Party like the Internet is 1994

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.

8 thoughts on “Party like the Internet is 1994

  1. Hey David, thanks for the nice walk down memory lane!

    Sometimes it feels like I’m living inside an episode of “Welcome Back, Kotter” — you know, “the names have all changed since you’ve come around” and all that. When I started at Hayes in 1984, the Smartmodem 2400 in all its blazing-speed glory had just launched. Just a few short years later, we were a household name in every nook and cranny of “the industry” (as we all used to call it). But by around 2010, I noticed the the occasional mention of “Hayes modem” in a hallway conversation was more likely to prompt a curious stare (“What’s a modem?”) than it was a nostalgic nodding of the head. That seems even more noteworthy when the hallway is outside my office in the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) here at Georgia Tech! Things have changed, indeed.

    Keep up the great work!

  2. Priceless. And it was ISA, EISA or PCI cards in your PCs, PCMCIA was pretty much just for laptops. Those modem banks evolved into bulletin boards which evolved into local ISPs back in the day. Of course I had to carry my Hayes modem around with me before PCMCIA modems came around. But pretty much all the ports on our PCs are gone too. No serial, parallel, VGA, or modem. It’s USB, HDMI, Wifi and bluetooth now. Thanks David

  3. ​David — thanks for the trip down memory lane. I remember ALL of this stuff circa 1994 — the year I left Xircom. We had the PCMCIA PC Cards — Xircom’s combo Ethernet/modem ran at about 24K BPS, as I recall. And there must have been 10 or more TCP/IP companies (Remember Wollongong? FTP Software, WRQ? — Ah! Those were the days!)
    And what about all those myriad LANs/NOSs we had to write drivers for (Lantastic, SNA, Netware, Lan Server…) I think Xircom has a list of over 20 LANs it had support for! Back then, I could never imagine that we’d get to the plug and play we are at today with built in networking and WiFi!
    And ISPs — I think there were about 30+ of them. All a bit different.

  4. In 1994 I was working on the website for Ferris State University, which I created in 1992. When I first started seeing stories/information about the world wide web, I thought that if our university claimed to be a hands on technical institution we should have a web site because it was going to be a game changer. I thought that I would have to learn the Unix environment. As I was coming to this conclusion I found out that Microsoft and a couple of others were having a freeware windows server created at the University of Edinburgh. As a university our connections to the internet were more robust than dial-up. We did have some Token-Ring wan stuf but quickly changed to Ethernet. Well maybe not quickly because our main network server environment became Novell and its architecture. The first LAN that I installed was using Corvus Constellation II. It was thin-net with t-connectors and terminators, that required a lot of crawling under desks and moving the terminator to find the bad machine or connection.

    We are currently paying for the file structure that was the the norm at the time that server was created as we are redesigning and re-architecturing the site. To have a database to work with that I installed a Microsoft SQL server (the manual still said Sybase) in a lot of places. To get the dynamic data (phone directories were first), I used ColdFusion (I was a pre 1.0 beta tester). Making all of that work together was indeed a challenge.

  5. Don’t forget that back then we were jamming Windows 3.x plus network software into a 16-bit address space. Memory extenders to get you a full 1 MB of memory!

  6. Token ring!

    I loved Eudora. WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME, DORA?

    Being in data storage such a long time, I have much nostalgia for some of the old stuff. For a long time I had a Bernoulli disk in a frame on the wall — it had a whole 44 megabytes of capacity. By 1994, we were probably already using Zip disks.

  7. Thanks for this reminder about how far we’ve come…so far…PCMCIA cards…dial up….wow….floppy disks….DOS…Windows 3.1 and more…..good old days..

  8. Can we all remember the Clarkson Packet Drivers. If I remember correctly, David was the one who wrote up the procedure to make them work on Windows.

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