Interview with Linda Dozier

by Don Hamilton (wiz@wwwiz.com)


The brainpower behind all the changes at AOL and the GNN browser and Publisher sits in a chair that is high enough off the floor that her feet don't touch the ground. And don't let the long hair, blue jeans and sandals fool you, either. Linda Dozier is one of the online industry's most no-nonsense hardworking capable players—an experienced pro.

WWWiz: When did you start NaviSoft?

LD: In the early part of '94 we really got going and decided the Internet was really the platform for us to deliver our network publishing tools. When we originally conceived of the business we were focused on doing network publishing tools. We really didn't care very much about what the networking infrastructure was—we figured that there was a need for network publishing on a variety of different platforms, whether it be local area networks, wide area networks, node space networks or an Internet-based network. The Internet thing had not really happened in '93 yet. So we had an architecture that was independent of the networking platform. We had focused on network publishing tools fairly early and then the Internet happened.

WWWiz: When were you acquired by AOL?

LD: We started coding about mid-1994 and then we were acquired by about the fall. So we were actually acquired very, very early on.

WWWiz: Why did you sell so early?

LD: There were a variety of reasons that made sense for us as well as America Online. For us, in terms of launching a start-up, having instantaneous access to this huge online instant subscriber base was just a really valuable strategy to us. We thought that it would give us a jump start on delivering our products to companies and people that we could not otherwise get as a little tiny start-up. We actually developed the first release of the product as an AOL company in 1995. AOL is currently deploying the software throughout their infrastructure.

WWWiz: How did you end up selling your company to AOL?

LD: We were seeking financing for the business and one of the venture firms had sort of an Internet day. During that meeting a VP of AOL, a woman that had been with AOL for a long time. I was actually in the ladies room and nursing my son and she was pregnant so we struck up a conversation. She said we need to follow up on this. David Cole President and CEO followed up with a meeting with Audrie and in a very short time we had concluded a deal. It helped AOL become net savvy and gain expertise and now they are the biggest online provider as a percent of total provider business.

WWWiz: Does your product still carry the name NaviSoft?

LD: For the moment we actually do a private labeling of the NaviPress and NaviServer. We also have a private label that is offered over the GNN service. GNN has a GNN Press and a GNN Server which is used in the back end for serving pages as it is in AOL as well. The most complete access is through the GNN hosting services where you essentially rent a host Web server and you get 24-7 (24 hours a day; 7 days a week) server support. You get access to ad server plug-ins, the database and so on. Through that service it is branded as GNN Server. All we need is the little logo, the little animation, and it's sort of an enterprise kit, if you will. We could turn out different brands ad nauseum.

WWWiz: What's your background?

LD: I'm a computer scientist by education. I've been working for about 18 years or so. I actually started fairly young. I started out in the aerospace industry, working for TRW. I started working on very interesting engineering problems for large-scale satellite command and control systems. It was a really good place to learn disciplined systems engineering. The difference, I think, of not having that kind of background is that you tend to engineer in the small; you can only get your head around projects that are one or two or three programmers. When you think about deploying software someplace like AOL we're actually deploying into something that is an operational system that has reliability maintainability, availability requirements, security considerations, scaleability and so on. I think having come out of a large-scale system engineering background is very helpful in designing things that are deployed in a way that is different that just on a desktop.

I worked for years on interesting things like satellite imagery. In fact, it's kind of interesting that after dealing with satellite images that are huge, these little tiny gifs seem so trivial. It's like, "What's the drama here, guys?" [laughs]

WWWiz: How did you make the transition from satellite downloads to server software?

LD: During the defense downturn there were a variety of efforts to commercialize and diversify into commercial endeavors and take the technology and apply it some way in which they would have a different avenue for economic return. First of those was something called Picture Network International, which was an online network delivering and licensing stock photography. We went out and digitized the stock that stock houses carried. To index that in a way that you could do rapid search and retrievals over a network you could get thumbnail sketches. Then you needed to enter into a negotiation because the way stock photography is paid for depends on per use. So we created a knowledge or rule-based engine going through a negotiation, and we had to factor in placement, the kind of publication, size of the circulation and so forth.

WWWiz: What was the first program you ever wrote?

LD: The first program I ever wrote? [laughs] Assembly IBM 360 and it was keypunch cards and I can't actually remember what it did. The first six that I wrote were Assembly IBM 360 and were probably homework assignments. It was all keypunch and you would take your little deck over to the card reader. I had to stuff cards in the card reader and occasionally it would jam or get messed up. It was a very different process than today. We debugged by reading core dumps. I don't think I could read a core dump anymore but that's how we used to debug.

I started out in a junior college when I was 16 or 17, something like that. Some of my friends said, "This is so cool, you've got to try it, you've got to try it," and I thought, all right, all right, you know, I'll give it a try. In fact, I thought it was absolutely fascinating. I went straight from there to TRW and a job in their data processing department.

WWWiz: What was the first program you wrote just for yourself?

LD: Just for myself! I don't think I ever wrote a program just for myself. I started working for TRW at 17. It didn't leave a lot of time for hobby programming.

WWWiz: What was your relationship to the development of NaviSoft software?

LD: Well, I wasn't the primary programmer but I was most certainly the principle architect. I did write code in the beginning. When we first started we were very small. Since that time things have evolved; we have grown to about 30 people now and I still provide what I would say is sort of product management functions and the overall direction of the product line and how it relates to the strategic objectives of AOL. One thing I have learned, working on the giant projects and the smaller ones, is that less is more. If you can have one guy who's writing loads of the code you will end up with a cleaner product. It just works better.

