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The Early FrontPage History

I have a long history with Microsoft FrontPage, but not many people know where it originally came from. FrontPage started its life as a product from a little startup company from Massachusettes that was named Vermeer Technologies, Inc. To tell the story in detail, I've included Randy Forgaard's foreword from the book Introducing Microsoft FrontPage, by Microsoft Press.

One Thursday afternoon in early April 1994, my wife took an urgent phone call from a man on a carphone. He had gotten my name from my MIT masters thesis adviser, and was calling to offer me a job. Thinking he was one of those pesky headhunters, my wife declined to give him my work phone number, but said he could phone back that evening. He was worried about the time delay, but nonetheless phoned back at 7:00pm and we chatted. The man was Charles H. Ferguson, a renowned computer industry consultant on technology policy and corporate strategy. We met and talked several times over that weekend. His professional references spoke glowingly of him, including a contact in the White House whose only negative remark was that Charles wasn't invited as often to testify in front of Congressional subcommittees anymore because of his impatience with the slow pace of lawmaking. Four days later I quit my job and became co-founder of a software company that within a few months was named Vermeer Technologies, Inc. - after Charles' favorite Dutch painter. As it turns out, Charles' general sense of urgency was extraordinarily justified.

In the beginning, Charles was the idea person, and I was the one charged with filling out the details and helping to refine the goals to tasks that were achievable by a small group of extremely talented engineers in a reasonable timeframe. His central thesis was at once unusually insightful and incredibly ambitious. He had noticed that many companies had spent millions building their own private computer online services - Apple's eWorld, Dow Jones News Retrieval, Bloomberg's Financial Network, etc. Not only were these efforts expensive, but they were incompatible with one another, requiring different client software to interact with each one. They were based on outmoded mainframe-based technology, requiring a computing priesthood to build and maintain them. They were centralized, making it very difficult to access distributed data. Their cost structure was sufficiently high that free services - such as providing online marketing and customer support information - were not economically viable. And finally, such centralized systems were not suitable for private, distributed, internal information dissemination within an organization.

Thus, our goal was to build a standardized, shrink-wrapped infrastructure for online services, architected for interoperability, providing standardized client software and a visual development environment that would allow non-programmers to create and maintain a new online service. The idea was that you could walk into a software store, buy our standard online service server software, buy several copies of our authoring software, and resell the standard online client software to your customers. You could easily create and maintain your online service. Your customers could use the client software to dial-in to your service, and then use that same client software to dial-in to other online services created with our software. The standardized server software would be architected so that online services could communicate with each other easily. Everything was interoperable, the API's and protocols would be documented as open standards, everyone would benefit from the increased convenience and functionality of standardized components, and the whole affair would be dramatically less expensive because the development cost was spread across all customers.

This idea changed dramatically about one month after the company was formed. In May 1994, we got wind that the Internet was starting to be adopted by businesses, and that there was a new infrastructure called the World Wide Web that provided a type of online service functionality on top of the Internet protocols. Mosaic, from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, had been released 5 months earlier, and provided the first graphical user interface for the Web. Netscape Communications Corp. (then called Mosaic Communications) had just been formed in April (the same time as Vermeer), and would release their famous commercial web browser toward the end of the year.

It occurred to us that the Web provided much of what we were trying to achieve: standardized protocols (HTTP) and API's (CGI), server software that supported those protocols (various web server incarnations from various organizations), client software that supported those protocols (various web browsers), and even a communications infrastructure (the Internet) that was more robust and convenient than we were planning (dial-up to each online service). The big missing piece: a powerful, visual authoring tool for creating, maintaining, and administering whole web sites, including the individual pages that comprise such sites. This became the focus of Vermeer.

We were extraordinarily fortunate to be able to hire the most talented collective group of individuals I have ever met, despite the fact that we yet had no funding (except for direct expenses, covered by Charles), and asked everyone to take no salary for many months. Andy Schulert and Peter Amstein, both seasoned professionals, were our first two engineering hires and became our two technical team leaders. We were joined by many other engineers, plus excellent marketing, sales, administrative, and executive personnel. Every one of them a consummate professional, every one driven and focused to the task at hand. It was - and is - a remarkable experience for us all.

While Vermeer was driving to ship its first product, the Web became an unprecedented success. Whereas there were only an estimated 10,000 web sites in existence when Vermeer was formed, there were approximately 500,000 such sites one year later, both external sites on the Internet, and intranet sites within organizations. By just about any measure - communications traffic, new web sites going up, downloads of web browsers and servers, new Internet subscriptions - the web was growing at 20% per month, the fastest growing phenomenon in economic history. It became imperative that any forward-thinking organization have a high-quality public web site, and internal IS organizations where behooved to seriously explore the use of Web technologies for intranet information transfer and applications.

Vermeer shipped version 1.0 of its product in October 1995, just one week behind schedule. The name of the product, FrontPage, was suggested by Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus and On Technology. On the one hand, FrontPage was a great success, winning many industry awards, and praises from customers. On the other hand, during the brief life of Vermeer, web authoring had advanced from a curious backwater to a major focus of some of the largest players in the software industry. Tiny Vermeer, with fewer than 40 employees, suddenly found itself in the hotseat.

At around this time, Chris Peters, a Vice President and 15-year veteran of Microsoft, called us up. They really liked the product. They felt we had just the right idea, to focus on building a whole web, in addition to creating individual pages. They liked the fact that FrontPage looked just like a Microsoft Office application. They were impressed that we seemed to be 9-12 months ahead of the industry. They wanted to know if we were interested in some sort of relationship, anywhere from co-marketing, to technology licensing, to the "full meal deal" as he called it - being acquired.

We took a hard look at Microsoft, and were extremely impressed. Microsoft had recently transformed itself into a highly Internet-focused company. They were extraordinarily good at shipping products. And we realized that our efforts would be multiplied a thousand-fold by joining Microsoft. So we did.

Almost all of the Vermeer folk joined Microsoft, with virtually the entire engineering team moving to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington. We have just shipped Microsoft FrontPage 1.1. It has been a heady experience, and with the backing of Microsoft's extensive resources, we hope to be even more effective and customer-driven with future versions of FrontPage. Vermeer was formed just two years ago, and the adventure has just begun.

Our mission with FrontPage has remained the same, and if anything has become even more so as part of Microsoft: web authoring for everyone. Microsoft has Internet Studio and other products for advanced web development, but if you are a non-technical professional charged with creating or updating Internet or intranet web content, FrontPage was designed for you. We hope you will find it productive, instructive, and enjoyable.

Randy Forgaard
Senior Program Manager, Web Authoring Product Unit
Microsoft Corporation
May 1996

Posted: Oct 23 2000, 19:48 by Bob | Comments (0) RSS comment feed |
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