Computerworld op/ed: E-wallets aren’t right for e-shopping

(This article was written in January 1999 and ran as an op/ed on Computerworld.)

If you are trying to enable e-commerce on your Web site, one thing you should steer clear of is e-wallets. Despite numerous and varied technologies, none of them work very well. Most just waste your customers’ time and will cause them to send their shopping dollars elsewhere faster than you can say “world wide wait.”

In theory, e-wallets are a good idea. They store shoppers’ credit-card and other identifying information electronically, so they don’t have to fill out the various payment forms. With a single keystroke, the e-wallets fill out these forms correctly and saves your customers lots of typing to order your stuff.

Unfortunately, theory and practice differ; e-wallets just don’t work. Everyone I’ve tried has failed on the first attempt at buying something. That isn’t a good track record. In fact, it’s one that can send shoppers back to their cars and the local malls.

Some e-wallets, such as those from start-up Launchpad Technologies Inc. (known as Ewallet), Microsoft (an e-wallet is included with Windows 98) and Citicorp’s Citibank take the form of software that must be installed on buyers’ PCs. This is a problem if your customers upgrade or switch their browsers or use more than one PC to do their shopping. Others, such as those from DigiCash Inc. (which recently filed for Chapter 11 reorganization) and CyberCash Inc., actually encode monetary value on your hard disk. To use these, you have to first exchange your hard-earned money for the Internet bongo bucks that are the scrip of choice for each wallet. This has the unfortunate side effect of losing all your dough if  your disk crashes. Some of these wallets only work on particular browser versions: Citibank’s doesn’t support Microsoft Internet Explorer, for example.

Imagine how hard life with physical wallets would be if they acted like e-wallets. You would have to carry several different kinds of wallets around with you, since each store would accept different payment systems. You couldn’t convert your dollars from one system to another without a great deal of work. And if you lost your wallet, you would be out of luck. I daresay consumerism would take it on the chin.

Here’s my advice. If you have a Web storefront, steer clear of e-wallets for now. Let your customers pay you as easily and as quickly as possible. Use credit cards and faxed purchase orders too. If you need inspiration, take a look at what Amazon.com does with its one-click ordering method: It stores customers’ account information on its site, and sends customers a cookie to keep track of who they are. It isn’t perfect, but it is painless. After all, the easier your site is for customers to buy stuff, the more stuff they will buy.

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Payment systems for eCommerce (1999)

In 1998 and 1999, I wrote several articles about eCommerce and taught at numerous Interop conferences around the world on the subject. Back then, there were a lot of 1.0 products and things weren’t all that easy. Here is a piece I did for Internet.com.

These days it seems as if everyone is a “dot com” trying to sell something via the Internet. But behind the explosive rise in eCommerce is the very hard issue of how to process payments from online storefronts. This is perhaps the biggest hurdle of any web storefront owner, especially these days given the multitude of choices for hosting your store and setting it up. Let’s navigate these waters and explain which technology is the best match for your particular needs.

I assume you already have a working website and want to take the first step into eCommerce and sell products on your site.

In order to understand payment processing, you first have to talk and think like a banker. Given that most of us don’t have much experience in this department, let’s first define a few terms. Every business needs to have a merchant bank account, or an account that can accept credit card payments from customers. In the past these were harder to come by for cyber-businesses, but lately a number of service bureaus have made it easier to open up merchant accounts.

When a customer pays for something via credit card, there are two different stages in each transaction, authorization and capture. Authorization refers to checking the account number to see if it is still valid, has sufficient credit and hasn’t been reported lost or stolen. The address of the cardholder may be matched against that listed in the account, also to deter fraudulent use. Capture refers to approval and posting of the transaction (and shipment of the goods) and can happen in one of three ways: online or during the authorization with the banking network, meaning that the transaction clears both the bank that issued the customer’s credit card and your merchant bank; in a separate step after authorization occurs; and in nightly or hourly batches with a credit card processing intermediary.

There have been many missteps in the short history of payment technologies. The biggest issue has been the acceptance of a single standard that bridges both banking and Internet worlds. The trouble here is that the banks are at odds with both users and eCommerce site developers: banks want iron-clad security, even at the expense of ease of use or management.

