Meta Tools Democratizes the Digital Revolution
Kai Krause and John Wilczak, along with their staff at a relatively small software company called MetaTools, are taking a decidedly populist approach to science: They are democratizing as many of the computer's capabilities as they can get their hands on.In the last five years, MetaTools has used this approach to discover ways in which to put some big secrets into the hands of the masses. Before MetaTools, the kind of digital technology the company deals in was available to only a handful of people, most of them in places like the CIA, the FBI, and Hollywood--three arenas where the budgets are notoriously high and the toys gleefully complicated. According to the men who run MetaTools, these are the last three places on earth where these secrets should be kept. In other words, MetaTools sees no reason why you shouldn't be able to play with these things, too. This strategy has so far done well for MetaTools. The company went public last December (Nasdaq MTLS) with an initial public offering (IPO) of almost 4.5 million shares at $18 apiece. Last year, in their midyear investment report, Business Week magazine ranked MetaTools among the nation's top nine technology investments.How did this happen? It happened because of the visionary gifts of two men. It happened because of software designer Kai Krause. Kai (nobody calls him Krause) is a man with an idealistic fervor equal to Patrick Henry's who believes that everybody on the planet should have equal access to the sum total of human knowledge, and specifically to the technology created by the computer revolution. "The answer cannot be 'keep this stuff at the FBI,'" he says. "The answer has to be 'don't put your head in the sand.'"MetaTools' success also happened because of founder, president, chairman, and CEO John Wilczak. Wilczak has used the marketing sense of a Henry Ford to make sure that the company's products stay inexpensive and cool. To this end he has created something called the "mindshare marketing" concept. The concept means more than making MetaTools' products attractive to your wallet; it means more than building first-class PR and technical support departments. It means that your customers not only love what you do but are so loyal to it that they tell all their friends.Word of mouth is not something to be taken lightly. Some MetaTools users are so enamored of the software that questions posed on the company's on-line bulletin board service are occasionally answered by other users, rather than by the office techies hired to do that job. People on the outside want to be part of the family.The mindshare MetaTools is going for, the actual emotional connection the company is trying to foster in its customers, does focus to a certain extent on being perceived as cool. In an industry where good product is often referred to as "sexy," "cool" is not an inappropriate adjective to apply to an industry leader. "I'm always proud," Wilczak says, "when I hear people say 'you guys have a cool company.'"Incidentally, his on-line name is Cool Tools.And that is just what the company's newest product, Kai's Power Goo, is. Cool. It's a little $49.95 piece of creative graphics software that its creators like to call "a grab bag of wonders." With Goo you can, more or less, morph two pictures together, deface scans of priceless art, or create masterpieces of strangeness out of your own snapshots. But Goo is different than anything MetaTools has done so far. It's aimed at consumers rather than graphics specialists. You don't need a lot of RAM to use Goo, nor does it require an ultra-fast processor. Best of all, unlike many of MetaTools' packages such as Vector Effects and Kai's Power Tools (KPT), running Goo doesn't require an expensive host program like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. Also, the UI (for user interface, which is the term describing what a program looks like on the screen) is the most revolutionary since Apple unveiled the first Macintosh.True, Goo isn't really an image-editing program, but it's not just a toy, either. "It's not meant to be a shortcut to great art," says Kai. "It's not meant to be used for magazine covers. And yet, it's been used for that. It happens to be so good that it can do a 500-megabyte cover." All that really matters is that it unleashes the user's creativity. It's not important if people only create pictures with Goo that never leave their computers, because what's more important to the folks at MetaTools than simply creating the software is making sure that everybody can get to it.Offering this kind of software at low prices is something MetaTools, which bills itself as the visual computing software company, has done for a long time. Their product line, which includes KPT, Goo, Vector Effects, KPT Bryce, Kai's Power Photos, KPT Final Effects, and KPT Convolver, all sell for less than $200. In 1993, when the company licensed a high-end photo editing program called Live Picture, they took it on at a street price of $3,995. In early 1995, they dropped the price to $995.Which is all very nice, but wouldn't mean anything if the product didn't actually sell, if people didn't actually think that this software delivered on its promise. It does. The first thing you see when you walk into MetaTools' main entrance is a wall covered with awards from magazines and trade shows. Incidentally, Goo recently beat out products from Netscape, Novell, IBM, and Microsoft to win Best Software Package at this year's CeBit conference. This despite the fact that critics