors are successful.

Doc: Why don't most people register & pay for their shareware?

Dave: I guess it's just human nature. You can tell people "there are commercial alternatives that would cost you a lot more" but it doesn't seem to help. People just can't be bothered to write a letter and lick a stamp. Embot has gotten lots of good press, and out of the hundreds of people who have requested the package from me, only one has registered so far.

Doc: Ouch. And I'm one of the slackers. My check goes in the mail today, Dave! Do you think electronic payment systems like Netcash and First Virtual will help in this area?

Dave: Maybe, I dunno. When people find out I was the original author of Elm, which is one of the most popular e-mail handlers today, they say "Wow, I bet you wish you had a dollar from every Elm user." Sure I do, but I try not to think about it that way. The thing is, would it be as successful if people had to pay even a dollar for it? It's the catch-22 of shareware, commercial and free software distribution, particularly in the Unix niche.

Doc: When you think about people who have done good things for the Internet community, what figures come to mind?

Dave: Hmmm, the list is endless. There's Gene Spafford and Phil Zimmerman who have done wonderful things related to security... there's Yanoff, Sackman, and Stefanie daSilva who must put in long hours maintaining the List of Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists. I'd say all the FAQ authors, and of course the people behind Yahoo and the search engines like Lycos and Webcrawler deserve a lot of credit too. Ultimately Bob, the Internet is not fundamentally a bunch of computers, it's a bunch of people.

Doc: When the much vaunted Information Superhighway finally brings 500 TV channels to every living room will anyone be watching, or will we all be surfing in the den?

Dave: The idea of having 500 TV channels is really a humorous concept. If you think waiting 60 seconds to resolve the first image on a Web page is bad, wait until you see how long it takes to figure what's worth watching with that many channels. What I'd really like is a TV that watches what I watch and is smart enough to say "There's a Hitchcock movie on tonight, should I tape it?".

I think the idea of an "interactive future" is a bit overly optimistic. Most people want to relax - they don't want to be intellectually challenged. The Internet itself reflects this in some sense. There might well be twenty million people able to access the net, but to me it's really only interseting when it's interactive; when you begin to participate. This rule is also true for both business and individual users: to really appreciate the Internet community you have to become a part of it.

Doc: Lots of Boardwatch readers who have been BBSing for years are now getting "wired". Any thoughts on the future of the Internet and the role of the traditional BBS?

Dave: Bulletin Board Systems and the Internet will merge, or at least become very difficult to distinguish. Already we see this happening... if you can telnet to a BBS, how is the system different from a more traditional Internet access provider?

The real value of a BBS will be in the unique unique focus or services it offers. Those that are topically or geographically oriented will succeed. Those that just try to play the ISP game, let NetCom - simply selling a wire - will ultimately fail because the RBOCs, as Internet Access and Service Providers, (which will be happening quite soon), have an advantage due to sheer size.

A Star Trek, Alanon or Beverly Hills BBS might do well for example, because these themes enable a sense of place... they enable the building of virtual communities. And there will always be BBS's that are run by people who just love doing it. Success for them might be 10 connects a day, and covering the cost of their equipment. BBS operators will have to focus on their strengths, whatever they are. The Mom & Pop shops will succeed by picking a unique niche and serving their clients well.

Doc: Sounds like we're in for some fun. Any parting thoughts?

Dave: It's an exciting time to be involved with the online community, there's no question. Companies are being formed, growing, and becoming successful overnight, and just as quickly other companies are collapsing and vanishing. It's not going to replace any of our current ways of enjoying ourselves or communicating, but it's sure a terrific new medium. It's proven a great addition to my life.

This article was originally published in the July 1995 issue of Boardwatch Magazine.

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Posted by on 26 Oct 2005

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Most recent comments on "Internet Innovators: Dave Taylor"

Posted by:

Laurel Papworth
28 Oct 2005

Very cool article - I particularly liked "...but one thing I have found is that many people who do selfless things on the Net end up getting recognition." A nice trip down memory lane while I'm in a philosophical, contemplative mood :)

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