WalterBright 2 months ago

When I developed the first native C++ compiler around 1987, I thought I'd better check with AT&T's lawyers if I could:

1. sell a C++ compiler

2. call it C++

Their lawyer was very nice, and said sure. He also laughed and said he appreciated that I was the only one who bothered to ask.

  • cgriswald 2 months ago

    In the early internet days, when I was young and learning HTML, the book I used to learn recommended asking permission to link to a website. I thought that was weird, but I was a rule follower then. So I, a kid, sent a message to the 'webmaster' of a local government site and dutifully asked permission to link to their home page.

    The said no.

    If I'm ever a super-villain, I'm using this as my origin story.

    • WalterBright 2 months ago

      On the other hand, I've consistently found you can often get what you want just by asking for it. A lot of people seem unwilling to do this.

      • GeertB 2 months ago

        In particular, if you're developing Free Software or Open Source Software, and a company wants to hire you, it is _expected_ that they're OK with you continuing to do so. If any contract says otherwise, explain that you need to keep doing what you're doing in order to stay at the level of expertise that you're at. If a future employer would not agree for you to keep doing that, you shouldn't sign.

        • basicplus2 2 months ago

          I find that if you simply change the wording of their contract to what you are happy with, initial all your changes, sign all pages, sign it, photocopy it, and send it in, nobody rejects it.

          Later when they try to hold you to the original contract, you simply ask them for the contract you signed..

          This has worked for me everytime :)

          • arghwhat 2 months ago

            Note that not notifying the other party of changes could possibly be construed as fraud, depending on what legal system you are under.

            But even when notified of the changes, the other party is quite likely to accept reasonable changes when they have a fully signed copy, as it is more convenient than pushing back...

            • tialaramex 2 months ago

              If they don't want the signed contract back, that's the first time I've seen it. Every employer I worked for wanted the contract back with a signature. Newer ones were OK with an electronic (not digital, just pixels instead of ink) signature but they all wanted a signature.

              When they get the modified contract back that's their notification of your adjusted terms. Is it polite to ask them to print a modified contract? Yes. But it may not always be practical.

              [This is not legal advice, duh]

              Because employer/ employee is asymmetric (unless you're literally hired by an individual) my understanding is that it is good sense for them to prefer your amended contract if the terms you wanted are acceptable, because the law in many places says if you have a take-it-or-leave-it contract then the person in the "take it or leave it" position, here the employee, is entitled to interpret any ambiguous provisions in the most advantageous way. Having amended the contract, you are now on equal footing with the employer and any remaining ambiguity is resolved equitably which means less risk of nasty surprises for them.

              • arghwhat 2 months ago

                They of course need the signed contract back - all parties need a copy with all necessary signatures.

                My point is that you should not sneak in changes with the signature. If the contract is changed, you should notify the parties of the changes, not pretend you just signed their copy. If you do not notify them, it might be seen as an attempt to trick the other parties.

                How that would play out depends on your local legal system, with options ranging from "too bad", "contract or clause invalidated or reverted", all the way to "prosecuted for fraud".

                "Your should just have expected me to have changed the contract and compared it with the previous version to find all the changes!" is not an argument that would get court approval up here...

          • dottedmag 2 months ago

            Wait until contracts start to come in DocuSign, where the only thing you can do is to scribe something obscene instead of a signature.

            • jacquesm 2 months ago

              There is no way I will every use DocuSign. Think about it: the chances in the longer term of DocuSign being hacked approach '1', and that means that everybody that ever uploaded their signature to that site runs the risk of having other documents signed with that signature without the recourse that it wasn't them uploading their sig to some online service.

              And then there is this:


              • na4ma4 a month ago

                DocuSign doesn't even contain your signature, it just makes one up.

                All the rental property agreements use DocuSign and my signature looks perfectly legible.

                Unlike my real signature :)

          • abawany 2 months ago

            Remember that some contracts protect against this intrinsically by stating that no amendments beyond those stated in print are valid.

            • WalterBright 2 months ago

              Just line that clause out.

              • arcastroe 2 months ago

                I loled. But genuinely curious. Is this tongue in cheek, or is it sound?

                • WalterBright 2 months ago

                  It's sound. Lining out things and initial and counter-initial makes it legal. Done that many times.

                • CogitoCogito 2 months ago

                  I can’t see any reason why that change wouldn’t be invalid if others are. (Though it’s probably good to bring it up explicitly so there are no surprises for anyone.)

                  • WalterBright 2 months ago

                    That's why both parties have to initial such changes.

        • WalterBright 2 months ago

          It's best to write down what you expect and get agreement on important matters like this.

      • tialaramex 2 months ago

        It definitely doesn't hurt to ask questions, even if you don't always get answers

        Many years ago I asked my employer why my salary was lower than the contractually agreed minimum salary for 21 year olds in their organisation. I never received a reply but I did receive a raise and pay backdated to the point where I was hired.

        Years before that I asked my bank why I can't just use all the ATMs since they all have money in them and they're all connected to the same network. I never received a reply but some years later the ATMs were indeed all usable (of course, subsequently many began to charge money for withdrawals, so it's still worth going to the "right" ATM if you care)

        More recently I asked my bank if they can avoid giving me a contactless capable credit card when they issue new cards. At first they said this was impossible, but when time came to renew my card and I mentioned being disappointed that it would now be contactless, the call taker said actually she can do that, she'll cancel the renewed card she's just had issued and send me one without contactless, but it will take a few days.

        That card expired, and a few months ago I received its automatic replacement, this time it does have the contactless logo like all the others, but it came with a slim "Contactless-less" sheet explaining that the bank noticed I don't want a contactless card and have told this card not to allow contactless transactions despite the logo however, it is actually a contactless card and so if I change my mind I can just call the bank and activate the contactless feature.

