Dash Board, revisited


On June 30, 1998, I released Dash Board 1.0 for the Newton.

Last night, fifteen years to the day later, I finally open-sourced it.

It was a fun weekend project, despite involving a lot of tedious fuckery setting up ancient software tools (documented in the GitHub readme linked above, and not worth getting into here). It was fun because the memories it brought back were in such high resolution (even if the software itself wasn't).

"People come up to me, and they try to talk shit, man... I was advancing the state of the art in tablet computing when you were sucking your mother's dick."

Mason Mark, 2013
paraphrasing our revered spiritual leader Adam Yauch
(1964 โ†’ 2012, R.I.P.)

In 1998, I was a college student and a wanna-be programmer who knew just enough to be dangerous.

I was studying journalism, riding my motorscooter to school by day, and then commuting an hour each way by train to my part time job in the evenings.

It was the worst fucking train -- the orange Chuo Line, the leading suicide train line in all of Japan at the time. Some sadsack asshole would get sick of being alive (probably, I always imagined, due to having to ride that train, packed in like a sardine, 90 minutes to and from work every day) and he'd jump in front of the train and get splooshed all over the tracks like a cockroach. And then that train, and all the trains stuck behind it on the line, would stop. For like fucking hours. No way to get off.

It was there, in those trains smelling of way too many salarymen confined in way too small a space, that I learned to program NewtonScript. I carried Programming for the Newton, a huge paper tome, with me every day, and read it several times.

The hellish train commute also inspired me to write little programs to collect interesting texts from the internet and sync them to my Newton as Newton Books. I can't remember if I ever thought to myself, I wonder if someday we'll just be able to access the Internet directly from our pocket computing devices WIRELESSLY FROM INSIDE THE TRAIN??! (I probably didn't; that would have seemed too far-fetched.)

And then one day in June, 1998, everything changed. Dash Board turned out to be a legitimate hit product. Something like 5% of the people who owned one of the machines that could run it actually bought a copy. And it seemed like half of the remaining people at least bootlegged it. I couldn't believe it: everyone was using my fucking app!

Making Dash Board taught me that tenacity could trump knowing what you are doing. It also tricked me into thinking the software business was easy. Dash Board was only the second product I ever tried to sell, following a sort of test-the-waters alarm clock app for the Newton called Wake Up Call.

Wake Up Call made me a couple hundred dollars per month -- not much, but seemed like a windfall to a broke college student. It was like getting paid to do homework -- with the difference that the homework was really interesting.

Dash Board was a more ambitious project, though, so I started a company -- Five Speed Software, Inc. -- and did a passable job of masquerading as a "serious business" of that era. I issued press releases ( "We're gratified by the overwhelming response," said Mason Mark, the company's head of Newton development. Blah blah blah blah....), I courted the media (we got reviewed in Pen Computing magazine), and tried to maintain a presence on the forums (mainly USENET) and mailing lists.

Then I did the thing you aren't supposed to do -- announced a shipping date weeks before the sofware was supposed to be finished -- and then had to cut all my classes in the final week, and pull an all-nighter, still modifying the code, on the evening it would ship (something you really shouldn't fucking do!), but it shipped, and I got into bed and passed out.

โ™ซ Cha-ching!... โ™ซ Cha-ching!...

I woke up (in that small room pictured above, on the narrow futon on the floor at my feet) to the sound of CashRegister.snd, which I had configured Eudora to play whenever a sales confirmation message from Kagi arrived. I checked my Newton for the time... woah, I'd slept for almost 20 hours! Hmm, and sales were still rolling in? How many did I get?

It turned out that Dash Board had earned $4,000 that night while I slept. Holy shit.

Now, from this lofty vantage point fifteen years later, at the wizened old age of 38, with a wife and kid and a mortgage, I would be much less impressed with that sum and yet still be much more inclined to take good care of the money.

But I was 24 years old, and as far as I was concerned, I had just hit the motherfuckin' big time, wh000t! As soon as I got my first check, I went out and spent half of it on a $6300 292 MHz PowerBook Wall Street. (What an idiot! LOL)

And oh, by the way? Fuck journalism. That idea was dead to me.

Of course, it didn't last. As hard to believe as it seems now, Apple was on it's deathbed, crapping its pants and getting fed through a tube. Steve Jobs -- who by the way, never really grokked the Newton at all, which is part of the reason iOS sucks in certain ways -- had tragically but correctly decided to cancel the Newton, and so Dash Board sales inevitably petered out (although amazingly, it was still earning enough to pay for my car payment in 2002, and all my beer through the end of 2004 or so.)

But it didn't have to last -- just that taste was enough to change the course of my life. You mean I can just sit around thinking up shit I wish my computers did, then make them do it, and convert that into money?? Count me in. I've been programming ever since, in various contexts, and it seems hard to even conceive of doing anything else.

Unless... unless one of these days I finally finish that manuscript and self-publish it on Amazon or somewhere, and go to bed, and then wake up to find, holy shit: *everybody* is reading my fucking novel!

Nah... too far-fetched.