A good example of how this battle royale has played out in the standards process has been the non-acceptance of the Secure Electronic Transactions standards. Originally proposed by a consortium of banks and IBM, SET was an answer to keeping credit card numbers away from the hard disks of Internet merchants — essentially a way for merchants to verify customer accounts without having to handle the account numbers themselves. SET went nowhere, and has transformed into a new standard called the Electronic Commerce Modeling Language (ECML). ECML tries to structure the data required from shoppers, shippers, and storefronts into a coherent single standard, adding SET security and a few other Internet standards in the process. Again, IBM and various large banks are behind it, and we’ll see where it goes.

Banks are still having trouble with the Internet. Witness in the past few months attempts by Citibank and American Express Corp. Both companies have come out with credit card products that can only be used for cyber-shopping, and both are bad ideas. By far the vast majority of web purchases are paid for with credit cards (or corporate purchase orders for business-to-business sites). While the general press continues to write stories about reluctant shoppers, afraid of getting their credit cards stolen over the Internet, web shopping continues to blossom.

The latest innovations in web payments have to do with personalized shopping portals and new ways to authenticate buyers. The portals involve companies such as ShopNow.com, iGive.com and eBates.com and offer buyers a mechanism for receiving rebates for shopping at stores who are members of the portal’s network. The benefit for the storeowners is to provide visibility and drive traffic to their storefronts, and users benefit by getting discounts for frequent purchases. I am not sure if these networks will get established, however, and time will tell. Still, they are a minimal investment for any storeowner and worth trying.

There are three ways to authenticate buyers at any storefront. One is to use cookies, and tie the cookie to a particular user ID or transaction in your own database. This is relatively easy to implement but many shoppers are unfortunately wary of cookies and have set their browsers to not accept them for security or privacy issues. A second method is to use a straight database login, such as what Borders Books & Music does on its web site. This means that buyers have to remember their user ID and password before they can continue to shop. A third method is to use cryptographic certificates or one of the one-click networks.

Crypto is difficult because you first need to establish a public/private key infrastructure and send the various keys around to your customers. For that reason, a number of one-click vendors have been established over the past few years to make the process simpler for customers to buy things from web storefronts with a simple, single, click of the mouse. That is the theory, anyway.

The one-click vendors, including Cha! Technologies Services Inc.’s 1ClickCharge, qPass.com, iPin.com, Trivnet Inc.and others, don’t use their own form of cyber-money but provide you with their own ID tied to your credit card account number. When you shop at a merchant who is a member of their network, you don’t have to do anything more than provide your ID and password, and the transaction will be billed directly to your credit card. The idea behind the one-clicks came from Amazon.com, who was one of the first online merchants to store customer information in a cookie, so that returning shoppers didn’t have to fill out order forms again. Newer innovations include tying IDs with ISP accounts, and consolidating the billing of items purchased with your ID to your monthly service account bill.

These one-click providers are useful for sites selling digital goods or for users who want to aggregate a series of small transactions in a single bill, such as a daily “pass” to a newspaper web site or for purchasing inexpensive software upgrades. The problem with the one-clicks is a critical mass issue: in order for them to succeed, they have to be accepted at a wide array of online merchants and have thousands of users already setup.

The first wave of web payments began around 1995-6 with companies who minted their own cyber-money and tried to convince consumers to use it in place of credit cards or real cash for Internet purchases. These companies, such as Digicash Inc., First Virtual Holdings Inc., and others failed because people had credit cards and were comfortable using them, and didn’t trust the Internet bongo bucks developed by these and other companies. It didn’t help matters that these products were difficult to implement, requiring custom programming around poorly documented interfaces among other technical challenges. As a historical side note, the biggest initial markets were the porn merchants, looking to guarantee their buyers’ anonymity!

