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A very early Internet experience

I was reminded of my first experience in the commercial Internet space the other day as I drove through Sebastopol, the headquarters of O’Reilly.O'Reilly Logo

Most people don’t know how hard it was to get on the Internet at the beginning. Or that Internet usage was essentially mono-tasking back then. Thank you Marc Andreessen and the Mosaic and Netscape crews for helping to fix that!

The Internet most of us know really started around 1995. My first experience was about 5 years before that, when I was amazed to learn that you could send an email to, even if you were You see, the first email systems didn’t talk to each other. We had internal email on Novell, but you couldn’t talk to anyone outside your own company.

I started using public email in the mid 80s with MCI Mail, which was the first commercial email service. (Wow, check out these early TV advertisements from MCI Mail!)

There were a couple of other systems around (AOL didn’t even exist yet!). MCI mail didn’t use names for email addresses, but rather numbers – similar to phone numbers. But systems like MCI couldn’t talk to other systems like Compuserve, and the only other email was in academe, which had been using the non-commercial Internet for years.

In 1994, when I first learned of Mosaic – the precursor to Netscape – I was running marketing and product management for a company that made scientific software. Most of our customers were at research facilities, and they were on the Internet. We had a crude gateway to send email from our Novell system to our Internet users (anybody remember PMail and Mercury?). And naturally, we thought the Internet would be a great venue for marketing our software.

So I drove up to Sebastopol and visited the nice people at O’Reilly (which was pretty small in those days!). We worked out an advertising agreement – probably one of the first in the industry. I had one condition: they had to help me get my own computer on the Internet. Now you may think that was easy, but it wasn’t. In fact, the folks at O’Reilly couldn’t do it, and so we never advertised with them.

In the early days, we didn’t have DSL or cable Internet. Unless you were in an academic institution that connected via high speed lines (like T1s), you had to connect to the Internet via slow modems. But it wasn’t obvious how to do that! You couldn’t just dial a number and connect, like you could for MCI or later AOL. You had to run software on your computer that would connect through some magic called PPP.

Those were pretty primitive times – we were still using Windows 3.1 and Windows for Workgroups. Windows 95 was just hitting the streets. These versions of Windows didn’t directly support Internet connections the way all modern versions do.

AOL and ISPs like Netcom brought wide Internet availability to the US, and companies like ClariNet Communications helped pave the way for commercial use. I’ll write about ClariNet in the future – I ran marketing for the company from 1995-1999. We provided the first commercial content on the Internet.

Finally, when you’re getting all frustrated at how slow the Internet is, you can be thankful that you didn’t have to use these early PPP connections, because before the World Wide Web, you could essentially do only one thing at a time! Before Yahoo, Google, or even AltaVista, we could still search through Internet data. These searches weren’t at all like what we’re used to today, but we had Archie, to search FTP sites, and WAIS (Wide Area Information Servers). Remember, there were no websites yet, so “information” was stored on FTP servers and Newsgroups – also online databases that WAIS could access.

The first time I used Mosaic, I was awestruck – “Wow, I can do 2-3 things at the same time!” Even though the modem speeds limited what you could do, just being able to search (Archie) while looking at email (PMail) was amazing.

I just don’t know how we managed to survive. Really I don’t.

Oh yeah… I’ve written a lot about volunteering. I used to speak at job support groups quite frequently. Wrote about what I learned, tips for people, etc. They’re all here on my blog. One of my articles made it into O’Reilly Guide article about Interviewing a few months ago, and it’s a pretty steady source of traffic to my blog. I guess they’re not angry at me for not advertising with them . [In the interest of full disclosure, my blog isn’t owned by anybody, and doesn’t generate a penny of income. No special interest groups here!]

PS: OK, previous paragraph – except for disclaimer – is all wrong. O’Reilly still hates me. My article is mentioned on a site owned by Margaret F. Dikel (thanks Margaret), and it’s the Riley Guide, not O’Reilly. Oy vey. Riley, O’Reilly, they’re all the same to me. [That was a joke, or an attempt at a joke, anyway.]

Posted in Back in the day.

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One Response

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  1. WilhelmR says

    Nice site, landed on a LinkedIn article, but this one definitely caugh my eye.
    I’m pretty nostalgic about those days (computer were fun to poke back then).