I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Harvey of Nibble magazine at KansasFest. Wanting to give the interview the broadest audience possible, I invited my good friend John Leake from the RetroMacCast podcast to participate. The interview audio can be heard on RetroMacCast episode 413.
Mike Harvey, the founder and publisher of the long-lived Nibble magazine, has career that spans major companies in the computing and financial realms. Through those years Mike studied management philosophy, systems, and methods voraciously and developed many principles that were to become extremely valuable through the years. Nibble magazine eventually grew to a $4.5 million business publishing Apple magazines, product disks, and books.
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Brian Wiser: Hello everyone, I’m Brian Wiser with Call-A.P.P.L.E..
John Leake: And of course I’m John.
JL: RetroMacCast… of course our people are going to be listening to this on the RetroMacCast.
BW: And do you think they’ll remember what they’re listening to?
JL: Well perhaps, it’s been a couple weeks since we had an episode.
BW: Okay, okay, well good.
JL: But the important thing is who is here with us.
BW: We are very fortunate to have Mike Harvey with us. Mike Harvey who is perhaps best known for the long-running Nibble Apple II magazine in the 1980s and 1990s, and also the Nibble Mac magazine. And Mike has been president of many different corporations, in charge of multi-million dollar budgets, setting records all the way around, and doing so many different things. We all love Nibble, but looking at everything you’ve done in your career Mike, that’s kind of a drop in the bucket compared to everything else. You’ve done everything from, as we learned today, selling nightcrawlers and yo-yos for your yo-yo club as a kid, onto being part of Xerox, IBM, and other companies.
JL: Which of course I’ll have interest in talking about from a Mac standpoint at some point.
BW: So thank you for joining us Mike.
Mike Harvey: It’s a pleasure. A pleasure and an honor to be here.
JL: I have to say your keynote was very inspiring. It had a lot of great anecdotes. Some of the stuff you talked about, about the early Apple days and you are obviously… a big thing is your business practices over the years. And of course part of this is of course the new Nibble Viewpoints book that you’ve got out talking about your business practices, that also deal a lot with Apple history back…starting from the 1980s all the way through the 1990s. So it was great hearing some of those stories.
BW: And as far as those different management models that you’ve talked about, I was really curious in Nibble magazine where you wrote your monthly “Nibble Viewpoints“ editorial, at least half of those editorials over the years were business-focused, giving personal and business advice with models. Could you tell everyone about your background that gave you the foundation for those models?
MH: Sure. For one thing, I’ve always been a voracious reader of management books. I followed a philosophy that says, “The way to get ahead is to get promoted beyond your capacity and then work like hell to learn it before anybody finds out.” And quite literally, when I got my first presidency of a company, I didn’t know the first thing about being president of a company. But I got books that told me how. I assimilated them, used them, selected the parts that worked, and gradually evolved a management philosophy that encompassed how to solve problems, how to manage people, and how to grow businesses. It was partly on-the-job-training, but supplemented by a lot of reading and studying.
JL: And the magazine you started… another one of your skills that it sounds like you learned on your own was programming. One of the cool things about your magazine was the programs that were available to be typed in by the user every month, or eight times a year to start with and then every month. How did you start your programming background?
MH: I was very fortunate in that my first job out of graduate school was IBM, and IBM taught me how to program a mainframe. We used to have shots to test our programs at one o’clock in the morning. We’d run in with a stack of punch cards, shoved them in the reader, and they’d either work or not.
MH: But you had 15 minutes to do it. And so I used to leave those things thinking, “Boy…” The computer of the day at that time was the IBM 1401, which was a business computer. And I used to think about having a 1401 in my basement, so I could program it any time I wanted.
JL: So what year was this?
MH: This was in 1972 to 1973.
JL: So the home computer industry is pretty much non-existent.
