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Business: Sunday, June 13, 1999

Meet Ben Slivka, the burr under Microsoft's saddle as it reaches for Internet power

by Paul Andrews
From "How the Web Was Won"

From a company largely thought to be late to the Internet, Microsoft in a short span embraced online technology so much that rivals feared it was too dominant. In a new book, "How the Web Was Won" (Broadway Books, $27.50), Seattle Times technology columnist Paul Andrews traces how Microsoft accomplished this transformation by telling the story of the people who made it happen. In this excerpt, Andrews focuses on Ben Slivka, one of the hard-charging, sometimes combative programming executives responsible for leading the effort.

Sometimes only someone from the inner court can tell the emperor he has no clothes. At Microsoft, where internecine disputes are an institutionalized occurrence, Seattle native Ben Slivka has made a career out of challenging corporate thinking about the Internet.

Without Slivka, who while growing up in the Mount Baker neighborhood taught himself programming on demo equipment in Seattle retail stores, Microsoft might never have gotten the supertanker turned around quickly enough to capitalize on the "browser wars."

Starting in the summer of 1994, Slivka began asking uncomfortable questions about Microsoft's browser strategy. At the time, Netscape Communications' browser had not yet been announced by Mosaic Communications, as the company was then known. Instead, the leading browser was Mosaic, devised in the winter of 1993 by University of Illinois students Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina and subsequently enhanced by a team at the school's National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

A gifted programmer who bore a striking resemblance to TV actor Anthony Edwards - Dr. Mark Greene on "ER" - Slivka began pushing Microsoft's Windows managers to speed up efforts to build browsing capability into Windows.

When Slivka agitated, Microsoft's supertanker rocked. "Ben is not a patient fellow," his supervisor, John Ludwig, put it. When Slivka identified something that needed to be worked on, he was like a woodpecker, tapping, tapping, tapping until he got to the meat of the matter.

"He'll come at you every day with 10 things you ought to be doing," Ludwig said. "Some percent you already are doing; he just didn't know about it. Some percentage are just shooting from the hip; he hasn't really thought through. But some percentage are dead on, and you should listen to him."

It was fitting that Slivka found himself on the cusp of Microsoft's biggest paradigm shift since MS-DOS-to-Windows. Everything in his upbringing and career path had pointed toward a day when he would tackle something worthy of his talents.

One of twin boys born at Swedish Hospital in 1960 to a public librarian mother and Seattle Symphony percussionist father, Slivka learned early on the value of hard work and independent thinking.

He grew up playing with a variety of electronics. His first-generation Russian father, Meyer, put together a theremin, a rare electronic musical instrument whose "wooo wooo" sound changed tone when one's hands passed over its surface. Pere Slivka also built an oscilloscope and TV set from Heathkit and, in the mid-1970s, put together his own electronic music synthesizer. Assisting him, young Ben became handy with a soldering iron.

It was his mother, however, who introduced Slivka to programming. In the early 1970s, Enid Slivka took a course on programming in BASIC, and Slivka became intrigued by what could be done with computer code. He was still a little on the young side to do much on his own, but a seed had been planted.

When Hewlett-Packard came out with its programmable pocket calculators, Slivka would go downtown after school, a half-hour bus trip, and program display models for an hour or two at Seattle's leading department store, Frederick & Nelson. The salespeople, amused at what the kid could do and figuring it might attract buyers, were tolerant.

Slivka eventually outgrew the calculators and discovered bigger terrain.

Near Green Lake, a treasure trove called The Retail Computer Store had opened. Slivka, bringing his own floppy disk, would spend entire Saturdays at the store, hacking away on a Processor Technology Sol 20, one of the earliest personal computers. He'd type in a BASIC game, play it till he pretty much had it mastered, then type in another one.

At Garfield High School, Slivka played around with a programmable desktop calculator, a Litton 1880, which lacked a display but would print out on adding-machine tape.

His first real job came when his father, who primarily played the tympani, became involved in contract negotiations with Seattle Symphony management. Slivka got salary and career data on all the musicians and wrote a FORTRAN program to analyze the statistics and project the workers' financial needs in retirement. It was the kind of thing that today, in Excel, would take an hour or two.

For his efforts, Slivka earned the munificent sum of $1,500, every penny of which went to paying for computer time. His father was less fortunate. As a result of his union activities, Meyer Slivka was fired from the symphony.

