A renaissance man in these Internet times

Success in business is often rife with serendipity. Factors outside one’s own control can often make a piece of technology abruptly redundant or quickly successful. For Tim Bray, the CEO of Antarcti.ca Systems Inc., the Internet proved to be an opportunity when he and some co-workers launched a company with technology they had built to help produce the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The company, Open Text, has gone on to success – but it did have a touch of serendipity shadowing its moves.

“We were terribly ignorant and did almost everything wrong,” Bray admitted with a laugh. “Knowing what I know now, it is astounding that we ever got out of our first three months of life…but sometimes you get lucky.”

In order to be able to index and search all of the millions of words in the dictionary, Bray and his co-workers at the University of Waterloo had to invent new kinds of storage, retrieval and manipulation tools.

“Normally, for a big data repository, you would put it in an ordinary relational database – only the structure of a dictionary isn’t rows and columns at all and so that just didn’t work very well,” Bray explained. “So we built several pieces of software for transforming the data from one form to another.”

Launched in 1991, Open Text’s success may have been achieved on its own, but the growth of the Internet certainly helped.

Bray and his fellow designers hypothesized that there were lots of other similar problems to which their technology could be applied.

“[But] one of the problems that had been holding [us] back was that our software was very network oriented, which, prior to the early ’90s, wasn’t that big an advantage,” he said.

“Then the Internet came along, and all of a sudden we had software that was perfectly positioned to deal with the kind of data that makes the Web go,” Bray said.

In 1994 he got an idea, as a marketing scheme, that Open Text should build a public searchable index of Web pages. All of a sudden in the spring of 1995 there were three commercial Internet search engines – and Open Text was one of them.

Open Text had its IPO in January of 1996 and Bray left the company in August. “They didn’t need me anymore,” he joked.

Moving around

That Bray moved on so quickly and with such ease would come as no surprise for those who know him. Though an Edmontonian by birth, Bray spent his formative years in Beirut, Lebanon, where he lived until 1972.

“It was a wonderful place to grow up.”

He left Beirut when he was 17 and went to the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont. Taking his time, Bray did a double major in computer science and math over an eight year period. His first job out of university was for Digital Equipment Corp. where he was “just a junior software geek, setting people’s computer systems up for them.” In 1983, he moved on to B.C. to work for an outgrowth of GTE. He stayed on the west coast until 1986 when he went to Waterloo to work on the Oxford English Dictionary project.

After leaving Open Text, while he was consulting, Bray got invited to sit on a committee that did the first wave of work on the XML protocol which is so dominant in today’s Web e-commerce.

In 1996 people were starting to talk about using the Internet infrastructure for e-commerce and all sorts of automated applications, Bray explained. “But it was pretty obvious that if you were going to be shipping business data back and forth, HTML wasn’t the way to go.” So XML was born.

“We just took the parts we knew worked…made it a little more nationalized and a little bit more network friendly and that was XML,” he said with some modesty.

The final XML document, Version 1.0, was published in February 1998. Bray was one of three co-authors.

Antarctica calling

During the later part of the 1990s Bray did a lot of consulting and travelling. He was a Web search engine guru. “At that point there weren’t that many people who had built a big Web site and knew how to do it,” he said

In 1999, he started a new company called Antarcti.ca. The choice of names was not supposed to be permanent. “The assumption had then been that when we got it funded and turned it into a real company we would get a better name but we couldn’t think of one,” he laughed.

Once again there was a silver lining he didn’t foresee. “When you call someone up on the phone and say ‘Antarctica calling,’ well they tend to take our call.”

The idea behind the new company was a continuation of the type of work he was doing at Open Text. “At Open Text we were in the business of knowledge management, taking a company’s life blood of information and organizing and delivering it,” Bray explained.

“That was fine and our customers had quite good ROI, but I was pretty convinced there was more left on the table.”

For companies that have huge amounts of data, Bray noticed that end users were book marking information and not really searching it. “I thought that there was a lot of under-utilization going on.

So Visual Net was born. It takes information and draws a graphical map of it. A large medical database would come up as a series of colour-coded rectangles with an index on the side. The size of the rectangle indicates the number of data sets with in each category.

Visual Net can be tested at map.net.

“It was not obvious to me why personal data was visual and shared data was still back in query and response mode.”

Not surprisingly, with this kind of success, Bray has gotten some recognition. The editors of Upside Magazine chose him as one of the “Elite 100.” There were an even dozen from the technology sector including notable heavyweights: Dell, Ellison, Jobs, Gates and McNealy.

“The warm glow I get is from the work…the opportunity that I have had to carve my initials on the side of the Internet a couple of times,” he said. Other than nationality, Bray admits there are other differences between himself and the other IT “Elite 100.”

“They also have more money than I do,” he joked.