initially gave the wholehearted originality of KPT 1.0 a rather cool reception.But making these high-tech toys available for low-tech prices is something a little unheard of in a section of the computer industry where software packages for popular graphics applications like Photoshop and Illustrator, two of the industry's leaders, sell for $500 apiece. This is $500 spent after sinking $2,500 into a high-end system (you can get a cheaper system if you aren't setting up a studio) capable of handling the images these programs allow you to work with. What's worse is that most of us don't need these programs to make a living; we just want to play with them. All of this leads to the vicious circle that keeps software prices artificially high: The software companies know that people are going to pirate their software, so they figure that into the price. Let's face it, people pirate software like crazy. Sure, there are multiple warnings and agreements against this practice. The warnings are usually plastered in small print all over the packaging, but few people read them, and fewer still heed the warning that everybody knows is there: Don't use this software anywhere but on the computer for which it was purchased. People do it anyway. After all, it isn't really stealing, is it? More like taping a few CDs from a friend. Nobody's really getting hurt here. The software companies certainly aren't going to go bust because of it. For crying out loud, if they didn't charge so much for it, everybody wouldn't have to steal it, would they?No, they wouldn't, says Wilczak and MetaTools, which is why most of their products are fairly inexpensive. At these prices, people stop stealing and start buying. John Swift, MetaTools technical services director, one of its seminal employees (and one of the few occupants of a windowed office), says, "Wilczak knows what the industry will bear and what the market will bear. Those low dollars get it out there, and you deal with less piracy."Producing the software, which is primarily Kai's domain, is another story altogether. Kai does most of his work at home, a beautiful estate where, if there are other houses within half a mile, and there certainly are, you can't tell. Longhaired and mustached, the 20-year transplant from Essen, Germany, is something of a renaissance man. He usually denies this by saying simply, "I like to wear a lot of hats."He certainly does. If he had to write a resume, it would be several pages long and would include such qualifications as electronic musician, computer programmer, enfant terrible, and graphic designer. Downstairs at the house is the "lab," which is actually much more inviting than its name implies. There are no white coats; there is, however, a big sound system and selections from Kai's collection. Listening options could include anything from Bjork's Post or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon to Elgar's Enigma Variations (one of Kai's recent finds) or Smetana's Die Moldau.Kai and John met through a mutual business friend in the spring of 1991. The first product that Kai, a pioneer in imaging software, and John, a marketing wizard with years at Touche Ross and General Electric behind him, went to work on was a project for Sony called Videoware. The idea was to create a quality home-video editing system that anybody could run from their Mac or PC. Videoware would also have to run without a lot of computer memory and with a minimum of time spent learning the program, two qualities that would later figure prominently into MetaTools' design standards. What they came up with was a simple and innovative UI (another MetaTools standard) and a way to use the computer as a controller for the video deck rather than as a means to digitize the tape.Videoware unfortunately never saw the light of day; Sony reported huge losses that quarter and wound up pulling the plug on a host of projects, Videoware being only one of them. Then, according to Wilczak, "Kai and I looked at each other and said, 'Well, now what?'"This question was slightly odd coming from two guys who, by anyone's standards, had already done quite a bit. Kai, for instance, had already survived the rigorous training inflicted by the German educational system. "It's a dichotomy," Kai, who does not hold a university degree, said of his formal schooling. "At the time you're in it, it feels like a prison, but in hindsight, it was a great thing to have gone through." As a student he learned Greek, Latin, calculus, and much more at a very early age. "That in itself didn't lead to much of anything because I was very, very rebellious," he laughed. So rebellious that many of his teachers felt that nothing would ever become of young Mr. Krause. These days, there are often articles in his hometown newspapers that only go to show how wrong those teachers were.Concurrent with school, he studied piano at the Essener Musik Konservatorium. Which didn't turn out much better in terms of grades than his regular schooling. Nevertheless, his brush with the formality of the classics eventually led to an early love of electronic music and his subsequent attempts to use the computer to create pictures out of sounds. "Since nobody told me you couldn't do that, I went in and did it anyway."Kai came to the United States with his wife, Barbara, and his longtime friend and later business partner, Martin Schmitt, in the summer of 1976. The three young Germans traveled from New York to San Francisco to Los Angeles, where, among other things, they found work on electronic music projects. The following