MH: That’s right. But I got interested in programming way back when. And then as things started to evolve, I’ll never forget one of the things I got really excited about, was the announcement of the Altair 8800. The first programmable computer that you could buy, take it home, and do something with. As I really looked into it, I was all set to go and get one, so I looked into it. I couldn’t figure out how to get a program into it. It had all these little switches and lights and stuff, didn’t have a keyboard. And so that sort of went kaput, until the TRS-80 was announced, and when the TRS-80 was announced I had already been….I think it was Hewlett-Packard that had a programmable calculator where you could actually program in 10 or 20 steps in your equation. I used to carry one of those around with me. When I got bored in meetings, I programmed my calculator to do something. So I was kind of hooked on programming going way back to IBM days. When the TRS-80 was announced, I shot into my computer store, ordered one, and I think I got serial number 30.
BW: You were definitely inspired.
JL: You were an early adopter, huh?
MH: I got one of the first ones off the production line.
JL: That’s great.
MH: I took it home, then I realized I didn’t have any software to run on it.
JL: That would have been cassette at that point, right?
MH: Yes. So I didn’t have any software, and I wanted to write letters. So I though, “Well, I guess it’s time to write a word processing system.” And my wife was saying, “What are you going to do with that thing?” I thought, “Well, I guess it’s time to write a home finance program.” So I spent a lot of time with the Radio Shack TRS-80, actually writing a little word processing system.
JL: With the Apple II, you put in the disk and it had BASIC right away so you could start programming. If you didn’t have anything for the TRS-80…
MH: The TRS-80 did have built-in BASIC, so I could program. There I am, and I had this little tape cassette for storing things, boy that was the absolute worst. But I programmed some things and then I stumbled across the Apple. I was talking to a friend and he described the Apple.
JL: What year do you think this is?
MH: This is probably 1979.
BW: Would this have been the Apple II Plus?
MH: The Apple II. So where can I buy one? He told me about this little hole in the wall electronics store down in the heart of Dallas. I went down, they had one in the back room, and I bought it on the spot. I brought it home, put the TRS-80 in the closet and never went back to it. And so I started really learning the Apple. At that time, the only thing it had was tape cassettes, but very shortly after that it came out with a diskette – the disk drive. When that came out I thought, “I’m in heaven.” By that time I’d learned a little bit about how to program the disk. I was bringing forward some of the training I had at IBM, and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted in a word processor. I’d been involved in evaluating word processing for Xerox when I was with Xerox. As a matter of fact, I led the team in Xerox that wound up acquiring Diablo Systems.
BW: I’m not familiar with that.
MH: Diablo Systems back in the late 1970s invented a daisy wheel printer. It was patented thing. I headed up the team that went and acquired Diablo Systems for Xerox. And Xerox started selling word processors based on that printer. So anyway, I learned enough about word processing to know the things I wanted, and so I started building my own. And printing out on a Centronics impact printer.
JL: You mentioned in there your time at Xerox, the Palo Alto…
BW: I think you said, or I read, that you’d seen a demonstration from Alan Kay with the mouse and so forth. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MH: Let me back up a little bit. In the mid 1970s, I worked for Xerox in Rochester. I headed up a product planning group and program management group, and our responsibility was everything that is not the copier or duplicator. In those days, that was a lot of stuff, because Xerox had non-impact computer printing going on in the lab – that was one of my projects. It had something called a Computer Forms Printer, which was the thing that dragged paper over a platen to print forms on it. It had facsimile in the form of a telecopier, which a box about the size of a great, big, huge breadbox and ran for six minutes, and it also had some advanced terminal technology. And I was very much into data communications. At the time we were working with Texas Instruments, their advanced electronics group, and we had actually designed an LSI chip for that terminal that would make it work. Nobody had ever heard of LSI before. Anybody who had heard of it didn’t believe it would ever work. And it turned out my boss, who was the exec VP at Xerox didn’t believe it either. So we tried to push that terminal through, and they wouldn’t do it. The only thing they understood was making copies. So we configured a computer printer with a laser driver, and we actually got the company to introduce a laser-driven xerographic computer printer. But during that time, I kept circling back on the word processing and I wasn’t getting it done. I kept promoting software inside Xerox and they said, “We’re not interested in software. We’re interested in patentable hardware.” And I’d get asked, “What’s the patent position?” on every new product I brought in, because they were looking for another xerography. So anyway, through all that process I learned a pretty good amount about word processing, what the technology was, how to make it work, and I was using an IBM word processor at the time. So when I got my Apple, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted it to do. I wanted to be able to edit. I wanted to be able to cut and paste. I wanted to be able to back up and write over, and these were all very very primitive, but in those days it was pretty hot stuff.
