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.

By , ITworld |  Business, AOL, compuserve

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Many of you, perhaps even most of you, think of the Internet as a birthright. You've always had it, you can no more imagine life without it than you can imagine life without electricity. Believe it or not, though, the Internet you know and love only dates back to 1991 and the Commercial Internet eXchange (CIX). Before that if you were just an ordinary Jane or Joe and wanted to be online you needed not an ISP connection -- they didn't exist yet -- but an account on one of the online services such as America Online (AOL), BIX, CompuServe, GEnie, Prodigy, or a local bulletin board system (BBS).

Once upon a time, you could be buried in AOL discs.

flickr/marstheinfomage

Oh sure, the Internet had been already around for decades by the early '90s. But, unless you were at a university, government agency, or a research institution you had precious little chance of getting an Internet connection. Besides, the pre-Web Internet was about as user friendly as a bad-tempered Doberman.

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There were some user-friendly programs such as elm and pine for e-mail; gopher for information retrieval, and Archie for hunting down files, but to really use the pre-Web Internet you needed to feel comfortable with a character interface and already have a pretty good idea where you could find what you were looking for.

It's no wonder, then, that the vast majority of people turned to the far more friendly and welcoming online services. However, those services, which I used to cover regularly for Computer Shopper in the '80s and '90s, all had their own quirks and cost a pretty penny.

Online services

Today, you probably pay a flat fee for your Internet service and, for the most part, you don't pay anything for the various Web sites you visit or services you use. In the pre-CIX Internet days, it was an entirely different story.

Unless you were lucky enough to live close to an online service point of presence you had to use a dial-up modem to call up an X.25 packet switched wide area network (WAN). This connection service alone could cost anywhere from an affordable $1 an hour to a wallet busting $30 an hour, which you could then use to connect with an online service. The online service would also typically charge you a monthly fee plus an additional fee of $1 to $6 an hour. And you thought your ISP was expensive!

Not only was the service pricey, it was also slow. In the late '70s to early '80s, the first PC modems delivered 300 bits per second (BPS). For most of the online services' lifespan, users were thrilled to get 1,200 to 14.4 kilobits per second (Kbps). By the time V.34 modems showed up in 1994, reaching the "unbelievable" speed of 28.8Kbps, the combination of ISPs and the Web was already greasing the skids for the rapid decline of online services. Today, of course, we sneer at speeds of 1 Megabit per second (Mbps)! It was a really different world.

If you put those high service charges together with the slow speeds, you won't be surprised to find out that for most of the period we used ASCII-based interfaces. We simply didn't have the speed or money for fancy graphics.

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