The Man Who Invented the Avid Media Composer
The final segment of my interview with engineer, inventor and entrepreneur, Bill Warner, the man who created Avid Technology. In this segment Bill talks about getting the initial investment, the period leading up to the launch of the company and how an encounter with some Apple employees at the SIGGRAPH show helped him and his team make a last minute decision to move development of the Media Composer to the Macintosh.
Tech Note: We had some problems with the sound and camera masters on this segment but did everything we could to get it on the web for you. We appreciate your understanding.
Bill Warner: So, at that event, everybody loves the machines, they say they’ll buy them.
Bill Kaiser, sittin’ on the bed in the hotel room, he says, “We’re gonna invest.” So, Greylock invested $500,000, which even then was small, but it was Bill’s first full investment as a venture capitalist. And they invested $500,000 in August of 1988.
That same month, we go to the Siggraph show. Apollo Computer, our friends, said, “Can you bring some cool demos?” And I said, “Well, we’re not ready yet. You know; we don’t want to announce.” They said, “Just bring some cool demos!”
And so we had; my view was, the Avid 1 Media Composer should start by duplicating everything in the online suite. Because after all, all of that’s known, so that’s a reasonable thing to do: Let’s duplicate everything in the first release. That’s what I told the engineers I wanted to do. I was young and naive. I mean, I was absolutely convinced that that was a piece of cake.
So, I hired an engineer to do DVE, you know: digital video effects.
Larry Jordan: Right.
Bill Warner: So, we had this demo of DVE; video. Real video. By now we had plenty of video. We had all kinds of real video: squeezing in, multiple channels. We had things with, like, 32 channels of DVE, you know.
Larry Jordan: Wow.
Bill Warner: It wasn’t high resolution, but it was a mindblower.
So, we thought, what the heck? You know; that’s not our product. Why don’t we show it? So we show it in the Apollo booth. All right?
And what happens? These two guys from Apple show up. And they’re, like, “You have to be on the Mac.”
Larry Jordan: Oh, nice.
Bill Warner: And I said, “No.” And they said, “No, no. You really need to be on the Mac. This needs to be on the Mac.” And I was like, “Come on. We’re on an Apollo workstation here. This is the beefy stuff.”
And they said, “Look. We’ll send you a machine. You just test it.” And I thought, I’m busy, you know. And they said, “We’ll just send you a machine.”
OK. So, we come back from the Siggraph show and we can’t get in the door to our building because there’s a box of Apple machines sitting the way of the door.
Larry Jordan: Nice.
Bill Warner: So, you know, being a hardware engineer, you can’t; you’ve gotta open the box. And so I open the box and I call this guy Michael Tchao at Apple and I say, “We don’t even know what to do with these things. What do we do with it?” And he says, “OK. I’ll hook you up with a software engineer who knows how to do this.”
So we hired; we get this guy, George Madewell, and we say, “OK, George, we’ve gotta test how fast this thing is.”
So, we had the issue of what was called the main memory bit blit speed. Which was, if you have something in memory over here, how fast could you blit it even to a small piece of the screen, and how many frames per second could we do that? All right?
The Apollo we had gotten up to nine frames per second. That wasn’t great, but at least you had motion. And we figured we could optimize it, and I was thinking we could get to 15, right?
Larry Jordan: Yeah.
Bill Warner: So we get George to make this test on the Mac and he does the test and the answer is: 45.
Larry Jordan: Wow!
Bill Warner: I’m like, “45? Did you do the test right? Are you kidding?” And he’d done the test right. OK. So, 45.
So then, the next key question; that’s the blitting from main memory to screen. The next thing is, you have to feed main memory from the disk. All right? We were getting about 200 kilobytes per second off of the disk on the Apollo.
We’re thinking, “OK, we’re going to have to write some new drivers if it’s not fast enough.” The theoretical performance of the disks that were in these machines was 1200 k bytes per second.
Eric Peters, who was a chief technologist, then wrote a test on the Mac to test the performance through the file system to see what that number was, because that was another key number.
Larry Jordan: Sure.
Bill Warner: So he calls me up and I said, “What’s the number?” And he said, “It’s 1200.” I said, “No, that’s the theoretical number, Eric. What’s the actual number of throughput that you tested?” He said, “It’s 1200.”
Larry Jordan: Wow. Why were you able to accomplish this on the Mac versus. . .
Bill Warner: Somebody from Apple please tell me, because I’ve never seen anything perform at the full performance of an underlying system. But that did it. All right? They must have optimized for large transfers or something, but it ran at the full speed of the underlying disk. In fact, I’ve never seen the underlying stuff ever run at the speeds that they say it will. But it did.
So now we have 1200 on the speed and we had 45 on the frame rate. And that meant we had to make a decision, and quickly, because we had NAB 1989 coming up, which was going to be our announcement.
This was by now the fall of 1988. We had just taken our venture capital money.
We did some more testing and I finally gathered the people and I said, “Hey, when we; we’ve got to make a decision today. And when we walk out this door, there is no turning back. We have to decide today that we’re going to switch to the Mac and everything on the Apollo is gonna stop. They’re all going to be sent back. You don’t necessarily know that much about the Mac, but too bad. All right? It’s, the minute we walk out this door it’s all Apple.”
Larry Jordan: Wow.
Bill Warner: And we sat there and we had our beers and I said, “Are you ready to do it?” And they said, “We’re ready.” And we said, “OK, that’s it.”
We walked out. We called Apple. We said, “We’re in.” And we said, “Send as many Macs as you can.” They gathered old junk from the engineering labs because these things were really hard to get and they were $5,000 each. And they got us stuff that worked. You know: cases.
Larry Jordan: Amazing.
Bill Warner: And we switched. And the funny thing is so much that we compete today with Apple. But so much of Apple is in our blood. And from them on, you know, we built on the Mac. And it wasn’t really until, you know, eight years later that there was even any hint of other platforms.