But we still need easy means of making payments, and in the past few years a number of electronic wallets have been created. These eWallets store frequently used information such as credit card numbers, shipping address, and so forth in a piece of software that resides on your hard disk and is invoked when you go to a checkout screen on a web storefront. eWallets are trouble, however: the software is very hard to setup, very particular about the store and screen layouts, and often don’t work as intended. Many eWallets are on their second and third version and hope springs eternal for companies such as IBM’s Consumer Wallet, Brodia.com, Citigroup’s CitiWallet, and Entrypoint Inc. to get them right. A new company called Yodlee is taking the wallet concept a step further and using its service to store other information, such as frequent flyer accounts, email IDs and passwords and other frequently misplaced information. However, look to lots of smoke and little heat in this department for years to come.

A good example of the trouble with eWallets is Microsoft’s foray into this genre. Microsoft had included an eWallet in every copy of Windows 98: unfortunately, it wasn’t enabled by default and buried several screens deep in the Internet Options control panels. Then earlier this fall it came out with its Passport technology. Completely web-based, there is no software to install on any desktop. However, Passport users were required to sign up for its Hotmail email service, and couldn’t initially enter payment information until they are about to make their initial purchase at a Passport-enabled merchant site. All of this is far too confusing for the average Internet shopper.

Web payment transactions can happen in any one of a number of ways: manually entered by a human via a point of sale (POS) terminal in a physical storefront, manually or electronically via a PC acting like a POS terminal, electronically from shopping cart software on a web site, or via an electronic Internet gateway into the banking network. I’ll discuss each in turn.

The POS technologies, both manual and automated systems, were the first attempts to connect the computer and banking worlds without having to alter either one significantly. Basically, these products, including two companies purchased by Cybercash Inc. (Tellan and ICVerify), sell software that runs on a Mac or Windows PC and mimics the standard physical POS terminal found in just about every retail bricks and mortar establishment. They communicate via a dial-up modem or via the Internet to send credit card information to the banking network, much the same way the physical POS terminal does.

If you want to start receiving payments quickly, take a closer look at these technologies and begin with at least manual processing. These methods will work for up to several dozen daily transactions.

The next step up is to install shopping cart software that has a link to the payment processing network. Mercantec Inc.’s SoftCart is one of the more popular and comes with modules to work with various Cybercash technologies as well as other systems. This is adequate for smaller catalogs (less than 200 items) but with storefronts with some programming expertise. The most complex and capable solution is to run your own copy of the Cybercash Cash Register software on your web site: this is for more complex sites with more expertise only.

As you can see, Cybercash Inc. has cornered the market for payment processing, offering a variety of technologies. Began in 1994 with Cybercoin, its own cyber-money, the company has constantly reinvented itself on almost a yearly basis. Earlier this year the company released its InstaBuy one-click network, which has several hundred merchants signed up but has been a limited success to date.

Given this shifting landscape, what should a web storefront operator do when it comes to accepting payments? If you sell digital content, then look into joining one or more of the one-click networks. And if you have shopping cart software already working on your storefront, first test out particular payment gateway technologies supported by the shopping cart software.

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Buying into the Microsoft Web®

Well, certainly this week our friends at Microsoft (and Netscape) have been in the news, as the antitrust trial gets underway. Let’s say you, as an IS decision maker concerned about your own job-safety, allow (or mandate) your systems people to construct your internal web-based applications using everything Microsoft. Your web pages are made on NT running IIS with ASP, and use Visual Basic scripts on both browser and server. You write all of this using Visual InterDev as the toolkit, and of course you stick with the Microsoft-flavor dynamic HTML and maybe XML with the Microsoft XMS extensions. Your systems people want to use all the cool ActiveX widgets and some data-mapped form fields at the browser end. So you decide to use only Internet Explorer inside the company as the sole supported browser to view all these pages.

You think: why worry about any standards? It’s an INTRANET! And you want your systems people (and you) to deliver the richest, coolest stuff in the shortest time. Of course! Oh, and maybe you dictated that the Microsoft stuff is the “company standard” in order to reduce acquisition and support costs.

Now think a moment to where you were back in 1982? You probably were running lots of IBM stuff.

