Mary Branscombe (marypcb) wrote,
Mary Branscombe

Flashback: a history of comms

I was hunting for something else and I found something I wrote over 12 years ago, with milestones, millstones and mirages: a real trip down memory lane... and my prediction rate could have been worse!

1973 England joins ARPANET
1980 CompuServe founded; Xerox, DEC, Intel announce Ethernet
(Thatcher elected)
1981 Hayes SmartModem 300
1982 TCP/IP developed
1984 the NFSNET backbone, Domain Name Servers

The first release of LapLink, a DOS program for transferring files between computers using a serial cable. The latest version lets you connect PCs using anything from infra-red and parallel cable to the Internet or NetWare. One of the most useful program for the PC if you ever need to get files from one place to another, it synchronises, updates and cleans up your files. Others have tried to match the program but the blue and yellow cables of LapLink have stayed in the lead.
NOTE: finally superseded for me by a file server and Live Mesh, though USB thumb drives formed decorative nails in the coffin...

In 1987 CompuServe develops the compact Graphics Exchange Format to allow people to easily transfer images from one machine to another. Along with JPEG images, GIFs are the basis of Web pages but simply being able to see a picture from one machine on another without the palette information getting lost was a major development for sharing graphics.

Perhaps the UK’s longest-running on-line service, CIX (the Compulink Information eXchange, founded in 1984) introduces conferencing services. Like a sophisticated BBS, CIX let you hold discussions with other users, organised into conferences and topics, plus you could send and receive mail over the Internet. Today CIX has 17,000 users and it’s still a great service.

NOTE: I fell off CIX a few years back!

The Internet reaches the 100,000 mark - that’s the number of host computers attached, many of which link in networks of other machines.

Novell introduces a major new version of its network operating system - NetWare 386.

Windows 3 is the first step in making comms usable for most people. A graphical interface, easy access to COMM port settings and fax packages like WinFax revolutionise PC comms. Windows 3.1 and 3.11 improve the comms features dramatically.

Mitch Kapor, creator of VisiCalc founds the EFF - the Electronic Frontier Foundation - to protect the rights and understand the dangers of the new frontier. The US Government classifies encryption as a military weapon, banning the export of powerful encryption tools. The EFF defends the right of individuals to keep their files secret and fights the Clipper chip - an encryption chip developed for cellular phones that has a back door for the US Government to use to crack the encryption - and the Communications Decency Act, which applies tighter regulation to the Internet than to TV and radio. Both are (eventually) defeated.

WAIS - the Wide Area Information Server system isn’t well known these days although the technology has found its place in many of the Web’s search engines. WAIS allows you to refine a search by picking a useful document and asking for more, similar documents. You can still try it out with WinWAIS from

NOTE: I haven't checked that!

Tim Berners Lee develops HTML and the World Wide Web at CERN in Switzerland to help scientists share their documents by publishing them electronically and creating hyperlinks between them. The second version of WWW was supposed to allow collaborative authoring.
NOTE: we have now seen the server

June 1992
Demon Internet Services starts up, offering dial-up Internet connections for ‘a tenner a month’ (plus VAT...). Cliff Stanford started by creating the tenner_a_month conference on CIX to find people who would sign up for a year’s subscription in advance and the service has never looked back. By today’s standards demon was hard to use - getting the DOS software set up was far from simple, dialling in was a complex process and the mail system used a different standard from the majority of email software available, but having affordable dial-up Internet accounts revolutionised the UK comms market and started the flood of Internet providers.

NCSA Mosaic, the first Windows Web browser, lets you see the graphics on Web pages on a PC - a treat previously reserved for Unix systems. Developed by Marc Andriesson, Mosaic is hugely successful and is licensed to many commercial companies, from Quarterdeck to O’Reilly, as Enhanced Mosaic. The first licensee, Quarterdeck, is one of the last to bring out a commercial product.

