Sunday, July 12, 2009

Death of a Pioneer

Gosh, Grandpa -- what was it like before the Internet?

Way back at the dawn of time, around 1982, I stared at a dark screen with some green text on it and listened to the squawking of the first modem I ever used as it dialed up a connection to a distant host.

I had attached this beast with a fat 25-pin cable, installed a terminal program that came on a 5-inch floppy disk, and followed the instructions for configuring my serial port using settings like "COM1" and "8,N,E," which meant 8 data bits, No stop bit, Even parity. Without this, PC-DOS would have been unable to get the modem to do anything, or the terminal program would have spewed gibberish across my screen.

Breathless seconds passed. Then I was greeted by a "CONNECTED" message and a prompt for my user name and password. I was in! But what was I into, you may ask. Not the Internet, which, under the name of ARPANET, was still in its infancy and had not been allowed out of the nursery of the DOD and a collection of universities and defense contractors. And not the World Wide Web*, which had not been invented yet. No, it was none other than Compuserve, that grand-daddy of online life. And if you want to click that link you'd better do it soon, because this pioneer of cyberspace is about to become history, the victim of the same fast-paced rat-race of innovation that it helped to bring into being.

About all I ever did with Compuserve was to read the news, and that was mostly for the novelty of it. At a speed of 300 baud I could actually read the text faster than it scrolled onto my screen. In modern parlance, by the time I had downloaded it I was already through with it and on to the next story. Sure, it was clunky, but the idea that I could get the news as fast as the Associated Press could send it out was a real novelty and clearly a sign of things to come. This was still the era of the daily newspaper and the weekly news magazine, which we now see are becoming obsolete because they can never report anything but old news, which by definition is not "new."

Compuserve offered email if I wanted it, but I didn't know anyone else who had an email account so I never sent any. And why would anyone want to correspond with someone they didn't know? I had heard about "bulletin board" services but could not see the purpose of one. That was a light bulb that took some time to turn on.

I didn't use Compuserve very often or for very long. At the rate of $6 per hour it didn't take much to rack up a substantial bill. If you wanted higher speed you could pay for the premium 1200 baud service -- 4 times faster. But that cost $12 per hour and required a modem that cost hundreds of dollars extra, so for most of us it was not a realistic option. Later modem speeds increased rapidly from 1200 baud to 2400 ... 4800 ... 9600 ... 14k ... 28k ... finally maxing out at 56k just before DSL technology made them obsolete. (Apologies to those who still rely on them out of choice or lack thereof.)

And of course the rest is history. Within 10 years Sir Tim Berners-Lee had come up with the paradigm of hypertext and server addressing that made web pages and the World Wide Web a reality. I can still remember reviews of some early web sites that complimented them on their use of images to present a nice appearance. Wouldn't Web 2.0 with full video and sound have blown our minds back then? Another 10 years was long enough for the whole dot-com boom and bust to happen. Whoosh.

Lost in the shuffle was poor old Compuserve. Bought out by AOL--which became part of Time-Warner and itself struggles to survive in the face of losing its dialup access revenue--Compuserve ended up in a dwindling niche as just another web portal looking for customers. And now AOL has decided to pull the plug on it.

But like every good ending, it is really only the end of the beginning.

* Note: Though they are now used synonymously, the Internet and the World Wide Web (all those www's) are actually different things. The Internet is the infrastructure that allows servers, client computers, and networks to interconnect around the world, while the WWW is the system of domain names, hypertext documents (web pages) and email that flows across it. We could (and did) have an Internet without the Web as we know it, but the Web could not exist without something to run on.

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