Archive for the 'Internet History' Category

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Google in a Box

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Microforum Internet Connection advertisement - 1996"The Most Comprehensive Directory of Internet Sites Ever Produced"

18 years ago, a fairly complete index of the entire Internet — circa 1995 — could fit on a single CD-ROM — about 20,000 sites, as the box for Microforum's Internet Connection '96 says. [Update: See comments below for a discussion on the number of websites in 1995 and 1996] I ran a website back then, and the Web did indeed feel that small. FTP sites were still a big deal in those days, so that number may include them as well.

Today, some estimates say that the Web alone consists of over one billion websites. Consider storing a simple list of one billion websites URLs. If each URL was about 25 characters long (I'm just making this up as an example), it would take around 25 gigabytes to store the list alone (or about 39 CDs worth). Google stores that list and copies of individual websites for caching. Needless to say, that takes quite a bit more storage room.

So it's amusing to think back to a time when you might actually buy a professionally mastered and duplicated CD-ROM containing web addresses, many of which were potentially obsolete by the time the disc landed in your hands (I just used Yahoo's web directory). Now we have Google. Imagine that: using the Internet to index itself.

[ From Internet World - February 1996, p.117]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What year did you create your first website?


See Also: Internet In a Box (RSOTW, 2014)

Bringing Prodigy Back From The Dead

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Prodigy Online Service Logo

Since last year, I have been working with Jim Carpenter, a freelance programmer by trade, on hunting down old Prodigy data so that we may preserve it, display it again, and perhaps even one day use it to recreate Prodigy itself.

We're calling it the Prodigy Restoration Project.

By now you may have seen my latest piece for The Atlantic entitled Where Online Services Go When They Die: Rebuilding Prodigy, One Page at a Time. That article describes the genesis of the project while also diving into the technical back story of the Prodigy service.

The reason we have any hope of doing something like this is because Carpenter discovered that Prodigy screen data can still be found in the STAGE.DAT and CACHE.DAT files located in used Prodigy client directories.

Those two files were used as cache files to speed up load times when using the service. When connecting to Prodigy, the client would download page data into the files. Whenever the client last connected to Prodigy, that data got frozen in time. If a vintage Prodigy client install still exists, we can get at the "frozen" data today.

Here are some screens that Carpenter pulled from a STAGE.DAT I had in my personal archives (these are from a STAGE.DAT file dated October 6, 1996):

Prodigy Login Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Rebel Space Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Encyclopedia Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Golf Tour Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT

Prodigy Greeting Cards Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Email Template Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Phone Directory Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT Prodigy Problem Error Screenshot from Benj Edwards STAGE.DAT

We can extract these screens using a series of Python programs written by Carpenter. They read through a previously used STAGE.DAT file, generate a list of pointers to the pages or object data contained within, then direct the Prodigy Reception System client to display them one at a time so we can take screenshots.

Jim's code is not ready for release yet, but he hopes to polish it up enough to put up on GitHub soon. It has a long way to go before becoming a turnkey solution to extracting and displaying the data found in STAGE.DAT files. We're working on it.

With that in mind, I've written the rest of this post in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions.

[ Continue reading Bringing Prodigy Back From The Dead » ]

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The New Prodigy

Monday, July 14th, 2014

The New Prodigy Provocative Lady Advertisement - 1996You can't see her other hand, but it's holding a gun!

It's a Prodigy-y week around here thanks to my recent article on The Atlantic. So I poked around my scans directory for something Prodigy related, and ka-pow!

I have yet to see an ad for the pre-ISP Prodigy in any of the magazines in my sizable archive (but then again, most of my computer magazines date from before and after Prodigy's heyday, with a gap in the middle), but I did find this "New Prodigy" ad from an old issue of Internet World, which I proudly subscribed to for a few years in the mid-1990s.

Ads like this one represented a new marketing push at time when the company sought to find a new corporate parent and shifted its focus to being an ISP (its legacy NAPLPS-flavored content was soon re-branded "Prodigy Classic").

By the way, the "original" Prodigy had a wholesome, family-safe, squeaky clean image, with an army of moderators eager to censor any bulletin board postings or even emails (yes, they read, or at least filtered, everyone's emails) that contained a hint of sexuality, so I find it humorously ironic that the company ultimately resorted to a sexually-charged ad like this one.

[ From Internet World - February 1996, insert between p.32-33]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Did you meet a romantic partner online prior to the year 2000? (Including those that didn't involve physical relationships.) Tell us about it.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] My CompuServe Password

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Benj's CompuServe Password - 1993I still love my dad's handwriting.

Here it is, folks: My CompuServe Information Service password that I used from 1993 until the late 1990s: "Needy-Sacred".

Feel free to log in as me the next time you get a chance. (I kid.)

