Before the Internet: The golden age of online services

Before there was the World Wide Web, back when 2,400 BPS modems were "high-speed", millions of people used online services, like AOL, CompuServe, and GEnie to work with each other, gossip, and share Star War jokes.

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But while the look of the online services were quite different, how they were used will be quite familiar. For example, there was e-mail (although the only people you could easily write to were also on the same service). There was also instant messaging (IM), but again, it worked only if you were talking to someone who was on on your service. (It's telling that when CompuServe first introduced IM to its members in 1980, they called it CB Simulator.)

The sites also had file libraries. Today, we don't even think about finding a place to download files. We may use BitTorrent, we may go straight to a company's site, or we may use a Web site like TuCows or, but what we don't do is go to a lot of trouble to download files. Google it, download it, next. We certainly don't have to worry about paying for the time to download them. Back then, however, that was a big deal. Some people would pick a service on the basis of what files it made available for downloading and how much money it would cost per hour to bring them from the online service server to your PC.

I think the most important element that online services brought to people though were online communities. Long before there was Facebook or Google+, people got together on the various services' online forums to talk about their favorite baseball teams, bands, or technologies. Indeed, I made friendships on the services then that I still have today. These forums certainly didn't look anything as nice as their 21st century Web equivalents, but the conversations they carried were just as interesting and engaging then as they are now.


For better or for worse, we all know America Online (AOL). There was a time when you could hardly open your mailbox without finding yet another AOL CD. Thanks to a constant flood of those CDs, AOL came became the most popular of the online services. At its peak, in the late '90s and early '00s, AOL had more than 30 million members.

Ironically, AOL was one of the first online services to embrace the Web. One of its big selling points in the '90s was that you could use it to get to the Internet. The AOL users, without a clue about how to behave on the Internet, were not welcomed. But, as time went on the war of words between AOL newbies and the old-guard Internet pros faded away.

That said, in the '90s, for millions of people AOL was The service. You talked to your friends on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), you hung out in chat rooms, and, before the likes of eHarmony and, you may have found your soulmate in the AOL personals.

AOL still lives today, but it's a shadow of its former self.

At its peak, AOL was a giant of a company. Indeed its tie-up with Time Warner in 2000 -- a $350 billion deal -- was one of the biggest mergers of all time. It also turned out to be one of the biggest business fiascoes of all time. In part because once users got a taste of the Internet, many of them fled from AOL's dial-up modems to the first Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Even as AOL thought it was reaching for the stars, its foundation was eroding underneath its feet.

AOL is still around today. While it's no longer an online service per se, it still offers cheap dial-up access to the Internet and a Website front door to the Internet.


BIX tried to adapt to the Internet, but it never managed to make the jump.

BIX (Byte Information eXchange) was a text-based online service of Byte magazine (then The magazine of computing and today an online tech news site). BIX had minimal services and never developed a successful graphic interface. It also never had that many members.

Why mention it then? Because, in a way, BIX was the precursor to all the technology news sites. While no one wrote stories just for BIX, writers and readers would talk about stories and the technology news of the day. If you like talking about stories today on ITworld, you owe BIX a small vote of gratitude.

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