MH: So when I sat down to write my word processor, I started putting in the things I wanted to use, because I was writing for myself initially. So that’s what I did. I developed a word processor which I used myself. I thought, “This is pretty good.” So I got in touch with Kilobaud the magazine, “So I’ve got this neat word processing package. Would you like to publish it?” They said, “Sure” and they paid me for it. I earned $50, something like that, it was pretty big bread at that time. And boy I’m off to the races! Several months later when I decided to start my magazine, by that time I’d sold Kilobaud my word processor, and I sold them a home finance system. And when I started my magazine I realized I didn’t have any authors to write for the magazine. I thought, “I’ve got some stuff I’ve written, I’d better go get it back.”
JL: This wasn’t a magazine where you were with a magazine house. This was all self-financed by you.
MH: Right. Exactly.
JL: There is employee number one and you’re it.
BW: And you had just been laid off, correct? So you were between jobs?
MH: Yes, I’d been laid off from Inforex, so I was between jobs, I didn’t have a job. So I was doing this in my spare time while I looked for a job. And so I’m merrily going along trying to get my first issue put together, and I got a call from Exxon. One of the people who used to work for me had gone to Exxon Enterprises, and they were looking for a president for a division for voice synthesis – voice recognition.
JL: Wow. Back then in the 1970s.
BW: Back then – that’s incredible!
MH: Voice recognition. So I went to work for them, prime time, but my typical work day I would start at three o’clock in the morning, I’d work on Nibble stuff until 7 am, have breakfast, go in and work at Exxon until 5pm, come home, work on Nibble until 10pm.
BW: My goodness.
JL: Of course Nibble had a very Apple II-centric…
MH: Totally Apple II-centric.
JL: Was that pretty much a no-brainer at the time? What was the state of the Apple community at the time? Had you met up with any other Apple enthusiasts at this point?
MH: At that time I recall there was a total population of Apple II’s of something like 250,000 worldwide. Pretty small.
BW: And this is still in 1978-1979?
MH: This was in 1980. Still pretty small. How do I get going? Well, I scrounged around and found Val Golding’s Call-A.P.P.L.E. newsletter. So I contacted Val and asked if I could run an ad for my magazine in Call-A.P.P.L.E. and he said, “Sure.” So I went to my typewriter, carefully counted out the spaces in the letters, did the first ad, and ran it in Val’s newsletter. At the same time I was doing research into computer stores trying to find out where they were, and my strategy was to just send them five copies and say, “Put in on your shelf and see if they sell. We’d like to have your order.” Armed with that with Val letting me advertise, and with the ability to send copies to computer stores, I ordered my first press run of 5,000 copies.
JL: At this point was there any advertising, had you talked to anyone? So it was straight up a magazine.
BW: All self-financed.
JL: Black and white to save the cost of color.
MH: Forty pages.
JL: That’s forty pages of content created just by you. That’s pretty impressive.
MH: I think I ran a Call-A.P.P.L.E. ad.
BW: Do you remember the artist you used? You found a great artist.
MH: His name is David Davidian and I found an artist who….actually he was a production manager, but his wife Anna was the artist. So I asked him to help me get the thing printed, since I had no idea how to get a magazine printed. I found this guy through a referral, who knew how to get things printed, brought him in and gave him 10 percent or 15 percent of the stock in the company. It turned out his wife was a very talented artist, so got his wife in on the act, and so she illustrated the magazine, and he got it printed.
JL: You sent out that first batch of magazines. What was the feedback from that initial issue?
MH: The best way I can describe it is I sent it out with absolutely no idea what to expect. And the first subscriber I got was a guy up in Alaska. I thought, “How did my message get up to Alaska in the first place? Where is Chicago? Where is New York? Where are these other ones?” So I got this guy in Alaska. It turned out he was the first of quite a few people who saw the ad and ordered it, so we got up to 1,000 subscribers in a month or so.
JL: That’s fantastic.
BW: And didn’t you say that after six months, you had set a goal for yourself to have so many subscribers by a certain period of time, or you would close?