year, Kai and Martin started a company called Prototype Systems, intending to build synthesizers, among other things. Unfortunately, all their equipment fell victim to a flood in the basement of a house they shared. The two shifted their focus, bought a computer, and started writing programs.They worked as consultants on a variety of both sound and software projects. Kai won a Clio award in 1980 for best use of sound for an innovative commercial he created for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (essentially a series of alien voices discussing the movie over some video footage, the commercial is arguably the best thing about the movie). In the early '80s, Kai and Martin reformed their company as DDD Software, took some of the basic information that Kai discovered while doing his initial "pictures with sound" experiments, and wrote a 3-D graphing program. Corvus Concepts, another software company, bought the rights to the program and it eventually turned into the charting engine for programs like CorelDRAW! and Quattro. It was about this time that Kai went full bore into computer programming and sold most of his synthesizer equipment to musician Neil Young, who, curiously enough, saw Kai's ad in the paper (the results of this sale can be heard on Young's Trans album).In the mid-'80s they formed another company called 3-D Graphics. In 1982, their first product, Perspective, won the best graphics program award from PC Magazine. Throughout the rest of the '80s and into the early '90s, Kai and Martin continued to explore and create the possibilities in digital imaging software.John Wilczak, an affable native New Yorker, took quite a different approach to the arena of digital imaging software. In 1978, the Brown University graduate was in his last semester of a Columbia University MBA program when he took a class in computer programming. He decided very quickly that coding was something he did not want to do, but nevertheless saw a future for personal computers. After spending several years as a corporate business and marketing strategist for the chairman's office at the General Electric Company, Wilczak went to work at Touche Ross and Company's management consulting practice in New York City. While there, he worked on a project for Newhouse Publications, the company that publishes the Sunday newspaper magazine Parade. In 1983 Wilczak helped them begin the process of creating the first digitally uplinked satellite publication. In other words, it was produced in one place, then bounced off a satellite to the printers 1,500 miles away.He talks about the technology involved in this project from a modest, windowed office at MetaTools. Facing his desk are a pair of extremely comfortable chairs designed, he said, to give the person sitting in them a sense of security. At least one interviewer found himself a little too secure and opted to continue the discussion at a nearby table.Wilczak leaned a lot about the new technology while working on the Newhouse project, part of which was a digital composition and layout machine called a Scitex Workstation. "They were huge, clunky kinds of things. You worried about putting a lead apron on so you didn't expose yourself to too much radiation," he laughed. And they were expensive, around a million dollars each.With the surge in PC sales in the early '80s, Wilczak felt it was only a matter of time before some of the Scitex technology would fit in a home computer. With the oncoming age of electronic publishing came the niche that Wilczak set out to fill when he moved to California from New York in 1985. For two years he worked as an electronic publishing consultant before formalizing his company as Harvard Systems Corporation (so named so that prospective clients would get the impression the company had a reputation to live up to rather than for any association with the university) in 1987. HSC provided support in such areas as imaging and multimedia, as well as creating software. One of his early projects was a program called The Graphics Link Plus, a graphics format conversion utility. HSC also brought the Santa Fe Media Manager, the first multimedia database product, to the DOS market in 1990.About this time, he and Kai began working together. Kai and Martin had, for the most part, ceased their involvement in the day-to-day aspects of 3-D, and were working on separate projects. In the wake of the Videoware, Kai and John found they had a lot in common: fascination with concepts like "real time" and "visual computing," not to mention their love for soccer. They also shared a vision of what the software industry, particularly the graphics community, needed. The two formalized their business relationship in the spring of 1992, set up shop in Santa Monica, and got ready to turn the computer world on its ear with their first product, Kai's Power Tools. KPT is a series of special-effects "plug-ins" for Adobe Photoshop. The plug-ins help run Photoshop with, as PowerTools implies, more power. It still requires the host program, but KPT was designed as an inexpensive way to get some extra fuel in your tank. Setting the world on its ear wasn't going to be easy. In the first place, KPT's nonstandard interface (no pop-up windows and radio buttons) led much of the computer press to conclude that it was little more than a toy for image tweaking, and that it was just generally weird. They were wrong; it's not a toy. However, they were right when they said it was weird and nonstandard. It certainly doesn't look like anything else that runs on a Mac or PC (by contrast, most