Interview date: December 8, 2021
Interview location: Tel Aviv and Denver
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Project
To learn more or to contact Mr. Miller please see his website, https://wildduckflight.com/, and blog https://twothirdsdone.com/
STEWART SCHLEY: Greetings and good day, and thank you for hitting play on this edition of The Cable Center’s Hauser Oral History Series. I’m Stewart Schley. It is December 2021. I’m in The Cable Center’s gorgeous studio, and this is a special day because we have a special guest and so glad that you are going to join us in this conversation. The book is The Flight of a Wild Duck: An Improbable Journey Through Life and Technology. The author is Avram Miller. He is visiting with us today from his home in Tel Aviv, and he’s visiting using the connectivity we know as broadband high speed internet. That is famously appropriate because Avram was one of the signature instrumental figures in bringing broadband technology to the world. Avram, it is a delight to be with you today. Thank you.
AVRAM MILLER: It’s my pleasure.
SCHLEY: There’s so much to talk about, and your story is so, so vivid and rich. Maybe we can use the book itself as an entry point. Writing a book is not for the faint of heart. I happen to know. What led you to take the plunge, and what are you trying to accomplish with this book?
MILLER: What led me to take the plunge to write the book was getting old. I had a lot of stories, a lot of things I wanted to share, a lot of people that I wanted to acknowledge. I’m 76, almost 77. People kept saying, you should write a book. I started thinking, maybe I should do it. It took three years. I don’t think I would have finished it if it wasn’t for COVID. There I was locked down so every day, I would spend five to six hours working on the book.
I wanted to share my personal story, which is a little bit unusual. It is about kid who was very sick as a child, who came from a dysfunctional family, and couldn’t make it in school. I only got out of high school because my mom found a private school she could bribe, and they gave me a diploma. In 1963 at 18, weighing 107 pounds, I became a merchant seaman, sailing to Asia with a bunch of pretty tough guys. I don’t know how I survived.
I never thought about going to university. It was even a conversation in my family. I grew up in a Jewish family. They were all shopkeepers. I probably thought, well, someday, I’ll have a shop. After sailing for a while as a merchant seaman and not getting killed, barely, I became a hippie. I was one of the first hippies. I was also involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement. I had studied music as a kid. I had studied composition at the conservatory in San Francisco. I was around the music scene in San Francisco, and I knew a lot of the key people — and everything was cool, but I was running out of money. I asked people if anybody knew of a job, and a friend said, well, do you know anything about electronics? Well, it turned out that I loved electronics. From the time I was a child, I built things out of electronics, I loved technology a term I did not yet know. I knew physics. These were all things I had learned on my own. I said, “yeah, I think I do”. My friend then introduced me to a scientist. Joe Kamiya at Langley Porter Institute. It was part of the University of California Medical School. Joe told me that he wanted to study brainwaves of people and see if they could learn to control them. Because we don’t know what’s going on with our brainwaves. he needed some equipment that could provide that information to the subjects of his study. The concept was called biofeedback. Could I build that equipment, he asked? I said, yeah, why not, I’ll try but if I do it, will you give me a job? At that time, I was a night manager at a pizza parlor. I thought it was better to do science then flip pizzas. We became very successful, and from that, I was able to — I became one of the founders of a medical institution in Rotterdam, The Thoraxcenter. I was just 24. I became an assistant professor, and I ran the computer department there. Our focus was pulmonary and cardiovascular medicine. My team and I developed some of the first computers system in that field such as a catheterization lavatory system, patient monitoring system, the first echocardiographic system. Eventually, I became an associate professor at the age of 28. But I still hadn’t gone to university. One of the things I wanted to write about in my book, and it’s not the subject of today’s interview, was how could someone do that. There are a lot of people like me. I call them misfits, but they’re misfits because they don’t fit the organization, the structure, the funnel that we’ve created in education and the educational system. It doesn’t mean they’re not capable or not talented.
SCHLEY: You clearly had the smarts, though, to build electronics, and to understand systems, and to impress people with probably this native sense of knowledge and ability.
MILLER: Yeah, but more than smarts — yes, I was blessed with a good IQ — more than smarts, I had creativity because it hadn’t been taken out of me.
SCHLEY: Good line.
MILLER: And there are a lot of people around that are very creative, and we need their creativity, we need their intuition, we need their courage. So part of what I wanted to write about in the book was to inspire people and also to address the parents of children like that who feel, you know, what’s going to happen to my kid? Well, your kid could grow up and be one of the top officers of one of the most important companies in the world. You know, that’s possible. Don’t think it’s not possible because he’s not making it in some stupid class in high school. But I also wanted to share stories about the computer industry. I had decided that my contribution to the future of technology was to help document the past. I’m not going to probably invent anything anymore, but I know a lot about what happened because I was there through lots of phases of the computer industry. And I was not only there, I was in the room, you know, when it was happening. have lots of stories of things that I could share that, if I didn’t write them, they would go away.
SCHLEY: Well, the book is amazing because it’s so punctuated and peppered with face-to-face interactions with some of the legends of the technology and computing field, every page, you know? You knew some of the giants of the — how did how did that happen? Take us from, you know, working on brainwaves and health related —
MILLER: Okay, so I’m going to do this fast because (inaudible).
SCHLEY: Okay, okay.
