Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Remembering James Monaco as Media-Tech Pioneer

I was very saddened by the passing of James Monaco, a prominent film critic, scholar, and author, and visionary pioneer of new media, on 11/25/19.* Jim hired me to work at Baseline Information for the Film Industry in 1990, and then went on to found UNET in 1992, with me as co-founder. He was a valued colleague and friend, and had a significant impact on my career -- enabling me to dive into the bleeding edges of interactive media (which proved invaluable to my later work as a successful inventor in that space).

Others can address Jim's earlier prominent roles in film and publishing. From my perspective in the media-tech space, Jim's genius was in being a sophisticated media visionary who would understand enough about technology to envision advances that were both fundamental and feasible. What follows are some personal notes about where Jim pushed the envelope in the days where the Web was a laboratory curiosity and few had ever heard of interactive media.

Two of the most notable epiphanies in my career involved hypermedia -- hyperlinking from one chunk of a web of content to another that is now taken for granted. Jim enabled the second of those epiphanies.
  • In 1969 I clicked a hyperlink and saw the future -- but I had a long time to wait. It was a system envisioned by Ted Nelson and built with a team at Brown, running on an IBM graphics workstation connected to a mainframe. It remained largely an academic curiosity until the late '80s when Apple's Hypercard briefly popularized a sadly clunky and limited variation that helped inspire Tim Berners Lee to later conceive the World Wide Web protocols that revolutionized the digital world.
  • The first hypermedia system with exciting content that I got to really play with was at Baseline in 1992.** Jim had us turn his 12-volume film encyclopedia, The Motion Picture Guide, into a hyperlinked CD-ROM.*** That led to my second hypermedia epiphany, when we began to test the pre-production version. Find an actor and get full details (including images, as I recall). Click on an entry in that actor's filmography and get full details on the movie. Click on another actor or the director of that movie and get their pages. Then linking on to more movies, then more people, and so on. Thrilling engagement on a serendipitous path that emerges out of the experience (what is now anachronistically defined in Wikipedia as a "Wiki rabbit hole"). That was a captivating experience of flow as the future of interactive media (long before I read about psychological flow). And being run locally on a multimedia CD-ROM, it's responsiveness was much like the modern multimedia Web, not the primitive online world of those early days.
My relationship with Jim began as Baseline was expanding its role in professional online film and TV information, and also pioneering in consumer online media services. Baseline provided pre-Web online services using French Minitel "videotex" terminals emulated on PCs (as well as some actual Minitels that were popular with film studio execs for their simplicity of use). The flagship offering was a professional-quality service similar to the later IMDB. Baseline also provided online reporting from the Cannes festival, was the first to provide online access to The Hollywood Reporter, and offered an early gateway to the EaasySabre travel reservation system.

Jim also saw the value of consumer online services At a time when the only game was Compuserve, AOL, Genie, and bulletin boards, he had the vision to realize that publishers wanted to have online offerings that had their own signature look-and-feel. Some early trials at Baseline of a consumer version of Baseline called FLIKS led to pilot projects with major publishers to try their own customized services, beginning with TVGuide. I got to pitch our proposal to publisher Anthea Disney and worked with other key people at News Corp, and many others in the nascent world of online and CD-ROM media. "Silicon Alley" became trendy in New York in the late '90s, but back then we were in what what was known as "Videotex Alley." Jim had leadership roles in the Videotex Industry Association, including a term as president, bringing me into contact with Steve Case of AOL, Mark Walsh of GENIE, Bob Stein of Voyager, Martin Niesenholz of the NY Times, Martin Pearlstein of the WSJ (just after he left to start new ventures), and other pioneers in the interactive media space. He also revised his classic How To Read a Film book to cover new media technology in addition to traditional film technology (with my help), which later led to his Multimedia Edition on DVD that included many film clips.

Jim moved on to found UNET (with me) in mid-1992, and we picked up the TVGuide project, along with pilot efforts with other major publishers, such as Golf and Running. The TVGuide project became a joint venture with News Corp, which purchased Delphi and got us involved with them. (That project was later bought out from UNET and rolled into the News Corp. - MCI joint venture). We were getting traction with beta versions of these magazine systems, which were very appealing to publishers -- but with limited funding for development and marketing, it was a slow process.

By late 1993, I was beginning work on my own invention, which led to my founding of Teleshuttle. That built on Jim's insights about the importance of publisher-customized look-and-feel, as well as on some casual musing we had done together, wondering why no one had built a hybrid of online and CD-ROM to combine the best of both. Some months later, the answer came to me one night in a flash of inspiration. I realized why building such a hybrid was hard to do, and how a radically different software architecture could make it much easier. (Instead of hard-to-program, synchronously conversational, server-driven interactions, it was a much simpler, decentralized, asynchronous, protocol of file transfers driven by smart clients.) Jim continued with UNET, and I transitioned into my work starting Teleshuttle to develop that invention.

Jim later made a key contribution to Teleshuttle in 1995, by finding and reselling Teleshuttle's SaaS offering to Creative Multimedia, the first (and only) company to pay to use it to actually create and market a hybrid CD-ROM -- Blockbuster Video® Guide To Movies & Videos. That had modest success, and saw a second edition a year later, but the Web was then exploding faster than Jim or I could find the funding needed to adapt our businesses to capitalize on these new opportunities. I pivoted to consulting and inventing, and Jim refocused on both electronic and print publishing.

*Note: This post is essentially as drafted 3/10/20 in anticipation of a memorial planned for 3/14 -- but deferred due to Covid, and now being held on 11/20/21. It sat incomplete until now posted as of that date of drafting (with just minor revisions).

**Some of these dates and details are my unverified recollections, and may not be precise.

***Jim's also licensed his data to Microsoft for their later Cinemania CD-ROM product.

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