UIs look generally the same from program to program), but that is precisely what makes the software so inviting. It's an invitation to play."That's the important part of this," says Athena Kekenes, one of Kai's main design assistants (she's so good at imitating Kai's style that he calls her a "clone-ness). After all, this isn't brain surgery, as Kai says. "Play is the most important part," she continued. "If you can't play in an environment where you think you are free from repercussions of making any mistakes and can say 'I'm unrestrained, I know I can't hurt myself here,' that's when the great stuff comes out."Which brings us to what exactly it is that a visual computing software company does. In a nutshell, they make stuff that Joe Average isn't supposed to have, stuff he isn't supposed to be able to afford, and isn't supposed to be able to run on his computer. Programs like KPT Bryce, which creates digital terrains, and Convolver, which Kai has actually used to clarify blurry photos for Scotland Yard, aren't supposed to be available. They aren't even supposed to work in real time. The fact that you can use these programs to manipulate complex images--huge mountains and oceans in Bryce--on an itty-bitty home computer and see the manipulations on the screen as you click and drag with a mouse is truly astounding. "It clearly isn't supposed to work this way," said Kai.All this "democratization," as they like to put it, started when Kai, a rather obsessive user of Photoshop, actually went and posted something like 400 pages worth of Photoshop tips and tricks on America Online. Within a few months, more than 2,000 people copied the free information from the on-line service. These days, the number of people Kai has empowered is close to 50,000 worldwide. Eventually, America Online gave him his own little section, Kai's Power Tips (keyword KPT; this is also how you can find the weekly MetaTools chat every Tuesday night, and Kai himself is more than likely to show up--try to imagine Bill Gates doing something like this), a name he loathes. "I thought, 'My God, what a pigheaded, moronic thing.' It sounds like an ego the size of a blimp." But he couldn't mind that much; it's all central to what he believes. "It was basically totally altruistic to just give it away. I said, 'Look, if I hang on to this much longer, some guy is going to come along and make a filter out of it that just does it like that. So I might as well share it while it's fresh and new and different.'" This is anathema in a world where graphic designers regularly say things like "I could tell you how I did it, but then I'd have to kill you," and in a world where one killer app, like what he could have made with the tips he put online, can make a lot of people millionaires."I could've taken the basic technology," he said (mimicking the voice of corporate America), "and said, 'All right, we're going to compete with the big boys now,' and done a $30,000 piece of software, but it's a hell of a lot more fun to do it this way." Of course, he reserved a few choice tricks for KPT. Hey, the guy's gotta eat.What they did, after Kai gave away all the secrets, was to keep working. That is what they do at MetaTools. It's not unusual for the programmers, and a lot of the other employees, to put in 14- or even 20-hour days. It's not like these people would be doing anything different if they didn't work for MetaTools. It's not like the software industry is such a slave driver that it demands such performance out of its workers. It's that this is what most of them like to do. "They may have some hobbies," Swift said, "but to them, playing with the computer is cool and fun. They're the kind of people who are going to spend 18 hours a day in front of their computers, and they like staying up all night." They like to compete with each other to see who can write the cleanest code, whose application can run the fastest, and which is the easiest to use. "I know they're competitive like that," Swift explained. "And the guys who come here are used to that. They've all got the bags under the eyes and the coffee addiction and the weird sleep patterns and a pasty complexion. Really, most programmers are like that."And they like to be close to Kai. "There is definitely a desire on these guys' part to be close to Kai, to work close to him. They love to go to his house and stay up all night and write some cool code." It's no wonder. If code were basketball, Kai would be Michael Jordan.Wilczak often points out that Kai is both left-brained and right-brained. Better yet, Kai is the race car driver who designs cars for the rest of the world; he's the carpenter who designs his own tools; he is the mathematician/artist who decided that he wanted to create extremely realistic computer-generated art, so he sat down and wrote the program that would do it for him. He walks a line not often trod, if at all, somewhere between Einstein the brain and Doug Henning the magician. He has combined mathematics and art in a way that no one has ever combined them before. It seems as though it is all the same to him, math begetting art the way it does in software.For most of the world, the remarkable thing about Kai is the toys and technology he and his team are bringing to us. And it's not only the UI that's gotten him into trouble. The tools themselves often land him in hot water. Not everybody thinks it's so wonderful to see art being dragged into the 21st century the way Kai does. For instance, he showed KPT to his friend Roger Dean, the designer responsible for, among other