        [ You might wonder why I don't want a contactless card. Contactless credit cards can OK modestly sized payments based on proximity, which is convenient but clearly poses a risk of fraud I don't want. My phone is also capable of proximity based transactions, but it is not limited to some arbitrary size of transaction and I need to explicitly unlock it to allow the transaction. So, the phone "is" my credit card for the purposes of routine transactions, but it has better security. ]

        • hakfoo 2 months ago

          I used contactless for a $150 purchase this weekend, and it seemed so strange. The shop was clearly trying to do the modern commerce setup, with tablets running some sort of Square product and not getting up to go to a central till to pay.

          I work in fintech, and have a lot of contact with UK developers who mention "the contactless limits are creeping up from GBP30 to GBP100". This in a country which is way more familiar with modern card tech. Meanwhile, my American bank, which probably gets 250 calls a day asking "why does my card have a Wi-Fi logo on it?" will seemingly let me unload my entire account with a tap.

        • jacquesm 2 months ago

          > Years before that I asked my bank why I can't just use all the ATMs since they all have money in them and they're all connected to the same network. I never received a reply but some years later the ATMs were indeed all usable (of course, subsequently many began to charge money for withdrawals, so it's still worth going to the "right" ATM if you care)

          This happened not because of you asking but simply because the banks figured out that they only need one ATM in a certain region for all of the banks.

          Never mind the subsequent service level reduction.

        • exabrial 2 months ago

          I'd read up on how the protocol works... There could be a live "relay" attack available , but it's not like someone could just swipe your butt and make a bunch of cloned cards. The magstripe is more of a hazard than anything else as it the numbers on the front un-encrpyted.

          • tialaramex 2 months ago

            I'm aware in considerable detail how EMV works, both for wired and wireless transactions. This was a choice made in light of my understanding of how flawed the technology is.

            See Ross Anderson's extensive material (sorry there's a lot of other stuff in here too) at Light Blue Touchpaper (a reference to Cambridge University's traditional colour and the instructions on fireworks):


      • zarmin 2 months ago

        On the other other hand, ask for forgiveness not permission.

        • WalterBright 2 months ago

          More than one person has come to me with a story that they'd developed a side project without notifying their employer, and now that it was done and they were distributing it were worried their employer was going to claim ownership.

          I didn't have anything helpful to say. I've done side projects when I was working for Big Corps, but in every case notified management beforehand and got a written ok. Never had any trouble with it. When I've accepted job offers, I'd also provide a list of projects that were mine and had them sign off on it as a condition of employment. Never encountered any resistance to that, either.

          But these poor people were sweating bullets imagining all the bad consequences of their employer finding out.

          Just ask, in advance. If you're a valuable employee, they'll say ok. Never heard of one saying no. And they'll appreciate that you asked instead of sneaking around.

          But be careful not to use company equipment.

          • toast0 2 months ago

            > Just ask, in advance. If you're a valuable employee, they'll say ok. Never heard of one saying no. And they'll appreciate that you asked instead of sneaking around

            Yahoo told me I couldn't participate in the Netflix recommendation challenge (not that I would have done well), and then 6 months later praised another Yahoo employee who did well in it. #notstillbitter

            • WalterBright 2 months ago

              Yah, you have good cause to be bitter about that.

            • hollerith 2 months ago

              The decisionmaker who praised is probably different from the one who told you no.

            • egorfine 2 months ago

              Have you got that "no" in written?

              • toast0 2 months ago

                It was in writting, yes. I don't think I still have access to it: I don't keep archives of employer email, but I did use yahoo-inc email from, as was allowed and sometimes encouraged, from time to time, and continue to have some access to old work emails through that; this chain of mail could be in there, but I'm not going to look for the same reason I haven't purged all that. It's too much effort and I don't care enough.

          • mhaberl 2 months ago

            Doesn’t it bother you that you have to ask some manager if you can do something (a side project) in your free time?

            It sounds as you are their slave, and not an employee who works x hours per month for y amount of money.

            Imagine a baker that has to ask the boss if he/she can bake a loaf of bread at home

            • jhallenworld 2 months ago

              Well I had kind of the reverse situation: I wanted to contribute to Cygwin, owned by RedHat. RedHat would not accept my contributions unless I got a signed release from my employer, IBM at the time. Well I tried to get this signed release, but all I got was the run-around. Nobody would bother taking the risk. It's one of the reasons I left.

              • WalterBright 2 months ago

                It's a good reason to leave, if the separate project is important to you.

            • tuxie_ 2 months ago

              I'm also surprised at how natural people talk about that, like it's totally ok your employer "owns" your free time.

            • topkai22 2 months ago

              If that baker intends to sell that bread they also may run afoul of non competes.


              • tuxie_ 2 months ago

                It's their free time, they can do whatever they want with it. If there is something unlawful or disloyal well then you deal with that situation, but you can't tell someone "I will tell you what you can do in your free time just in case you may do something I don't like".

                Also, let's be honest, how much harm can a 1 person project do to a multi billion corp? It's a fallacy.

            • WalterBright 2 months ago

              > Doesn’t it bother you that you have to ask some manager if you can do something (a side project) in your free time?

              Not at all. A salaried position comes with more open-ended expectations than an hourly position.

              Besides, why the resistance to simply asking making it open and honest and the boundaries clear? My agreements on those things tended to be 2 or 3 sentences. I'd sign it, I'd get a veep to sign it, make a copy, and file it away.

              It's just good business to do such things.