MH: My goal was a drop dead date. We had a drop dead date of six months. If I did not have 1,000 subscribers in six months I was going to wind it up, stop spending any more money, kill it. We had 1,000 in the first six weeks. And at the six month mark we were something like five or six thousand. So my wife said, “This is turning out to be a lot better than I thought!”
JL: So you had that first issue, but by six months, how many issues in are we talking? Were you doing one each month at that point?
MH: No, when I set the thing up, I knew I didn’t have the resources to do a monthly, so I set it up as an 8-issue subscription, so we were doing one every six weeks. And I figured for the first four issues, I could personally write the first four issues by myself for six months, and then try to get some authors in to write issues five, six and seven. Which fortunately turned out to be good timing because I was getting ready to figure out how to put issue number five together, when I got the first authors volunteering their work.
JL: How many issues in were you before you started to go with color print? And how much did what you decided on for content change from that first episode to say when you got a year in?
MH: The very first issue was glorious black and white. Issue number two we added color – one color – red.
BW: You have to start somewhere.
MH: If you look at the cover of issue number two it has a red apple on the cover, but everything else is black and white. The third issue, by that time we had something like five or six thousand subscribers, and I thought, “This is starting to look serious.” At that point, I authorized four-color, but only for ads and only very limited…
JL: So four-color spot colors, or four-color actual four-color process?
MH: To be honest, I don’t know, because when I started this thing I had no idea what camera-ready copy was. I was an absolute neophyte in printing, absolute neophyte in publishing, and was learning like crazy….
JL: You were going back to your original philosophy of getting into something and then catching up.
BW: You were learning well. I was going to ask too, with some of the examples you just gave, where you set yourself a goal, you need to have so many subscribers by a certain date, at that point you were probably using one of the management models you had developed. Could you talk about some of your experiences at other companies that led you to some of these experiences.
MH: That’s a good question. Part of the problem in answering that is the kind of experience I’m describing takes place in the board room. And the people who are out in the trenches only see the result – they don’t see the process. Fortunately, with Xerox I was in high enough on the planning side that I saw a lot of the process too. I saw several things that made an impression. One was that I saw in companies the propensity to keep spending big money independent of the results, because somebody thought it was a good idea. And I saw huge sums of money wasted in that regard. The second thing I remember is nobody had any perception of what it meant to test, to probe, to try out without committing hundreds of millions of dollars. So I was a continual proponent of “Let’s try this – do a test market.” But it was either all or nothing. Xerox wasn’t interested in test marketing. They wanted another xerography and if you didn’t have that they weren’t interested. When I went into the executive boardroom with a xerographic laser computer printer, with facsimile, with word processing, it had a very cool reception because nobody there understood the dynamics of marketing. They were looking for technology to carry the day.
BW: Which is a little ironic considering how big they were. You would think they have some concept of marketing.
JL: Sure, but obviously that wasn’t their mindset, otherwise they would have never let Steve Jobs and company come in and go, “Hey we like that…”
MH: Let me give you a dramatic example of that. Xerox corporate had five, count them, five separate pricing groups, and Xerox’s strategy was pricing. How many mills per copy to charge, and how many to charge in a batch, or per copy, or whatever. So they had very elaborate strategies focused on “How can we strategically sell more copies?” Which is bull. So they had no concept of what it meant to break out, what it meant to try new things. There were a few people there, or else my group would not have existed at all. I wrote a white paper on software and said, “Software is where its going. It’s where the margins are. It’s where the creativity is.” I used some examples and I think I may have even used Apple at the time. I said, “This is where we should be investing,” and they rejected it.
BW: I am curious too, beyond Nibble that ran 12-13 years and focused on the Apple II, you also produced Nibble Mac, and later Macintosh Hands On magazines….
JL: One of the stories you brought up is before that you decided the Mac was the coming thing, so you decided to put a Mac section into the regular Nibble magazine.
BW: Right, that’s what I was hoping he could talk about. And with that in mind, how that idea progressed and especially one of the management models you mentioned was your guiding force at least toward the end of that… the “Tomato Plant Problem” and deciding to eventually close Nibble Mac.
