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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Back-to-the-Future - Real-time Collaborative Communications

Copyright © 2011 The Unified-View, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

October 26, 2011

Back-to-the Future 2 – Collaborative Communications in Time-Sharing Systems

By Art Rosenberg, The Unified-View

Being a “pioneer” isn’t always fun, especially if you have to wait forty years for the world to catch up with you.

In my last blog, I described how “time-sharing” was the start of online applications before the Internet and the Web made them a lot easier and cheaper. I helped speed up the commercialization of time-sharing systems by getting Scientific Data Systems (SDS) to adopt the Berkeley time-sharing system as an early product offering. However, before moving to SDS, I also was able to help bring real-time “collaboration” and, what today would be called text “chat,” into time-shared applications.

The SDC Time-sharing System

System Development Corporation, a spin-off the Rand Corporation, was tasked to develop one of the first “time-sharing” systems for ARPA. As described in my previous article, the objective was for remote end users to independently access various “interactive “ applications in real-time, dialing in on telephone lines from Teletype terminals. However, there was no person-to-person connectivity function involved.

In 1964, SDC was going to give a paper on the time-sharing system at a big computer conference in Washington, DC and I had the responsibility for demonstrating it at a small booth in the exhibit area.

I saw the value of having an interactive application simultaneously accommodate more one person at a time, so I talked to the programmer who was developing the communication front-end computer interface for connecting remote end users over the telephone network. I suggested that, instead of a single field associated with remote user connections, that two fields be provided. That would allow the two users to simultaneously interact with the same application, both seeing all inputs and outputs concurrently. However, the programmer wasn’t sure that the effort was really important or that it could be done in time for the conference.

The LINK Command

A week before the conference, the programmer called me to tell me he had done what I had asked, by adding an online command to the time-sharing system user interface. In addition to “linking” two remote terminals together with a time-shared application, the ‘linked” users could type in text messages for both to see. That was our version of today’s text “chat” function.

I immediately notified the various researchers, who were developing a variety of interactive applications on our time-sharing system, to plan on being on the system during the times that I planned to demonstrate the SDC time-sharing system at the computer show in Washington. I was then able to “visit” with each of the researchers to see and try the different interactive applications they had developed.


Needless to say, computer show attendees who were used to batch-processing, premise-based main frames, could not believe what they saw from the Model 33 ASR terminals connected to standard phone lines that I was using. The computer system itself was three thousand miles away and they could interact in real-time with different applications and concurrently exchange text messages with the people who were also three thousand miles away.

Although this demonstration was very simple and primitive compared to what the Internet and text messaging technologies do today, e.g., email, chat, file sharing, etc., it did help shift the original vision of time-sharing from simply remote access to interactive computing applications to the potential of direct communications between users on the network and to “collaborative” online interactions with shared applications. The SDC system was not a commercial product and the “LINK” concept did not go anywhere. The world had to wait for the Internet and email to provide universal access to online text communications.

Today, with UC and multi-modal, mobile devices, we are seeing that early vision being expanded from person-to-person communications to process-to-person contacts and interactions (CEBP).