Ted Nelson’s computing interface project “Xanadu” was released in late April at a Chapman University event. Thing is, development on Xanadu began in 1960 — that’s 54 years ago — making it the most delayed software in history.
The Guardian first noticed the software was finally released.
“Project Xanadu” was designed to let users build documents that automatically embed the sources they’re linking back to, but also be able to show users the visible connections between parallel webpages.
This is what Nelson, who also originally coined the term “hypertext” to describe clickable links, had in mind for Xanadu:
[Xanadu would be] an entire form of literature where links do not break as versions change; where documents may be closely compared side by side and closely annotated; where it is possible to see the origins of every quotation; and in which there is a valid copyright system — a literary, legal and business arrangement — for frictionless, non-negotiated quotation at any time and in any amount.
Xanadu wanted to be a universal library, a global information index that could be shared by programmers in a sort of computerized royalty system. If you think that sounds familiar, that’s because Project Xanadu has many similarities to today’s internet. Since Nelson initially developed the underlying concept of hypertext, Project Xanadu had a chance to actually be the World Wide Web. But the project kept getting continually delayed due to money-related setbacks and conflicts between Nelson’s philosophy and the resources available to him. And so, Xanadu became a project that spanned the ages.
In one particular setback that would turn out to be a motif for Project Xanadu, Nelson and his team had written Xanadu’s code in a now-defunct programming language on a rented computer in 1972, but before the software could be demonstrated to potential investors, Nelson ran out of cash and was forced to return his rented computer, leaving him with code but no machine.
After a development effort that would span multiple decades with multiple teams — the incredible story is detailed in a seventeen-chapter story on Wired from 1995 — Xanadu was finally released on the Internet in April to unfortunately very little fanfare.
Called “OpenXanadu,” this version of the software is a simple document created by quoted sections from various works, which are all connected to each other in a colour-coded manner. It’s like a bibliography mixed with an extreme form of document multitasking, where users navigate sans mouse (the arrow keys and spacebar work fine here) and can see how the Internet’s links are connected to each other.
Nelson knows Project Xanadu missed the chance to be the World Wide Web, but he believes it could be a PDF competitor since it simulates paper by showing the connections between text, which would be helpful for web archives.
To learn more about Nelson’s journey to build Project Xanadu, read Wired’s substantial profile of Nelson and his “long-delayed success.”