Book Review - On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders by Michael A. Banks
I'm old enough to have to admit to having owned a 300 bps modem connected to a Commodore 128, and being in awe of the ability to exchange emails in three or four days with people on the other side of the planet. Michael A. Banks takes you back to those times in the book On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders. It's far too easy to forget exactly what led us up to the place we are today when it comes to instantaneous communication via the web. This was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, and it brought back fond memories of my initial fascination with online activities.
Looking Back - Where Did It All Begin?; In The Money; Making Contact With CompuServe; The Source; Dis-Content and Conflict; Evolution; Online Experiments; Trials and Errors; The Second Wave; AOL Gestation; The Third Wave; In With The New, Out With The Old; AOL Evolves - Expansion, Integration, and Success; Prodigy - The Flat-Rate Pioneer Who Just Didn't Get It; Moving To The Net; Omissions, Additions, and Corrections; Online Timeline; Bibliography; Founders; Index
Banks starts out in the 1960's with the beginnings of what we now know as the Internet. ARPANET was the first attempt to network two computers together through a common set of protocols that would allow dissimilar computers to communicate with each other. But even though ARPANET worked, it was still limited to government and educational institutions. The ability for the common man to hook into that power was nonexistent. Of course, the personal computer was not even a concept that most people could grasp. Computers were big and powerful (for the time), and who would need one all for themselves? This started to open up more in the 70's, when online database resources started to become available. Timesharing computers were available to connect to these sites via terminals, but the cost was incredibly steep, often in the hundreds of dollars per hour of connect time. To play in this world, you had to be rich.
But as time went on, the personal computer started to become a viable option for people, and with it an accessory that opened up the world... the modem. Companies started realizing that all the unused computing power on evenings and weekends could be made available to consumers with modems, and thus launched services like CompuServe, The Source, and Prodigy. Although purely text-based to start with, computer owners started to flock to these services offering revolutionary features like discussion forums, CB simulators (chat), and online news. Much like the dot.com era that's more understandable to people, the race was on to make your fortunes in the online world. Text-based offerings gave way to graphical interfaces, prices started to drop, ideas were born and died in a matter of just a couple of years, and greed and personalities were still in conflict with solid business plans.
Banks wraps up his book in the mid-90's, when Internet access was starting to become accessible to nearly anyone with a computer and modem. Bulletin board systems started dying out, as people didn't need to dial to get to individual sites any longer. A single phone connection to their ISP would connect them to the full world of the Internet. Walled-off content systems like CompuServe and Prodigy no longer had a monopoly on information, and had to adapt or fold. The "Web" had started to take off, and the proprietary offerings of content and navigations were in their final chapter.
For aging codgers like myself who were into computers during this time, On the Way to the Web is an incredibly interesting step back into the past. I fondly remember calling bulletin boards for hours on end at 300 bps, tying up our phone lines and incurring the wrath of those trying to call me. Getting a free trial period to a service like Online Airline Guides made me feel like I was on the bleeding edge of information and technology. At the time, it's hard to look at where you're at and envision a future vastly different than what you currently have. On the other hand, looking back now reminds you that history repeats itself, and the dot.com frenzy wasn't very much different than frenzies that came before. This book will be a great "blast from the past" for those like myself, as well as a great resource for those interested in how we got from two computers networked together to constant connectivity to everyone else.
You can even get your kids to read this and start with the "when I was your age, we didn't have..." stories. :)