JB: I've been hearing your name since the mid-seventies. It seems like you've been a player in almost every epic of personal computing.
SIMONYI: I've been incredibly lucky, in a strange way. In the U.S., computers that operated with vacuum tubes were obsolete in the late 50's, whereas in Hungary, where I grew up, they were in use. It was a time-warp. Also, I started working with computers at a young age. When the personal computer revolution came about much later, the people in the U.S. that had worked with tube computers were long retired, if not dead, while I was really in the prime of my career. So starting very young and starting in a time-warp gave me this double benefit that I think very few people had. It was very unusual, at least in Hungary, to start that young, but if you look at it today, you know that computer programming is not difficult. Or rather, the kind of computer programming that was done in the 60's is really child's play. It's just that at that time that secret was well hidden, so people were very worried about letting me close to very expensive machines. But I had a certain pull through my dad, who was a professor of electrical engineering, and I made myself useful by working for free, which was also a kind of an unknown notion, but I had this intuitive idea of looking at it as an investment.
This was in Hungary, in 1965, when I was 16 years old. I learned a lot then. In a period of three years I traversed three generations of computers: the first generation in Hungary, then a year and a half in Denmark on a very typical second generation machine in Copenhagen. Then I proceeded to Berkeley where I wound up in a computer center on a CDC 6400, which was a fantastic third generation machine.
JB: How did you get out of Hungary?
SIMONYI: I went to a lot of subterfuge to get out, to be sure. I got out legally; but it was illegal not to return. The way I got out was that I finished high school one year before it was expected, which was a unique feat at the time, in terms of actually getting permission and go through with it. People there were living in a very fearful and lock-step way, and just to do something unusual was a big deal. So when I got out of high school I was 17, underage, so the military couldn't touch me. I also secured an invitation to work at Regnecentralen in Copenhagen, where one of the first Algol compilers was developed. At that time university people had deferments, so the military were in a quandary. If I were to go to university in Hungary, then I would have been completely out of their reach. Whereas if I had spent the year by going to this Danish institute, for example, then they could catch me on the rebound. So they took the lesser of two evils, and they let me out.
JB: Did your father leave with you?
SIMONYI: No, I left alone. He had many political problems and later suffered because of my defection, but we had already taken that into consideration. It worked out for the best in the end, and he would have been very unhappy if I had been on his side having the same problems as he did. He didn't want to leave his country for many reasons, and I think he was egging me on to leave. I mean, now I can say freely that he was encouraging me to get out.
JB: What happened at Berkeley?
SIMONYI: I got there when I was 18, and I was kind of a starving student. Basically, I had a lot of problems with the immigration people, because nobody had been shooting at me at the Hungarian border. I was just a normal student, except a student whose passport seemed to expire every minute. Though I had plenty of offers to be a programmer, they were pretty strict about taking up employment, which I thought was very strange in the land of the free. Also, you couldn't get scholarships as a foreign student, so I was pretty much living without visible means of support.
I worked for the Computer Center first and met Butler Lampson and did some jobs for him. He and some other professors started a company called Berkeley Computer Corporation, and they invited me to work for them, and that's when I first received a stock option. It wasn't worth anything in the end, but it's a funny story I haven't told before.
Sometimes I was an outstanding student and sometimes I was a terrible student, depending on if I had money or if I had to work or whatever. Also, I had no incentive to get good grades; I just wanted to get an education. I was completely on my own; I paid for it myself; I viewed myself as the customer, and a grade was just some stupid rule that the university had. So I optimized my grades just so they won't throw me out. Anyway, the Dean talked to me and said, well, Mr. Simonyi, you were doing so well and are now doing so poorly; what's the reason? Can we help you? You can share anything with us, tell us what it is. Is it drugs, is it grass, acid, or mescaline? I smiled at him and said, I think it's a stock option. He said, well in that case we can't help you.
Berkeley Computer was really an offshoot of Project Genie, which was funded by ARPA, and Bob Taylor was doing the funding. When Berkeley Computer went bankrupt, the core people were hired by Bob Taylor who was working for Xerox by then. This is how I got into Xerox PARC. I still didn't have my Bachelors degree. With all this skimming the bottom of the expulsion curve, it took me five years to get the degree.
At PARC I had a number of different projects. Then the Alto came into being — the first personal computer — and we had this fantastic capability that was so evident. The most interesting thing: when you see a capability that kind of blows you away, and you know that this is going to be the biggest thing, but then some people don't see it. So it's not like Alto was the only project at PARC; it was just one of a number of similar projects that was fighting for resources. A resource is more than just dollars, it's all forms of attention, attention of the key people and so on.
One day I saw some pieces of paper on Butler's desk, and I asked him what it was, and he said, Oh, it's a sketch for a text editor, we need that for the Alto, and I said, well, can I take a look at them? He said yes, there's nobody working on it. So I took it and decided to make it happen, because it looked very sweet.
We had to create, again, a subterfuge to make it happen. I had to do some experiments on programmer productivity, for my Ph.D. thesis. The first experiment was called Alpha, the second experiment was Bravo. That's how the first WYSIWYG editor was called Bravo, and it was funded, in a way, as an experiment for part of my thesis.
My thesis was not about WYSIWYG. The thesis had some philosophical parts and some measurement parts. The measurement parts are pretty useless, the philosophical part was quite good, and it served us well later in the early days of Microsoft. It had to do with organizing teams, looking at projects, naming conventions and evolving techniques.
Meanwhile, of course, WYSIWYG was born. Once the Bravo editor and the other component of the "office of the future" were operational, it created a fair amount of attention, and a lot of VIPs came to look at what PARC was coming up with. The name WYSIWYG came about during a visit from Citibank representatives. We had a demo showing how we could display a memo with nice fonts, and specifically the Xerox logo in its specific Xerox font, on screen, and then send it through the Ethernet and print it out on the laser printer. So we printed what we had created on the screen onto transparent slide stock. Part of the demo was to push the button to print and then we held the printed version up, in front of the screen, so you could see through the transparent stock that the two were identical. Actually they weren't exactly identical, but they were close enough. It was pretty impressive.
One of these visitors said, "I see, what you see is what you get." Which was of course, you must remember, the Flip Wilson tag-line from Laugh-In, which was a big TV hit at the time. I think he was doing a female impersonation. What you see is what you get. Well, that's the first time I heard it used around the system, which was the first incorporation of that idea, so somehow the term WYSIWYG must have spread from that event.