MediaPersonal

1994-2000: How Things Have Changed

The year was 1994.

I had just moved to New York city the previous fall and was caught into the glory of Gotham. In the process, I had managed to start making friends in the online community there. This was the year Mosaic had been born and the first year of the modern net, as far as I see it. People outside of universities were starting to connect to BBSes that were connected to the Internet all the time (this was relatively new, as most BBSes used to be one or two modem systems, allowing only a couple of users to connect simultaneously) and a few enterprising souls had set out to create a global event: first night in cyberspace. Half international friendship fest, half educational effort, our goal was to teach the world about the Internet and meet some of the people we had exchanged flurries of emails with and chatted with online. In New York, ECHO (the East Coast Hangout) and the Dorsai Embassy had partnered to hook up Grand Central terminal with 5 computers. ECHO brought the in-crowd, a mix of artists, and online aficionados who created one of the top online communities in the world and Dorsai brought the geeks, people like myself who felt that spending a weekend installing in-house networks and debugging lines of a new OS called Linux was a worthy cause.

We were high on life and high on the possibilities of the Internet, eager to show the world that they too could join people from places as remote as London and San Francisco in the first global party. Stuck in a little corner, we had 5 computers (generally lent by ECHO users) and a mission: to change the world.

We did not know how much we would end up doing in the process. Meanwhile, in some dark recesses of Silicon Valley, the small group of programmers who had brought us Mosaic were working furiously on putting the finishing touch on a new version that would be even better. A few days before they had posted the first beta of the program.

The name of the company was Mosaic Communications. The new product was a faster web browser called Netscape. And everyone on the net could email [email protected], who probably didn’t expect he would be on the cover of Time magazine less than 24 months later.

As the event went on, tens of thousands of people logged on to celebrate together. At the time, the net was only a couple of million people worldwide.

Back then, I didn’t know that this night would change a lot of things for me. Back then, I was desperately trying to find a job that was somewhat related to the Internet but there just weren’t that many. That night, all that changed. I’ve been thinking back to the day when my career went into high speed and I got caught into the Internet wave. That night was the beginning as far as I am concerned.

I had made a reputation earlier that year by starting to get involved in a Usenet newsgroup called alt.internet.media-coverage. It was a place where anyone on the Internet could go and talk about coverage of the net in the media. In those days, that coverage was so scarce that we spent our time dissecting the few stories that were printed about the net.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, a lot of people in that group were also working reporters. One of those reporters was my friend Angela Gunn, whom I first met face to face on December 31st, 1993. She was at the event and our meeting ended up not only getting me my first legitimate magazine writing gig (for Web Week) but also my second job in the Internet industry and the one that eventually ended up in my helming internet.com and kick started my career.

Angela and I talked through the night about how the net was going to change everything. I think it would be honest to say that even we underestimated how sweeping a change it would end up being.

Fast forward to today. It’s only 6 years later and over half of the American population is now online. Abroad, the net is starting to catch up and massive amounts of people are starting to join in. Email addresses are as common as phone numbers, and E-commerce (a word that didn’t even exist 6 years ago) is redefining the way people buy and sell everything. Every business has a website or is considering getting one, from multinational corporations (who now have entire departments tending to their Internet and Intranet sites) to the guy around the corner.

Jeff Bezos, of Amazon.com (two names that were unknown to most people only a few years ago), is 1999 Time magazine man of the Year, and every other ad on TV is for a .company. Millions of new jobs have been created and the next great Internet business plan and the next great Internet IPO have become the new American obsession.

Back in 1994, there was no such thing as Amazon.com or Ebay. If you wanted to check out commerce on the web, you could buy hot sauce from HotHotHot (the site is still around at its original URL). Short of that, you were just out of luck.

Back then, you were lucky if you had a high-speed 28.8k modem. 56k was far down the road, DSL or cable modems just didn’t exist. Back then, to connect to the net required a fair amount of technical savvy as one had to configure their computer and make a number of different software packages work together since there was no drop-in-the-CD-and-follow-a-simple-set-of-instructions to get on the net kit and the concept of having and Internet-ready computer was unheard of.

