November 17, 2007
Why Did Symbolics Fail?

the calm before the zombie attack
Paul McDonough, Woman Sunbathing, Portland, Oregon, 1973. See also New York City 1968-1972.

Dan Weinreb, Symbolics co-founder and significant contributor to the design of Common Lisp, has an awesome new blog which has another great new post, “Why Did Symbolics Fail?

The world changed out from under us very quickly. The new “workstation” category of computer appeared: the Suns and Apollos and so on. New technology for implementing Lisp was invented that allowed good Lisp implementations to run on conventional hardware; not quite as good as ours, but good enough for most purposes. So the real value-added of our special Lisp architecture was suddenly diminished. A large body of useful Unix software came to exist and was portable amongst the Unix workstations: no longer did each vendor have to develop a whole software suite. And the workstation vendors got to piggyback on the ever-faster, ever-cheaper CPU’s being made by Intel and Motorola and IBM, with whom it was hard for Symbolics to keep up. We at Symbolics were slow to acknowledge this. We believed our own “dogma” even as it became less true. It was embedded in our corporate culture. If you disputed it, your co-workers felt that you “just didn’t get it” and weren’t a member of the clan, so to speak. This stifled objective analysis. (This is a very easy problem to fall into — don’t let it happen to you!)

He also comments a bit on Eve Phillips' 1999 article, “If It Works, It’s Not AI: A Commercial Look at Artificial Intelligence Startups”.

Paul Graham's comment from the news.yc thread:

DLW's thesis that Symbolics lost as part of the general losing of custom hardware (including all the parallel computer companies) is basically correct. Lucid on Suns was as fast as ZetaLisp on Symbolicses.

But not so fast that that alone made me switch. What made me switch was that Lisp machines (both Symbolics and LMI) were so gratuitously, baroquely complex. The manuals filled a whole shelf. Each component of the software was written as if it had to have every possible feature. The hackers who wrote it all were the smartest and most energetic around. But there was no Steve Jobs to tell them "No, this is too complex." So the guy in charge of writing the pretty-printer, for example, would decide. "This is going to be the most powerful pretty-printer ever written. It's going to be able to do everything!"


Unfortunately this complexity persists in Common Lisp, which was pretty much copied directly from ZetaLisp. In fact, both of the worst flaws in CL are due to its origins on Lisp machines: both its complexity and the way it's cut off from the OS

And then there's the reddit thread on pg's comment.

Posted by jjwiseman at November 17, 2007 04:14 PM

Maybe the AI bubble has always been there for the fact that the press looks at the AI as a science that is capable of surpassing what the human mind can do, instead of supporting it (as it's always the case).


Posted by: gerel on January 4, 2008 12:24 PM
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