MH: At the time, this was in the late 1980s, and at the time I thought that the Mac was new. I thought, “Ah hah! I can replicate the Nibble success with the Mac.” We got Macs into the office immediately, and I started programming Mac versions of things we had published several years ago in Nibble. And I thought, “This is going to be great.” Then Steve Jobs announced you couldn’t get inside the Mac to put anything in there. It was a sealed box. Jobs wanted it to be doing what it was supposed to do, and nothing more. That’s really a market suppressor if I ever heard one. But it was very real. You could not get plug-in peripherals for the Mac in the early years from other people. So anyway, with the Mac, I thought, “Well, there have to be people out there who still don’t know how to program, and still don’t have programs.” The Mac market was in its infancy and I thought there was a market for what we sell – for word processor, home finance, games and stuff. And so we started Nibble Mac, publishing basically articles and programs for making those things run on the Mac. And for a while that looked pretty good and then Apple started to wise up and announced software for the Mac that was much much better. And the Mac started to attract big software developers who could see that the user interface was ideal for the kinds of things they wanted to market. And with the emphasis on the simplicity of the interface, people didn’t want to get into the guts of the programs and fiddle with them.
JL: That’s one of the things I wanted to ask you about. Of course getting programs into the Apple II was pretty easy. It was kind of designed for that, whereas again you said the Mac was very closed. It’s not like you could throw in an Applesoft BASIC disk and then start programming. You’ve got this whole windows environment and everything. I think you mentioned that a lot of what you did was through HyperCard, or in your magazines how did people get the applications in?
MH: HyperCard was an application development system that Apple produced, where you could sit down and you could write English language statements to control graphics, control movement of data, and it made it very very easy to write pretty spectacular, pretty competent programs. So I shifted, I thought, “I’m going make my users into HyperCard programmers.” So I started publishing major features in HyperCard, they worked great, they looked beautiful, but fundamentally people didn’t want to fool with it.
BW: There was clearly a different market from the Apple II market.
JL: That’s another thing I was going to ask, so at that time they had the Apple II users which were still very hobby based, still very “What can I do with this? Let’s get inside” because it was built that way. As opposed to the Mac where you basically had a user mentality, “Just give me the thing, I don’t want to know how it’s doing it.” Did you get that feeling? Do you think that was the problem with trying to do the Nibble version for the Mac?
MH: I think it was and I think that part of it was that the market had advanced. Part of it was that the Macintosh made it tremendously easier, and part of it was that the Macintosh attracted professional software developers who actually developed commercial software for the Mac. So people wanted use that instead of writing their own.
BW: I think the interface has a lot to do with it too, because of course there were many major publishers for the Apple II. It was just a different, easier-to-use system that attracted a different market, a different segment, who perhaps had never used a computer before and that became the dominant market for the whole industry.
JL: Right, because it was a lot less threatening for the person who wasn’t necessarily as computer savvy.
BW: Much, much more approachable.
MH: Somebody could bring home a Mac, plug a disk in, and all of a sudden have graphs of their investments, etc.
JL: As opposed to just meeting with a prompt.
MH: Sure. The “Tomato Plant Problem” defines a situation where you have 10 acres of tomato plants, and only five acres of water. Another way of saying it is you have an opportunity, but you don’t have the resources to go after it. In the case of the Mac, there were a million acres of tomatoes and five acres of water. So I looked around and I saw the people who were going after the Mac market were spending humongous amounts of money in advertising, direct mail, and so forth. I know because they would come to us and they would rent our mailing list. So we knew what they were doing, we knew in advance what they were doing, and they were doing that and not getting a big enough yield because the size of the market had not yet grown to the point where it could produce that kind of yield. So there were people literally spending millions of dollars on marketing and not getting a yield. I wasn’t spending millions, but I was getting a modest yield. And the way I saw it, my only alternative to compete would be to join the people who were spending millions of dollars, and to compete on the same level that they were. And I was just not willing to do that.
BW: The Mac and Apple market was definitely a different market than it is now.
