Remembering Craig Burton

Craig Burton

I used to tell Craig Burton there was no proof that he could be killed, because he came so close, so many times. But now we have it. Cancer got him, a week ago today. He was sixty-seven.

So here’s a bit of back-story on how Craig and I became great friends.

In late 1987, my ad agency, Hodskins Simone & Searls, pulled together a collection of client companies for the purpose of creating what we called a “connectivity consortium.” The idea was to evangelize universal networking—something the world did not yet have—and to do it together.

The time seemed right. Enterprises everywhere were filling up with personal computers, each doing far more than mainframe terminals ever did. This explosion of personal productivity created a massive demand for local area networks, aka LANs, on which workers could share files, print documents, and start to put their companies on a digital footing. IBM, Microsoft, and a raft of other companies were big in the LAN space, but one upstart company—Novell—was creaming all of them. It did that by embracing PCs, Macs, makers of hardware accessories such as Ethernet cards, plus many different kinds of network wiring and communications protocols.

Our agency was still new in Silicon Valley, and our clients were relatively small. To give our consortium some heft, we needed a leader in the LAN space. So I did the audacious thing, and called on Novell at Comdex, which was then the biggest trade show in tech. My target was Judith Clarke, whose marketing smarts were already legendary. For example, while all the biggest companies competed to out-spend each other with giant booths on the show floor, Judith had Novell rent space on the ground floor of the Las Vegas Hilton, turning that space into a sales office for the company, a storefront on the thickest path for foot traffic at the show.

So I cold-called on Judith at that office. Though she was protected from all but potential Novell customers, I cajoled a meeting, and Judith said yes. Novell was in.

The first meeting of our connectivity consortium was in a classroom space at Novell’s Silicon Valley office. One by one, each of my agency’s client companies spoke about what they were bringing to our collective table, while a large unidentified dude sat in the back of the room, leaning forward, looking like a walrus watching fish. After listening patiently to what everyone said, the big dude walked up to the blackboard in front and chalked out diagrams and descriptions of how everything everyone was talking about could actually work together. He also added a piece nobody had brought up yet: TCP/IP, the base protocol for the Internet. That one wasn’t represented by a company, mostly because it wasn’t invented for commercial purposes. But, the big guy said, TCP/IP was the protocol that would, in the long run, make everything work together.

I was of the same mind, so quickly the dude and I got into a deep conversation during which it was clear to me that I was being both well-schooled about networking, yet respected for what little new information I brought to the conversation. After a while, Judith leaned in to tell us that this dude was Craig Burton, and that it was Craig’s strategic vision that was busy guiding Novell to its roaring success.

Right after that meeting, Craig called me just to talk, because he liked how the two of us could play “mind jazz” together, co-thinking about the future of a digital world that was still being born. Which we didn’t stop doing for the next thirty-four years.

So much happened in that time. Craig and Judith† had an affair, got exiled from Novell, married each other and built The Burton Group with another Novell alum, Jamie Lewis. It was through The Burton Group that I met and became good friends with Kim Cameron, who also passed too early, in November of last year. Both were also instrumental in helping start the Internet Identity Workshop, along with too many other things to mention. (Here are photos from the first meeting of what was then the “Identity Gang.”)

If you search for Craig’s name and mine together, you’ll find more than a thousand results. I’ll list a few of them later, and unpack their significance. But instead for now, I’ll share what I sent for somebody to use at the service for Craig today in Salt Lake City:

In a more just and sensible world, news of Craig Burton’s death would have made the front page of the Deseret News, plus the obituary pages of major papers elsewhere—and a trending topic for days in social media.*

If technology had a Hall of Fame, Craig would belong in it. And maybe some day, that will happen.

Because Craig was one of the most important figures in the history of the networked world where nearly all of us live today. Without Craig’s original ideas, and guiding strategic hand, Novell would not have grown from a small hardware company into the most significant networking company prior to the rise of the Internet itself. Nor would The Burton Group have helped shape the networking business as well, through the dawn of the Internet Age.

In those times and since, Craig’s thinking has often been so deep and far-reaching that I am sure it will be blowing minds for decades to come. Take, for example, what Craig said to me in  a 2000 interview for Linux Journal. (Remember that this was when the Internet was still new, and most homes were connected by dial-up modems.)

I see the Net as a world we might see as a bubble. A sphere. It’s growing larger and larger, and yet inside, every point in that sphere is visible to every other one. That’s the architecture of a sphere. Nothing stands between any two points. That’s its virtue: it’s empty in the middle. The distance between any two points is functionally zero, and not just because they can see each other, but because nothing interferes with operation between any two points. There’s a word I like for what’s going on here: terraform. It’s the verb for creating a world. That’s what we’re making here: a new world.

Today, every one of us with a phone in our pocket or purse lives on that giant virtual world, with zero functional distance between everyone and everything—a world we have barely started to terraform.

I could say so much more about Craig’s original thinking and his substantial contributions to developments in our world. But I also need to give credit where due to the biggest reason Craig’s heroism remains mostly unsung, and that’s Craig himself. The man was his own worst enemy: a fact he admitted often, and with abiding regret for how his mistakes hurt others, and not just himself.

But I also consider it a matter of answered prayer that, after decades of struggling with alcohol addiction, Craig not only sobered up, but stayed that way, married his high school sweetheart and returned to the faith into which he was born.

Now it is up to people like me—Craig’s good friends still in the business—to make sure Craig’s insights and ideas live on.

Here is a photo album of Craig. I’ll be adding to it over the coming days.

†Judith died a few years ago, at just 66. Her heroism as a marketing genius is also mostly unsung today.

*Here’s a good one, in Silicon Slopes.

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