things, the psychedelic artwork adorning most of the early Yes albums, "and he hated it abjectly," claimed Kai. Dean was used to spending up to two weeks with an airbrush to do the kind of type styling that KPT does with the click and drag of a mouse.Then there was the time he was doing a demonstration in England in front of some members of the press. He showed how he used one of his tools to create an homage to one of his favorite artists, M.C. Escher. After he finished, he exclaimed, "Escher would have killed for this!" To which a very English reporter muttered, "No, he would've killed you."It's not only the art purists out there who think Kai Krause is the antichrist, either. Surprisingly, there are plenty of programmers and interface designers who would like to see Kai and his ideas disappear. He has broken more rules of software and user interface design than most people know exist. Suffice it to say that most prominent among these rules is "Thou shalt not create a UI that doesn't look like the Mac desktop or Windows 95." Kai's done it. According to him, there really is a dartboard with his picture on it in the deepest lab at Apple. "I take that with great pride. It proves that I have a stick in the ant's nest and I'm kind of wiggling them up a little bit."Not everybody at Apple hates Kai. Quite the opposite. Wilczak tells a story about how Bill Atkinson, the man who designed the Macintosh desktop UI, stood up in front of an audience at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conference in Kobe, Japan, and voiced a different opinion. "He was presenting right before we did, and he got up and said, 'This guy Kai Krause is doing these user interfaces that are very different from Mac and Windows, and I gotta tell you, I love what he's doing." According to Atkinson, Kai and people like him are showing everybody better ways to interact with software.Does he sometimes feel like a mad scientist? "If I had my druthers, I'd design it that way. I'd love to have a Frankenstein lab," he laughed. "There is an element where we're definitely perceived as being alchemists. The more people understand what we do, the more they have respect for the fact that some of it just shouldn't be possible." Not only does it look wrong, cost wrong, and get put in the hands of the wrong people (everybody), MetaTools software shouldn't even exist. But, of course, it does. Perhaps it's made up of lines and lines of complex algorithms, but it works, and there is nothing wrong with it. And why? Because ultimately they are making creative entertainment tools.Neither fish nor fowl, neither 100 percent graphics nor 100 percent game, this software, like any great art, defies categorization. But, said Wilczak, "They're engrossing." He calls Goo and MetaTools' other products "creative entertainment tools." Rather than market what both he and Kai see as the death of creativity, games like Doom and others where, as Kai puts it, the idea is to "kill and rip out people's souls," he is selling something that brings out the artist in all of us. "You see kids sit down, and they'll play with them for two or three hours because they'll get an 'aha!' experience from it that sparks creativity in somebody. It doesn't matter what age you are; if you can get a creative experience, it feels good."If there is a secret to their success, they are either keeping very quiet about it or shouting so loudly that you can't help but think that it's not a secret at all. Meaning that Wilczak's business theories and Kai's designs are nothing more than what the people want.Like Bill Gates and Paul Allen (whose company, Vulcan Ventures, is one of MetaTools' investors) of Microsoft and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple, Kai Krause and John Wilczak are standing on the cutting edge of a technology that is more and more pervasive in everything we as humans do.This is not without its dangers, and Kai is the first person to admit this. "It's never been this good and it's never been this terrible," he remarks. "This planet is so amazing, that the things we eat and everything we do the kings of kings could not afford 300 years ago. On the other hand, we've run this little blue planet down to the ground like never before." Not only has Kai combined deep mathematics with art, and given out the secrets of the kingdom, he's quite conscious of all the fears this type of activity fosters in the Luddites. More importantly, he is quite conscious of all the excitement this type of activity fosters in the non-Luddites. Imagine that right now it's two in the morning. Right now people are heading home from bars. Right now they are dropping off in front of their TVs, or they are sound asleep, or they are ensconced in front of their computers feverishly surfing the Net for conspiracy theories, movie reviews, seafood recipes.To some people, though, the Net is yesterday. There are new things, nonsurfing things, that people can do with their home computers--things that are being made possible by MetaTools. One likely scenario is that six hours after installing one of Kai's toys, users may find themselves sitting in their underwear, legs sticking to their vinyl chairs while they "Goo" pictures of their kids or their dogs, or create their own personal logos. Perhaps those with a more devious attitude might fuse pictures of their boss with Richard Nixon, paying careful attention to the nose, of course (Goo comes with a scanned image of the ex-president along with about 100 other images). There is really only one word to say when it's all finished."Cool."