One day, your boss (or even the CEO) says: “Connect us with our customers! I want our customers to have access to their order status, account information, and our own contact people. This must go way beyond an online store. We’re going to do one-to-one marketing here, and since we’re already web based, this should be EASY, right?” The CEO might issue similar orders relating to vendors.

Oh no! Your customers have various browsers out there and some of them won’t display the pages your people developed. You issue orders to develop “browser agnostic” web pages. And now those pesky IETF and W3C standards get in the way! Your systems people start gasping for air because it means the loss of some coolness, and worse, some drudge-type work. Or maybe you decide to develop a whole parallel set of pages for outsiders and maintain both. And who’s gonna pay for this?

So you go back to the CEO and ask for more money. He blows his stack and asks why the hell we can’t use what we have! It’s the WEB, for heaven’s sake. “Um… well, it really isn’t the web, boss, it’s the Microsoft Web® and it’s … better!” So the CEO relents and makes a mental note of this screwup….

But wait, there’s more! Your systems people have been using InterDev and/or FrontPage and don’t know much about HTML, cascading style sheets, form formatting, table layout etc. They have been isolated from the “ugly, low level” standard languages and technologies and have been using the Microsoft web development tools. Those tools cost a lot of money, but they saved even more in labor, eh? Not any more. Well, for some more money you can use more Microsoft technology to develop browser-agnostic pages. But what does that mean? And who’s going to fix a problem with Opera or Netscape? Someone has to know about those pesky standards and be familiar enough to deal with them. More time, more money. Are you going to go back to the CEO again? Was your “the safe thing is to go with Microsoft” decision really safe?

I haven’t even MENTIONED the issue of portability at the server end. You are of course locked into Microsoft technology in your shop. Yesterdays “IBM shop” is todays “Microsoft Shop”. Remember how hard we tried to keep Compaq from becoming the “approved standard” for PCs in the mid 1980s?

By now you should have a fairly tight feeling in the pit of your stomach. So here it is:

  1. Are you willing to bet that Microsoft is going to corner the Internet worldwide? Will it really be “safe” to go with the Microsoft Web®?
  2. Are you willing to bet that Microsoft won’t drop the hammer and start charging big time for products that today are free or nearly so? If your answers to (1) and (2) are yes, then go for it. Personally, I think history has proven over and over again that once a company has a lock on a market, product quality and innovation decline, and prices rise. Are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?

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Executive technology: Smart pagers