              • dtech 2 months ago

                Do you also ask them for permission when you want to go biking? Visit your mother? Throw a party? Draw a picture? Contribute to an open-source project? Smoke a cigarette? Build a gadget? Buy a house? Have a child?

                What an employee does in their own time is 0 business of the employer, none of the above is different from the others in kind.

                • sriram_malhar 2 months ago

                  Oh come on. That's certainly not what Walter was implying. It is any project that may have a potential current or future overlap with the company's plans or products.

                • Viliam1234 2 months ago

                  > Have a child?

                  As long as you agree that the child is a property of the company.

                  • ficklepickle 2 months ago

                    Be sure to read that contract from Rumpelstiltskin Inc. very closely before signing

            • usrn 2 months ago

              I've just been accumulating all my contributions for when I quit or come up with a good enough alias to contribute them under.

          • tombert 2 months ago

            I might not have been a valuable employee, but I tried making a Plex clone in my free time when I was at Apple, asked if I could open source it, went all the way to the VP of tech to ask permission, just to be uncerimoniously told that it was not allowed, because they "really wanted me to be fully focused on Apple".

            I'm not sure I agree at all that they'll say "ok" just because you're a valuable employee; I think you might have gotten lucky at your BigCorps.

            • ncmncm 2 months ago

              Apple will be Apple.

              But there are lots of other places to be.

          • starfallg 2 months ago

            It really depends on the organisation, but from my observation (I, myself, never developed any side projects worth releasing so this is based on what others did), most large organisations are not like that. Legal and HR specifically are very risk averse, so permission is usually denied by default, unless there is a overriding benefit to the company (or someone else to take the hit when things go wrong, a very cynical take I know).

            Ethically speaking, I would think that as a principle, employees should never agree to ask the employer for permission to do things in their own time, for their own purposes, outside of the area of the business. Employees are just that, employees, not indentured servants. There are duties owed by employee to employer (and vice-versa) but this should not be one of them.

          • foobarian 2 months ago

            It's complicated. If your contract says you can't do it, that means there is a legal path toward stopping you if someone bothers. That means someone has to care enough, which means that as long as you don't piss anyone off and don't get too much press you'll be fine. If you ask, it is in nobody's interest to say yes especially lawyers.

            • WalterBright 2 months ago

              And yet I never had any trouble getting a 'yes'. One of those companies was Boeing - as big and bureaucratic as they get.

          • dylan604 2 months ago

            I always refer to the Apple=>Woz=>HP story where Woz went to his employer 3 separate times to seek their blessing and receiving an a-okay each time that his involvement with Apple was not going to be contested by HP.


            • WalterBright 2 months ago

              One of the reasons why Woz is a smart cookie. Think of all the problems Apple could have had if he didn't.

              • dylan604 2 months ago

                Woz is an absolute hero of mine, and if you're reading HN and he's not a hero of yours, then, boy, I don't know.

          • zarmin 2 months ago

            How about, thoroughly read your employment agreement (and everything you sign).

            > Just ask, in advance. If you're a valuable employee

            That is a massive, massive if.

            • krick 2 months ago

              Yeah, well, no. Realistically no one ever will fight or most likely even decline a good job offer over a typical employment contract, and no employer will ever change a typical employment contract specially for you, unless you are somehow preemptively assumed to be a very valuable employee, in which case you are most likely being hired for some very high-level (like, executive) position, so your contract isn't "typical" to start with. And this is far less likely than actually becoming a valuable employee just by doing your quite ordinary job for a few years.

              You might as well recommend fighting over your gym membership contract, of a bank contract, or a telecom operator contract. Right, it's your free choice, uh-huh. Either you accept it as is, or you go fuck yourself and workout at home, without internet, looking for a job where you'll be paid in cash (which also is far from being common). Again, unless you are preemptively perceived to be a very special customer (i.e. "expected to bring in a lot of money"), in which case your contract probably isn't typical to start with. And it is most likely your lawyer who negotiates over it for you anyway.

              • WalterBright 2 months ago

                How do you explain that I've negotiated lots of these "take it or leave it" contracts?

                The only contracts you can't negotiate are government job contracts and union jobs. Which is one reason I'm not interested in either of those job categories.

                > bank contract

                Haha, I once negotiated a large loan from my bank at an interest a full percent below their official floor. I'm not even very good at negotiating, some people I know are much better.

                > telecom contract

                Have you ever said the magic words: "that sounds high, can I get this for a lower price?" The salesmen are allowed to negotiate. The initial price they quote you is the sucker price.

                Every time I've been to the dealer for car work, all I have to do is balk at the quote and 10% comes right off.

                This is not a special skill. Anybody can do it. Fer gosh's sake, you're expected to negotiate.

                • shard 2 months ago

                  I'd love to hear your techniques.

                  I haven't had success with trying to negotiate telecom contracts. When I balked at the price, the salesman would sometimes offer a contract with lower levels of services along with the price reduction. And typically, it's more costly per unit of service, so not much of a bargain.

              • flir 2 months ago

                I must have had half a dozen contracts tweaked over the course of my career. Small things, of course, like making IP rights more explicit and changing notice periods. I can assure you I'm not that valuable. Weird.

                • WalterBright 2 months ago

                  Saying a contract is "non-negotiable" is just another negotiating tactic. They're all negotiable.

            • WalterBright 2 months ago

              I do. Every word.

              • jacquesm 2 months ago

                Everybody should. The number of times I would have been bitten if not for my bad habit of reading 'standard' contracts before signing them can't be counted on one hand any more.

          • AndrewDavis 2 months ago

            Or, ensure that it is in your contract eliminating the need to ask.

            For example my employment contract states (I'm paraphrasing), anything I do outside of work I own copyright on. And anything I do for work is owned by work.

