✍ In A World Without Walls…

World Without Walls T-shirt§ I think the time is coming to fill in a few gaps in technology history – including a little trivia. If you have photos, let me know!

A piece of history that many of us older Java geeks remember is the stunt someone pulled at JavaOne in 1997. Java was the hottest new technology in town, the embodiment of the emerging web culture. The JavaOne conference was in its infancy – it started in 1996 – and was sharing the Moscone Center in San Francisco with another conference, Software Development West. The relationship was friendly – indeed, the two conferences clubbed together to close Howard Street and hold a street party for delegates of both events.

JavaOne was a grass-roots, by-geeks-for-geeks conference back in those days, with expensive exhibition stands banned and plenty of scope for high jinks. By contrast, SD West 1997 was much more mature and self-aware. All the same, the developer audience for both conferences had plenty in common, with Java being the hot new technology being adopted by everyone – including Microsoft.

The big draw to SD West that year was one of the keynotes. Bill Gates was booked to deliver a keynote for the conference, and a massive turn-out was guaranteed. That’s not to say Gates was necessarily popular. By 1997 it was already obvious to everyone that Microsoft was no longer the spunky underdog in IBM’s industry. Indeed, the whole reason Java was huge was it promised to break the growing stranglehold Microsoft was establishing on the software industry.

On the day of Gates keynote, the hubbub of Howard Street was disturbed by a delivery truck and a forklift. The mysterious forklift started placing pallets of t-shirts on the sidewalk outside Moscone. Both truck and forklift disappeared, and the curious crowd was left to investigate the t-shirts. Some were white with black lettering, others were black with white lettering, but all carried the same message: “In A World Without Fences, Who Needs Gates”.

Hugely amused, the passing crowds on their way to the Gates keynote each took a shirt and pulled it on over whatever they were wearing. There were thousands of them. They quickly disappeared, with some people taking several for stock. In the SD West keynote hall, when Gates finally walked on stage it was to see the massive convention hall filled with people wearing the t-shirts.

I gather all hell broke loose in the conference management. The Microsoft team –  sponsors of both conferences – wanted to know how something like this could possibly be allowed to happen. Everyone of course suspected Sun of being the conspirators, and I’ve been told times were pretty tense as they looked for the culprit (I didn’t work there at the time so this is second-hand).  It certainly looked like a typical Sun practical joke. However, I can finally reveal the secret. It was actually a member of IBM’s Java Marketing team that made the shirts and dumped them there, knowing no-one would ever suspect stuffy IBM of the prank.

It’s lived on in our memories, and many of us still wear the shirts for old times sake. I still have my original shirts, but for years now I’ve also quietly maintained an online store with replacements for people in-the-know. About 2003 I decided that with changed times they were a bit cruel and revised the design – so today, most of them have the general message you see above (although the original is still there if you look carefully).

They still seem relevant. Maybe the time is coming when the world will change enough for me to close the store down for good, but for now – well, let’s just say it’s still there…

2 Responses

  1. I always thought that an IBMer was the source of those shirts — the font was the clue in my mind.

  2. Ha ha ha ha 🙂

    This is a truly hilarious story 🙂

    I wish I had one of those T Shirts

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