The New Stack Makers: Marc Canter and the Days Before Macromedia — Part One
This is the first of a two-part interview with Marc Canter, one of the pioneers of multimedia software development. Canter is now the founder of Interface, Inc., an app authoring platform designed to take advantage of contextual data coming off of devices and sensors.
Marc Canter Interview – The New Stack Interview, Part One
Alex: My name’s Alex Williams, the founder of The New Stack, with Marc Canter. Marc is one of the pioneers, I think, of this whole world we’re in right now. Twenty-five years ago, you were deeply into…
Marc: It’s actually thirty. Time keeps moving on.
We’re meeting here at this restaurant Shalimar and so you can hear us in the background. And what did we order?
Marc: We ordered some tandoori lamb chops. We ordered some saag paneer, some spinach stuff. We ordered some lamb, some biryani, some naan, some raita. This is actually a Pakistani cab driver place. Back before Lyft and Uber, these people live – I used to be a cab driver. You put in a 12-hour shift. You want the good stuff. You come here. The way I first discovered this restaurant was people were lined up out the door. You have these hippies, you have these cab drivers and the food is really inexpensive and it’s totally authentic.
You obviously like food, right?
When you were a kid, what were the influences that led to your love for food?
Marc: My father and grandfather were union organizers. My father was an organizer of the meat packers union in Chicago, so I would be taken to one of these rib joints. My notion of being a man was to be able to eat a whole slab of ribs. So, by age twelve I became a man. Then they said, “Now, if you are a real man, you can eat the hot sauce.” So, by sixteen I can eat the hot sauce.
My whole life is raised around food. Nowadays I’m starting to understand I got to lose weight. So I’m shifting my diet some. I’m doing G-BOMBS. But, for many, many years, I’m totally like the guy who’d go out and have a big table of twenty people, and I’d be the guy who’d order for everybody.
What were you doing with your Dad? What was the thing you guys were doing?
Marc: My father was a politician. I marched with Martin Luther King. I was at the Chicago Democratic Convention. We would have local elections. I’d be the kid, when the election results would come in, I’d take the vote from the phone and write it up to the board so that it’d be right up on the board. The problem was that we lost every election. This is in Chicago where we had Mayor Daley. I got a real burn-out on politics.
My grandfather was a famous American communist. He served a year in prison for the Sacco and Vanzetti case. He called the Governor a murderer. They arrested him. He served a year in prison. He came out in November 1929. He picked up the family. He moved to Russia.
So, this is my foundation: Pete Seeger, the left movement, progressivism. I took the ideal of my father and grandfather and applied it to software. I always felt as though when I was right at the cusp of…
When was that?
Marc: Well, ‘77. I went to Oberlin. I was an opera singer, then I learned about computers.
How is it you got involved in opera?
Marc: Because I was a boy soprano in Chicago Children’s Choir. I always had a good voice (demonstrates). I got lucky. My high school had a Moog synthesizer. By the time I entered college, I got in on my voice and I had two reels of portfolio tape. This is 1975. Oberlin was one of the first schools on the planet to teach not only analog synthesizers, but this thing called “computer music.” So I’m doing 6502 assembler; I’m learning APL; but, the only way I ever used computers was for electronic music.
So it was a tool for you.
Marc: And I was building circuits, TTL Logic. I remember building a sequencer with fifty different chips. When I finished the project the teacher said, “Oh, by the way, you could do that whole project with this one chip.” So I learned TTL the real hard way. I’m doing wire wrapping. I’m learning skill sets. Then I built a Serge synthesizer. It’s one of the first kit synthesizers.
They’ve kicked out my guru at Oberlin. I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, and there I learned a video synthesizer. I took the triggers and voltages from my music synthesizer and interfaced it to a video synthesizer. At that time I coined this phrase: “it’s just as wrong to be a musician as an artist” – those artificial boundaries based upon the technology. Now, we can paint with a violin and make music with our paint brush. That’s called “a computer.” So that was ‘78.
