Anyone who has been using Macs for at least the last ten years will surely remember Viewpoint Corporation’s products. No? Well, Viewpoint Corporation was previously MetaCreations. Still doesn’t ring a bell? Maybe MetaTools will. Or the name Kai Krause. Or, even better, the names of the software products themselves — Kai’s Power Tools, Kai’s Power Goo, Kai’s Photo Soap, Bryce, Painter, Poser… See? Now we’re talking.
Browsing my good old magazine archive, I found a very nice and informative feature on the then-called MetaCreations in Issue 77 (Spring 1999) of MacFormat UK magazine. It’s a 4-page article titled MetaWorld and explores the origins of this company, the vision of its charismatic founder Kai Krause (a sort of Jobs-like figure), and the direction the company was taking at the time, with interesting excerpts of interviews with Kai Krause himself and Phil Clevenger (who was the first designer after Krause to join MetaTools, and was then Vice President of Software Development).
The article was written by Richard Hill. Below you will find some interesting bits I chose to reprint. Enjoy.
[…] Phil Clevenger explains: “Our company was really born on-line: it was born out of an on-line community. It was created around these graphical tips and tricks that Kai Krause did; and as a result, over the years, we made contact with lots of wonderful people. And as we’ve travelled the world and around the country, we’ve made friends with these people, and periodically we run into someone who really understands what we do and has the vision and has the talent to do it themselves. So over the years, the design team has grown.
“The things that became Kai’s Power Tools 1 began as a series of tips and tricks that Kai posted on-line, in the first year or two of America Online. It became the single largest downloaded file on America Online, and now it’s propagated all over the Internet”.
[…] Clevenger was inspired to seek out MetaTools because of the ideas Krause was advocating. “Kai had popularised a technique he called algorithmic painting, with the advent of Photoshop 2, I believe; he was doing all kinds of procedural artwork that people didn’t really understand [the way he’d done it]; he’d done this golden Da Vinci, and posted it on-line, saying I didn’t paint a stroke of this. He wound up getting 10,000 pieces of e-mail saying, ‘Well if you didn’t paint it, how did you do it?’. And so he outlined very deliberately how the channel operations work with luminosity values, and so on; this is stuff that all lived inside Photoshop, that was very difficult to access and very difficult to use”.
Art meets science
With MetaTools, Krause launched a mission to give more people access to the knowledge tied up in graphics software. Underneath the accessible tools of Kai’s Power Tools was some serious mathematics, says Clevenger. “Today that’s very common, but at the time that was extremely new. KPT’s Texture Explorer was one of the first programs I’m aware of that dealt with the notion of controlled randomisation. We’ve often been criticised by people for our approach, and there are certain sub-sets of people who will just never get it. That’s fine with me, that’s fine with all of us.
“But those people criticise us for not providing at times access to numbers and direct configurability by being able to add in numbers. But the rationale behind what we do is very meaningful; we never do anything just to be cute, ever.
“We could give people a dialogue box with a hundred values that they could enter and type in… and then, they could get the results, and so forth. With the notion of controlled randomisation, what we did was to put 12 things on the screen at once with the parent in the middle; you click on one of the mutations around the outside and it generates varieties for you, and you choose anything else from the outside ring, and it goes to the centre and generates another 12 or 15 or whatever it was. Then, by choosing the variables that you’re messing with — the colours, structures or whatever they are — you can then guide the results into a place that is meaningful.
“[…] I’d been working with computers in other capacities before, but once I saw Kai’s Power Tools 1, I actually saw an approach to interfaces that made sense to me. I didn’t have to look at a manual. I come from a creative background — I was a music major in college, a professional musician for ten years — so as a creative person, this approach to interface design really spoke to me. […]”
Over to you
[…] After all [Clevenger] has watched the fledgling MetaTools evolve into its present form, giving him an understanding of how to make raw ideas into commercial prospects.
“The engineers here, even when they’re building projects, they’ve got all these little ideas bubbling,” says Clevenger. “So there’s this bubbling pot that’s going on all the time, and periodically we look through and take stock of what we have, and try to figure out how best to use it.
“For instance, the first version of [Kai’s Power] Goo came about at a time when we had kind of a technology test bed called Amazon; it was basically a bucketful of everything we had, of textures, real-time 3D file stuff and, aw, all kinds of stuff.
“The thing is, you have to look at something like that and think: What’s smart? We could have taken it and done a Photoshop killer, a Live Picture killer; we could have done all of that, but how smart would it have been? We’d have to invest tons of engineering and development time to compete with these products that have been in the market for so long — Photoshop is up to version 5, all kinds of features and time to develop and mature the code. As well as the competitive nature of the advertising, and just scratching and clawing for customers.
“So what we did instead is, we said: ‘Well, we’ve got these brushes that do this funny gooey stuff and they’re faster than anything out there’. What do you do when you’re a first-time Photoshop user? You start cloning teeth into the forehead, you start doing all these childish goofy things; and there’s this little bit of a giggle factor inside somewhere. So we thought, ‘Okay, we’ll put this giggle factor up front, sell it for 49 bucks, and make it a happy thing’. That’s the smart thing to do with the technology as opposed to the obvious thing to do with the technology”.
[…] While MetaTools built carefully on its Kai’s Power Tools reputation with products like the popular landscape builder Bryce, the whole graphics software industry discovered boom times, fed by fast-evolving computers. MetaTools had to grow bigger if it was to develop beyond the cult status it had won. The sea-change came in 1997, with the aforementioned sequence of mergers and takeovers [Fractal Design had acquired Ray Dream; MetaTools had acquired Specular; then Fractal Design and MetaTools joined to become MetaCreations] that kept the industry and customers alike on their toes.
[…] Kai Krause: “I must admit, at the same time as growing up, some of the things we do don’t easily scale up: in the old days, when we started with five, ten, twenty people, and I’d have some quickie idea worth three or four million dollars, everyone went ‘yeah, this is great’.
“Now, if you’re trying to be worth 67 million dollars, and you’ve got a three- or four million idea, it’s… noise; it’s annoying, and you can’t do that. You see, some of the potential projects we were working on had natural limits as to how big they could have been. In the old days when I did a project with Stephen Hawking — just because it was fun for me to work with Stephen Hawking — it barely had to pay for itself to be worth my time. But as a public company in the larger scope, you can’t afford to water down the overall marketing efforts and everything.
“The question we have to ask ourselves,” muses Krause, “is whether we want to water a lot of little bushes or a couple of big trees”.