          • Asmod4n 2 months ago

            I wonder if there is more than one country in the world where it’s possible for companies to own their workers like this.

            In Germany for example you can’t give away the copyright on something you wrote as a person. The only thing you can waive is the distribution part of your copyrighted works.

            What you do outside your work hours is only subject to the law, not an employee.

            • tuxie_ 2 months ago

              This doesn't stop companies from putting it in their contacts to scare you though. I worked at a FAANG in Berlin and that clause was _the_ reason I almost don't sign.

              • WastingMyTime89 2 months ago

                Unenforceable clauses are part and parcel of the typical employment contract in France. Non-compete are the one of the most common offenders. I have seen companies try to enforce hours while paying by the day - two incompatibles provision in French labour law. Most employers know they would lose if it came to the worst but they try anyway.

        • strix_varius 2 months ago

          I would generally say, "ask for forgiveness not permission if you'll be fine walking back your decision later."

          Forgiveness often makes sense at work, at least for software engineers, and for modest decisions. Do things the way you think is best instead of getting blocked for weeks looking for permission. If, later on, someone comes knocking and wanting to change it, fine, whatever.

          However, taking the "forgiveness" route with more important / harder to change / expensive things - like building some addition to your house, building a software business separate your software job - is a recipe for disaster.

        • hodgesrm 2 months ago

          It's a little more nuanced than that. Developing home nuclear reactors is an example where the approach might not benefit society at large.

          Edit: Comment is off-topic but I've heard this phrase so many times it's triggering.

      • megablast 2 months ago

        Thanks for all the examples.

    • jhgb 2 months ago

      > the book I used to learn recommended asking permission to link to a website. I thought that was weird

      You thought correctly. You should have read a book written by someone smarter. Imagine a world where you'd have to ask book writers if you're allowed to cite or to refer to their books in yours.

      • hnlmorg 2 months ago

        It easy to say that in hindsight but it wasn’t that unusual of advice in the early days of the web (which is when the GP is describing).

        The web (and internet as a whole) was a very different playground to what it is now. In fact you only have to look at how trusting early internet protocols were and all the bolted on hacks we’ve needed since to see the change (eg SMTP, FTP etc all have security as an afterthought).

  • WalterBright 2 months ago

    P.S. Bjarne Stroustrup and especially Andrew Koenig were super nice and supportive of my efforts in those days. The nascent C++ community was very welcoming.

  • benjamoon 2 months ago

    I didn’t do anything as amazing as you did, but in about 1999 I made a website with a nav menu “inspired” by the then current Microsoft website nav (it was all vbscript dhtml and I basically copy and pasted it from the ms site). I emailed them to check it was ok to copy their nav (it wasn’t even a commercial project so I don’t know why I was so polite), but they replied and they were really nice. They said they encourage “engineers” to create new things rather than copy, but anything I needed from their site I could take and then a load of links to dhtml resources in case I wanted to build my own. I wonder if you did that now would you just get a response from their legal team?

    • rkuykendall-com 2 months ago

      One of the first things I ever did with significant complexity in HTML was stealing the Nav bar. When you're just starting out, that is a challenge all it's own!

  • donarb 2 months ago

    I recall that Microsoft's Visual C++ user license had a clause that forbid you from creating a C++ compiler with it.

    • eschneider 2 months ago

      I believe that was for your protection.

    • bluedino 2 months ago

      Sounds like a challenge

      • dylan604 2 months ago

        Here, hold my beer!


        Hide and watch!

  • effingwewt 2 months ago

    Still boggles my mind reading things like this- so cool to hear origin stories from the horse's mouth, so to speak. But if he hadn't been nice what would have happened?

    I'm sad to imagine the future we are headed towards where only new technologies are worked on, just to get the patents and sit on them, while everything pre-existing is deprecated and abandoned. Microsoft's embrace extend extinguish works eerily well.

    Do you think we are headed in a better direction now? Or is it simply different?

    I remember working with ATT in the late 90's when it was ATT broadband. They were still using green screen computer terminal windows for everything and were trying to get a GUI off the ground. Everything was alt and tab to switch windows etc, no mouse support! Into the mid 2000's! This was done by getting regular employees to try and cobble something together. The miraculous thing was that they pulled it off. Just took them a few years longer than it should have. ATT 'corporate' was known for being every bit the tv trope of a big business back then.

    I remember seeing early builds and laughing it was so bad. ATT in particular was very much stuck in its ways as a corporation and was not inclined to change even the most broken of things.

    When it finally rolled out it was such a mess. All the IT people could do was wince. Everyone but the people who mattered saw it coming. They hired some firm to re-do it all. That happened who knows how many times within just a few years after that. Went from refusing to update to doing it constantly and always breaking things.

    I must say it was pretty insane watching $12k long distance bills from calls to, for instance India, get re-rated to several dollars.

    Wondered how accurate the accounting could possibly be with so many inaccurate and fungible dollar amounts floating around.

    Edit to add- years later I was working as an HVAC service technician and had to do some work at cell phone towers, server locations (wasn't really server farms back then), and phone agent locations for all cell phone carriers in Albuquerque, NM.

    It felt surreal to see bow fast and far the companies had gotten in only a few short years. Companies (especially ATT) that couldn't figure out basic things about computers were at the cutting edge of like all the technology they used. ACs were top of the line Lieberts, they had all proprietary software on everything. The super remote cell phone towers had AC, power, storage, and communications redundancy. Their security had been beefed up to top tier. Contractors all needed top tier security clearance now.

    I don't know if it was the Kevin Mitnick generation of phone phreaks, hackers, and social engineering, or the world in general, or a change in CEO but it was kind of like watching the titanic become some super-advanced space-faring time-warping ship.

