The first time I ever bought something over the Internet was in 1994. And it was not from Amazon, but from a now long-gone company called CDNow. As its name suggests, its core business was selling CDs online. Interestingly, one could also access the site via telnet which was not very user-friendly, certainly not for all those millions of Windows users who have probably never heard about such Internet protocol. I had no trouble using it, but the web was certainly more convenient as typos could be minimized while clicks could increase exponentially. Selected merchandise could be easily added to a rudimentary shopping cart. However, paying via credit card still required a telephone call to share details. Once the card was verified and authorized, the purchase was approved and the CDs were shipped via parcel post. Shipping was not free, and next-day delivery was totally unaffordable.
I also bought books from books.com, which started a couple of years earlier by offering dial-up access before moving to the Internet. It beat Amazon, initially launched as an online bookshop, by a few years. But Amazon did not offer telnet or dial-up access. In any event, all these pioneering Internet companies soon managed to accept online payments thanks to the SSL protocol developed by Netscape. No more phone calls, thanks. The era of e-commerce thus commenced, taking off at the speed of light and bringing along coattails such as e-business, e-trade, e-government and the less fortunate e-development, among others.
At the time, most of the world’s population had probably never heard about the Internet. The Global Information Highway was still incipient. Indeed, access to the Net was limited to very few, most in the Global North. Some authors were still creating universal website compilations and putting them into a single fat book, a feat that worked well for a few years. Moreover, home Internet access was rare as commercial providers such as Compuserve and AOL, for example, were pushing their own proprietary systems, ignoring the Internet for the most part. Email and user groups were then considered the “killer apps.”
My job was to provide developmental expertise to countries in the Global South for connecting to the Internet via a global development program launched in 1992, covering 40 developing countries in all regions. We had a lot of work to do, that’s for sure. I had Net access from my office. And I had already deployed my own home setup (top-notch modem, extra phone line and a top-of-the-line desktop computer running Linux) to access the new virtual world. Needless to say, connection speeds were extremely slow. The best modems could master 33.6 kbit/sec (kbs) at best, while the more reliable dedicated leased lines could reach 45 Mbit/sec but had a price tag too hefty for any household.
In 1997 I read the local telco I used for fixed phone line services was planning to launch ADSL. I decided to call them to inquire about deployment dates and planned pricing. Both were still nebulous, the customer rep replied using corporate speak. I called back almost monthly to check. Finally, probably fed up with me being a pain in the rear, the telco asked me if I would want to be one of the first residential customers to get ADSL on a trial basis and at no cost initially. I immediately accepted – a total no-brainer. Finally, in early 1999, I got the much-expected call. A few weeks later, a telco tech guy arrived at my home early in the morning. He worked on the phone box outside my house and then rang the bell. The red carpet was waiting, but the bubbly had to be canceled as it did not mix well with working hours. Going from dial-up at 33.6 kbps to dedicated access at 8 Mbps (download only and in theory) was certainly more than a good excuse cause for a raucous celebration, by all means.
I was also expecting trouble as my computer was running Linux, a fact I never shared with the telco for obvious reasons. Those days the option was Windows or Windows and more Windows. We used to call Windoze while Microsoft was getting ready to conclude that Linux was decidedly communist, taking a page from well-known and hard-to-kill McCarthyism. In any case, the tech person first asked permission to drill a new hole in the wall to get the new wire from the modified phone box into my living room, where the primary phone connection was located. That was the easy part. Installing the ADSL modem was also relatively simple. However, trouble started once we had to configure the ADSL modem and my desktop. The company provided a CD containing the relevant information. The tech person shared with me that he had no real expertise on the IP part of the setup and little training had been provided by the company. As expected, I had to do the configuration on my own while trying to explain to him how that stuff worked. I never told him my machine was not running Windows. Regardless, many residential customers faced daunting challenges when installing ADSL in their homes. I am sure that is partly why I was chosen as a guinea pig for first-time home installations. I also discovered that my connection was capped at 256 kbps, a far cry from the theoretical 8 Mbps. The latter speeds, available only to businesses then, were also quite expensive. Three months later, I got my first ADSL bill, 49,99 plus taxes (equivalent to 89.77 in 2023 dollars).
Home Wi-Fi routers were still looming on the horizon. So my next challenge was to wire the house so the family could also access the Internet. After all, we already had broadband access, albeit incipient. I bought a six-port ethernet hub, 300 feet of bulk ethernet CAT-5 wire, a crimping tool and 50 or more RJ-45 plug connectors. My core challenge was bringing connectivity to the second floor. The master bedroom was on top of the living room, so I ran a wire outside the house, piggybacking on the coax cable that provided cable TV access. For the other rooms, I followed the existing phone wiring via the basement and then up to the second floor, using an ethernet splitter at the top to avoid running more than one cable across floors. It took me a while as work, continuous travel overseas and family consumed most of my time.
(Part II is here)