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The Pioneering Steve Bowbrick

2010 July 12
by Caitlin

UK-based Steve Bowbrick has been involved with the web since its early years. He has broken new ground in a host of projects, notching up a World’s First and at least one UK’s First, and he shows no signs of stopping. He kindly agreed to expose himself to the full force of the harrowing GMT interview assault, and survived to tell the tale:

How did you start out on the road to being a techie? What language did you first learn to program in? What computer did you use? Did you code in isolation or was there a group of friends egging each other on? What resources did you have back then?

I have always been and will probably always remain a wannabe techie. I can’t program, can’t drive a command line and can’t write valid XHTML! I developed a fascination with technology when I discovered a roomful of newly delivered Apple Macs at The Polytechnic of Central London in 1984. I went on to make my degree show using the computers and was very nearly failed for producing no photographs (this being a photography degree).

I belong to the wrong generation as far as computers are concerned. There were no computers at my school and the ZX81/BBC micro etc. hadn’t been invented. So I’m a late developer.

I taught myself everything I know about computers by fiddling with my Mac and reading the quite amazing (and now defunct) Byte Magazine.

For me, computer technology represented a foreign language, exciting and exotic but utterly inaccessible to me. I’m an outsider looking in.

Where do you work now and what do you do there?

I’m spending a while with a really interesting UK manufacturer called King of Shaves which is a really cool (and slightly geeky) shave brand that I’ve been using for years. I’m interim Head of Digital for the firm, which means I’ve got a desk here but only for a few months probably. While I’m here I’ll reset the company’s digital strategy and revamp the ecommerce platform.

What I like about the firm is the focus on the product and on innovation: they’re number 2 to Gillette in the UK and in other markets with almost no ad spend. They innovate three times as quickly as the big firms and they’re really passionate about the product – they remind me of a web start-up. This makes it exciting to interact with the people here and to invent new stuff.

Back in 1993, you worked as the editor of 3W. What was 3W and what was significant about it? How was it received at the time? How did you get the job? How did it all end?

3W (which was Ivan Pope‘s baby) was the first print magazine anywhere in the world about the web. In the mag’s first issue there was a little box-out that said something like: “there are already hundreds of web sites”. Holy shit. That was a fascinating time. Naturally enough, I met Ivan in a pub at some kind of net meetup.

3W was received with suspicion by the trade: distribution was difficult. Nobody knew where to put it! The readers loved it, though. I think what was most fascinating was the geographic spread of subscribers: we had readers in literally dozens of countries and the magazine was routinely censored by authoritarian regimes – they didn’t want their people learning about this new, impossible-to-control information source.

The web killed 3W (maybe we were the web’s first old media victim!). It just seemed crazy to be squeezing ink onto dried wood pulp with the web breathing down our necks. Also, issue 4 had a four-colour cover which I seem to remember practically bankrupted us!

Tell us about Webmedia: what work did you do there? Who did you work with? How different was web design back then?

Webmedia was the logical extension of 3W. The clue is in the name: In 93 and 94 we were going round telling people the web was a medium, not just a networking technology or an application (which was a pretty difficult point to make in those days – it was like saying your toaster is going to evolve into a new medium. People laughed).

I maintain that Webmedia’s success (which was considerable in the early days, before we went bust!) was essentially down to our ignorance of business norms. I simply had no idea that two blokes in a basement weren’t supposed to phone Lloyds Bank’s Marketing Director or tell people we were going to transform their multi-billion pound businesses. So we just got on with it. It was a riot.

I was the sales guy – the communicator – and Ivan was the brooding presence. Then after a while Ivan kicked off a domain name registry called Netnames and the two businesses parted, which was all a bit painful and costly and led to Webmedia’s collapse in 1998. There was a history of the period written a few years later and the author says: “Steve Bowbrick: such a pioneer he went bust before the boom”.

At this time there were no systems, no norms, only a handful of standards: we built everything ad hoc right on top of the bare metal. Ivan and I both wrote HTML in the early days – which is sort of scary. We had a brilliant hacker called Steve Hebditch who wrote a web server for us – pre-Netscape, pre-Apache, pre-Java, pre- everything. When we started to build sites HTML supported pictures but not backgrounds. I remember the celebrations when a version of Mosaic came out that allowed a background gif: we went crazy.

I built the firm up to 65 staff, three offices, some very large and demanding corporate clients: consumer brands mostly. We built the first public sites for many major brands. Many of the people we hired went on to seed Web 2.0. I’m quite proud of all that. It was a shambles but it was the beginning.

After Webmedia, you set up can you describe why it was special? It’s just going through another revamp: what made it last, when other enterprises faded? was a glorious near-triumph. A creature of the boom built around the idea of personalisation. I still believe passionately that the premise was correct: identity is so important online but people don’t want IDs handed out by faceless corporations: they want to create their own and they want control of their use. At we registered tens of thousands of domain names and allowed users to create dozens of email addresses using them: addresses all mapped onto a single inbox and users had total control over addresses, filtering etc. etc. It was a very powerful idea.