That was 1978 and you were experimenting…
Marc: Right, I’m doing wacky performance art stuff.
This is in Chicago.
Marc: Right. I go back to Oberlin to get my degree. Everybody I knew had moved to New York. So, I moved to New York in the 1980s, the summer of 1980. My compatriots had set up a recording studio called Noise New York, on 34th Street between 7th and 8th. Talking Heads, all the wacky downtown people coming through it, and we would call it “Noise Music.” I got my synthesizer. I was playing in a band. I played at Max’s Kansas City, CBGB. I’d go out every night, dancing at the Mudd Club.
I was a high school student in New York at that time. There was great music.
Marc: Oh, totally. So I’m learning all this stuff, and what that was, was the cusp from analog going into digital.
How did you recognize that?
Marc: Because I had these skill sets. I knew how to do TTL Logic. I knew how to code. It was awesome. I had skill sets and I can get a job. I did laser light show programming; I did interactive laser disc; I learned how to be a CMX video editor; all these skills I had.
I eventually ended up at the Knoxville World’s Fair doing a laser light show for Federal Express, came back, decided to move back to Chicago, and got into graduate school at the University of Illinois where computer graphics was being born: Tom DeFanti.
Two days later, I get offered a job at Bally/Midway for $7,000 a month. Because I was a musician, I was writing melody lines for video games. I worked on Professor Pac Man. I worked on Ms. Gorf. You know something called Gorf? Then I did Ms. Gorf. And then, I got to do the soundtrack for a game called Spy Hunter (Hums the iconic Peter Gunn theme music). So what that significant is, is the first game to have licensed music.
Who else were you meeting then?
Marc: The whole computer graphics scene was born in Chicago. We’d go to SIGGRAPH, ‘82, ‘83, ’84, and the whole scene at U of I – Tom DeFanti, Dan Sandin, Eugene Jarvis who did Joust, Mark Pierce who was my partner – all these guys were doing amazing stuff, all in 8-bit, by the way. Maybe it’d be a high res 640×480 screen, probably had a Z-80 1MHz processor – so when we did Professor Pac Man, we had the most amount of memory of any video game. It had 512k of ROM. That was like, wow, you know, over the top. So I was in the right place at the right time.
I was at Bally/Midway and we heard about this new machine coming out. It was a totally high-end machine. It had 128k of RAM, and it had a built-in frame buffer and a built-in audio file.
We used the Mac to create games for the Apple 2, Commodore 64 and Atari 800. Right in ‘84, that market completely dropped out. We had these tools.; we were represented by the William Morris Agency; we were published by Hayden Software; Guy Kawasaki had contacted us; we had been hustled by Apple. We were the tenth Macintosh developer. So it’s all good, except the Mac didn’t sell.
So there was this prescient moment. We were selling the software. We had the first music product for the Macintosh. It was called MusicWorks.
It didn’t sell, you say?
Marc: The Mac wasn’t selling because the Mac was like $5,000, you know? It’s a high-end machine. There’s this prescient moment where I’m at this MacWorld show and this guy walks up to me. He was an engineer from DuPont, and he says, “Marc, I couldn’t get on the Symbolics machine to do my synthetic fiber molecule animation, so I used your $99 software and this $5,000 Macintosh and this 3D thing. Look! You want to see animating fiber molecules?” And I’m going, “Oh, my God!” And that was really to me the birth of multimedia. There was so many things we could do with this stuff, and I had no clue. That is exactly the essence of this new company Interface.
There are other communities that were emerging at that time?
Marc: Computer graphics; digital video, eventually; non-linear video editing; computer music; this thing called “MIDI.” We got the second MIDI connector for the Macintosh. Because we had the first music product called MusicWorks, we attached it to MusicWorks, so it was MusicWorks MIDI.
