You know those greeting cards that play a tune or an audio message when you open them? Sure you do. A little cute, a little annoying?
They’re powered by a little chip, a tiny thing, a unitasker, and it contains more computing power than the spacecraft on the Apollo missions. Imagine that.
I don’t actually know if that’s true, but it was told to me by someone who should know, and who didn’t seem to be a guy tending toward hyperbole. It was just a little aside in a short conversation we had about our particular generation and computers. This guy, who is my age, got a computer science degree in 1979, and we were just talking. He told me the story, for example, of blowing off an interview with a little start-up company across the lake in Redmond. Stuff like that.
We mostly were talking about how fortunate we were to be there at the beginning. The computing world has changed drastically in the past 30 years, but the science is still essentially the same, just smaller and sped up, plus bells and whistles and porn.
So our learning curve has been gradual and easy. Not as easy as, say, for my kids, who grew up with icons and IMs, but we know what’s going on. Somewhere beneath the glamor is an executable file, we know; the rest is just clicking.
I worked on my first computer network in 1978, on a solid-state CRT with glowing green letters and an 11-inch screen. A few years later I watched Alan Alda assemble an IBM AT in 30 seconds on a commercial, and I sure wanted one of them personal computers.
My sister bought one in the mid-80s, as I recall. I eventually bought it from her (or her next one, I’m not sure) when my business was growing and I wanted a back-up. Kids: Cover your ears. It had no hard drive.
My first one, though, I got in 1990. It had a 286 processor, a 40MB hard drive and 1MB of RAM. It cost $2500 and I waited two weeks to get it, because they had to build it first. And, because I was a long-range thinker, I had them install one of those modem thingies.
So bulletin boards became my first online experience. I didn’t have a hobby or special interest to fuel my wanderings, like comic books or arcade games or gay sex, but it was fun to dial up and hook into someplace else. Mild fun. Kill-an-hour fun.
The rest of the time I spent teaching myself computer programming from books and borrowed assemblers, and, of course, buying new computers. My next one was a 486 with 4MG of RAM (count ’em!) and a nearly 100MB hard drive, and — and — a CD ROM drive. Suddenly there were graphics, some of it animated, and sound, not to mention Windows.
It was then, in the summer of 1992, that I noticed a free CD in the grocery store. America Online. Hmm.
For $9.95 a month, I got five hours of online joy (I hope your ears are still covered), which was much more than I needed. This was pre-WWW, and Al Gore was still building the Internet in his garage. There were chat rooms, and e-mail between other AOL users, some features, and eventually Time magazine.
It got popular. One day, I read in a magazine that Patrick Stewart, Jean-Luc Picard himself, was an AOL member. I searched the directory and sure enough there was Patrick, “actor” by profession on his profile. I thought for a long time, then sent him an email with a quote from “Merchant of Venice” and a casual greeting. No fanboy stuff. He wrote back, too, with his own quote (“Midsummer’s Night Dream”).
Of course it was him. There were only 200,000 users at that time and it was like a club. Shut up.
And then, finally, there was unlimited access, and busy signals, and “gateways” to the mysterious Internet while Al put the finishing touches on it. And, of course, there were the squawks from the true believers when all the AOL-ers came wandering around, asking dumb questions.
One day a couple of Arizona attorneys had the temerity to post (gasp!) an advertisement on the ‘net, and the cave dwellers spammed and flamed and threatened. The world shook for a while.
There must be a geek cemetery around here somewhere, with “1995” on a lot of the tombstones and sites lovingly tended with flowers and 2400-baud modems.
For all the derision, mostly I suspect because of its ubiquitousness, AOL worked because it was convenient, a browser slipped into a home page with tons of content. I used to shake my head at non-AOL friends who had to fire up IE and then go looking. It was all there, limitless choices by nature of the Web but handy-dandy stuff all in one place, too. Just sign in, type your password, and go.
Ah. There’s the rub, in case you missed it. Freedom always wins, when given a choice. Cable stuck the sword in, but wireless networks twisted it. Why set up a home network when only AOL users can use it, even when broadband is supplied by the phone company?
For nearly 15 years I was a customer, without many complaints. AOL invented parental controls, as far as I know, so my kids could surf and I could sleep. My wife ventured online in a user-friendly environment. I got free stuff. It worked for me.
Last summer, AOL-Time-Halliburton-whatever got out of the ISP business, essentially, and I could finally go cable without annoying my wife. My son’s iMac could finally connect to our network, Julie could still use AOL, and I never had to hear “You’ve Got Mail!” again if I didn’t want to. Let freedom ring.
I’m a Mozilla Man now. I still have an AOL email address, but I rarely check it; their site is ad heavy and slow, and I’m all over the speed thing.
So goodbye, America Online. You served me well, my friend, and I have nothing to feel bad about, but I’ve moved on. I seek out new experiences, new life, new civilizations, new porn. I want to boldly go where I have never gone before.
Meaning, I really want a Mac now.