What's the golden age of online services? Well, now doesn't suck

Yearning for the pre-web internet can be misplaced... it certainly wasn't user-friendly

Long before the internet became our world, there was a mishmash of online services such as AOL, CompuServe, GEnie, and Prodigy. Except for being faster, there's less difference between then and now than you might think. 

Many of you were born to the internet. You've always had it, you can no more imagine life without it than you can imagine life without electricity. But believe it or not, the internet you know and love only dates back to 1991 and the Commercial Internet eXchange (CIX). Before CIX arrived, you couldn't get an ISP connection if you were just an ordinary Jane or Joe. Consumer ISPs didn't exist yet. Instead, you got an account on one of the online services such as America Online (AOL), CompuServe, GEnie, Prodigy, The Source, or a local bulletin board system (BBS).

Sure, the internet had already existed since 1980, and I was there.  But, unless you were at a university, government agency, or research institution, you probably weren't. Besides, the pre-web internet was about as user-friendly as a bad-tempered Doberman.

Yes, there were user-friendly programs such as elm and pine for email; gopher for information retrieval, and Archie for hunting down files. But, honestly, they were only user-friendly by Unix programmer standards. Linux? Please! Torvalds was still in middle school. 

But thanks to 1981's Hayes Smartmodem, ordinary people could go online at a shockingly fast 300 bits-per-second (BPS). The online revolution was igniting.

Today, I sit here with my 1 Gigabit-per-second (Gbps) fiber connection that is horrifyingly slow. Trust me, though, it was the bee's knees then. 

Mind you, it wasn't cheap. From the '80s through the mid-'90s, you had to use your dial-up modem to call up either a local number or, far more likely, an X.25 packet switched wide area network (WAN) connection to reach these services. This connection alone would cost anywhere from a buck an hour to a wallet-busting $30 per hour. On top of that, the online service would charge you a monthly fee plus an additional fee of $1 to $6 an hour. Oh, and that first Hayes modem? It cost $299. 

With "cheap" modems becoming available, it wasn't just large corporations that set up online services. Starting with Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, in 1978, individuals set up PC-based online services: Computerized Bulletin Board System (CBBS). With it, BBS could connect with each other to make a social network. This would be the model for other online modem BBS networks, such as FidoNet, which survives to this day. 

These BBSes created their own networks to store and forward e-mail and online forum messages between BBSes, a process resembling the early Internet's Unix-to-Unix Copy (UUCP) that was used for the same purpose.

Despite the cost, hundreds of thousands of people went online. The ASCII-based interfaces were crude and ugly. But behind them were the same services we love today, such as email, online forums, and instant messaging (IM).

However, they were far more limited. For instance, unless you were an email expert, you could only write to people on the same service. The same was true of IM. If you think talking between Mastodon instances is hard, you've no idea how difficult it used to be.

In those days, a big selling point was their file libraries. In these halcyon days of freeware and shareware, people would pick a service on the basis of their file library and how much it cost per hour to download them from the online service to your PC.

Oh, and of course, there was pornography - cue the classic "the internet is for porn." But, at 300 BPS, it was made of ASCII characters. It was better than nothing, but that's about all you could say of it. 

But the thing that really powered these early services are the same things that bring to Facebook, Pinterest, or Reddit today: The human connection. We would get together on the various services' online forums to talk about our favorite baseball teams, bands, or games. I made friendships on these services that I still have today.

Mind you, it was still painfully slow. When the Hayes Smartmodem 1200 came out – four times the speed – in 1982, you bought one... if you could afford its painfully high $799 price-tag.

I was already writing about technology, so I was lucky enough to receive review units and accounts on pretty much any online service you've ever heard of and many you haven't - Delphi, The Well, or  BIX, anyone?

What strikes me the most about looking back is how similar those now largely forgotten services are to today's websites and social networks. Yes, I can now talk to friends and family in real-time on 4K video, but I still mostly write to people. There's not much difference between a FidoNet forum and a Reddit subreddit. It's all about communications, and, for better or worse, that's what those early online services gave us then, and what the internet gives us today. ®

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