    That had kinda given me hope that- damn, maybe we can enter the new age jumping in with both feet. As a kid it felt like progress had been so slow!

    • WalterBright 2 months ago

      > But if he hadn't been nice what would have happened?

      I would have tried to negotiate a deal. If that failed, I would have abandoned making a C++ compiler.

      Consider that at the time C++ and ObjectiveC were neck and neck, judging by the message volume on newnews. I rejected doing O-C because Stepstone demanded royalties for implementing it.

      When Zortech C++ was released, an inexpensive native C++ compiler that was well-adapted to the 16 bit DOS model, C++ took off, and O-C sputtered and died. If AT&T had also demanded royalties, C++ would have been a failure, as cfront was not very practical.

      90% of programming in those days was done on DOS, and Zortech C++ was top of the heap. If I may say so, Zortech C++ gave C++ the critical mass it needed to surge ahead.

      My partner made the mistake of telling Eugene Wang of Borland how well ZTC++ was selling, and from the look on Eugene's face I knew we'd made a big mistake. Borland did an abrupt change in direction and went all in on Turbo C++. And the rest, as they say, is history. Microsoft also soon abandoned its object extensions to C and went with C++.

      • chiph 2 months ago

        My graphics class instructor was Jack Bresenham. The class was given in Borland's Turbo Pascal, but I asked for permission to write my code in the then-new Turbo C++ (since Jack knew C, I was sure he'd allow it).

        It came time to demo our work. Everyone else's code ran at least 5 times faster than mine. How could this be? Well, the Turbo C++ compiler was on the "immature" side at that time and produced really inefficient binaries. While the Borland Pascal compiler was mature and created code that ran really quite fast. Lesson learned. :)

        • 0xcde4c3db 2 months ago

          That's what you get for not having the foresight to pick the compiler written by the guy who would go on to create C# and TypeScript [1].


          • chiph 2 months ago

            My C# story: We were a Visual Basic 6 shop, writing COM+ components being called by classic ASP pages. Microsoft .NET had just been announced and we spent some time doing an evaluation between it and Java (JSPs and Beans) - our brand new CTO was concerned about Microsoft technology being a monoculture and felt that Java would allow us to pick from several competing vendors so we could be using the best of breed[0].

            We spent several months doing a technical comparison. And in the final meeting they went around the room getting opinions from everyone. All but one chose .NET (the dissenter was: "Whatever you think, boss"). The CTO said "That settles it. We're going with Java."[1]

            So we spent hundreds of thousands on Oracle database licenses (because if you're changing languages, might as well change databases too, right?) and consultants to write a prototype. When they were done, it scaled to a grand total of two concurrent users on the fastest Compaq servers we had. While our existing VB code was serving about two hundred. Again, mature technology vs. immature technology.

            I've been a big fan of C# since then. While I think the latest changes to the language and runtime are mostly eye candy (how hard is it to have a Main method, really?) there's some good stuff in there (I spent some time looking at System.Threading.Channels recently)

            [0] The idea isn't bad, but what happens in practice is you get about 2 top-tier vendors and a bunch of also-rans.

            [1] When choosing a technology stack, the CTO will pick what they want and everyone else's opinions are secondary. I think this must be a corollary to the "When a business moves, it's always closer to the CEO's house" rule.

          • vkazanov 2 months ago

            Optimising compiler is not the same business as a language implementation :-) related but not the same at all

          • ncmncm 2 months ago

            That compiler got template support very, very late, and conforming support much later than that.

      • effingwewt 2 months ago

        Man, it really is history. Crazy to think had things been a little different how different would things be today. If kid me knew one day I'd run across this in an online forum I don't think I'd have believed it.

        As others said- thanks for sharing the insights, made my week.

        • bombcar 2 months ago

          The refusal to open-license Minix is another one that has had major repercussions.

          • jacquesm 2 months ago

            Yes, that was a giant mistake. But you have to keep in mind that there was already a deal with Prentice-Hall at that point and re-negotiating that to open sourcing it may well have been prohibitively costly for Tanenbaum / VU.

            • bombcar 2 months ago

              I don't even really think it was a mistake, it's just that it indirectly caused linux. Of course the Hurd being a Turd helped there, too.

        • WalterBright 2 months ago

          It's the Butterfly Effect, for sure.

      • sirsinsalot 2 months ago

        Thank you for giving these details. I feel like AI is the next step in some kind of implementation war after languages and then browsers.

        • ianai 2 months ago

          Does C++ have much of an AI/ML implementation? I saw something recently about the language missing a good AI/ML framework since there was no way to do proper differentiation (might be the wrong term, sorry).

          • doovd 2 months ago

            This doesn't make much sense, for two reasons: 1. Various ML libraries are implemented in C++ and have wrappers for respective interpreted languages. 2. Given higher-level languages can do auto-diff, c++ as a lower-level language is likely to be able to do it (and it can).

            It just doesn't have as popular libraries such as python/R etc given the latter are far easier to work with + lower barriers for entry.

          • umanwizard 2 months ago

            PyTorch is written in C++ and has a C++ API (although the most famous API is — as the name suggests — the Python one).

      • skissane 2 months ago

        > Microsoft also soon abandoned its object extensions to C and went with C++.

        Anyone have any info on what those abandoned Microsoft extensions were?

        • WalterBright 2 months ago

          I heard it was called "C*". But I've never been able to find out more about it. Just that a Redmondian told me that Zortech's success caused them to abandon it. Probably it was in the very early stages.

    • dekhn 2 months ago

      One of my favorite tech books is 'The Idea Factory' which covers various periods of innovation at (AT&T) Bell Labs, including the creation of the first real cell phone technology.