MH: It was, yes. Just one footnote. Shortly after Nibble Mac, I introduced the PC version of Nibble (PC Hands On) and we only published that for a little over a year. Because I could see the same phenomenon occurring with the PC that with the PC you bought it, you plugged in software you bought commercially, and you ran it. But people didn’t want to fool with the innards. So as I looked at those I thought, “I have a choice. The choice is to chase after those markets to put more resources in, to put more programming talent in, to put more advertising, etc, etc. But that’s not going to change the market. And the market is such that it’s not going to catch fire the way that Nibble did – the way that the Apple II market did, because people just didn’t have the same enthusiasm for getting into and making it do what they wanted it to do.” And so, to use the “Tomato Plant Problem,” there were a million acres of tomato plants, but I only had five acres of water, and there was no way I could get a million acres of water, so it was silly to pour five acres of water on a million acres of tomato plants.
BW: It won’t go very far.
MH: That’s right.
BW: Thank you. I’m also curious, what do you think of the state of the software market today? Do you have any thoughts in general with the App Store, not necessarily Apple even, but just the way the ecosystem has evolved, do you have any thoughts about one considering entering the app business, how viable do you think that is?
MH: That’s a very good question. I think it is a short route to suicide. When I look at the app market, the App Store, the proliferation of apps and there are going to be a million apps, and I think of all those apps as…there’s “Nibble Tough,” there’s “Nibble Track,” there are two apps and there’s 997 thousand 894 million others. So frankly I think the Internet has allowed the market to become so porous and so high-volume, that anybody can enter it. And a lot of people have who shouldn’t even be in it. But the result is it creates a lot of noise, which creates a lot of confusion, and becomes extraordinarily difficult without a huge investment of advertising and marketing to make any money at it.
BW: That’s one challenge I’ve realized, looking at it as well, how do you market yourself in a sea of millions of other apps? It seems almost impossible to stand out without a lot of luck, or a lot of money.
MH: I’ll be candid to say I probably could not do Nibble today. If I were doing something today, I would probably go for a highly-specialized subset like simulation, or something like that, as a newsletter and try to carve out an application-centric segment of the market where the unique thing I have to offer would have appeal.
JL: Now speaking of unique things you have to offer and market, one of the cool things is you spent a lot of time and you’ve scanned in every single issue of Nibble, and you have it available for purchase online on DVD, is that correct?
JL: If somebody was interested in buying that where would they find that.
MH: I have a Web site, it’s called Nibble-Magazine.com.
JL: That’s easy enough to remember. Besides that product you working in conjunction with Bill and Brian have another product out right now. Do you and Brian want to talk about that a little bit – the book?
MH: I am very excited about the book. I’ve thought over the years from time to time of doing that myself, but that’s a lot of work! And I’m not really up to it. So when Brian called me up and said that he and Bill had been talking about it and was I interested, I thought, “Boy they really hit a hot button with me.” Because I thought for years that those models would make a wonderful collection for young people in business, people who are interested in entrepreneurial ventures because it is keyed to that, and that the structure and clarity and brevity of the models, makes each one a very powerful lesson to them. I’ve read books that I can summarize in one model, but the whole book deals with all of this, that, and the other thing. So the models bring a very sharp clarity to very complex business problems, and very sharp clarity to the alternatives for how to deal with those problems.
JL: Besides those models, you also have real world examples that you’ve dealt with that for us has the interest of also having a lot of computer history in it. You’ve got these great anecdotes, like we’ve talked a little bit about here that coincide with the stories you have – the models and different business lessons.
BW: And I think it’s important for the listeners and the readers to understand as well that the book covers not only all of Mike’s great management models, but these were based on the Viewpoint editorials that Mike published every month in Nibble magazine, which cover not only management models, but also things that were going on in the market at the time like the rise and fall of the Apple II market.
MH: That’s right. Each one I tried to deal with a particular critical situation where I could see multiple viewpoints, and try to bring some clarity to it to see how to resolve it. I looked on the editorial comment as a problem/resolution page, where the problems could be generic business problems, or they could be problems with mismanagement. One of the big companies, I think it was Lotus, spent millions trying to defend 1-2-3 against Excel, and I watched that battle. And I thought, “That is a terrible, terrible conflict. And Lotus is going to loose,” and they did.