MILLER: So, going to Rotterdam, five years, we very successfully built up one of the top medical institutions in the world in cardiovascular and pulmonary medicine. By that time, I’m married. I have two sons. I was married to a Dutch woman. I speak fluent Dutch even now. I thought it was a graveyard for Jews. I couldn’t bring my kids up in that graveyard. And I was always a Zionist. We decided to live in Israel. I became an Associate Professor at the School of Medicine in Tel Aviv as well as starting a company because Israel needed business. It was not yet the “Start Up Nation.” I built a company basically productizing the research I had done at the university, and I did that for five years. I was 33 I think, and I thought, that I was on the top of my discipline because nobody else was there. I was an expert, and — I was probably one of the world’s experts in physiological signal processing. But what was I going to do? I’m 33. What am I going to do? Okay. And so I put it to myself. I said, listen, you have to decouple, computers, medicine. Do you want to be in medical research, or do you want to do computers? And as soon as asked that question, I knew the answer. I want to be in computers because I loved computers.
SCHLEY: Okay. And, Avram, this was when? This — what sort of period of time?
MILLER: This would have been — 1978 is when I made that decision. And I left Israel in 1979. I decided that I had to — I wanted to work for Digital Equipment Corporation. I’d been using their computers. I knew a lot of people there. And they knew me. I had designed some pieces of their computers on the side, I had kind of a standing offer to go there. I joined and lo and behold, after six months, I was given the job to run half of the hardware engineering for the second largest computer company in the world. I was in seventh heaven, and then — and that’s a long story, which we don’t have time to get into. I was given the task to build what we would call today a personal computer, but we didn’t have personal computers — this was before the IBM PC. We had personal computers like Apple II. And I developed a product called the Professional Series computers, which were very advanced. But by that time, IBM came out with the IBM PC, and the IBM PC changed everything in the computer industry. It totally took — I would say it took the computer industry and it turned it on its side. I was very close to Ken Olsen, who was the founder of Digital, and I’ll just relate one story, which is really a critical moment when I decided I was going to leave. I’m having a meeting with Ken in his office, and we met, probably weekly. I said to Ken, we’ve got to have great marketing and a good product if we’re going to be successful in the personal computer space. And he said, no, no, no, no, we have to have a great product and good marketing. I said, no, it’s not going to work that way, we need to — so we’re, you know, — eventually, we’re yelling at each other. And then he gets like — he almost turned beet red, and he says to me, Avram, you don’t understand, we’re not capable of great marketing. And I thought, you know, Ken, you’re right. But I’m also right. We’re not going to succeed. Then I left and experienced the first failure I had in my career. I became President of a company called Franklin Computer, which was sold a clone of the Apple II. In our first year, we grew faster than Compaq in their first year. We were — about same time. Did $80 million our first year. This was 1983. And — but we had a lawsuit with Apple. While we never lost the lawsuit, but it kept us from getting financed. I left after a year, and what did I do? I joined Intel. One of the reasons is the lawyers for Apple were the lawyers for Intel.
SCHLEY: You’ve got to know the right people.
MILLER: I wanted to be on the other side of these screwy lawsuits. So that’s how I ended up in Intel in 1984. So that’s probably enough about all that stuff.
SCHLEY: But a really – you were on the precipice of enormous change. And Intel, of course, was at the heart of a lot of that change. What was going on at the company, and how, how the heck did it become a company that had some involvement in the cable industry?
MILLER: Okay, we’re going through a bunch of different phases. Intel had very little to do with the computer industry when I joined it. One of the reasons they hired me, at a very senior level was that had experience in the computer industry because they were all — they were chemists or physicists. It was all the semiconductor process. The company had been formed to produce solid state memory chips, and solid-state memory doesn’t have much of an architecture. You just have ones and zeros. The main thing was about how many bits can you put on a chip. It was all about lithographic processes, photographic processes. Yes, some of the customers were in the computer industry, but I think most were industries like automobiles, communications, and the military. It was a hodgepodge of stuff. They hired me for two reasons. One is that my boss, who was my boss the whole time I was at Intel, was badge number three, one of the guys that started at Intel, Les Vadasz. He is an amazing man whom I owe so much to. Les had decided that the company had become too insular and that they needed some fresh blood. In reality, he was bored talking to these people when he wanted somebody else to talk to, I think. He wanted to bring somebody new, in and he convinced Andy Grove and Gordon Moore — Gordon was the CEO at the time, and Andy Grove was the COO — that they should bringing in some high-level person, one person every year: a strategic hire. I was the first strategic hire. I was also the last strategic hire. The company remained insular. In 1998, which was the last year I appeared on the annual report of Intel — there’s a page which shows all the officers and directors of the company. That year, we had 28 officers; I was one. I was the last one to have joined, and I had joined 14 years earlier. Intel was very insular. But what happened to Intel that was amazing — because Intel was in a competitive battle that it was losing with the Japanese. So Intel was a memory company. It had a microprocessor. In fact, the fiftieth anniversary of the 4004, which was the first microprocessor. It had a microprocessor. It did logic chips in the beginning of its existence because it was going to take a while to ramp up the business in memory chips, but in the meantime, people would pay the company to do designs. One of these was the first would become the first commercial microprocessor. Bob Noyce, who was really the visionary for Intel, he also started thinking, you know, there’s something in this microprocessor thing. However, Intel didn’t decide it was going to be a microprocessor company. But many years later, it realized — Gordon and Andy came to the realization that they were going to die if they stayed a memory company because the Japanese were just killing them. They decided — and it’s really an important lesson, and it’s a lesson that you don’t see repeated very much, which is to take your company and to jettison the business that you have because you know it’s not going to survive in the future, and to take a nascent business that you have and make it your new business, and they did that. It was the bravest decision almost anybody ever took in business that I know. And so that is how they got into the computer business. But it took a while. You know, Intel didn’t know anything about the PC. It — when it came out, when — I have a document that shows the list of applications for the 286 microprocessor. And there were 50 applications for the salesforce to go after, and the personal computer was not one. So, believe me, they didn’t know. I mean, I know they didn’t know, okay? And so what happened — and in fact, they didn’t want to do a 386 because the 8086 architecture had a lot of flaws in the way it handled memory, and everybody in the computer industry kind of knows this. They wanted to jettison it and build a new architecture, and they did it. It was called the 432, then later, there were a couple other chips that that they developed, the RISC chips, a kind of form of computing. Intel wasn’t going to do the 386, but somebody said, well, let’s do the 386 as a backup just in case this other thing doesn’t happen. by that time, the PC market started going crazy. And the thing that really drives — you know, Andy was fond of saying this — the thing drives — drove Silicon Valley was the combination of greed and paranoia. So all of a sudden, we entered the greed phase.
