Don Watkins loves (and just as often hates) computers. A committed geek, including a romp with a plastic analog computer from Edmund Scientific in the early 60s and taking apart adding machines and clocks as a kid in the 50s and 60s he was first exposed to the real thing in the late 1960s and was hooked. Why? “I’m lazy. The idea that a computer could do some of my drudge work appealed to my well-developed sense of laziness.”
Don was working in bank data processing (before it took on more exotic names) and following developments in personal computers when IBM introduced its personal computer he got the bug and a $5,000 PC with a 160k disk drive and 64k of memory. “It wasn’t much machine by today’s standard, but having worked on IBM mainframes machines I jumped in with both feet when IBM entered the market.” he says. Faced with massive issues such as running Visicalc (the first spreadsheet available for the PC) and dealing with the first releases of a number of application programs that have since vanished in the mists of time, Don realized that as one of only a handful of PC owners he was missing what had been a valuable source of information in the mainframe world: other people. How would he link up with others? Local users were few and after paying $500 for a 300-baud modem, he connected to the few single line bulletin boards available at the time.
It didn’t take too many telephone bills and endless redials for Don to recognize the need for a national network. In 1982, Don developed the IBM Users Network on CompuServe, one of the first online communities available to multiple simultaneous users. Back then getting 1,000 users online at once was a big deal. “The concept seems simple now: provide a place for those with an interest in the PC to get together electronically, discuss issues and provide tips, software and opinions relating to the PC,” says Don. Pretty much common fare these days but somewhat uncommon in the 80s.
It may seem quaint today but in 1983 it was bleeding edge. Want to see how quaint? If you have more time than sense you can catch Don’s 1987 appearance on Computer Chronicles in the Computer Chronicles video archive. The segment on Don appears about 11 minutes into the show but even more fun is the appearance of Steve Case (ya know, the AOL dude) talking about how AOL was focusing in the Commodore market. Despite Don’s obvious geekiness (hey, it was ’87) the watcher can decide who is the visionary, regardless of who has more money (trust me, there’s no contest, it’s Case). The feed is a bit slow, but the segment is mercifully short. Or you could better spend your time playing Freecell.
The original community concept wasn’t limited to PCs and PCNet has operated communities and developed content covering a number of diverse topics. After leaving CompuServe PCNet moved to MSN and then had a stint at ZDNet and continues to muddle on like some strange mutated beast from a 1950 horror movie. It may very well be one of oldest continuously operating online enterprises still active reminding one that a benefit of being one of the first at the bar is that you get to drink a lot….if you can remain standing.
In 1994 Don was awarded the John Dvorak Lifetime Achievement Award. He was inducted in the SIA Hall of Fame in 1997 and was awarded the SIA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. He is a founding member of the US Internet Industry Association and a lifetime member of the Association of Software Professionals where he is a past board member. In addition to PCNet Don enjoys golf and running the world famous BigDriver.com web site.