      When I first got Pacific Bell (now part of AT&T) DSL in California in the early 2000s, it was run by a seperate division of the company, "Emerging Products Division". i always assumed that was because the traditional side of PacBell just didn't get digital at all and the leadership kept them apart to avoid the innovator's dilemma.

      • gumby 2 months ago

        > When I first got Pacific Bell (now part of AT&T) DSL in California in the early 2000s, it was run by a seperate division of the company, "Emerging Products Division". i always assumed that was because the traditional side of PacBell just didn't get digital at all and the leadership kept them apart to avoid the innovator's dilemma.

        This technique had previously been used by IBM to the the PC out: they built a whole division from scratch in Boca Raton away from the IBM mother ship in NY

        • ianai 2 months ago

          I definitely wish more recent tech had gone the standardized way similar to how IBM standardized computer building. We’re into four decades of being able to build PCs from customized/off the shelf parts because IBM didn’t go the “make it impossible”/proprietary route.

          • gumby 2 months ago

            Actually that credit goes to COMPAQ. IBM used commodity parts to save money but it was COMPAQ who famously cloned the BIOS a and made IBM-alikes against IBM’s wishes.

            But by then the cat was out of the bag: IBM tried to achieve a proprietary beachhead with Micro Channel (and OS/2) but that added value for IBM, not the customer.

          • com2kid 2 months ago

            Don't forget that Microsoft maintained momentum in this area. MS loved having open standards because it let MS pit OEMs against each other, causing hardware prices to drop while Windows license prices stayed the same.

            • flir 2 months ago

              This is why at one point all the big players in open source were hardware manufacturers. The software tries to commoditize the hardware, and the hardware tries to commoditize the software.

      • effingwewt 2 months ago

        Definitely going to give that a read. Now that you both mention it, many BigCo's did have fragmented segments back then, were I suppose now everything is helmed by the head (Alphabet/Google).

        Maybe it was some kind of turning point. Also about that time did CEO age drop through the floor? They went from all being ancient to mostly 40 and under somewhere along the line.

        Thanks for the book suggestion!

    • foobarian 2 months ago

      What do you mean by "trying to get a GUI off the ground?" Was it that ATT corp IT was trying to deploy a windowing OS onto employees' computers? Or that they were developing a graphical OS a la Plan9 and failing?

  • jhgb 2 months ago

    > I was the only one who bothered to ask.

    Was it necessary to ask? Unless C++ is patented and you live in a place where software patents are actually a thing, what could prevent you from writing your own implementation of something?

    • WalterBright 2 months ago

      I had no idea what IP rights AT&T held over it. There was no way I was going to invest blood, sweat, and tears in developing a C++ compiler only to get sued over it.

      Besides, it was polite to ask.

AlbertCory 2 months ago

People questioning whether the lawyer really had the power to block this don't know how legal departments in big corporations work, as others have pointed out.

A lawyer usually cannot get in trouble for saying No. They can only get in trouble for saying Yes. They feel they're doing their jobs by saying No and they'll also use the phrase "out of an abundance of caution."

The lawyer's supervisor is very rarely going to overrule him or her and say Yes. They will just say "it's their case, they're in charge." They defer to each other that way.

This probably seems excessively cynical to you. Indeed it doesn't always turn out this way. Sometimes rationality prevails.

  • tlrobinson 2 months ago

    I’ve found good corporate lawyers will summarize the risks of taking some action and ask you (or higher up leadership) to weight those against the business case for taking said action.

    • dekhn 2 months ago

      Agreed, I worked with some very good lawyers at Google who understood the technical details and the context outside of corporate/industry. It wasn't always default 'no', especially if you knew how to ask the questions properly. It was default 'maybe and here's why'.

      • AlbertCory 2 months ago

        In fact, I was in Google Patent Litigation, and that's largely where that came from.

        But you're right: you have to prepare the ground very carefully when you ask for legal advice. If you just ask out of the blue "can we do this?" you're asking for trouble.

    • CWuestefeld 2 months ago

      Agreed. When I deal with our legal counsel, I often try to draw him out to determine how I need to prioritize my team's work. Generally he declines to give me any firm yes or no, and just tells me where he sees risks.

  • dctoedt 2 months ago

    > A lawyer usually cannot get in trouble for saying No. They can only get in trouble for saying Yes.

    This. AND: There's seldom if ever much near-term personal upside for the lawyer, just downside if things go wrong --- and lawyers are a natural target for business people to point the fingers at if things do go wrong, because they're of different tribes.

    Warren Buffett's longtime business partner Charlie Munger famously said, "Never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes a little further my appreciation of incentive superpower. * * * Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives." [0]

    That said, good business lawyers think of themselves as kinda being business people with legal training, assessing all the relevant risks and making recommendations for the business. (I tell my students: Try to think as though you were the CEO — but remember that you're not.)

  • pmoriarty 2 months ago

    The question that should be asked is not "can we do this?" but "what do we need to do to make this happen?"

    • s3ctor8 2 months ago

      This holds true for a number of situations where approval is required. For me it's particularly helpful when looking for IT/Information Security approval. "What actions/precautions do you recommend I take, so that you will approve this when you are asked to (and we are implementing a secure solution)?"

  • userbinator 2 months ago

    A lawyer usually cannot get in trouble for saying No. They can only get in trouble for saying Yes. They feel they're doing their jobs by saying No and they'll also use the phrase "out of an abundance of caution."

    Hence why the phrase "it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission" exists.

  • duxup 2 months ago

    The few times I was involved in “we should ask legal” situations and it wasn’t the most obvious yes… I just checked out after that as some legal drone always came back with some “no” and sometimes some really wonky situations they made up that frankly read more like some random internet legal expert rather than someone with training.