And Microsoft didn’t have any idea, either. Microsoft was developing their operating system which was called Xenix, and it was a version of Unix. They didn’t want to do anything with the 8086 architecture. They thought it was junk. Bill Gates would say, this is microprocessor is brain dead. But the market took off, and you have to hand it to Intel and Microsoft. They realized that it was taking off, and they took the action of saying we made all these plans, but we’re gonna forget about those plans. We’re going to react to reality, and we’re going to get behind this. Both companies were masterful in their execution. At one time, we used to joke, but it was true, more than 100 percent of the profit in the computer industry was at Intel and Microsoft because everybody else was losing money. And so it was an amazing thing to watch.
And then jumping ahead to 1988 when I was at Intel for four years. I had a line role. I was running a couple of organizations but decided I didn’t want to do that. I said, I think Intel needs to expand and get into other businesses, and particularly the business I wanted to get into, the networking business. I even went to the Intel board of directors with a presentation. and I said that the networking business was to the computer what the highway was to the automobile. I pointed out that the automobile industry hadn’t paid attention to the highways or the regulations about highways. Eventually, you couldn’t go any faster. The auto companies ended up having to compete on upholstery and color. I even brought to that meeting a microprocessor chip on which I put a racing stripe.
SCHLEY: How did you — where did that vision come from? Why was networking in your mind a key propellant of change and growth generically?
MILLER: Well, I always liked networking. I built my first network when I was in Rotterdam in the 70s. Time sharing really started taking off in the ’70s and ’80s, and timesharing is interactivity. Then we started displacing timesharing with the — with what would be called client/server systems, that required networking. Because the nature of that architecture where some of the work was being done on the client and some was being done on the server, you had to have higher bandwidth. And Ethernet came along. And so Ethernet was actually started by Xerox, Intel and Digital Equipment Corporation. I was at Digital at that time and I was actually the person who did the first product using Ethernet there.
SCHLEY: At Digital, yeah.
MILLER: And so I saw how networking was working in the business, and what I was convinced of is whatever happened in business would happen at the home.
SCHLEY: So that’s key, right.
MILLER: Yes, because people were experiencing computers at the office Then there was something I discovered, which really, you know, hit me hard once I really realized it. I saw people staying after work at the office to get onto AOL. And I would ask myself, well, why. Say, well, because I can get on faster and because I don’t have to use my phone, you know, and so on. And so — and I designated that. I called that “home at work” instead of “work at home.” That inspired me. In 1998, I was a keynote speaker at the Seybold Publishing Conference with people like Steve Jobs, and Jim Clark. I spoke about interactivity in the home, I said let’s imagine a four-quadrant model where we have bandwidth in one dimension, we have interactivity in the other dimension. Clearly (at that time), the television has high bandwidth, higher bandwidth than anything in the home but very little interactivity. Occasionally, I must get up to get a beer and I might change the channel but that is not much interactivity. Radio, for instance, is low bandwidth, low interactivity. At that time, in 1998, there were about 6 to 7 million in people’s homes, but they were interactive. People were connected to AOL, they were connected to Prodigy or whatever, they were interactive. But the bandwidth was 28 kilobits. You could watch paint dry faster than you could print out a letter. So, the quadrant was with high bandwidth and high interactivity was empty. Then there was the battle for the eyeballs. There was the battle because — people in the cable industry, and people in the media industry, and most people in the computer industry, everybody believed that the interactive device that would have the high bandwidth would be the TV. Of course, it wasn’t. It all started with Time Warner coming out with a RFP, a request for proposal, for the Full-Service Network. They talked up this thing, and they had all these ideas about what was going to happen in the home, and everybody got fired up. Everybody thought they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t know what they were doing. I mean, they never tested the — well, the Full Service Network was to be a test, and it was a test, and it failed. And eventually, they had to pull the plug. But I think they could have done it in a cheaper way. But they got everybody going. Silicon Graphics, Microsoft, Oracle, General Instruments, and Hewlett Packard. I mean, billions were thrown down the drain. I looked at that, and I realized that I had a challenge ahead of me. A year earlier I was looking at interactive TV. Bill Gates called up Andy Grove and said to Andy, “we really at Microsoft, want to work on interactive in the home. We want to work on consumer products in the home. There is nobody at Intel to talk to, nobody cares about this. “I just want to let you know we’re probably going to try to work with AMD., said Gates.” AMD was Intel’s biggest competitor. Knowing Bill, I am sure he said that to get Andy’s attention. It was just a manipulation, but it worked. So Andy said to him, “what do you mean? One of our vice presidents, Avram Miller, is spending all his time looking at the consumer market.” It was true because I told Andy I wanted to do it, and he told me it was a waste of time, but he wouldn’t stop me. Bill knew me because we first met when Bill was 25. I had dinner once with him and Steve Jobs. Bill said, Avram, okay, tell him to come up and meet with Rob Glaser who later on went on to try and do RealNetworks. Rob Glazer became my counterpart. I went up, and we talked about all the potential projects. One was an interactive set-top box. Microsoft was already working with General Instruments. And the guy who was working that was Matt Miller, who was the Chief Technology Officer of General Instruments, was leading the effort for GI. The Jerrold division, which was the set-top division, was involved. And can you believe this? Don Rumsfeld, who had been the Secretary of Defense, was the CEO of General Instruments.