Pagers are the most popular wireless communications devices for several reasons: They are very easy to use, their batteries last several weeks, they are light enough to be carried everywhere effortlessly, and they can receive radio signals deep inside office buildings and outside city centers.
The problem is that most pagers only receive information. But so-called smart pagers can transmit information as well as receive it or match the identity of a message sender with your address book. You can still use them as ordinary alphanumeric pagers and receive callback numbers from telephone users. However, by adding some smarts, you make compromises. Batteries last barely a few days, and smart pagers are heavier — and harder — to use.
Figuring out the options isn’t easy. You have to decide whether you plan to roam around the country or stay in your metropolitan area. Each pager has an array of price plans based on message size and quantity. Here’s a sampling of devices and service offerings:PageWriter 2000
Motorola, Inc.
Schaumburg, Ill.
www.motorola.com/pagers
Price: $330
SkyWriter
SkyTel Corp.
Jackson, Miss.
(800) 456-3333
www.skytel.com
Typical monthly usage fee: $50 to $100
Also available on PageNet as a two-way service
If you’re looking for true nationwide roaming with a small device that has reasonable battery life, consider SkyTel’s SkyWriter service using the Motorola, Inc. PageWriter 2000 pager. The pager weighs 7 ounces and has a 10-line screen on the top half of a clamshell-like setup. The keyboard isn’t for touch-typists, but it’s fine for sending one or two sentences.
SkyTel offers nationwide coverage and roaming. However, in my tests I found that some pages took hours to reach me when I roamed far from home. Part of the problem is that PageWriter has two radios: One uses the same network for receiving pagers; the second is used for transmitting messages. Both SkyTel and Paging Network, Inc. are still building their networks to handle the sending side from the pager. PageWriter has an optional Lotus Notes client. You can set up this client to forward only messages from a certain person or ones containing a special phrase or to transmit all of your messages. Using a special cradle, the battery typically needed recharging after four to six days. And the battery gauge on the main menu of the device is somewhat misleading: It could drop from “100%” charged to partially charged almost instantly.
Interactive Pager
BellSouth Wireless Data
Woodbridge, N.J.
(800) 726-3210
www.bellsouthwd.com
Price: $430
Typical monthly usage fee: $35 to $60
BellSouth’s Interactive Pager is three-quarters of an inch taller and several ounces heavier than PageWriter. Its screen is smaller (with only a four-line display) and its menus far more confusing. It also has a smaller coverage area than SkyTel’s service. It comes with two sets of batteries: a rechargeable and two replaceable AA batteries. A charge will last one or two days. The rechargeable battery remains inside the device. The AAs augment this battery and need weekly-or-so replacement. Its keyboard is awkward for typing numbers.
This pager had a few advantages, however. First, it had more reliable transmissions, with no garbled characters either sending or receiving in my tests. The other pagers had trouble with their transmissions. Second, you can send a text message to anyone with an ordinary phone number. The message is transferred to a speech synthesizer and delivered. That’s handy. Finally, it had the quickest delivery of any device. Messages came within minutes.
Synapse Pager Card for PalmPilot
PageMart Wireless, Inc.
Dallas
www.pagemart.com/personal/palm.html
(800) 864-4357
Price: $189
Typical monthly usage fee: $45 to $75
Unlike the first two pagers described here, the Synapse is just a one-way device. But it solves two problems. First, for those of you who carry a PalmPilot organizer, it saves space, because the pager is a small circuit card made by Motorola that replaces the memory card of all PalmPilots, other than Version III. Second, if you’ve ever received a page with an unfamiliar phone number, you’ll appreciate that Synapse works with your contact database stored in the Pilot to match the incoming phone number on the page with the corresponding name in your address book. However, I found that unless the phone number was the first series of digits on a page, the software wouldn’t match it with my contact database. Installation was a snap. You replace cards and reset your Pilot and resynchronize your data from a PC.
There were disadvantages. First, roaming is nationwide but not effortless. You need to make a phone call to PageMart’s service bureau and enter the area code of your new location. Second, this pager had the most trouble with garbled and missed messages. When that happens, you can call PageMart and have the messages read to you.P
Strom is a freelance reviewer in Port Washington, N.Y.
PAGERS ARE POPULAR
Analysts such as Darryl Sterling at The Yankee Group estimate that, out of more than 45 million pagers in use today, approximately 61,000 are smart pagers. Sterling predicts the number of smart-pager subscribers will jump to about 8.8 million by 2003.
In the meantime, “People buy pagers for a lot of reasons,” says David Weilmuenster, an independent communications consultant. “They want long battery life so you can forget about worrying when to change your battery. They also want something small, to fit in your pocket.”
Smart pagers will see more innovation, including Windows CE and PalmPilot-style devices with wireless peripherals, and smarter phones from Samsung and others that come with built-in World Wide Web browsers and data services.
CELL PHONESAND PAGERS
Why bother with smart pagers when you could use just a cellular phone? There are several reasons:
If you need up-to-the-minute contact with your staff and E-mail is a preferred means of communication, you can use these pagers to compose replies. Pagers can also come in handy when sending out alerts from your information systems staff, for example. And if your corporate E-mail system is Notes, then PageWriter — with its optional Notes client — can provide instant notification of incoming messages.

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Secure email is still the pits

The state of secure Internet email standards and products is best described as a sucking chest wound. There are no technologies that are multi-vendor; interoperable; and, approved or endorsed by the Internet’s standardization body.

That’s the sad state of reality today. I’ve been working with several of the most current products lately, and after testing them I felt like I had to go home and take a long hot shower and cleanse myself of an imagined putrid odor. Why are things so grim?

You can read the short version of the essay here, or a longer excerpt from my book on “Internet Messaging”.

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You’ve got mail!