"Needy-Sacred" is an almost magical combination of words for me — probably because it bounced around my mind so often in the 1990s. It has a tension to it; a phrase at odds with itself.

I didn't make it up, though. CompuServe assigned random combinations of two words (with a dash in the middle) as user passwords, and this is the hand I was dealt.

Well, "we were dealt" would be more accurate. This is the original note paper my dad used on February 21st, 1993 to write down the password to our new CompuServe account, which he set up for use with his business.

Heavily into BBSes at the time, I became the primary user of the account (surprise surprise). Soon his company often asked me — even as a young teenager — to relay international emails to and from Germany for them since I knew how to use it. Ah, those were the days.

The Encounters Forum was my favorite place to hang out. That, and the Atari Forum. GO ATARI.

[ From Personal note from Benj Edwards' collection dated 2/21/1993]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Tell us your best CompuServe stories.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Internet in a Box

Monday, January 20th, 2014

CompuServe SPRY Internet In a Box Advertisement 1996There was a time when you could fit the entire Internet in a box.

[ From Internet World, February 1996, p.1]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What ISP did you use to first connect to the Internet?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Doom is 20

Monday, December 9th, 2013

id Software Doom for Atari Jaguar Ad Advertisement - 1994One of the best reasons to own a Jaguar circa 1994

Twenty years ago this week, id Software launched one of the most important and influential PC games of all time: Doom. It started as a modest shareware download but grew to change the entire video game industry. To explain how, here's 2009 Benj writing about the title for a PC World slideshow:

Id's archetypical first-person shooter triggered a sea change in the PC game industry, which had formerly been dominated by slow, plodding strategy turn fests, brainy simulations, and stilted PC action titles of yore.

In contrast, Doom was the first of a new generation of fast-paced, smooth action titles that utilized new visual techniques to push PC hardware to its limits. With Doom, PC gamers could experience fluid gameplay, graphics, and sound that easily topped what was found on home game consoles of the day — an uncommon achievement at that point.

Moreover, it introduced exciting new network multiplayer options that are widely imitated to this day, coining the term "deathmatch" in the process.

From its lowly roots as a MS-DOS shareware title, Doom spread like a weed to other platforms, including game consoles, which now count first-person shooters as one of their best-selling genres.

"Doom defined the 3D shooter genre and made multiplayer gaming mainstream," says Tim Sweeney (founder of Epic Games and creator of the Unreal Engine), "And it did them with such incredible polish, artistry, and foresight that it created an industry."

Considering that Doom launched in 1993 via shareware channels, I'm not aware of when or in what publication the first advertisement for Doom appeared. (I believe GT Interactive became distributor for the full, boxed PC version of Doom much later, but I could be mistaken.)

So instead, I found this nifty November 1994 scan for the Atari Jaguar version of Doom. I received this version of the game for Christmas in 1994, and it was an amazing gift.

Pushing the PC Limits, Jaguar Relief

Most people don't remember how much horsepower Doom required in a PC at the time — at least 4 MB of RAM, a mid-range 486 CPU, and a sound card to run passably well. So I had trouble running the game on any PC up to that point.

In 1993, we had one 486 in the household with exactly 4 MB of RAM (to contrast, my personal PC sported a 16 MHz 386 and 2MB RAM), and I had to make a special 5.25″ boot disk that loaded fewer resident DOS drivers, etc. so I could run Doom on that 486 at all. If I recall correctly, I didn't have enough spare RAM to load the SoundBlaster drivers at boot, so the experience was limited. My friend had to run Doom on his mom's 486 the same way. Even then, the game didn't run at full frame rate. Doom pushed the limits.

So coming from that environment, it was an amazing convenience to just plug a Doom cartridge into the Jaguar and play, full-speed, full-screen, with glorious sound and no hiccups. My brother and I played a lot of Doom on that console well into 1996 — until I got a more powerful PC that could run Doom with ease.

Until the PlayStation port of Doom came out (late 1995), the Jaguar port was widely considered the best port of the game (in terms of screen window size, lighting effects, monster interaction, sound, controls, and frame rate) available on consoles. Its biggest drawback was lack of a soundtrack during gameplay. I think that's because John Carmack used the Jag's DSP co-processor to handle graphics routines instead of music, which was unconventional on that platform.

But I digress. What a great game. I still play Doom regularly via modern source ports on the PC — most recently on my new 1080p big screen TV set. Add on Xbox 360 controller support via ZDoom, and you've got Doom heaven. It's a game that never seems to get old for me, even 20 years on. That's the mark of a true classic in my book.

[ From Electronic Gaming Monthly, November 1994, p.109]

Discussion Topic of the Week: How did you feel when you first played Doom? What are your memories of the occasion?