SCHLEY: Of General Instruments.
MILLER: I went to General Instruments, I met with Don, I’m sitting in his office, and behind him are all these flags and eagles, and of course, he doesn’t know a thing about cable or anything. It was crazy. Anyway, we worked on the set top box project for about a year. We developed special version of 38 for instance. The project name inside Intel was Pandora’s Box. About a year into the project, it all became clear, to me at least. One, that we could never build a box that will be cheap enough that the cable companies to be willing to pay for it. Two, there aren’t enough pixels. There’s nothing we can do to put more pixels on the TV. This was before flat panels.
SCHLEY: On the screen itself.
MILLER: We were going to be looking at these lousy, you know, 40 characters per line. People don’t want to interact with their TV, anyway. They’re trying to relax on the sofa. And in the meantime, people were buying computers, and they were spending $2,000 for them. Fortunately, that year was very important, because during that year, I learned how the cable plant worked. I understood the technology because I’m a techie. I’m a nerdy kind of guy. I would go, and I would look at all the wires. I loved cables. It wasn’t abstract for me. I said, “take me to a cable headend and show me how every wire works.” I knew how it all worked. But the thing that made it possible to develop the cable modem was John Malone — John Malone had a very impactful relationship to broadband, not always positive, but very impactful. John, as I think many people will know in the cable industry, had the worst cable plant of all. It was the noisiest. It was just terrible. However, John understood technology. I had many conversations with him where I thought “I’m talking to a guy who knows what he’s talking about.” Then he came up with – (somebody came up with) the idea of using digital technology to get more channels using compression. Instead of redoing the plant, why not just use these chips, and we’ll get 10 times as many channels. That is how he came up with the }500 channel universe”, which was basically marketing stuff. GI was doing chips, and Broadcom was doing chips. I looked at the protocols the chips were using, and I realized they created a packet network like Ethernet. The light came on my head, and I said, well, wait a second, can’t we just build a large local area network, I mean, large like, the whole country? Can’t we just build it using these chips? Soon after, I met with Matt Miller one day in Gordon Moore’s conference room. We were talking, and I said, Matt, “I have to tell you something. This set-top box is never going to make it. It’s not going to happen. Why don’t we go and build something that will connect to the personal computers that people already have? Matt got it and said, yes. Then we decided not to tell Microsoft. So we cut them out of this thing. We found a company called Hybrid Networks that had already developing a cable modem. I actually had their system working in early ’93. I was connecting to the internet. Not the internet we know today, but the still the internet using a UHF television channel, going down to my house and going out with a phone line as the return path. In December 1993, at the Western Cable Show, Intel showed up in GI’s booth, and demonstrated a cable modem, and it was two-way because I said, look, one-way is not going to make it, you know? We’ve got to do two-way. So we modified Hybrid’s system to make it two-way, and we demonstrated it there. Aby that time I had been in discussions with Comcast, Brian Roberts and Ralph Roberts, and Comcast, my favorite cable company, certainly then. I don’t have cable now. We decided to do a trial in Marion County PA. Around the same time, I met up with Frank Biondi of Viacom,
MILLER: Somehow, I got connected with him, and I talked to Frank. We pitched doing a trial. Viacom at that time had a cable network, and they were in Castro Valley CA. And there was a man named Doug Semon working there, He was a techy guy, and he had learned about Hybrid, and he reached out to them. Hybrid then came back and told him about Intel’s involvement, and we met, and we decided to do a trial. They had just upgraded with Hybrid Fiber Coax. We did a trial there Both the Viacom and Comcast trials were extremely successful.
MILLER: Now, you couldn’t pry — I mean, you couldn’t — people would refuse, to give back the modems.
SCHLEY: Once they had a taste of higher speed, right?
