Death of Gopher Foretold, March '96

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From: Rohit Khare (
Date: Fri May 19 2000 - 00:51:45 PDT

The Death of Gopher
The Gopher -- an Internet "killer app" of
the early '90s -- is a dinosaur today.
But don't tell that to its creators.

By James Romenesko
Published in the St. Paul
Pioneer Press on March 4, 1996

The Internet software developers at the University of Minnesota
realized that their Gopher application was not just hot, but also
hip, when they turned on their television sets one night and saw MTV
veejay Adam Curry wearing an "Internet Gopher World Tour" T-shirt.

The black T-shirt looked like something worn by a heavy-metal band to
promote upcoming concerts. While musicians have tour cities and dates
on the back of their shirts, the Gopher World Tour shirt sported
names of countries and the number of Gopher servers located in each
part of the world.

It was the early 1990s, and the University of Minnesota was savoring
the success of this freeware application that made the Internet so
easy to navigate. With Gopher, you could simply point-and-click to
find information ranging from college catalogs to campus newspapers.
In its day, Gopher was the Net's "killer application."

"It made the Internet accessible to people who weren't
propeller-heads," says Daniel Torrey, a member of the Gopher
Development Team who has since left the university.

But that was then, and this is now. The multimedia-savvy World Wide
Web has become the Internet's new killer application. The developers
of such Web "browsers'' as Netscape have become Wall Street darlings
and millionaires.

Meanwhile, the all-text Gopher -- although still used by many -- now
has a musty feel. Netcom Internet Service Provider marketing chief
John Zeisler has said that a human year is about five Internet years,
and thus, Gopher is nearly a quarter-century old in cyberspace time.

"Gopher is maybe pretty much done,'' admits Natalie Ostrom, a team
member who designed the Gopher icon, which runs while the application
does its searching. "It's kind of sad. With the younger people, you
mention Gopher and they say, 'Wasn't that eons ago?' It makes me feel
like a pioneer.''

Actually, it was just 1991 when the University of Minnesota put its
files out for worldwide viewing on the world's first Gopher server.
Other institutions swiftly followed. Eventually, more than 8,000
Gopher servers popped up around the world. Even the White House had
its own Gopher, which it demonstrated live on the "Good Morning
America'' television show.

The members of the Gopher development team became celebrities of
sorts, invited to speak at conferences around the country and show
off their genius. One former U programmer recalls being stopped and
quizzed at length by a stranger who spotted him wearing a Gopher
World Tour T-shirt; the young man wanted to share his Internet
experiences with the Gopher team member.

"We thought we were rock stars,'' says Torrey. "We had a blast.''

Gopher, named after the University of Minnesota's sports mascot, also
put the university in the spotlight. It gave the U an international
reputation for being on the cutting edge of Internet technology.

"It's given the university an identity,'' says Scott Elton, associate
director of university relations. "I get a little joy in seeing all
the mentions of Gopher and to see Gopher servers from other
universities. We'd have problems on our hands if we had to promote
the University of Minnesota's `Badger' server.''

How Gopher came into being is a story of a team of mavericks battling
against the university bureaucracy and trying to deal with many egos
and a million scattered ideas.

In 1990, the University of Minnesota administration decided it needed
a campuswide online information systems network and put a committee
in charge of implementing it.

A university programmer named Mark McCahill, then 34, sat with the
panel and listened to its plans. He decided that a team from what was
then called the university Microcenter, Workstation, Networks Center
could do better.

"Some of the people designing (the committee's network plan) didn't
really write software,'' says McCahill. "It's sort of like having
someone who doesn't know how to make a car engine design the engine
and then hand it to the guys who actually have to build it.''

At the same time, there was a second information systems project
being developed by the university's Academic Computing Services
department. "It was designed to be somewhat similar (to Gopher), but
in many ways it was more cumbersome,'' says Phil Kachelmyer, a Gopher
Team member. "It never got very far into the development stage before
it was dropped.''

McCahill went to a colleague, Farhad Anklesaria, and explained what
was being pitched by the committee.

McCahill remembers, "Farhard kept saying, 'This is stupid. It doesn't
need to be that complicated. Make it really simple. All we're really
doing is saying that you should have files and people can go look at
the files.'''