In those old days, you’d go on a panel and the panel would be called “Software.” There would be some guy who’s doing printer drivers, and there’d be somebody doing the accounting software, and me, because there just wasn’t that much software. So this is the early, early days, you know? By the way, we didn’t have enough money to afford and pay for a trade show booth. So I figured out: damn, I could go rent a suite upstairs, fill up the bathtub with beer and have a party. Because those days you’d have the cocktail party at 6 o’clock, everybody would go to dinner, and they’d go home. So I said, “Dudes, come up to my suite at 10 o’clock. We’re partying.” And if you would come to my party, I would grab your hand and I would sit you in front of the machine to see multimedia in the screen. Because people just couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Animation, click on the button, things were happening.
As of January ‘86, every Macintosh shipped with a disc that we did for them; it’s called the “training disc.” The cursor is moving. So we had legitimacy – we’re validated – but it was only until the color Macintosh came out that the imagination would start to flow. It’s very hard to figure out that shit on a black & white, little screen. So, we were at the right place at the right time, and that’s right when Windows was announced. Anybody who knew how to program for a GUI either got bought or got venture capital. We opted for VC money.
Who was that from?
Marc: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, this guy named John Doerr. We were their third software investment ever.
Who were their first two?
Marc: That’s a good question. I couldn’t tell you. Though I should say, officially, there was another VC firm that came in first. And they helped me recruit a guy named John Scull. I asked him, “Is your name John Sculley?” No, he was John Scull. He was Sculley’s protégé. He was credited with doing desktop publishing. That’s what happened between ‘85 and ‘86, the LaserWriter and PageMaker came out. All of a sudden the Macintosh was viable. So Scull then moved on to do all these research things around this thing called “multimedia.” We were calling it “creativity tools,” but Apple and Microsoft and IBM called it “multimedia.”
So we recruit Scull. We get the VC money. They tell us to move from Chicago to California. They said, “Why don’t you want to live in the valley?” I said, “No, I want to be up in the city. I want to wear my black leather jacket, you know?” (We) landed at 5th and Townsend (in San Francisco) and did our thing, started to build up a company.
Who was working with you then? Who were the people on your team?
Marc: My other two co-founders of MacroMind were Jay Fenton (now Jamie Fenton) and Mark Pierce. My original team, the programmer, who is working with Interface, my new company – he got stolen by Alan Kay. Alan Kay is this big shot dude. He’s running a project at Apple. He says to me, “Marc, I really want to work with you. You can be in charge of the project. Why don’t we move Jay out first?” Critical mistake, right? We moved Jay out to California. Two weeks later, Jay’s on the phone: “I’m quitting; I’m going to go work for Apple.” So Apple stole my programmer.
My other partner, Mark Pierce who’s the artist, he couldn’t stand my wife. See, the way we started was my father-in-law gave us money to get going. But (Mark) never got along with my first wife, so he quit, too. So, I got Eric Newman, my buddy from Oberlin. I got a guy named John Henry Thomson who was an MIT graduate. He had done this interactive bed. He had worked for Droid Works, which is the non-linear editing thing up at LucasFilm. He is the guy who wrote Lingo, the programming language. They had Dan Sadowski – another videogame guy – Al MacNeil, incredible coders.
I was just really lucky, when I look back in hindsight. Incredible coders, incredible opportunity in the marketplace. Boy, did I learn lessons. Then I went out on the road, and I took this vision – the three things we did that no one had ever done before. We created a multimedia player – you’d have this tool that would play back the file. You didn’t use the tool to distribute the file. We created a multimedia authoring environment so that a non-programmer could do stuff. Finally, our player in that environment allowed you to author once and play back on multiple platforms. Somebody had to invent it.
I’ll give you a couple of funny stories with regard to that. We do a licensing deal with Microsoft; we did a deal with IBM, with Fujitsu. “You’re going to bake in this player into your OS.” I go do the keynote – oh, first we make the announcement: me and Bill Gates on stage; we’ve got two screens up on the wall. One is a Macintosh – it’s got these animations flying around the screen. The other one is this black screen with the command line on. Bill Gates goes, “I’d like to announce multimedia coming to the PC in the new Windows platform.” He hits the space bar and the animation flies across the screen over to the second screen. It’s this awesome moment. Just so you know what it’s like as an entrepreneur.