MILLER: Yeah. Oh, of course. It was clear that this thing made sense. We weren’t the only game in town. There were three groups that were developing cable modems. This was the early days of cable modems. Most people think that cable modems started in 1997 with DOCSIS But this was in 1993. Zenith has a cable modem, LANcity had a cable modem, and then there was the Intel-GI-Hybrid group. We licensed other companies as well such as HP, Cisco and Lucent. At that time there were three groups are doing trials. Pretty rapidly, Zenith falls out because their system wasn’t very reliable. Their key person, Ed Zylka, left and joined General Instruments. Then LANcity was bought Bay Networks. The founder, Rouzbeh Yassini when on to play a prominent role in the creation of DOCSIS.
SCHLEY: They were acquired, right.
MILLER: Yeah. There’ve always been these two different kinds of groups of cable operators. There were the GI oriented cable companies, and there were the Scientific Atlanta oriented companies, and the Scientific Atlanta oriented companies such as Time Warner and Continental Cable Vision of went with LANcity. Dave Fellows the CTO of Continental Cable Vision played a major role in the creation of broadband. The most important thing we were all doing was proving to everybody that customers wanted this capability. We had to convince the cable companies who at that time thought the most important thing in the world was becoming a local provider of telephony services — can you imagine? – They would say “we’ll get to interactive computing after we do telephones. We also had to convince the whole infrastructure from chips to online services.. We had to persuade AOL to open up there service.. We had to get all the technologies lined up. For instance, we invested in Verisign get the security technology. I forgot to mention that I started Intel Capital in 1991, with Les Vadasz. I was using our investment dollars to fund all kinds of startups. For instance, I funded Mark Cuban to do Broadcast.com.
MILLER: Yeah, Mark Cuban and his television show, which is — what’s that TV show?
SCHLEY: Oh, Shark Tank.
MILLER: Shark Tank.
SCHLEY: Shark Tank, yeah.
MILLER: Yeah. So, he was on my Shark Tank.
SCHLEY: Yes, he was.
MILLER: I put the first money in this company.
SCHLEY: But you were trying to fuel inject some of these interesting companies, right?
MILLER: Yeah, and — well, yeah. And also, I was convinced that what we were doing was creating a new medium and it was a new medium for commerce, for education, for communications, for entertainment, for everything that we knew. It was the ultimate medium. I would fund companies that were doing music for example Launch Media that was later acquired by Yahoo.
SCHLEY: Right, was streaming audio I think at the time.
MILLER: That was Broadcast.com. Dave Goldberg, who was the — who’s now the deceased husband of Sheryl Sandberg, was the founder of Launch Media. They were doing enhanced CDs when we first met them. Do you remember those things? I said to Dave, we’ll invest in your company if you put your stuff on the internet, and he says what’s the internet? We were investing in all those companies; we were trying to get all the infrastructure going. It took seven years to get to a million broadband homes. The other thing that I kind of came up with, was the concept for @Home. I gave the idea to John Doerr and Vinod Khosla. The reason for creating a company like @Home was because I didn’t think the cable industry really possessed the technical chops at that time to run a large network. @Home was a very important piece to begin with but then got totally screwed up because of governance issues and then because of AT&T acquired control of the company. AT&T proved it was the great destroyer of value.
SCHLEY: Avram, explain @Home for those who don’t maybe have some familiarity. What was its mandate?
MILLER: @Home’s mandate was to provide the back end for cable modems because cable modem basically is on the client side. But all the information it produces or receives has to be done on a server, on servers, and then those servers have to be able to connect to the bigger internet. And at that time, the internet wasn’t very fast. The internet, you know, was — I mean, it was really slow. The connection that I’m using now is about 10 times faster than the internet itself was then. The best way to think of this is thinking about the Big Bang. You know, we’re going through the Big Bang. We’re starting out with, you know, singularity, and we’re moving, and everything — you know, we’re expanding, expanding, expanding. So, the cable industry didn’t know anything about digital technology. Remember, this was before digital video, and this was before HDTV. Those things came after. Interactive broadband preceded digital television and proceeded HDTV just to keep the story straight. So they didn’t know anything about this. And — but as the business started working and growing, cable companies started learning, and because there were lots of problems, governance problems with @Home, they decided, I think rightly so, that they were going to do it on their own, and they developed the talent internally to do it.
SCHLEY: I have to ask you, though — I don’t want to miss this point — during this point, this is your introduction to the cable guys, right?
MILLER: Yeah, yeah.
SCHLEY: What did you think of the cable guys?
MILLER: I liked them. I liked the cable guys because they were entrepreneurs. Every company starts out starts out with their entrepreneurs, the next generation of executives is a little bit more boring, and then the next generation is even more boring, and so on. But cable companies were still the entrepreneurs. Rogers Cable was run by Rogers, Jones was run by Jones. Comcast wasn’t called Roberts, but Brian Roberts and Ralph had desks next to each other when I first met them. John Malone was an amazing man; a financial genius, although I used to call him the master of sub-optimization because he was always bit short sighted.
SCHLEY: Sub-optimization, okay.
MILLER: Yeah, yeah. He would just like — you know, he was a little short sighted, but he was brilliant. And then there were people like Peter Barton, who became a very close friend of mine, because Peter was also a jazz pianist like I am, and we used to — I would play piano at his house, and he would play piano at mine. He was great man.
SCHLEY: But you saw contrast between the cable persona and the telcos, right?