Anklesaria spent a weekend in early 1991 developing a prototype to
would do just that - essentially a beta version of Gopher. He
presented his concoction to McCahill.

Recalls McCahill: "I said, `But Farhad, we'll never get this past the
committee because there's not enough there.''' The program wasn't
dazzling enough.

McCahill suggested the addition of full-text searching capability to
the application - for some extra gliltz as well as value. "Full-text
searching was like a new thing under the sun five years ago,'' notes

The two, with assistance from the newly formed Gopher Team,
fine-tuned the prototype as music from Nirvana and Mudhoney blared in
the background.

"It was a fun time,'' recalls team member Torrey. "It was a lot of
late nights and weekends and a lot of beer, pizza and speed metal.''

Eventually, the team needed some files to dump into their baby Gopher
so they could demonstrate its text-searching capability.

"We took the Usenet (Internet newsgroup) cookbook and put that into
it,'' says McCahill. "That was the first thing - so first the Gopher
was serving recipes up. We figured everybody ate, and it was a good
way of illustrating what full-text searching could do."

If you were looking for recipes with eggplant, you simply typed in
the word and the application would locate every eggplant reference -
a dazzling capability in 1991.

But some University committee members still didn't like it.

Says McCahill, "They weren't completely enamored with what we'd done,
partly because we had done it in a simpler way. ... There was some
concern that it wasn't frilly enough. There were some people who
thought, 'I guess it did what we wanted,' and there were others who
thought, 'But you didn't do it my way.' There was some ego involved
in this.''

But McCahill convinced his bosses that Gopher would be useful on
campus for students with computer-related questions that previously
had to be answered by telephone helplines.

"That was the argument that finally broke through the other
objections,'' says McCahill. "They said, 'Fine, use it for that.'''

When they unleashed Gopher on campus, the team also made their
application available to the rest of the world via anonymous ftp, a
simple Internet system for sharing files.

"We were probably kind of naughty (for doing it),'' says Natalie
Ostrom. (McCahill denies they did anything wrong, however.)

Once other universities discovered Gopher, which happened quickly,
the U bosses had to accept it. Eventually, of course, they embraced

"Within a year, there were hundreds of Gopher servers on all
continents,'' says Torrey.

Team leader McCahill says he initially hoped that 20 or so
institutions would get their own servers running; even he couldn't
predict its success.

He says, "When we first got working on Gopher, I said, 'This is a
really good idea and we don't get that many really good ideas. I want
this to get out into the world.' I was excited and others on the team
were excited, but it's hard to tell how the rest of the world's going
to react. If I could tell that stuff, I wouldn't be working here, I'd
be picking stocks or something."

In just three years, there were more than 8,000 Gopher servers around
the world, and the developers were considered stars in the Net
community. McCahill spent much of 1992 and 1993 traveling to
conferences and talking about his team's contribution to the Internet.

The university sponsored an annual GopherCON seminar, which brought
representatives from The New York Times, the World Bank, Microsoft,
Motorola and other corporations to Minneapolis for three days to
discuss the latest Gopher developments. The seminar was considered a
not-to-miss affair for anyone seriously involved in new technology.
The university loved the publicity, trotting out Goldie Gopher as a
goodwill ambassador to greet guests from around the world.

And then there was the shining moment that Adam Curry wore his Gopher
T-shirt on television.

Explains McCahill: "Adam wanted to run a Gopher server and this was
at the point when we said, 'The commercial guys are starting to do
this, so the university should get some money for commercial use.' We
had a standard contract that (gave the cost of using server
software). But for Adam we said, 'You also have to wear a Gopher
T-shirt on MTV.' It was joke, but he took it the right way. We sent
him a T-shirt and he wore it.''

The Gopher developers didn't make any money other than their salaries
for coming up with what was then the world's hottest Internet
application. They discussed leaving the university and starting up a
software outfit on their own, but the talks never went anywhere.

"I think it was a little too early and the market wasn't there yet,
but I might be wrong,'' says Torrey.

He admits he's thought about the money they could have made if
circumstances had been different. Perhaps he and the others could
have been the Marc Andreessens of their era. Andreessen, of course,
is the 24-year-old behind first Mosaic and then Netscape; he is now
worth $300 million.

