BMW has this very funny ad where Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel discuss the makeup of an Internet email address back in 1994.
To say that the Internet wasn’t mainstream enough for the Today show hosts is an understatement. Back then, few people had any idea of what it was, how email was used, or what the punctuation in the email address signified. Looking at the Today show this morning, things certainly have changed: live Tweeting of the snowstorm, Carson Daly and his magic touch screen surfing social media, and even some of the hosts reading off their laptops on air. We have come a long way.
But let’s go back to what we were all doing 20-some years ago. Back then it was hard to get online. We had dial-up modems: no Wifi, no broadband, no iPhones. PCs had PCMCIA cards, the precursor to USB ports. Other than Unix, none of the other desktop operating systems came with any support for IP protocols built-in.
Now it is hard to find a computer with a dial-up modem included, and without any Wifi support. Even the desktop PC that I last bought came with a Wifi adapter.
The communications software was crude and finicky: it was hard to run connections that supported both Ethernet (or Token Ring, remember that?) on the local office network and then switch to remote IP connections when you went on the road. I was using Fetch for file transfer (I still like that program, it is so dirt simple to use) and Mosaic, the first Web browser that came out that Illinois campus where a young Marc Andreessen was studying before he made it rich at Netscape. Companies such as Netmanage and Spry were packaging all the various programs that you needed to get online with an “Internet in a Box.” This was a product that was a bit different from that described in “The IT Crowd” TV show a few years later:
Back in 1994, I had a column in Infoworld where I mentioned that configuring TCP/IP was “an exercise in learning Greek taught by an Italian.” My frustration was high after trying a series of products, each of which took several days worth of tech support calls and testing various configurations with software and OS drivers to make them work. Remember NDIS and the protocol.ini file? You had to be familiar with that if you did a lot of communicating, because that is where you had to debug your DOS and early Windows communications strings. When they did work it was only with particular modems.
Finding an Internet service provider wasn’t easy. There were a few hardy souls that tried to keep track of which providers offered service, through a combination of mailing lists and other online documents. Of course, the Web was just getting started. Getting a dot com domain name was free – you merely requested one and a few seconds later it was yours. Before I had strom.com, I was using Radiomail and MCIMail as two options for Internet-accessible email addresses.
Indeed, mobility meant often using different modems with different software tools. When I traveled, I took four of them with me: cc:Mail (to correspond with my readers and to file my columns with the editors), Smartcom (to pick up messages on MCI Mail and others that I connected to from time to time), Eudora (for reading my Internet mail), and Versaterm AdminSlip (for connecting to my Internet service provider). That was a lot of gear and software to keep track of.
With all of these modems, if you can imagine, the telephone network was our primary means of connection when we were on the road. Of course, back then we were paying for long distance phone calls, and we tried to minimize this by finding collections of “modem pools” to dial into that were a local call away. Back then I was paying $100 a month for dial up! Then ISDN came along and I was paying $100 for 128 kbps! Now I pay $40 a month for broadband access. I guess things have improved somewhat.