MILLER: Yeah, because — you know, Alexander Graham Bell died in 1922 — he was the entrepreneur. We were now on the fourth or fifth or sixth generation of phone company executive. They had so many processes, and there was nobody there that would take a risk — They weren’t all that bright, either, to tell the truth. There were some that were smart. Ray Smith, Bell Atlantic, I thought he was a really smart guy. Some of the CEOs were pretty smart. Ray Smith was smart enough to know that he wasn’t smart enough for John Malone, which is why their deal blew up. The cable guys wanted to build their company, and they were more flexible. My job partly was to make them understand they weren’t in the television business, that television was an application, and the same thing was true for the phone. Telephony on our cell phone today is an application mostly. I mean, we still have the old kinds of ways of doing telephony. We have the old ways of doing video. They’re going away. Most people watch — I don’t even have a traditional cable or satellite or anything. I watch through the internet. That’s how my TV works. And so when I make a phone call, I don’t make a phone call. I’m on WhatsApp, you know, I’m on Messenger, whatever. So I understood — I think the computer industry is a good place to come from to understand this, what is a platform, and what is an application? So I had to go and I had to tell these people who were from the television business, you’re not in the TV business, you know? And — but, you know, they all listened. And then they had smart people like Mark Coblitz at Comcast, he was a really great guy.
SCHLEY: Comcast —
MILLER: That I worked with closely. And, you know, mostly I would say 95 percent of the people I’ve met in the cable industry – for instance, Glenn Britt, at Time Warner is one of those people. Now, we weren’t only involved with the cable industry because I felt was the cable industry was going to move too slow. I wanted to create a competitive environment, so Intel developed DSL — I mean, there was DSL, but we created a version of DSL that worked for the internet for the computer. And then — and I would go out, and I made all kinds of deals with phone companies, and I spent a lot of time with phone companies. Also the broadband effort could not just be national. It had to be international. I used to joke — I had an assistant at the time, and she told the story recently and she said, you know, Avram said, I don’t care — she said, Avram said to me, I don’t care how I get in the house. I said, any way to access the house, I don’t care, if it’s a phone, if it’s a cable —
SCHLEY: Right, DSL, cable, right —
MILLER: If it’s the water, I don’t care. If it’s a power line, I don’t care. I’ve just got to have. And When I went to Paris, I spoke to the water company because they had access.
SCHLEY: All right. So any path was a good path, I guess.
MILLER: Well, because if you don’t have access to a home, you have to go through a lot to get in.
SCHLEY: Well, but, Avram, did you — you talked about how it took so long to get to a million broadband connected households.
MILLER: In the US, ten years, yeah.
SCHLEY: Did your confidence ever waver? Did you think maybe we’re not on the right path?
MILLER: No. No, but I had a lot of fights. You know, people — even my own boss would say you’re, you know — what are you smoking, you’re full of shit, you know, how did you get up and say there were going to be a million — because I said that in ’95, there’s going to be a million homes in the year 2000, okay? How could you say that? Anyway, people thought — but I had no doubt because there was such a pool and look what’s happened since. So, I guess the question should be, okay, Avram, you recognized it, but how come other people didn’t?
SCHLEY: I think that is a good question. Why?
MILLER: You know, why didn’t they recognize it? And this is the thing that I’m always looking at. I’m asking myself, why don’t people see it? Andy Grove wrote a book called Only the Paranoid Survive, and he talked about these inflection points, all the rest, and he missed it. You know, he really couldn’t understand that the internet was going to change the nature of the business.
SCHLEY: Right. But I see this poetry because you called yourself a misfit. Maybe it took a misfit to sort of see things that —
MILLER: I thought of myself as activist strategist. I wanted to do strategy, but I understood that if you just gave strategy, nobody would ever do it. The great thing about Intel Capital at the time was that we were making a fortune, we were making so much money, they just left us alone. Then the great thing was that we had this — Intel still has — slightly different form this research organization called the Intel Architecture Labs. Intel Architecture Labs had smart people in it, and I knew that they never had enough budget. I said to Les, let me spend some of our money funding them. Well, that didn’t make any sense because we were supposed to invest our money in startups, right? I said, well, fine, I will take their technology and I’ll license startups for equity, and that will pay us back, and it did. It was very important because I was able not only to give money, but I was able to give technology, I was able to license technology. We must give some credit to companies like Broadcom. Broadcom was probably the most important company I dealt with during this time. We were investors. I invested in Broadcom when it was an Ethernet company. And then Broadcom decided to do a chip for digital video, and they were competing with GI. And I knew GI really well, and I knew Broadcom really well, and I knew Broadcom was going to succeed, and I wasn’t so sure about GI. So I managed to convince GI to give up their project and go with Broadcom. So then we had Broadcom, and we put all our focus on Broadcom, because without these chips, it would have been impossible.
SCHLEY: But, Avram, I don’t understand. Wasn’t Intel a competitor of Broadcom or no?