Well, that is what Marshall and I wanted to call our book on Internet email when we wrote it back in the salad days of 1998. It was just before the Meg Ryan movie came out and would have been perfect. Instead, we were stuck with a crummy title and lackluster sales. Marshall, for those of you that don’t know, was one of the inventors of the POP protocol, so you can blame him for all that spam you now get. Well, who knew?

In any event, Penn Jilette (of Penn and Teller fame) wrote our foward.

You can order the book from Amazon here and there is more information on my site if you want to read a sample chapter.

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Cisco’s Internet Protocol Journal: Problems with secure email

As we spend more and more time using e-mail, most of us eventually find that we need to be able to prove our identity to our correspondents and secure the contents of our messages so that others can’t view them readily. Proving your identity is called authentication. In the physical world, this is accomplished by photo identification, such as a driver’s license, passport, or corporate identity card. When the time comes to prove who you are (for example, before a major purchase), you show your card. Your appearance and signature match the photo and signature on your card, and the purchase is made.

It would be great if we could say that the future for secure e-mail is bright, and that there will be standards in place that will help. However, the state of secure e-mail standards for the Internet is best described as a sucking chest wound.

You can read the entire article, which is excerpted from my and Marshall Rose’s book called Internet Messaging, over here on the Cisco IPJ archives.

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Web Compare

For a while, I was an expert on Web server software. This site, which I sold to MecklerMedia, listed all the various products available at the time in 1996-7. I was responsible for reviewing the products, posting content, and keeping up to date in this market. Of course, you can’t see any evidence of what I did from the dawn of the Web Era, so you will have to take my word for it.

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Intranet Construction Site

Remember how hot Intranets were? CMP did a custom published Web site telling how to build them, and also produced a series of print pubs that went as inserts into some of their IT-related publications. It was a fun assignment, and too bad that no evidence exists today from this project dating back to 1997.

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A look back at our industry in 1986

(This essay was posted on my Web site in September 1996 and reprinted here for reference.)

This issue marks the first anniversary of Web Informant. I thought that it would be a good time to take a look back even further in the past to the fall of 1986. Back then, I began my writing career working for a special supplement to PC Week called Connectivity. At the time, I had left working for Transamerica Occidental Life Insurance Company in downtown Los Angeles, in a 30 person information center. This group was part of their internal IS department to support end-user computing, and I was getting more interested in local area networks, having installed the first one at Transamerica that summer of 1986. I remember working in an Information Center (as we liked to capitalize it). It was a proud profession: there were trade mags, shows and even IBM product lines geared towards us.

First, let’s talk about the Internet. Back then, there were still a small number of different networks that had grown up from various US government-funded projects. A prophetic paper by Dennis Jennings, Larry Landweber and David Farber for Science magazine mentioned how “NSFnet will probably have the most impact on science of all networking activities in the US at this time (February 1986).” NSFnet went on to evolve into the Internet backbone that we have today.

For those of you new to the Internet, as recently as five years ago a private corporation would have had lots of difficulty finding an Internet Service Provider, let alone getting their own .com domain name established. When I began Network Computing magazine in the summer of 1990, we had to piggyback on a university’s email system to get Internet access for our editors! Even as recently as three years ago, there was a single ISP with numbers in my local area code that I could call: now there are over a dozen that I can choose from for Internet access.

Ten years ago, most of the computers on the “Internet” were running proprietary operating systems or Unix. The idea of having a desktop PC running IP was ludicrous. Now it is taken for granted, and comes included with all desktop operating systems.

Mobile PC products certainly have gone through quite an evolution: back ten years ago, I remember my first portable PC was the Radio Shack model 100, a unit I am proud to say I still have somewhere in my office. It had a terrific keyboard, a 1200 (internal) bps modem, and an eight-line by 40 character screen that I used to file my stories for PC Week. Steve Roberts sent me a photo showing him typing on one next to the massive bicycle-cum-office that he rode around America back in 1984. Since then, I think I have used about 20 different laptops to write my articles. My favorite was the NEC Ultralight notebook that I used in 1989 (one photo I have is of me typing away at the hospital shortly after my daughter was born). Unlike my present portable, it was small, light (less than 4 lbs.) and had great battery life.