    • AlbertCory 2 months ago

      Yes, indeed. I could tell a great story, but just doing that would itself violate a No some lawyer gave me.

      • ncmncm 2 months ago

        That "no" probably expired a long time ago. Another lawyer would be able to tell you.

        Often enough, only specific trade secrets get long-term protection.

        Non-commissioned crewmen on board ships conducting classified missions, not themselves cleared, can usually say everything they did; it was the officers' responsibility to keep them from knowing any classified details.

        • AlbertCory 2 months ago

          Thanks for the (mostly irrelevant to this case) details, but I can't divulge the reason for the No, and I do suspect it would still apply.

  • FunnyBadger 2 months ago

    Also it's NOT corporate legal that makes ANY decisions - that's reserved for management hierarchy - legal is merely advisory to management and NOTHING MORE.

  • tgv 2 months ago

    It's called liability, isn't it? Lawyers only go out of their way to rationalize something when it's deemed profitable.

overeater 2 months ago

This stories reminds me of the times before tech dominance, when programmers and innovators needed to get permission to do almost anything. Tech people were not allowed to run companies, or even manage people -- you needed MBAs for that.

Anything "disruptive" would be immediately shut down and threatened from the dominant industry. Anti-societal violence in video games were under constant protest (like the original Grand Theft Auto, or Mortal Kombat), and don't even think about trying to start a business like Uber or Spotify.

New file formats could be immediately crushed by IP concerns. Even web pages posting content about circumventing current systems or linking to sites like that were targeted. If you weren't a big player, you didn't have any way to accept money (besides asking people to mail you checks).

While tech is seen as too powerful now, I think it's at least nice that we no longer have the anxiety that plagued any idea or project in the past. You don't have to worry about going to jail for programming crypto code, or be unable to find a hosting provider for your website that shows scraped public data.

  • justinclift 2 months ago

    > we no longer have the anxiety that plagued any idea or project in the past.

    _cough_ Patents _cough_.

ineedasername 2 months ago

I asked a (great) boss I had once if we should get the legal department's opinion on something very minor. They had a great response, which was that nothing-- unless absolutely necessary by policy or significant risk-- should ever be given to them unless we wanted to wait 6 months for them to tell us "no".

YMMV based on the nature of issues your legal folks have to deal with on a regular basis. In our case, anything outside of standard contract review they had a reputation of being a nightmare to deal with.

  • iasay 2 months ago

    That sounds like our purchasing department. AWS always gets business first now because we don’t have to raise a PO

    • boondaburrah 2 months ago

      similarly, webapps have eaten desktop software because you don't have to raise a ticket with IT to get approval for a software install.

    • bombcar 2 months ago

      And now you know how AWS works and makes their money.

  • james_in_the_uk 2 months ago

    If you are doing something that isn't significantly risky and isn't identified by policy as likely to give rise to a significant risk, then you don't need to ask a company lawyer.

    If you ask them anyway, it might take a while to get a reply, because they'll be prioritising significant risks.

    • ineedasername 2 months ago

      There are plenty of things short of significant risk that would be useful to have a professional legal opinion on.

      You are also making the faulty assumption that policy has sufficient coverage to avoid ambiguities and cover all events. It doesn't. Something not particularly risky, not covered by policy, but touching on a legal matter are not uncommon.

      Your comment is rather strange in fact given the actual linked article's example.

    • ellyagg 2 months ago

      But then they also say no.

      • james_in_the_uk 2 months ago

        Yes we have a special protocol for time-wasters ;)

        • ineedasername 2 months ago

          Ah, so you deploy malicious obstructionism against people with honest questions that want to make sure they stay on the right side of the law.

nailer 2 months ago

There was also VQF from Yamaha, people seriously had discussions on whether MP3 or VQF would become the dominant format.

Oh also Fraunhofer uploaded the mp3 source to the ISO website for years with no license, let the community build on it for years (I feel like they knew) and then asked everyone for a minimum of 10K USD.

  • bitwize 2 months ago

    Even Bill Gates knows you let people pirate the product first, then squeeze them for license fees.

  • RajT88 2 months ago

    VQF was indeed better. Smaller files, same fidelity.

    I cannot remember all of them now, but there was a few like that.

  • kybernetyk 2 months ago

    Fun fact: Apple's CoreAudio to this day can't output MP3. It can read it fine just not write it. :)

    • astrange 2 months ago

      The iTunes MP3 encoder is really bad, so nobody should want it to.

Beldin 2 months ago

That comment about the stack of CDs mysteriously disappearing right from under the presenter's nose while he kept on fiddling with his slides is hilarious.

  • sovietswag 2 months ago

    lol "the presenter".... who was Ken Thompson

    • wiredfool 2 months ago

      Would you trust one of those CDs?

      • hulitu 2 months ago

        One ? not. Only the rest :)

james_in_the_uk 2 months ago

Alternative headline: Insufficiently clear IP releases mean AT&T not willing to take risk of distributing copyrighted music just to pad out a CD-ROM.

  • lukeh 2 months ago

    Yeah, I kinda agree here. Music licensing is complex and also likely unfamiliar to AT&T’s lawyers. It’s not unusual for signed musicians to be not 100% across their obligations on both the master and publishing sides (not saying that this was necessarily the case here, of course). At the very least even if the master was cleared, AT&T would likely have needed to pay mechanical royalties to the artists’ PROs or publishers.

jonahx 2 months ago

I feel like part of the story is missing, or I am missing something... why couldn't they just confirm the releases?