MILLER: No, no. It should have been. Intel was so focused on the microprocessor; it couldn’t think of anything else. All the best people worked on the microprocessor. So we were the largest investors in Broadcom when it went public. And Broadcom played a very important role in setting the standards. So when it — you know, just to speak about DOCSIS for a moment, so what happened is you had these three groups — I told you that we had these three groups that were working, and then — and in our group, we had a coalition of HP and AT&T, this was — Lucent, and all these people. And we were developing technology. And then other people were developing — you know, Motorola was developing technology, everybody’s developing technology, and it was all proprietary. So if you went with one, you couldn’t go with the other. John Malone, to his great credit, said, “we have to have a standard, and we have to make sure everything is interoperable.” He had learned a lesson. He understood how this worked because he had been running GI at one time, and they had a proprietary. “We are going to create a group to work on that” said Malone. and it was called MCN or something. I can’t remember the exact three initials. And then it was later decided that the Cable Labs would shepherd this. CableLabs comes in ’96, ’97 and starts to do work on a standard, DOCSIS. I think the first DOCSIS product was maybe 1998 it was certified. I can’t remember. They require everybody to give up their patents or put it in a patent pool. I know we did at Intel; we put our patents in. It was important. So we always had standards in telephony modems, but the — and so this was really critical. And John Malone really made it happen. And then once it happened, Intel pulled out of cable modems because we did not want to be in a low margin business. We knew that the Asian companies were going to be the key companies here. We had a lot of things to do. We didn’t have to do that. So we pulled out and GI then got — GI was still really the largest one for a long time, and then they got acquired, and Motorola got acquired, everybody got acquired by whatever it is. Now it’s part of GI again, the company, actually. It’s crazy. But — so, DOCSIS was a great success. The only thing is one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was that it didn’t start with DOCSIS, and the people that write about the history of the cable modem start with DOCSIS because that’s where they started. They were not there before.
SCHLEY: Well, you recounted this entire history of not only of hybrid networks, but preceding, you know, initiatives and lines of thought that were years ahead of the DOCSIS effort.
MILLER: Yeah, yeah. And — yeah. And DOCSIS was built on top of what was happening. By that time, there were thousands, hundreds of thousands of cable modems in the field.
SCHLEY: Yeah. I mean, Avram, we’ve — so you’ve watched your baby grow up. We’re at a point now where, in the U.S. at least, 90 percent of households have a high speed internet connection or close to it. Are we done? Did we do the work? Did we accomplish — what’s next, would you say?
MILLER: Well, first of all, we had a transition, and the transition was to the cell phone. So the cell phone, the smartphone is really the daughter or the granddaughter or the child of the personal computer. It isn’t a phone; it’s a personal computer in your pocket. That’s what it is. Take a look at it. I know what’s inside it. It’s not a phone. Okay. Okay. And it still has some little bit of phone residual stuff in it. So you could actually do an SMS. When was the last time you did that? Or, you could — you know, but that will disappear. It is the heritage of the personal computer. And Wi-Fi — sorry — and the cellular network, the 5 — 4G, 5G, 3G, that is a packet network, just like what we do with the cable, okay? It is just a continuation. Now, we have all these devices – of course, the Internet of Things, and we’re all connected. It’s all a packet network. And now, the interesting thing is — are we done? No, we’re not done. But, you know, I struggle now with thinking why do I need higher speeds. It no longer matters to me.
SCHLEY: Why do you need a gigabyte, right?
MILLER: You know, I don’t even know why you need a faster computer anymore. So we’re starting to run out of that, okay, because we’ve — so much of what’s going on right now — you know, we go in circles. So right now, everything’s in the servers and not on the clients. Now, it might change. I don’t know. But what we are moving to is ubiquity. I want everything to be connected all the time and everywhere. So when I with broadband, I said, “always connected, always on and high speed.” Because at that time, you had to try to dial AOL, and you got a busy call for an hour, then you got on and, you know, it was slow. . But — and it didn’t even occur to me, to tell you the truth, until later after I left Intel, in 1999 I realized it, I want it everywhere. I want all that but I wanted it everywhere.
SCHLEY: Not just at home is what you’re saying.
MILLER: It’s got to be on me. And eventually, it will be in me. Elon Musk thinks it’s going to be next year, actually. But it will be in me, but it’s on me right now. And the cable companies are going to — are facing a challenge because 5G — you know, I have a home still in Sonoma, and I can get 5G in my house at least 50 megabits, which is pretty good. There is also a competitor in Starlink, which I’ve ordered —
SCHLEY: The satellite internet —
MILLER: Which we tried to do LEO, lower orbital satellites in 2011. But these ones are going to work. And so, you know, what do you do in that mix? And the phone companies are laying more and more fiber. So I’m connected in Israel at a half gig. I could have a gig if I wanted. I don’t need it — half gig, and it’s a phone company. Fiber, I got fiber – fiber is all over the city that I’m living in. So I think it was smart for diversification. You know, Comcast diversified into content, and I think — maybe not — I don’t know how it will work out for NBC and whatever — but, anyway. So, you know, it’s hard to know. I think cars — so the car — so many things will need to be connected. So we’re going to be — you know, it’s going to the thing, this thing’s connected, but I don’t think the things are going to — if I had to guess, there won’t be any wires. In my home in Sonoma, there are no wires other than wire that comes to my house. And I have a big house, and I have no wires.
SCHLEY: You know, I’m I have to ask you this. When I read the book, there are a few moments were there were epiphanies in your life, and one of them captivated me. And I can’t remember the year — you can fill it in — but it was your introduction to what you called digital logic. I think it happened during an evening or late at night. And you have what — not to put words in your mouth, but it felt like almost a spiritual experience. Can you talk about that a little bit?