JL: That reminds me of one of the anecdotes I got to hear today, which I absolutely loved, and if you could just talk to us a little bit about a certain company called Sparc, Sun Microsystems. If you could tell that’s story, that’s really wonderful.
BW: Oh yes, that was fun.
MH: When I started up Nibble, I also started my company, and I thought, “Okay. What should I name my company?” I looked at Byte, and I didn’t want to use Byte, but I did want to use Nibble because a nibble is half a byte, and I advertised Nibble from day one as computing for the small guy, the little guy. But I still needed a company name, so I thought, “What should be in it? Software should be in it, publishing should be in it…S.P…okay.” And I just started playing with words, and finally came up with “Software Publishing And Research Company.” I thought, “That sounds pretty heavy.”
MH: That sounds a lot heavier than I am. So I thought, “I’ll use that,” and I used it as “S.P.A.R.C.” with periods separating it. So I ran my first issue and S.P.A.R.C. was the company, and I trademarked the name because I wanted to protect it. So we started advertising the company as S.P.A.R.C..
JL: About what year is this right now?
MH: This is 1980. And so we ran it that way with S.P.A.R.C. for probably three or four years, and then somebody said, “Sun Micro does have SPARC and maybe you ought to change it to protect yourself from them.” I said, “Okay, I’ll make it MICRO-SPARC”, so I put MICRO in front of it, trademarked that and we just kept running. That went on until 1986 or 1987, and one day the phone rings and it’s a lawyer from Sun Microsystems on the West Coast saying, “We know you are misusing the SPARC name. We are ordering you to cease and desist.” That’s a lawyer’s favorite term – cease and desist. I said, “Well, I think you may have it wrong here since I have that copyrighted” and there was silence on the other end of the line. And to make a long story short, I said, “Look, let me consult with my lawyer. We will be back to you.” I consulted with my lawyer and he said, “You are rock solid.” So I had my lawyer write them a letter saying, “We own the MICRO-SPARC copyright. You should cease and desist using SPARC.”
BW: Turning the tables!
MH: And I said, “However, if you are interested in purchasing the copyright, we are open to a bid.” It didn’t take them very long to come back and say we’ll give you a quarter million dollars for it.”
JL: That’s awesome. That was great. Nothing like beating back a bully, right?
MH: Right. What was really funny about that was when the word spread that we had done that, there were other companies that had titles of products that sort of infringed on others. I started getting calls from them saying, “Do I have a case for going after this magazine for using their name?” And I said, “No you really don’t” because they hadn’t done it properly.
BW: Since we’re on a little bit of a legal topic, I was really impressed by the copyright precedent that you set, where someone was selling the type-in programs from Nibble. Could you talk about that and the precedent that still affects software copyright to this day?
MH: Sure. There was an entrepreneur in Las Vegas who decided he could make a business out of getting an issue of Nibble, hiring a typing service to type in the programs, which he would then put on disk, and then he would sell copies of the disk.
JL: Which also competed the fact that you also sold copies of the programs on disk, correct?
MH: Right. The difference was were paying the author and doing all of this, this guy was just paying someone to type it in, and then duplicating multiple copies of it, and flooding the market with cheap disks. We saw that as an extreme threat because remember we were selling five to eight thousand disks a month. And at $15, that’s a lot of money. So we saw that as an extreme threat. I got my lawyer into it, he confirmed that our copyright was rock solid, and then he researched to see what copyright law existed to cover software on a disk – magnetic impulses on a disk – none. It was brand-new territory. Copyright law had never been written to cover that medium.
BW: And what year was this?
MH: This was 1986 or 1987.
BW: That’s surprising. The industry had been around for at least eight years on some level at that point.
MH: Well, copyright doesn’t become an issue until it is broken and challenged, so I guess everybody was just going along fat, dumb and happy. There was no copyright law on magnetic images on disks. We got a hearing with Judge Garrity in the federal court in Boston. Garrity was the one who did the famous ruling on busing in Boston in the 1970s – a very famous judge. I went down the courtroom with my Apple II under my arm, two disk drives, a couple of disks, and we demonstrated on the screen with Judge Garrity and his associate there how programs get typed into a computer. We described where they go. We described what can happen to them once they get where they go – they can be duplicated, and we demonstrated the whole process. At the end of it, Garrity said, “I don’t understand.” I said, “Well, could we ask you and your assistant to talk about it some more, and we’ll come back?” We came back a week later, went through the whole thing again, and his assistant was a very bright, young guy who did understand. And when he explained it to Garrity, Garrity said, “Yes, that is copyright infringement.” And there was no precedent for it, so Garrity wrote the law. And the law is published in the law.