When was that and where?
Marc: ‘88? That would have been in Moscone or one of these big places. Just so you know what my life was like. I go off the stage. This is before cell phones; I walk over to a pay phone; I pick up the phone; I call my wife. “Honey, I think we’ve got it. I just got off stage with Bill Gates. Everyone loved it. I think we’re over the hump.” You know what she said? “Who wrote this $223 check? I did not authorize this check!” She was screaming at me. I was like, wow, you know? That was my life in those days.
A few weeks later, they asked me to keynote the first Microsoft multimedia conference. I’m on stage and I’m explaining author-once-playback-many-times. I put MacroMind in the center of the universe. We had license deals to Fujitsu, IBM, Microsoft. Apple would never talk to us; they would never want to do business with us. But, you know, we’re extrapolating; NEC, Compaq at the time, these are the players. I did a speech, I get off the stage. Well, Rob Glaser at the time was in charge of multimedia for Microsoft. I walk off stage; he’s standing right there; he goes, “How dare you say that you’re the center of the universe at a Microsoft conference?” So they pulled the deal. They paid us the money. We were supposed to become the dot-mmm format and baked into every copy of Windows. They pulled the deal and they had to go back to square one. So, welcome to my life.
So, Rob Glaser is there and he’s working for Microsoft. What is he doing there?
Marc: Microsoft would go into a market; the phrase is “embrace and extend.” They wouldn’t invent anything, but by their sheer willpower and money they’d go in; they establish a standard, they put on a conference, and they’d do this across all these different areas and categories. They’d go get a project manager guy, Rob Glaser: “Okay, we’re going to…” – I think it was called the mmc, mpc format – “we’re going to go evangelize to all these hardware guys, we’re going to make sure software guys…” and Microsoft inserts themselves right in the middle, and they’d create ecosystems, and they did this over and over again. This just happened to be the effort around multimedia, which by the way failed. When the CD-ROMs hit the marketplace, I’m not sure if you know that 85% of most CD-ROMs were created with Director…
Is that just due to the culture at the time of Microsoft? What were you threatening when they pulled the contract?
Marc: The fact that we were saying that a developer could write this thing once and not have to do it over and over again. I’ve always seen things from a developer’s point of view. By the way, even the word “developer” in those days was something different than we’re using today. The first developers conference was Microsoft. There was a CD-ROM conference in ‘85. Apple put on the second developers conference around ‘86-’87. And we put on the third one around ‘88. We called it “multimedia developers.” Nowadays the word “developer” infers “programmer.”
We were building up a market that didn’t exist. So I’d be out on the road, I’d go to Japan; about 25,000 CD-ROMs were produced during this period of time.
Wired magazine comes along. But Wired was only interested in the fluffy, superfluous stuff. We were shipping educational products. People were doing simulations. We’re doing scientific visualizations. There’s all these things happening. Wired was never interested in that stuff. They only want the kind of spacey, Jaron Lanier VR bullshit.
So, I’m going around, we’re establishing sales channels. We had kept ourselves alive by taking our product and building in-store marketing demos and simulations. That was a work-for-hire business and we were able to bootstrap. When the VC showed up in my life, they say, “Oh, no, you can’t do a service business.”
In 1989 – by the way, there was a downturn that year – MacroMind did a $3 million year. I know of one developer – she herself, her one company, did $1 million. We were leaving so much money on the table that they had to start merging in other companies, because the model in those days was, you do an IPO within three years of the investment. So we took the money in ’88; we were supposed to go public by ‘91.
So there’s a downturn in ‘89 and ‘90, so they start merging in other companies to get the cash flow of those other products to grow the company artificially. Eventually merged with a company called Authorware. And thus begat Macromedia. That’s how the company changed.
