Travel back in Time for a Vision of the Future

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Published on: April 22, 2007

I traveled a couple days a go back in time to the year 1994 to an internet marketing and advertising conference. Wait a moment. Did I say 1994? Yes I did and I am not trying to trick you.

See here the video recording of one of the first, if not the first internet marketing and advertising conference, which was held on November 4th,1994 in San Francisco, California.

What happened?
Ken McCarthy is the first speaker and talks about opportunities. He was very forward thinking and you might think that what he says is obvious and logical. They were not in 1994. The second speaker is Marc Andreessen, co-Founder of Netscape, which was founded just a bit earlier in 1994 as well after the overwhelming success and popularity of their software called “web browser”, the original “Mosaic” and the creation of the World Wide Web as we know it today.

The Web is just existed for a year or so when the conference was held.

link to video

It was a nice trip back in time. It also brought some memories back and a chuckle when I heard Ken talk about the role of BBS systems in the growth of the internet.

I have to say that he was a bit off when it comes to the role of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) would play in getting people online by becoming something like a mini-ISP. True, a lot of BBS software development companies were jumping on the bandwagon and worked on internet integration into their software. With about 50,000+ bulletin boards in the united states at that time did it may be quite reasonable. I happened to be a Sysop of a bulletin board exactly around that time and can tell you that this could not have worked that way.

What are we talking about here?
The vast majority of the BBS’s where run by individuals as a hobby and not as a business. Access was often free, but donations for hardware upgrades were appreciated. The resources were limited and multi-line (more than one modem) BBS’s became only widely available at the beginning of the nineties when the computer hardware was able to connect multiple nodes to a single computer. But even then remained the number of BBS systems with more than 5 or even more than 10 nodes relatively low.

A BBS that was an ISP (kind of)
If you want to get an Idea how a BBS looked like with over 20-30 nodes, look at the picture below. That is “one corner” of the Rusty-n-Edie’s BBS around 1988-89 and far away from its final size. The BBS had a staggering 128 dial in connections available in its prime and needed one computer for each line, plus multiple support servers. Details are from the article “The Birth of Rusty n Edie’s BBS” that was written by the sysop of Rusty n Edie’s, Rusty Hardenburgh.

If the majority of BBS’s would have been like that, the Idea of them becoming a micro-ISP would have been a bit more realistic.

(Equipment detail follow at the end of the post)

The Reality
Normal BBS’s were limited in bandwidth and dial in connections. My BBS had 5 lines, which means that it could handle 5 callers at the same time. My BBS had over 100 active users and a lot of them called every day or every other day. At peak times were all 5 lines constantly busy, which means that a lot of my users got a busy signal for a period of time, before they got a connection when another user left.

A user that is finally able to connect checks a few mails online, if the BBS was file focuses as mine. Some Systems were message focused and connected in networks like the Fidonet (which could be compared to the early Usenet of the Internet). Since the volume of message could be pretty big depending on the number of subjects you were interested in and subscribed for, users did not read the emails while connected to the BBS, but connected with special software, like Email clients today and downloaded new messages and uploaded responses.

If the BBS was created to be a place to swap files, the user would check the mostly new uploaded files only, flag the ones he is interested in and start a download and possibly an upload at the same time. When finished, users would hang up and leave to consume the downloaded content “offline”, making the node available to another user.

Because of that was it possible for small BBS’s with only a handful nodes to serve so much people. The “online time” was fairly brief.

..and the conclusion
Connecting the user with the world wide web would have changed that and make users stay longer connected because they can’t browse the net “offline”. During that time is the node blocked for any other user, which would reduce the number of people you could serve in a reasonable manner.

Add to this, that the BBS would also require a permanent connection to the internet which was not cheap back then. There was no such thing as high speed internet yet. What some Sysops did, was the option for users to create an internet email account and use the BBS as something like a Hotmail or Gmail.

The end of the BBS era was coming, but some did not wanted to believe it. BBS software companies attempted to create internet versions of their BBS software, but failed to realize that the internet does not work like a BBS. Needless to say, with the BBS’s did also die a lot of BBS software companies, including Clark Development who created “PcBoard”, the BBS software I was using (Rusty n Edie’s too btw).

That’s life. There is nothing anybody could have done to change the course of history.

Here are the promised technical details about the Rusty-n-Edie’s BBS.
  • Three 486 33Mhz servers with 32 Megabytes of memory on each. One 22Mhz 486 server with 80 Megabytes of RAM. They each have a caching controller. We need that much memory to cache the fifteen 780 Megabytes SCSI drives, three 1.2 Gigabytes and two 386 Megabytes ESDI drives, the 20 drives format to something over 15 Gigabytes.

  • 128 (one for each node) 16Mhz 286’s.
  • In addition, we have eight 33Mhz 386’s, a 16Mhz 386 (our original server, our original Tandy XT type machine died about a year ago), and five 12Mhz 286’s (These machines are so we can work on the system without taking it down).
  • 25 Anchor: 2400 baud modems.
  • 58 US Robotic’s Dual Standards 14.4 V32 V32bis V42bis.
  • 24 Compucom 9600 baud Speedmodems.
  • 5 Hayes V-Series V42bis modem.
  • 16 direct connect CONNECT-USA lines.
  • All of this networked together with four copies of the wonderful Novell Netware 386. It works great!
  • The whole thing is hooked up to ten huge batteries that supply 16KV of uninterruptable power.
  • Sysops: the couple Rusty Hardenburgh and Edwina Hardenburgh, two of their son’s, their daughter and a friend of the family with the name Carl

The BBS was busted by and shut down by the FBI in 1993 because of software piracy.
More to that is available at Wikipedia.

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