If other members of the Gopher team deny having dreamed about riches
that might have been, Torrey adds, "I say they're lying.''

The World Wide Web has been around for years, but it wasn't widely
used until 1993, when Andreessen and his colleagues at the National
Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) introduced Mosaic. This
freeware browser took off in December 1993 when a New York Times
business section front page story declared it the hottest application
on the Internet.

With that, Gopher's shine began to fade.

Net users wouldn't let Gopher die a quiet death; they discussed its
sorry state on Usenet almost endlessly. One message poster recently
summarized Gopher's problem in one sentence: "Gopher isn't sexy,
kewl, neater than tailfins on DeSotos or featured in Time, Newsweek,
or McPaper, er, USA Today.''

Even Keith Johnson, author of a Bible-sized book titled "Using
Gopher,'' published just last July, admits that he hasn't used Gopher
in more than a year. He does his work on the Web these days.

Gopher has been tossed into the cultural icon pile of retro
artifacts. Last month, Folio magazine columnist Steve Wilson
reminisced about the early days of Gopher and the role it played for
those in the electronic publishing community.

"The end of an era is upon us,'' Wilson wrote. "Actually, the era
ended instantly in 1993 when the World Wide Web spread itself about
the Internet. ... We can't help but shed a tear at the rapid
deterioration of Gopher, the text-only means of surfing the Internet
rendered obsolete by the Web's superiority.

"The strange, almost sentimental charm of Gopher sites is not unlike
the nostalgia evoked by early-to-mid-80s music videos - they're not
very old in the general scheme of things, but they seem so dated.''

Still, there remain Gopher loyalists. Last spring, about 100 of them
gathered again at the University of Minnesota for GopherCON '95. In
previous years, the conference turned people away after it reached
its 250 person limit. With the Web at its peak, however, the interest
wasn't there for the fourth annual Gopher bash.

The 1995 sessions featured Gopher programs with new bells and
whistles such as 3D and virtual reality, but they weren't dazzling
enough to attract much attention.

Some of the papers delivered at last year's GopherCON examined ways
to save Gopher. University of Albany librarian David Tyckoson's
thesis was titled: "How to keep Gopher alive? Integrate Gopher system
into library environment.'' Ironically, though, even Tyckoson's own
university library abandoned Gopher in January and switched to the
Web. "Our Gopher is still up and running, but we're not going to
update it,'' says Tyckoson.

And the University of Minnesota has decided that GopherCON is
history. Last year's session was the not-so-grand finale.

One of Mark McCahill's former partners says the team leader is
probably irritated that Gopher has been pushed aside by the Web.
McCahill himself calls the evolution inevitable - but he's still not
a fan of the Web.

What does the Web craze mean to him? "It means there's more
advertising in the world than information systems - or in layman's
terms: Gee, I see more billboards and ads than I see libraries. I
think I'm in the library business, not the billboard and ad business.
Does (the Web) mean much to the librarians? Not that much.''

Could he and cohorts have made money if they had done things differently?

"People have asked that a lot,'' he says. "They say, 'Maybe you
missed your chance. You could have been like Marc Andreessen.' The
way I look at it is like this: I like building systems. Marc
Andreessen is not building systems now. It's unlikely he's going to
do that any time soon.

"At this point, Marc is a guy who does a million talks and is a
figurehead. That lifestyle is incompatible with developing software.
Trust me, I had a little taste of that in going and doing a bunch of
Gopher talks. You can't do both. I like building systems, so I think
I'm happy with what I'm doing.''

He and others on the team continue developing software for the
university. Right now McCahill's working on an application called
Forms Nirvana, a way to speed the routing of approval forms through
the university.

"That's kind of a contradiction in terms,'' he notes wryly.
"Achieving nirvana through filling out forms.''

While the development will be useful for the U, it probably won't get
McCahill on the cover of Time magazine. He says he's doesn't feel
pressure to top Gopher, or to create the next killer application.

"Can we go head-to-head with Netscape in developing a monolithic
client that does everything? No, I don't have those kinds of
resources. I can't even try that. That's silly.''

(c) The St. Paul Pioneer Press

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