Andriesson founds the Mosaic Communications Corporation and brings in Jim Clarke, founder of Silicon Graphics, to run the company. The first product is Mozilla or Netscape Mosaic, released in beta over the Net in late autumn. After a little disagreement over names, this changes to Netscape and Netscape Navigator. Although a lot of fuss is made about the new HTML tags in Netscape, like blinking text and tables, the thing that sets Navigator aside is its speed over dial-up connections - up to ten times faster than other browsers. Netscape is slower and more bloated these days but it’s still the package that made the Internet commercially acceptable.

NOTE: We now know Andreeson's supervisor at the NCSA....

Windows 95 gives you TCP/IP, Winsock and an Internet dialler built in, plus UniModem drivers that mean you only have to set up your modem once, the Telephony API for using your PC like a phone or answering machine and full 32-bit datacomms for faster communications.

ISDN pricing
BT hasn’t lowered the cost of connecting to ISDN and the £400 connection prevents many small businesses and individuals from taking advantage of fast, reliable datacomms which could enable teleworking. Of course teleworking hasn’t proved to be the great development that many hoped, partly due to the attitude by some managers that workers won’t do much if they’re out of sight. Instead we have mobile workers who work in the office and elsewhere.

November 1988 The Internet worm
Written by the son of Robert Morris - who’s a big cheese at the National Security Agency in the US - the Internet worm was a badly written program that copied itself across the computers connected to the then ARPANET, clogging them up as it went. In 1990 Morris received the first ever felony conviction for writing a computer virus. Along with various security holes in Unix and system managers who can’t or won’t fix security holes in their system the Internet worm is one of the main reasons why people think of the Internet as insecure. Sending your credit card number across the Net is no more secure than handing your credit card over in a restaurant.

Canter and Siegel
Two US immigration lawyers who decided in 1994 that the Internet was the best marketing opportunity going; they hired a programmer to help them spam Usenet groups with their Green Card lottery adverts. Usenet readers responded to the invasion with thousands of complaints, mailbombs and large unwieldy files like coredumps and Sanskrit dictionaries... Canter and Siegel were unrepentant and wrote a book telling people how to make money by spamming on the Net. The precursor of unwanted advertising email with hundreds of people on the cc list, they are mainly responsible for accelerating the unacceptable face of the commercial Internet.

Electronic home banking
This advances, retreats and shimmers like a true mirage. Over the years, Microsoft, Intuit, CompuServe and others have all promised some form of home banking where you can get statements and balance details or pay bills through your PC; so far the only real options are The Home Banking System, a DOS-based system from the Royal Bank of Scotland or TSB’s tie-up with CompuServe.
 What’s needed is either some standards (in development, of course, but we’re still waiting), or some pioneers (Royal Bank of Scotland and TSB, but they’ve picked closed systems). Otherwise electronic cash might just take over instead.

National fibre backbone
The Liberal Democrats advocated a national, public access fibre backbone to give the UK a comms infrastructure that would help us compete worldwide. Developing and Pacific Rim countries coming late to telecomms are putting in fibre and digital networks as national developments, whereas the UK is developing private, piecemeal networks and JANET, the Joint Academic Network has only been partially upgraded. Treating this as a huge commercial opportunity is all very well, but digital communications are going to become as important to the people and businesses of this country in the next century as the roads have been in the last.

Tags: history, pc plus, technology, writing

  • My tweets

    Sun, 12:40: RT @ MSFTResearch: Explore artists’ interventions on surveillance, from policing to encryption, e-waste, & AI. Join Dr. Simone…

  • My tweets

    Sat, 17:30: proof that a feature hasn't shipped until it's documented Sat, 17:33: RT @ sarahmquinlan: So many men…

  • My tweets

    Fri, 12:29: RT @ soapachu: Hey remember when he illegally prorogued Parliament to prevent scrutiny of his 'great new deal'? Fri, 12:30: RT…

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded