Tech Time Warp of the Week: Watch AT&T Invent Cloud Computing in 1994

Who invented cloud computing? Some say it was Amazon in 2006. Others say it was Google a few years earlier. But it’s all a matter of perspective. We have video proof that cloud computing was really invented in 1994 by AT&T.

In the classic promotional film above–complete with some snappy cartoon art–AT&T pitches something it calls PersonaLink Services. This was a kind of online platform that used artificial intelligence to remake our lives by way of emerging portable computers such as the Apple Newton and the AT&T EO Personal Communicator. But since that’s a little hard to wrap your around, AT&T pulled out the cloud metaphor–something that had long been used among networking and telecom types.

“You can think of our electronic meeting place as the cloud,” says the film’s narrator, in the kind of dulcet tones that seemed to accompany every corporate message in the late-80s and early-90s.

The metaphor is a little much to take–especially if you’re watching from the year 2014, when the cloud has come to mean everything–and nothing. But underneath AT&T’s marketing speak, there was some very real technology that foretold our future in much more interesting ways.

Underneath AT&T’s marketing speak, there’s was some very real technology that foretold our future in much more interesting ways.

This tech was based on the work of Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson, two of the original engineers on the Apple Macintosh. In 1990, six years after the arrival of the Mac, Hertzfeld and Atkinson founded a company called General Magic, and there, they developed a software platform called Telescript, which let people interact with friends and businesses via the net. In 1994, telecommunications giant AT&T was the first to license Telescript, and this gave rise to PersonaLink Services.

The system was powered by a new kind of software bot — personified in the video by fuzzy Weepul-looking minions working in, yes, the cloud. They’re described as artificially intelligent personal assistants that help you do stuff like send email, shop, and keep tabs on stocks–at least in theory. “We all have too much to do and too little time to get it done. Telescript technology lets people offload work to helpful electronic assistants,” said General Magic CEO Marc Porat in a 1994 press release.

According to AT&T, this army of virtual agents learned your preferences and then scoured the web for deals you might be interested in. They could compile a daily personalized e-newspaper and send reminders of important to-dos, like having flowers sent to mom for her birthday. You could even set up instructions for these bots to carry out. For example, if you received a long email, there was no need to strain your eyes by reading it on a computer. You could tell your virtual helper to fax you the message so you could read it in print. It was the If This, Then That of the mid-90s.

But more than a personal aide, the PersonaLink ecosystem was supposed to be a marketplace on which businesses and apps big and small could thrive. “The network that we have, at first, will be great, but it is just the beginning. We need the creative input of literally thousands of entrepreneurs or even users,” says Hertzfeld in a brief cameo in the AT&T film.

PersonaLink didn’t exactly reinvent the universe. It would die when the bubble burst in the early 2000s. But the sort of creative input that Hertzfeld imagines was eventually made possible by other services. Today, crowdsourcing and user-generated content are a vital part of the way our world works. An army of developers build apps atop platforms like Facebook and Dropbox. And, yes, we still talk about the cloud.


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