  • blihp 2 months ago

    The lawyer didn't care... they just used their power to block the release. Since it wasn't something that mattered to them, they likely never gave it a second thought. This isn't terribly uncommon (it's not just an issue with lawyers, but with any corporate gatekeeper) in the business world.

    • jonahx 2 months ago

      So there was no mechanism to appeal the decision, presumably? Lawyer says "nope", gives bullshit reason, and that's it? Nothing further to be done?

      • salmo 2 months ago

        Usually you can, but it better be worth it. You’ll have to get an officer to say they’re willing to accept the risk with a high level legal counsel.

        If you tossed this idea up to that level, you’d piss the officer off for wasting his time and burn the relationship with the lawyer.

        Also, this team was pretty infamous at that point for not playing nice with the corporate structure (eg naming the OS Plan 9). Sure, they were rockstars to nerds, but Unix, etc. never made Bell/AT&T real money. Wasn’t their fault, but they never got internal clout and were just a small, weird group in a giant company.

        • bad416f1f5a2 2 months ago

          My current role is the first where I've extensively worked with counsel. My biggest misconception going into these discussions was that it'd be a transactional, approval-gated thing: I make a request, they kick it around, then come back and say "yes" or "no" and that would be the end of it.

          What I've found is exactly what you describe: if I come to legal asking for a "no" – which I've done more than a handful of times – that's an easy answer that comes out of an email. But when I come wanting their approval, if I can get past the first meeting with counsel the next one is with officers, you are pitching the benefits while the lawyers are talking about risks, and if you can convince everyone to take the risks you get what you want. Just be sure to write down meeting minutes and send them around; no one at that level was taking notes ;)

          "We want to distribute a ton of IP with unclear/insufficient releases" has almost no benefit and a mountain of risk for any company. It's no wonder the lawyers said no.

      • dleslie 2 months ago

        Probably not, no; because to cross the corporate power broker is to invite their wrath. It will make future asks of them impossible, or at least costly.

  • anigbrowl 2 months ago

    Yeah I am doubting this too. The lawyer identifies a potential legal problem (clearances) that would have been trivial to solve. For about $50 you can file a copyrighted work with the librarian of Congress and get an officially USA-branded certificate of copyright ownership, and it only takes a couple of weeks. This is a norm in the creative industry because if you have filed your copyrighted work and it is later infringed, you can claim punitive damages as well as recoup your loss.

    • Isamu 2 months ago

      I don’t think you have experienced the politics of high level executives in mega corporations. This is exactly the most plausible part of the story. Some legal executive likely jumped to some conclusion before talking to Rob to get all the facts, and didn’t want to walk back his position because he is so much more important than the tiny Unix group that it was easier to just kill it.

      Remember Plan9 was not going to make money enough for any executive to care.

    • morcheeba 2 months ago

      I read it as not a clearance problem, but that the lawyer didn't know who Lou Reed and Debbie Harry were and didn't want to release music from some randos the developers had found.

      • anigbrowl 2 months ago

        Yeah, because actual randos could be people doing cover versions of music they don't own. But one could respond to this with 'they're successful recording artists, I can get the documentation you need right away.'

anarchy89 2 months ago

Anyone know what the file format they used was?

  • pdw 2 months ago

    It must have been an early version of AAC. Bell was involved with that. And another message in the thread claims "the early versions of the audio compression stuff were not quite is good as the later versions (which became apples stuff)"

    • Maursault 2 months ago

      Regarding the early formats' fidelity, the defense Napster should have won with was that the plaintiff's assumption that digital copies were any good was false. The mp3s in question were barely broadcast quality, thus sharing low bitrate mp3 was not any different from sharing recordings of broadcast radio, a legal activity.

mdrzn 2 months ago

"The Plan 9 CD-ROM needed about 100MB for the full distribution, if that."

I have no idea what they are talking about, what Plan 9 is, what is being distributed, why is AT&T involved, etc. Read the whole first post, still have no clue.

dagurp 2 months ago

What's plan 9?

  • msla 2 months ago

    The OS the people who created Unix did after they'd decided that networked workstations with high-resolution graphics displays and mice were the way the future would look. In some ways, it's a cleaned-up Unix, and in others, it's a different design, based more around computers on a LAN sharing resources than than terminals connecting to a central system.

    • masswerk 2 months ago

      Kudos for providing an answer (also a very good short answer) instead of simply downvoting a question!

  • jacquesm 2 months ago

    In a nutshell: an iterative improvement on the UNIX concept of everything is a file. In UNIX everything is a file unless it isn't (a device, for instance, which just looks like a file but does not behave as such), in plan 9 that is so cleanly implemented that you can run one window manager inside another (and if you want while using the CPU resources of yet another machine) without losing stride.

  • nobody9999 2 months ago

    >What's plan 9?

    The sibling comment gave a good answer.

    But don't take their word (or Wikipedia's, for that matter) for it.

    Go ahead and install[0] it yourself.

    I'd recommend a VM.


choppaface 2 months ago

“And that, my friends, is why MP-3 took off instead of the far better follow-on system we were on the cusp of getting out the door.”

I dunno, maybe the technical problem from the beginning was distribution and installs and not actually compression. Maybe lawyers suck, but maybe Plan 9 was actually more for entertainment than anything else.

  • antonvs 2 months ago

    I rolled my eyes at that quote. People always have excuses for not finishing something.

quickthrower2 2 months ago

Because it just ain’t right burning a CD ROM and not filling it up

Bayart 2 months ago

I wish I was as cool as Rob Pike.

  • indrora 2 months ago

    You really don't.

    Having experienced him, he's kindof an asshole. Smart, but with the tact un an unpleasant rash.

pmarreck 2 months ago

This is a literal tragedy