Before he put on Demo, Stewart Alsop put on a conference called Agenda. Stewart’s really smart. I had this animation tool and I showed it to Stewart – this is right during Max Headroom. So we created a “John Sculley Headroom” at Agenda; we would have an animation, and I would hit the keys on the keyboard, and John Sculley’s mouth would open and close and we would put words in there. I’m hanging out on the scene and again, when “The Windows” got announced, anybody that was doing GUI stuff got noticed. That’s when I first met him.
Then, a guy named Miles Gilburne, at an SPA conference at the Claremont Hotel – SPA was Software Publishers Association; we were now winning awards for best software products – I’m on the dance floor and this guy Miles comes up to me. He comes up to my room, “Hey, you got a software company that does GUI? Wow! Let’s invest in you. We got to go get an Apple CEO.” So Miles comes in, “You’re going to need some big dollars.” So I had met Doerr before. We hook up with them, and it was really this guy John Scull. All the factors led together. This is by January ’88, we’re moved out to California and we’ve got our A round of money.
Anyone else interested in investing in you at that time?
Marc: As these mergers happened, basically all the blue chip firms were represented. When the company went public December ‘93 they had taken $45 million in VC. Because this guy Scull, in two years – and he only lasted two years – he went back to the trough five times. He was that incompetent. You just have to imagine: I had handed him the spreadsheets: “You guys take care of business. I’m going to go develop products and evangelize and fly around the world.” So between ‘87 and ‘94, I travelled to Japan fifty times. Because you have to remember, in that day, Japan was leading the world in multimedia. Most people thought that Sony was going to buy Apple, because 40% of every Apple product was a Sony device. There’s real confusion; nobody really understood multimedia; they were looking for the money. You know where the money was? Games. So the game industry benefited from it.
Doerr always talked about this thing called the Keiratsu, the working together, these different companies. So Doerr took the knowledge that we gave them and he set up Crystal Dynamics, Spectrum HoloByte, and he set up this company called 3DO, and they’re all “experts” at multimedia. Where do you think they learned that from?
I always believed that a CEO – the leader of a company – should use your product. That’s what Bill Gates was. So I used their product. We were a production business; we were producing things; that’s how we made the product better. We’d have programmers be in the booth of MacWorld. The customers would come up, they’d ask them a question, they’d go back to the hotel room, add a feature and come back the next day with the feature. We were a very organic thing.
As they kicked me out, they got rid of my culture. About half of us left: the VP of Technology, myself, my wife, my programmers. We all went to this thing called Kaleida Labs, which was a joint venture between Apple and IBM. We started building multimedia system software. The term “macromedia” was the name of a compound document architecture that was being produced by a rewriter – “object-oriented rewrite,” because that was the other buzzword.
What is a “compound document”?
Marc: Apple called it “Bento”. The same file would have photos, video, audio, text, everything in one file instead of scattered all over the place. Even today we don’t have that kind of thing. This was one of those things coming out of the Apple Labs.
So, we went to Kaleida Labs. They start developing multimedia systems software called ScriptX. And two or three years later, Macromedia woke up and went, “Wow, wait a minute, we already got multimedia.” They called it Shockwave. That’s how that came about; that was the Director player, so now they’ve got this big, fat-ass Director player. That’s why it was put on to the CD-ROMs.
Then, when the 2400 bog modem came along: “Sorry, that Director thing called ‘.dcr’ was too heavy.” Well, I had told them when I left, “Dudes, put ‘vectors’ as one of the data types in the timeline.” They never did that. This guy named Charlie Jackson paid for this clone of Director called Flash. Macromedia buys Flash and bifurcates the developer community. So, there’s the original people and all the new people. It took over ten years for Flash to have the features that Director had back in ‘95.
Remember that we also needed bandwidth. I remember going in to meet with Jerry Yang and trying to say, “You need photographs and videos,” and he’s like, “No, we’re Netscape 3 compatible; we only do text,” because they wanted to have a wide distribution. It was like ‘98 or something.
All throughout this, throughout the rest of the ‘90s, I ignored the web and I focused on what I saw was the evolution of multimedia: interactive TV.