MILLER: Well, I had a couple of those. So in 1966, I was 21. I started working with digital logic,. When I say I knew electronics, I didn’t know digital electronics. I knew analog electronics., I started understanding digital logic, which was a whole other world, and I studied symbolic logic, and I learned — I was pretty good at this stuff, and I thought it was amazing. I just loved it. But with the epiphany you’re talking about really is a little different. I think you’re probably referring to the first computer. So what happened is that we were a research institution. I’m not just a tech guy. I’ve been doing tech stuff, but I’m also doing research and neurophysiology. And then we got a computer to duplicate a set of experiments that another research institution was doing, you know, to prove that their stuff is right. So we get this computer, PDP-7 from Digital Equipment Corporation. I was maybe five or 10 times bigger than I am.
SCHLEY: It’s pretty big, right.
MILLER: Well, it’s small compared to the mainframe. Anyway, we get this computer, and I — and I’m there looking at it, everybody goes home, and I say, you know, I’ve got to understand how does this thing work. So I go back, and I open up the doors at the back of this computer, and I see the same logic modules I had been using — they were from the Digital Equipment Corporation — to build the equipment that I built. But the way I made a program in those days is I had a punch panel where I put little — like you see in the movies, the operator plugging people in. I would plug things in, and I would connect this this flip flop to that gate program. We were doing an experiment, this certain experiment, I would put the program in. It was a program. I opened the back of the computer and I see all these module. I recognize them. So I’m looking for the plug panel because how does how does it get programmed? I can’t find it. I can’t find it. I can’t find it. So I get the manuals out, the schematics out and I’m like — it’s like three o’clock in the morning. All of a sudden, I understood software. I’d never knew about software. So I wasn’t looking for it because I didn’t even know the concept. The idea of a stored program hit me harder than anything in my life. I was like thrown out into the universe. The power of it, just the enormity of it. I had to learn how to do it, and by that morning, I was a programmer, and I could write programs, and I loved writing programs. It was like music to me because I love the idea of making something out of nothing. I could program it in my head like I compose music. In those days, I knew every bit in the computer, where every bit was. But then again, the memory was small. The memory of the computer was about a quarter of a photograph of what we take today on our iPhone. To tell you the truth, some of those times were the best times of my life.
SCHLEY: It’s a beautiful story. And one other story I wanted to ask you is wild duck. What does that mean, and who christened you wild duck?
MILLER: Actually, it’s a term that the founder of IBM originally discussed, but I went for that later. Andy — when I — I had a mixed relationship with Andy Grove. And if you read the book, you know, you know that I liked Andy as a person, but I felt that Andy was dogmatic and he didn’t listen. I was frustrated with his inability to think about — think outside the box, which sometimes I refer to as outside the coffin. We would have our discussions. I could talk back to Andy just like I could talk back to Bill Gates or any of these people, that’s one good thing. Everybody lets you say what you thought. One of the reasons I thought I’d write the book was I felt disappointed that I didn’t have more impact on Intel. I felt that if Intel had followed what I knew, Intel would have had a better outcome. And I tried. I tried with some of the CEOs that came after Andy Grove but I never got any place. I felt I owed Intel a lot. You know, Intel gave me a great opportunity. Frankly, Intel made me financially independent. I felt grateful, and I wanted to try to — but I felt like I had failed with Andy. And Andy had an assistant, a technical assistant, who later became the President of Intel, Renee James who was a friend of mine. In writing this book and researching it, I talked to her. I said, “I just feel really bad that never figured out how I could have had more impact on Andy, and I don’t know why he didn’t listen to me. Why didn’t he listen to me?” I asked. And she said, but Avram, Andy loved you. Andy thought you were wonderful. When you left Intel, Andy said to me, “how are we ever going to replace Avram. You know, Avram was my wild duck. And I always need a wild duck, somebody who’s going to think differently.” And so I thought, wow, that’s a great title for my book, because one, I can use that title, which I think is a great title, and also, I can add — you know, weave Andy into it, which, you know — so, that’s why I did it. And it’s true. And so — but the question that left me with thinking how can organizations and institutions can have wild ducks, because they’re going to need them, because when the winds change, you know, you need to go in a different direction, and you know, how do you find people that will help you? How do you sustain those people? I want to write more about that because I think that’s really a big issue, for not only for corporations, but all kinds of institutions.
SCHLEY: Sure, right. And, I mean, for me, and I would share this with our viewers, to sort of get a grasp on the modern history of what we used to call the cable television industry, the book is indispensable, and the people, and the places, and the themes are so very resonant. You can find the book wherever you find books online. But it’s been our privilege to talk to you –.
MILLER: Thank you —
SCHLEY: Kind of trace back this journey. And best of luck and, you know, continue to compose jazz, and we’ll look for what’s the next act for Avram Miller.
MILLER: The thing I want to say is I want to thank the cable industry because my — this dream of mine would never have happened, okay? So I didn’t do it by myself. So, you know, I really appreciate what the cable industry did. And if you’re a listener that was in the cable industry, thank you very much.
SCHLEY: Well, on behalf of The Cable Center and the team here, our pleasure for the Hauser Oral History Series. I’m Stewart Schley, signing off Avram Miller.
MILLER: Bye. Thank you, Stewart. Bye.
SCHLEY: Thanks for watching.
END OF INTERVIEW