All during his pursuit of Xanadu, Nelson took it for granted that it would be implemented. Such brilliant associates as lead programmer Roger Gregory and nanotechnology pioneer Erik Drexler wrestled with the practicalities of his dream while Nelson blithely acted as if it were just around the corner. In 1989, he testified in Washington, D.C., before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, chaired by Al Gore, about “the coming hypertext revolution.” Back when the Internet was still a rarefied tool for scientists, Nelson predicted: “The dissemination and preservation of prepared information packages that can include graphics, sound, video, statistics, laboratory information and anything else we ever digitize should seem no more exotic to us than the instantaneous delivery of the human voice across the telephone, or the instantaneous delivery of the human comedy by television.” Summing up, he said: “The Xanadu system, or something very like it, is inevitable….” That same year, Tim Berners-Lee was proposing to his employer, CERN, the European particle physics research center, a project that would become the World Wide Web, the “something like Xanadu” Nelson foresaw–but didn’t build.
Against this background of visionary vaporware, the ultimate success or failure of ZigZag may be less important for Nelson than the mere fact that it exists. Ted Nelson has his first nonvirtual software, and that will certainly enhance his credibility–although some will hold him to higher expectations. Already e-mails are streaming in from those who have mistakenly heard that he is demonstrating Xanadu. He’s not, but he does say his next deliverable is likely to be a long-promised part of Xanadu: micropayment for authors’ royalties, as a commercial product called HyperCoin. As for the copyright tracking Xanadu was supposed to enable, Nelson has spun off a doctrine of public-domain links and limited permissions for use of material on the Web he calls “transcopyright.”
Divvied up into more accessible programs, Nelson’s vision can finally transcend his all-or-nothing Xanadu, his albatross. “The Xanadu model is so simple, and yet people, instead of hearing it, insist on ridiculing the fact that we never got it out,” he laments during a conversation in New York’s Tribeca a few days after the Wearable Computing conference. To get more deliverables out now, he is “focused to a narrower plan,” he says. “Before there was no telling what to do next because the plan was broad and covered so many directions, and there were no resources.”
Although Nelson is now delivering his vision in smaller, easier-to-comprehend programming units, the size of his ambition hasn’t changed. He is still building his Xanadu, he’s just got a new approach: doing it piece by piece inside your computer.