JL: That’s great.
BW: That’s really impressive that by your efforts…
MH: We established a real milestone in software production. The interesting thing was when the decision was handed down, predictably the guy in Las Vegas just closed up shop and moved to Hawaii. They do a lot of fly-by-night stuff. For him it was just a fly-by-night, quick-and-dirty, make some bucks and get out.
BW: That’s good that you stood up and defended yourself, and everyone else in the process who creates intellectual property on a computer…
MH: We really did a service to the industry then.
BW: You really did.
JL: Brian is there anything you else you wanted to bring up before we wrap this up?
BW: I do have a general, looking forward question. With all of your experience at IBM, and Xerox, and Nibble, and the consulting you’ve done before and since, where do you see computers of the future? Where do you see the industry transitioning into the future from where we are now?
MH: Oh wow.
BW: I know that’s rather a large question, but do you think we’re going to end up with the artificial intelligent HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or how do you see computers developing?
MH: That’s a very good question and I have thought about it. I see computers taking over more and more manual human activities. Most of them are very simple, but they are increasingly complex like driving a car, or monitoring a patient, or doing something like that. The opportunities for people to do those things are diminishing, because computers can do them faster, they can do them better, they can do them more comprehensively, and they are tireless – they just keep doing it, and doing it, and doing it. So the question is, “What’s left for people?” And I’ve thought a lot about that, because I have eight grandchildren, and I’m wondering what they’re going to do when they grow up and have to get jobs. As I think about it, I think that we’re going to see more and more careers of young people involving the physical sciences like being an electrician, and being an auto mechanic. Things that involve thought, that involve analysis correction, but that involve hands-on that can’t normally, easily be done by a computer. Frankly, I am not…I would hate to be starting out myself in these markets, because I think it is going to be very tough. The service industries are not robust enough or demanding enough to be able to command living wages, so that’s out. I wonder what’s going to happen when millions of cab drivers and truck drivers aren’t needed to drive trucks and cabs anymore. And I think it’s a very weird and very very serious, scary transition time.
BW: It is. It’s exciting in some ways just thinking that the car can drive us, but you’re right – how many thousands or millions of people will that put out of work? In one sense, just using the car as an example, it will enable a lot of people, perhaps people who are disabled or can’t get a driver’s license can now get around and live, but on the other hand it will fundamentally change things.
MH: The big payoff on these things is having an affect on everyday activity like driving to the market, driving to pick up the kids at school, and that covers the whole spectrum – the vast majority of people, and that’s vulnerable. I think that’s very vulnerable. So I don’t have a good answer to it. It’s something I think about a lot, particularly as I see the politicians making their pronouncements about how they’re going to make America great again and all that sort of crap. It’s all bull. What it ultimately has to get down to is: there needs to be some meaningful activity that can be done by a person, and probably only a person, and then put together in a business relationship. And that’s very hard to define these days.
BW: It is. Thank you for that thought. And if anyone wants to read more about Mike Harvey and Nibble magazine you can go to Nibble-Magazine.com, and his new book Nibble Viewpoints that I designed and edited is available from Call-A.P.P.L.E..
JL: Excellent. Mike, I wanted to thank you very much. I hope you enjoyed yourself here at KansasFest.
JL: It’s wonderful to see a growing community for a computer and reliving the excitement that everyone feels about them. So thank you very much.
MH: My pleasure.
BW: It was a real honor to meet you! Thanks for your time.
MH: Well, thank you for all the things you’ve done for me. By golly, bringing the Nibble models back to life is a huge event in my life, and I have you to thank for that.
BW: Thank you Mike. I’m glad that more people around the world can learn from your insights and expertise.
MH: Let’s take it to the next step.
MH: Spread the word!