After studying at Northwestern University, Slivka on a lark decided to try for a job at Microsoft, then a well-known but still-emerging software company of 775 employees. In the epistolary equivalent of a cold call, Slivka on Dec. 5, 1984, wrote a letter of introduction to "Sir or Madam" at Microsoft, presenting "my credentials as a computer scientist and programmer." Slivka went over his qualifications in excruciating, acronym-laced detail, and let it drop that he was from Seattle and would be visiting his parents over the holidays.

Microsoft flew him out for interviews, but Slivka stayed with his parents to save the company money. In a follow-up letter signed by then-operations chief Steve Ballmer, Slivka was offered a position at a $31,000 annual salary, with 1,500 shares of Microsoft stock at $3 a share, vestable over eight semi-annual installments.

Slivka had no idea what options even were. A recruiter told him they might be worth as much as $20,000 one day. By early this year, they were worth about $17.5 million. For Slivka, the salary offer was good enough on its own.

For Slivka, going to work at Microsoft was like fire meeting oxygen. Slivka, the manic coder, had met the fast-track company with the hard-core executives of his dreams.

When Ludwig asked him to take over the project lead for Microsoft's still-amorphous Web browser effort, Slivka took it as a green light to the autobahn. On Oct. 6, 1994, Slivka disclosed details of what he termed the Internet client, but what would actually become the Web browser, for Chicago, the code name for what became Windows 95. With typical fast-track aggressiveness, Slivka projected the new effort's deadline to be Feb. 17, 1995, for beta testing.

At the time, the date also represented the scheduled release-to-manufacturing date for Chicago. The browser would then ship "no more than three months" after Chicago in a "frosting version 2" upgrade package, putting the browser's release around June or July 1995. In keeping with the Chicago theme for the next release of Windows, Slivka code-named the browser "O'Hare," after the airport. O'Hare was the city's gateway to the physical world. The browser would be Windows' gateway to the world of information.

It was time to motor. Slivka made an in-depth analysis of two other browsers - beta version 0.9 of Mosaic Communications' NetScape, released just five days before, and beta version 2 of the BookLink Internetworks technology. In a long, detailed e-mail dated Oct. 18, Slivka laid out the foundation for O'Hare - what would become Internet Explorer 1.0, Microsoft's initial browser.

At the time, when modem speeds were just 9,600 or 14,400 bits per second, pages took a long time to draw. The original Mosaic drew a screen line by line, as though the page were a curtain slowly dropping, an agonizing procedure at low speed.

Slivka suggested a breakthrough procedure: Grab the text first, filling the screen, then draw the images one at a time without reflowing the text. And he added another wrinkle: If the user wanted to keep scrolling down the page and reading text without looking at the images, O'Hare would simply keep drawing all the text, even if image sizes were not immediately known.

Another nice touch: Slivka suggested showing the download file size and estimated time. This gave the user a notion of whether the page was worth downloading in the first place and also decreased the pain of waiting for the download (caused by not knowing how long the process would take).

Finally, Slivka suggested keeping a history of URLs that had already been visited, and making it persist through multiple sessions. Slivka noted that NetScape (as it was then spelled), kept track of visited URLs, but only for the current session. Slivka thought users would want to keep an ongoing record of visited sites.

In assessing the browser landscape before beginning the work of actual code for O'Hare, Slivka was doing what Microsoft did best. The company was habitually criticized for not being innovative in the strictest sense of the term. Microsoft had not invented BASIC nor DOS nor the graphical user interface nor the word processor nor spreadsheet nor any other "killer app" for desktop computers.

But it had succeeded time and again by analyzing existing technology, combining the strengths of the field, and then improving through its own unique blend of features, ease-of-use enhancements and improved usability. Microsoft's strength - its creativity, ingenuity or whatever other term might apply - came in taking existing technology much further than its creators were capable of taking it.

Other factors, such as pricing it lower or giving it away or bundling it with other Microsoft products, ignored a critical consideration: Until Microsoft beat the competition on the merits of its software, none of its other marketing ploys made a whit of difference.

Perhaps the most significant point of Slivka's Oct. 18, 1994, assessment, however, was to provide a benchmark for Microsoft's awareness of a new browser on the scene. NetScape, still a product of Mosaic Communications, not yet a company, had made it onto Microsoft's radar screen. It was still a test version, was not yet the leading choice in the browser field. There was no way of knowing the huge hit it would become.

