Friday, November 30, 2007

Random Thoughts about the Internet, Take 2

When I started the post below, it was by way of introduction to some thoughts about how the internet has changed over the years. But I got side-tracked ranting about how Blogger won't work right, and forgot. So now I'm back.

I got my first computer in 1991. I'd used computers before, I even had my brother's old Leading Edge computer (no kidding, this computer had 2 5-/4-inche floppy drives, NO hard drive, and 256K of RAM. 256K. Not Mb, K. Just think of that for a minute).

Anyway, my first computer: Made by NCR, a company famous for making cash registers (I believe NCR stands for National Cash Register). It had a 40 Mb hard drive. It had one 5-1/4-inch floppy drive and one 3.5-inch floppy drive.

The first thing we had to do with it was install DOS. Remember DOS? Then we also installed the following: Windows 3.1, a mouse, and a dial-up modem. Computers didn't come with these things back then. To install something like Windows you had to insert a floppy disk, run the setup program, and wait for it to tell you when to switch disks. After going through a stack of 2-6 disks, your application would be ready to run.

You typed "WIN" at the DOS prompt to get into Windows. (I still remember 3-year-old Dan trying to type WIN into the search field at the library's card catalog computer and being frustrated when it didn't work.)

I remember when Windows 95 came out. They said it was a whole new way of computing, and I guess it was because people don't use DOS anymore. Now computers just start and boot right into Windows and you don't have to mess with DOS-type commands. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My brother had moved to Colorado and I wanted to be able to email him. He had email at the college he was attending. So I did what most people did in 1992 if they wanted email access at their home: I signed up for Compu-Serve. It was the only way to do it, or at least, the least expensive. There was this thing called Prodigy, but Compu-Serve was cheaper so I went with that.

There was a graphical interface but you had to pay for it. But you could use a sort of DOS version for free (there was still a monthly fee, $7 or $9 a month, but you didn't have to pay for the application unless you got the graphical interface, so I chose the DOS version). There was a section, including email, that you could use for an unlimited time period, and there was another section (including forums) that you had to pay extra (by the hour, after a certain number of hours were used) to use.

So I did email, and I got involved (a bit) in a homeschooling forum. I remember downloading a whole long list of homeschooling vendors, going to the post office and buying pre-stamped postcards, and mailing out requests for catalogs. There were no websites then, this was the only way to buy homeschooling materials.

Then one day a disk came in the mail from this company I'd never heard of before, called America Online. From reading the marketing material that came with the disk, I could tell it was something like Compu-Serve, but I didn't know what it was, really.

I put it in the disk, and it automatically installed this wonderful software. In about 15 minutes I had a new userID ("Meli") and a free month of service. I had access to all of the forums and didn't have to worry about whether I was in a "free" area or a "pay" area. It all came for the same price, though there was a monthly limit of how many hours you got.

AOL brought the internet to the masses. People don't realize that, but it's really true. Before AOL, internet was something engineers used at work. No one had it at home and most people didn't know what it was or how to use it. AOL changed all that, and brought content people wanted to pay an extra monthly fee to have.

But it was still limited. You had 20 hours a month, I think. After that, you paid extra per hour, sort of like going over your minute plan on your cell phone. Then one day they decided to change it to unlimited. They changed the price (it had been $9.95, it went to about $20 a month), but for that price you got all the hours you could use.

There was one big catch: they didn't have enough phone lines for everyone to connect. This was still the days of dial-up, that horrible screaching noise of the modem dialing and talking to the computer on the other end. You had a phone line plugged into the back of your computer and you couldn't make a phone call while you were online (we had a 2nd phone line just for the computer fir a little while).

Suddenly everyone wanted to connect all the time and most people got a busy signal, all the time. You could connect during the daytime, but not during what the TV networks call Primetime. So I'd connect in the morning and download all of my email. Being home during the day was one of the reasons we didn't just cancel our service -- most people who tried to connect only in the evenings never got through.

Finally, AOL got more phone lines. Other ISPs started up. We switched to a local internet provider and suddenly we had "real" internet, with a browser and an email client, like it is now. Except it was still dialup.

Finally, we got broadband. Hooray! We could finally enjoy the internet! I remember there was a website for kids, based on the TV show Blue's Clues. On Dial-up, you'd get an animation of Blue chasing a ball around the screen, which was supposed to keep you interested while you waited for the real game to download. And waited. And waited. Eventually, the kid would lose interest. We never really played that game till we had broadband.

It's amazing to think how far all of this technology has come, all within the short lifetime of my 16-year-old son. Now we have all this web 2.0 stuff that I don't really see the point of. The web is very different than it used to be.

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