The first problem for us was the crash. As NASDAQ bombed we were just getting to the end of our first round of capital ($10M from Eden Ventures and others). Raising new capital for a start-up like ours became impossible so we did the unthinkable and switched off the free service: dumping nearly two million users overnight. Blimey. It was the ultimate shock therapy, though, and the business survived and is now a profitable division of an ISP.

The second problem was down to me: my judgement was that the end of the free era was coming: that the giant, boom-era ad-funded dot.coms would soon be history, replaced by a leaner breed of paid-for services in a more economically rational environment. I was, of course, totally wrong! The final proof of my error came a couple of years later when Google launched GMail, a service offering an effectively unlimited service for nothing.

These things go in cycles but it seems pretty clear now that the economics of the next phase of the mainstream web are now in place: free services driven by ads and freemium deals.

You’ve toughed out some comparatively lean years since the dotcom boom: how hard was it to find work? Did you have to slum it and do less appealing work? Are things better now? What projects are you working on? Is there a division between your projects that are public and your projects that are personal? What project are you most proud of?

I don’t remember doing anything unappealing! Things were hard on occasion, though – but that was mostly about having three kids in the thick of it, I think! Web 2.0 has changed everything of course. It’s the fulfilment of our earliest dreams for the web. What I remember loving about Tim Berners-Lee‘s vision in the early nineties was that the www, for him, was a *read-write* medium. Remember, TBL’s first browser (the one he developed for his colleagues at CERN) had an editor *built-in*.

It was taken for granted in the early days that we’d be authoring pages as well as just reading them. I think one of the most politically important decisions of the early web was Marc Andreesen’s when he decided to take the editor out of Mosaic. A huge retrograde step that hardly anyone remembers.

Non-work projects now mostly centre on my blog, which I’m having rebuilt now by a clever American called Matt McInerney, a couple of little twitter-based projects like and I’m doing something radio-related with the esteemed Russell Davies

Could you describe the work you do with Thinking Ethics? How is your choice of software informed by your politics? Is there any software you wouldn’t use for political reasons? Are there particular licenses or software models that you favour?

Thinking Ethics is not such a big thing for me now – I’m a very occasional contributor to the blog. It’s a great blog about business ethics that came out of an extraordinary event organised in Geneva by Beth Krasna. She put together the most ecumenical crowd I’ve ever met: from Generals and development workers to TV producers and priests – to discuss the future of ethics. The output was a book, which is absolutely fascinating. Beth went on to commission a comic book version of the book too, which is amazing.

Open Source, the GPL, CC and the whole flowering of open culture have inspired me for a long time. I was a fan of UNIX and hacking and Stallman and the all the rest before the web existed. I wrote about code in my undergraduate thesis in 1988 (for a photography degree!). I’m not religious about it, though. There’s a lot of unhelpful, blind dogma out there. Geeks are a phenomenally bright and motivated group but they can be autistic about politics and history and society. They can miss the bigger picture (I guess Stallman’s a pretty good example of that tendency!).

Think about the economic value that Microsoft has created over the decades. Think about the mark on history that the X86-PCM-DOS-Windows nexus will leave: the historical equivalent of being visible from space. Having said that, my desktop is *almost* MS-free: I still rely on Excel but I use the brilliant (and venerable) Nisus for WP, Keynote for pres and online services for diary, contacts, collaboration etc.

We’re having a fascinating debate here at King of Shaves right now about the application of open source to manufacturing and consumer products: we’re wondering if we could launch a shaving product with a beta period and an open source model. Fascinating.

Who impresses you right now in technology? Is there anyone you’d particularly like to work with? What are the changes or developments you feel are going to have the most long term effect? What could the tech community learn from other areas?

I’m really enjoying everything from the current 20-something generation of hackers. I guess it’s like any area of human activity: the vigourous, young crowd arrives with no history. Sometimes that’s a bad thing, because they have to repeat the preceding generation’s mistakes but it’s also incredibly powerful. Attending a tech conference these days is like a crazy collision of a scout camp and a rock festival: epic enthusiasm and can-do attitude plus a kind of effortless confidence and impatience with the old ways.

AJAX is a great example: I think it was born out of an impatience with the set-in-their-ways, ‘can’t do that’ thinking of the Web 1.0 crowd. The AJAX gang have just said: “We want a richer client side experience and we’re just going to hack together all these older methods to achieve it”. Likewise with Ruby. Ruby may fail but the youthful, impatient mindset that created it won’t and successor languages will be faster and simpler still. Web 2.0 is about renewal and energy as well as about platforms and data and APIs.

Are there any questions I should have asked that you would have particularly liked to answer?

How about “Is Andrew Keen right when he says that the cult of the amateur is killing our culture?” My answer would be: no, he most emphatically is not. And his argument stinks because it represents the twitchings of a cultural and social elite and, whatever the risks to incumbent forms of opening up content creation, no elite should be allowed to determine the shape of human culture or society.

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