Internet Archive's Historical Software Collection is the Best Thing That Has Ever Happened to Software Preservation

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Internet Archive Historical Software Collection

Three cheers for Jason Scott and his push to create a JavaScript-based port of the MESS emulator platform. The result, the Internet Archive's Historical Software Collection, is nothing short of brilliant.

The collection puts dozens of vintage computer games and applications at your fingertips by allowing you to run them, emulated, from a browser window. It's a huge step forward for preserving the heritage of our software culture. Here, ease-of-access is key.

I've been horribly remiss by not mentioning this earlier — but better late than never for something this important.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Gather 'Round the Videotex

Monday, November 25th, 2013

AT&T Sceptre Videotex Terminal TV set-top box online modem - 1983A time when TVs were made of wood and children were not yet rabid.

In honor of Thanksgiving, a holiday which tends to emphasize family, I've dug up this AT&T Sceptre Videotext Terminal box art that I captured years ago. Look at those gloriously generic 1980s folks gathered around the TV set.

(I say "captured" for this image and not "scanned" because the image is actually a photo of the side of the box — the box itself is far too large to fit on a scanner. It's roughly 14″ tall by 18″ wide by 11″ deep, if memory serves.)

Videotex: Smart TV in 1983

It's funny: I've purposely avoided talking about Videotex on this blog for eight years because I was saving up material for a story about Teletext and Videotex. I have bought maybe a dozen vintage books on the two subjects since 2006 and mined news archives for information. But as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go to Disneyland. Maybe I will get around to finishing that piece some day. Probably not.

So here's the skinny. "Videotex" is the name for a graphical computer communications standard that was designed to display mixed visual and text information on regular TV sets. The idea was that a customer would buy a terminal (such as the one seen here), subscribe to a CompuServe/Prodigy/AOL-like online service, and use the terminal to connect to the service and view the information on their home TV set. Kinda like WebTV before the Web. Heck, kinda like smart TVs before the smart.

Graphically, Videotex used the NAPLPS protocol (similar to Prodigy, which grew out of these commercial Videotex experiments) to quickly transmit graphics to the user's terminal. NAPLPS saves bandwidth because instead of storing/sending data on every pixel (like a bitmap image), the protocol describes graphics in terms of mathematical geometrical shapes (i.e. "draw a triangle at this location and fill it with orange," like vector graphics).

By the mid-1980s, Videotex services fizzled in the marketplace. Their failure was likely due to low utility (not very useful), plus high cost of subscription (likely from high overhead on the service's part in both hosting and creating content), and from competition from much more versatile and easier-to-interface-with personal computers.

AT&T Sceptre Videotex Terminal

And so that brings us to this side box art for a circa-1983 AT&T Sceptre Videotex Terminal. I bought this vintage gadget unopened, new-in-box on eBay for literally $1 plus shipping back in 2000.

The terminal works, but it has nothing meaningful to connect to — after all, the related Videotext service shut down almost 30 years ago. The last time I hooked it up, I believe I tricked its internal 300 baud modem to talk to my PC using a phone line simulator and perhaps even displayed a Linux console on the TV set. But that was many years ago. I also remember that the Sceptre has a horrible rubber IR keyboard that barely works.

One could conceivably create a Videotext simulator, hosted on a modern PC, that would pump NAPLPS graphics into to this vintage beast to bring it back to life. Maybe someone already has. If so, I'd like to know about it.

By the way, AT&T has a really neat vintage Sceptre promotional video on its website. It's worth a watch.

[ From AT&T Sceptre Videotex Terminal product box, circa 1983 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Did your family ever subscribe to a non-ISP online service? Tell us about it.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Heretic

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Raven Software Id Software Heretic Advertisement Ad - 1995Killing the DEAD has never been so much FUN!

The Gothic fantasy atmosphere of Heretic excited me when id Software first published it as shareware episode in 1994. Either someone uploaded the game to my BBS or I downloaded it from another, but either way, I quickly found myself enveloped in a modem-to-modem online co-op Heretic session with a friend.

Fast forward 18 years later, and I played Heretic again — this time, the entire game (and again, co-op). The first episode is OK, but the level design for the others is incredibly tedious and disappointing. I can see now that it is a very mediocre game. But when first released, following hot on the heels of Doom, people loved it.

[ From Computer Gaming World, September 1995, p.61 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What's your favorite Doom engine game?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Supra 28.8 Kbps Modem

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Supra Modem Ad - 1996Glowing Modem

In my early BBS days, I started using a 2400 bps external modem hooked to the serial port of a PC clone. A few years later, I switched to an external Intel 14,400 bps modem. Then I believe I got a Creative Labs Modem Blaster kit with an internal 28,800 bps modem on an ISA card. After that I moved up to 33,600 with some generic Winmodem, then 56,000 bps.

In 2000, I signed up for my first cable modem service…and the rest is history.

[ From Internet World, February 1996, p.9 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What speed was your first modem?