Roberts’ article mentions the “Plus [automated teller] System promises to make all this [mobility] easy someday, but at the moment [May 1984], its nodes are far more sparsely scattered than are those of CompuServe.” Interesting how both networks have grown over the years, but I think the number of ATMs far exceeds CompuServe nodes at this point. Roberts is now on to outfitting a sailing ship with various computers, by the way.

What computers were we using ten years ago? Well, at Transamerica the most popular device (in terms of numbers, not necessarily in terms of emotions) was still the 3270 terminal — by the time I left in 1986 we almost had 2,000 apiece of PCs and mainframe terminals. The best PC at the time was the 386 with 640 Kilobytes of RAM, introduced by Compaq that fall. However, most of the machines we had at Transamerica were 8088s, with some ATs.

What was the predominant software back then? Why, Lotus 1-2-3 of course. I still have my copy of version 1A, and not too long ago I installed it on a machine and was gratified to see its familiar grid pattern. And also I was gratified to see that I could still remember how to use it.

Back then, a good portion of my end-user support effort was getting the right video drivers (remember Hercules graphics on IBM monochrome monitors?) to work properly. MicroChannel and EISA bus machines had not yet been invented, and Apple had begun selling Macintoshes a few years earlier. Most monitors were woefully small by today’s standards.

Networking was a very different picture back ten years ago. Of course, the biggest networks were still those connecting terminals and PCs with 3270 cards to IBM mainframes. In the fall of 1986 the Manufacturing Automation Protocol was picking up interest (and actually on version 2.1!). A company called Industrial Networking Inc. was formed to sell products from Ungermann-Bass and General Electric, only to fold a year later. UB, by the way, was the first company besides IBM to sell token ring gear that summer. Now the automotive companies (the core group of MAP’s original sponsors) are fully behind IP and the Internet.

Novell and IBM were the predominant LAN software vendors back then — NetWare was one of the first products to take advantage of the protected mode of the 286 processor, something that IBM finally delivered on with OS/2 several years later. Token rings were just 4 megabits, and used passive “MAUs” for hubs that still are around today (mainly because they are one of the few hubs that don’t require any power to operate). 3Com was selling Ethernet cards by the truckload but having a hard time with the original “network computer,” a diskless workstation called the 3Station. Some things never change.

Looking back at PC Week Connectivity (yes, I still have the back issues), I am amused how many of the stories written then still cover many of the same themes we have today. One of my first reviews published for PC Week ran in Jan 1987 about Attachmate’s 3270 emulation products. At the time Attachmate was a brand-new company, and I stated “No matter how good the Attachmate product is, it will be tough to gain market share over DCA and IBM.” Since then the company bought DCA and IBM has played a lesser role with 3270 products. Oh well, can’t always call ’em.

The December 1986 PC Week had some interesting prices: 2400 bps internal modems from Hayes were selling at close to $800, 80386 PC 18 Mhz clones with 512 k bytes of RAM were going for $4500, Microsoft was selling version 1.03 of Windows and version 3.1 of Word, and 3Com’s servers cost $6000 and had whopping 70 megabyte disks!

What was the computer trade publication landscape back then? Well, PC Week, Infoworld and Computerworld were the predominant news weeklies. I re-read the parody issue called ConfuserWorld which was printed in 1983 and contained headlines such as “IBM calls it quits”. The best part of the parody publication were its ads, though: one for a new computer-related TV show called Happy Daze where “the Fonz fixes an HP-4000 by kicking it in the drive unit.” Another ad for Kodex maxi- modems promised that your could “communicate with confidence” on those “special times of the month when communications is at its peak.”

There weren’t any Internet-related publications, and just LAN Times and LAN magazine were devoted to networking topics. Networld and Interop were separate trade shows, and Comdex was still too crazy even then.

We have come a long way in a decade. Thanks for all of you that have sent me documents and anecdotes from that era — I appreciated reading all the responses. It has made for an interesting trip down memory lane.

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