WWWiz: So how is it working with AOL?

LD: Well...there are good things about it and there are bad things about it. The good things about it are that it's actually a pretty hip company. It's very aggressive—it's incredibly aggressive. There was sort of a rash of announcements in March with Microsoft, Netscape, Sun, Apple, Ziff-Davis and our internationals—Germany Online, UK Online, Canada Online, Japan and so on. It's energetic, hip...a lot of really brilliant strategic thinkers. It's been an incredible ride.

On the other hand, it's really chaotic, as you can imagine; we are just doing so much. We have hypergrowth going on now and the distance Santa Barbara provides us is some insulation. We have to keep our heads down and concentrate on our core competencies which are publishing—personal and professional publishing.

My belief is that this year is the year of publishing. Last year was the year of the browser. There are more hosting services that are being launched by sort of the "big boys" and I think there is just more and more emphasis on the two-way communication aspect of the Internet. It's not about getting pages, you know, it's about being able to express yourself. The Internet has been around for a long time, and what separates it from everything else is freedom of expression. Newsgroups have been around for a long time and people say whatever they want about whatever they want. If you think about how CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL got started—originally on the premise that you were going to go there and get things and download. You were going to get pages, get pages, get pages, and the beauty of this new media is the ability for two-way expression, which is part of our original vision where everyone is a publisher. You don't need to go sell your book to someone or get permission; it's a very free platform for expressing yourself. This year people are waking up to the two-way notion that it's not about getting; it's also about putting things back. What we are doing is making it easy, portable and entertaining.

WWWiz: What about standards for browsers and HTML writing software?

LD: The W3C HTML 3.0 never hit the street; it jumped straight to 3.2. In that standard they picked up some of the Netscape extensions and some of the Microsoft extensions but not all of either of them. Well, W3C can say what ever they want and you still have X number of millions of Netscape browsers out there and some number of millions of Internet Explorer Browsers out there. The tack we have taken so far is 3.2 standard as well as the popular Netscape and Microsoft extensions. We need to support what people want, which means we have to do a superset. Moreover, there are some places where they actually conflict, interestingly enough. The tables that Netscape did was in conflict with HTML standard that the W3C had defined; in those cases we have an option to determine what we want it to conform to and you choose, say, Netscape or the W3C HTML and then we will out put the right code depending on what the selection is. People are basically going to pick who they think is the market leader.

WWWiz: What software do most people browse the market with today?

LD: Seventy or eighty percent of the people use the Netscape browser today but I have heard that that number does not include the online services. AOL has six million, CompuServe has some number of millions of people online and if their browsers were counted the numbers might change substantially. Of course AOL just licensed the Netscape Navigator and that's one way to solve our problems.

Part of the HTML problem for us is that we know what they have released but we don't know what they have in the tank, so its very hard to keep up. Our position is that Netscape is not competition to us but our partner in supplying technology to customers.

WWWiz: So what role is GNN playing in the provider business?

LD: Most small business are not computer companies and do not want to run their own server in fact they don't even have the skill set to hire the person that would handle their Web site. We provide the one- stop shop. You just say, "I want my name to be www.myname.com and I want that to be my Web site," and somebody just takes care of it for you; they just do it. The service that we have will set up the mumbo jumbo of IP DSN and so forth, and install the Web server for you. We put up the default home page, all the default permissions, and so forth. Where our remote offering really comes into play is that they can sit at their office and use something that has a very simple word processor-type interface that actually updates and publishes software on their site.


The Products: AOLpress and AOLserver

AOLpress is an HTML authoring tool currently available for Windows, Macintosh, and UNIX. It seamlessly combines a Web browser with full-featured authoring and editing in the same window. It supports authoring of HTML 3.2 and most Netscape and Internet Explorer extensions, including WYSIWYG construction of tables, forms, and image maps. It also has advanced features not available in other packages; examples include support for group authoring through a Lock-Unlock feature, MiniWebs for managing collections of pages, and AutoLinks to convert plain text into HyperText. When used with AOLserver, it supports remote development of Web sites—no more cumbersome ftp'ing, just Open-Edit-Save to servers anywhere on the Internet.

AOLserver is the most powerful platform for developing applications for the Web. In addition to the integration with AOLpress, AOLserver offers secure sockets for electronic commerce, Illustra's integrated object-relational DBMS and full-text search engine, interfaces for adding SQL, Tcl, and C plug-ins, and hierarchical access control. AOLserver's performance leads the industry. Its multithreading and multihoming architecture can host hundreds of Web sites on a single machine.

AOLpress and AOLserver are the core software for PrimeHost, America Online's new Web-hosting service. With three levels of service—Domain, Commercial, Dedicated—PrimeHost suits the distinct requirements of small to large, complex organizations, and provides businesses with cost-effective, end-to-end solutions to easily create, publish, and manage their Web sites. Highlights of PrimeHost's service offerings include: registering a business' domain name with the InterNIC, providing customer service support 7 days a week, and offering 24-hour site monitoring by their operations group. PrimeHost also provides marketing exposure to all customers, highlighting customer sites in the America Online area and listing them in the Member Directory in the PrimeHost Web site.

The central role the software plays in PrimeHost has led America Online to incorporate the AOL brand in the products' names. They were formerly NaviPress and NaviServer, and as part of the GNN, AOL's premier Internet service, they are available as GNNpress and GNNserver.


For more information, to download the software, or to sign up for PrimeHost, contact: AOLpress; AOLserver; PrimeHost or 1-800-879-6882.