Back then, if you told someone at a party that you worked in the Internet industry, you would have met blank stares and proceeded to explain what the Internet was, how it worked, and generally boring people in the process.

Back then, my parents were suspicious of what I was doing especially when I was explaining to them that companies would put their content on the Internet for free for everyone to read and that somehow, we would find a way to make it work economically but we were really quite sure how.

Back then, when I suggested to people at CNN that they should enhance their broadcast with extra content online and post the full transcripts of their broadcast on the Internet for free, I was pretty much laughed out of the place.

Back then, the only threat to Microsoft was Macintosh and the Mac had a much easier to use interface since Windows 95 was more vaporware than reality, having been delayed for the better part of a year. Linux was known to only a few people who had dared download it from some obscure server in Finland and had installed it on their 386s or 486s. The big advantage over windows 3.1 was not that it had a better interface but that you could telnet into it, just like you would into any regular Internet server… and it was Unix… and it was free. I personally had gotten exposed to it because a Dorsai user named Bob Young was specializing in selling CDs that had stuff you could download off the Internet on them. The big advantage of those CDs was that you could get a CD with a complete archive instead of spending hours or days downloading the same software. The name of the company was Red Hat and they were based in Westport, CT. A morning in 1995, that fact became very important to me personally: one of the machines at Internet.com was running off Linux and we needed to rebuild the whole system. I called Bob up and we drove over to his office to get a copy of the latest version of Linux he had received. He burned it on the CD right in front of us and saved the day for us. At the time, none of us realized that Linux was going to become the new threat to Microsoft and that Bob was going to become a billionaire on paper in the process.

Back then you could surf the whole web in a few days since there were less than 10,000 web sites. Yahoo didn’t yet have its own domain name and was sitting on Jerry Yang’s personal workstation at .

Back then, domain names were free. It would take another year before InterNIC started to charge $50 per year to own a domain and most were worth about that much. It would take until 1995 for the first sale of a domain name from one party to another, when Cnet bought TV.com for $15,000.

Back then, the net was still relatively quiet. Streaming media was still a thing of the future (RealAudio would debut streaming audio in 1995 and a small Israeli company called VDOnet would launch streaming video a few months later), as were Java, JavaScript, Shockwave, Flash, VBScript, and XML.

Back then, the most traffic the Internet was seeing was FTP data, and the web was still in fourth place as the most used application on the net, behind FTP, Email and Usenet. Also, spam didn’t exist yet. It would take a few extra months for two Arizona lawyers (Canter & Siegel a.k.a. “The Green Card Lawyers”) to spam Usenet.

The top online service in the country was CompuServe, followed by Prodigy, Genie, and AOL. None of them were connected to the Internet and all of them were expected to die off. While this was the case, other services were not connected to the net: we didn’t have Internet banking (although online banking was possible by using proprietary software the bank would give you) nor was there any online trading going on.

All this in 6 years. Oh my, how far we’ve gone. So with this in mind, I’d like to thank all of you for a wonderful six years and take this time to remind you that we still have a lot to do. After all, together, we are still working on creating the building blocks and moving them around.

Let’s see if we can do as much in the next 6 years as we have in the past ones.

We may have made a lot of money in the process. We may have made a lot of changes in the process. We definitely changed the world in the process.

But let’s not forget what we set out to do: to build something new, something that we could leave behind and proudly look at when we’re older.

I would like to challenge everyone on this list to come up with a way to give back to the community that has given us so much. Whether it is by spending a little time teaching a net beginner how to move around this world we created, help a school or non-profit organization to get online, or help make more data accessible through the net, please take some time off your busy schedule and go out and make a difference. We did in the last 6 years: why should we stop now.

As the year 2000 approaches, please do make that pledge to yourself and together, we’ll help this grow a little further.

That’s about it for my little sermon. As a closing note on this year, I’d like to renew my thanks to everyone I’ve worked or exchanged ideas with in the past year and I hope we’ll do some more of that. So have a great New Year’s eve celebration and I’ll see you on the other side of the calendar, the one that starts with a 2.

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