To Slivka, it was just one of the bunch. It had some good features and some bad; like all the browsers, it was immature and unpolished. But it was good enough to get his attention.

Once his game plan was on record, Slivka wasted no time recruiting the best talent he could find. In a hurry, and not particularly respectful of hiring protocol, Slivka in some cases had people on board and working before winning approval or funding clearance. His philosophy, like others before him at Microsoft: Apologizing was better than asking for permission.

At each turn, Slivka waited for the inevitable second guess or put-on-the-brakes e-mail. It never came. Instead, systems overseer Paul Maritz, Windows 95 overlord Brad Silverberg, and Ludwig all said go. Go, go, go.

By Nov. 7, 1994, Slivka had made sufficient progress for Maritz to shoot an e-mail to Chairman Bill Gates promising Windows 95 would ship O'Hare by mid-1995. The package would be based on work Slivka was in charge of delivering, a Web viewer and a means of making it a snap to log on to an Internet service provider through Windows.

Silverberg, too, liked what he saw: a guy he knew could produce, and do so fast, decisively, with little need for care and feeding. For the first time since he had envisioned browser capabilities in Windows 95 a year earlier, Silverberg felt confident it would happen in a timely and effective manner.

As browser development proceeded at Microsoft, Slivka's vision of the Web kept expanding. By May, he had put together a long essay, "The Web as the Next Platform," talking about how Netscape could, under the right circumstances, turn its browser and server into a programming platform that would undermine Microsoft's cash cow and No. 1 product, Windows. At a June offsite planning session in the Phoenix Room of the Bellevue Hilton, Slivka was given 15 minutes to discuss his views. He ended up taking an hour and a half.

"There was just all this stuff floating around in my brain," he recalled. "I'm not taken to like being this big thinker, this memo-writer-type guy. I figure Nathan Myhrvold's paid to do that. I should work on shipping products." Nevertheless, Slivka's memo wound up reflecting Microsoft's ultimate Internet strategy more accurately than any of Myhrvold's expansive essays.

Slivka laid out for the first time a plan to componentize the O'Hare browser into pieces that other software companies and developers could use to make their applications Web-compatible. The idea basically was that new, unforeseeable applications were going to spring out of the Web, just as they had at the invention of the personal computer. Not productivity applications like Word and Excel but content and service applications. Like Virtual Vineyards, the wine-shopping service, or 1-800-FLOWERS, the electronic flower-sending service.

Slivka "just did a projection, like these (were) things my Mom was going to care a lot more about than Excel. My point was that the Web was a platform for delivering these applications. It looked better than Windows, because it was targeted at that content and that interactivity."

The problem was, there was no indication of how Microsoft could make money on any of this. Whereas there were suspicions it might lose a business or two. Undaunted, Slivka forged ahead. He took the opportunity to discuss some new features for the O'Hare browser, including support for specifying different fonts in HTML. It was a nifty little touch, enabling Web authors to choose preferred fonts instead of the same old Times standard.

Because Mosaic and Netscape were cross-platform, they lacked font capability. "So I was like, let's give away TrueType fonts so people can have cool, sexy Web sites that look best on Internet Explorer," Slivka said later. "What the heck, right? And Bill was like, what are you, a communist? Those fonts cost money! Why would we give those away?"

It got worse. Slivka also argued that Microsoft should put its resources and weight behind improving HTML, the browser standard for document formatting and layout. That threatened Microsoft Word overseer Peter Pathe, who along with other Microsoft Office partisans felt the way to go was to make Word the document standard on the Net.

Pathe loved HTML, as long as it stayed simple, unfancy, plain-Jane HTML and did not evolve into something bigger and better. That way, Web users would want to import HTML documents into Word to dress them up. If they could dress up the documents in HTML, they might forget all about Word.

Pathe appealed to Gates himself, Slivka recalled: "So Peter was saying, Bill, could you tell Ben not to add any new features to HTML? And Bill sort of said, Ben, you shouldn't add too many features to HTML. And I sort of ignored him."

Ignore the chairman? It was the kind of supreme chutzpah that earned Slivka the admiration, if not envy, of Microsoft colleagues.

As Silverberg, a member of the Gates inner circle, later recalled, Slivka's "guts and honesty" were "why I love Ben so much." Slivka's effrontery had no lasting impact on Gates: In an interview 3 1/2 years later, he said he had totally forgotten the confrontation.



Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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