It's Alive!

It's Alive!

It's Alive!

May 3 2000 3:30 AM

It's Alive!

Chapter 1 of Furboy: Inside the greatest Silicon Valley startup (0-3 months). 

Sit back, I have a tale to tell of a fateful and frightening trip into the dark forests of opportunity, success, and failure in Silicon Valley. Sure, you can make $100 billion in a year, but can you leave with it? In the Valley, programmers are kings, lawyers are pawns, and the geek has already inherited the earth.

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I'm writing this as fast as I can. I think it will take some time, so stay tuned as I roll this out. My guess is it will take me about four weeks to finish. You won't want to miss it.

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It all started when a Furby showed up as a present for my son last Christmas. Cool things, those Furbys, pretty entertaining, somewhat lifelike, and no manual required. Kids 2 to 82 interact with them right away. So, like any good techno-geek, and much to the annoyance of my son, I took the Furby apart. It is quite fascinating, a bunch of audio and mechanical sensors, a speech processor, mini-motor drivers, and just a little bit of programmable intelligence. A quick scan of the code, and it was clear that I could play around with this thing.

So I gave it a Game Boy enema. It took about five minutes. I made a simple four-wire connector from an ordinary phone jack and hooked up a very simple interface between the guts of the Furby and a $49 Game Boy (to the even greater annoyance of my son). This way, I could program the Game Boy and access all the inputs of the Furby—noises, words said to it, etc.—and then control its moves and moods. In another five minutes, I connected the Game Boy to my PC, via the game link cable, which just happens to be the predecessor to the USB connectors on all new PCs, and voilà , I could futz around all I want on my PC and keep the Furby under my control. To make things easier, I ported a lite version of Linux onto it. Then my son and I christened it Furboy—shipbuilder style—with a bottle of Gatorade. Accidentally—well, maybe not so accidentally—he spilled the whole 32 ounces onto our hack, which was when we discovered that Furboy doesn't need batteries—it can run on Gatorade electrolytes. Stupid me, I thought Gatorade was just sugar.

I talked to this creation, and it actually listened. Its responses not only made sense, but so did its body language—sad eyes, perked up ears, jumping up and down with excitement. This little Furboy was becoming almost human. Before you call me Gepetto, relax, it's just a bunch of dumb electronics, but Brenda Laurel and all that Apple and Interval money be damned, I came up with the first intelligent computer-human interface. Billions have been made with really disgusting computer-human interfaces like Windows, the PalmPilot, and even Netscape browsers (you say "double u, double u, double u" three times fast and then argue with me). But for under $100, I solved the last foot problem, the part between the computer and the human brain, and it really worked.

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I figured I could sell this invention to some company that was desperate for something new, make a few bucks, buy a really fast car, and drive 10 miles per hour down Highway 101 in first gear, like every other poor schmuck who had to work. Or I could do what Michael Jordan in those cool Nike ads always told me: Just Do It.

I had always been a salaryman, slaving away for some guy who wore white short-sleeved shirts, at boring places like IBM and Xerox. I had a pension plan but not much else. All my savings went into buying a dumpy home in Palo Alto for more than the cost of a palace in Kansas City.

My wife was watching all of her friends' dopey husbands hit it big and bugged me to take some risk, join a startup, be a Silicon Valley dude, not a big company hump. She had a point. I had turned down iVillage, Autoweb, and 14 different pet food Web companies. I just didn't get what they were about. I then started turning down companies if I didn't understand their names, Inktomi, Akamai, what the hell does that stuff even mean? If I was going to do something, it had to be really obvious and really, really big. This was it. I was going to be able to trade in my Camry and be "in the chips." Nothing could stop me.

So I did it. I quit my job and started to work on commercializing Furboy. Not one day into it, I made my first mistake. A neighbor came over to complain about me cutting down trees in my yard and happened to see a Furboy in action. He was an associate in marketing at "Have you read our latest Polese release?" Marimba and was hoping to become the VP of marketing at google.com, another stupid-named company, and was meeting VCs, so to impress them he mentioned what he saw at my house (can you believe VCs actually have spies?). John Doerr from Kleiner Perkins started calling every single day, leaving his pager number, no less.

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I didn't return Doerr's call, but he inadvertently opened up a floodgate of nonstop proposals. It seems that other VCs long ago hacked Doerr's cell phone. They simply redial all his ingoing and outgoing calls a day later.

Since it ran Linux and an IP stack, I assigned the Furboy an IP address, and it became a node on the Web—a personal portal if you will—off the Furboy.com domain, which I scored from Network Solutions. I could now fetch info from any Web site as well as control Furboy remotely. Furby to Game Boy, Game Boy to PC, PC to Furboy.com, Furboy.com to the Internet. This puppy networked. I added a little elliptic curve security from Certicom to make sure that my Furboy would only work for me. Furboy took on a life of its own: It had enough intelligence to communicate with me, as well as to filter the stuff I say on the phone, mutter to myself, type into my PC, and read off the Web, and then offer coherent advice on what I should do next.

Next Week

Furboy evolves from smart toy to the ultimate internetworked, productivity enhancing, small form-factor, mobile personal digital sidekick.