30 Years Online: Part One – How It All Started

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by Janet Attard

30 Years Online with Janet Attard and Business Know-How

Thirty years ago, the Web didn’t exist. But online services did. And on a warm summer night, I sat in front of my computer waiting more anxiously than usual for the modem to end its squawking and get me online. It was August 8, 1988 – 8/8/88 – a date that comes around only once in a century. It was the day I started as a Sysop (forum leader) of the Home Office and Small Business RoundTable on the General Electric Company’s GEnie service. It marked my entry into the online world as a small business information provider.

To me, it was an auspicious moment. My little, one-person home business had won a contract with a major corporation. A contract that, in effect, turned my freelance writing business into a combination small business publisher, message board moderator (message boards were called bulletin boards on GEnie) and host of online chats (called RTCs on GEnie). The RTCs frequently had guests, and were run somewhat similar to radio talk shows. Instead of calling a radio station, people dialed into the online service and typed the questions or comments they wanted to make into the online chat room. That first night online, I was my own “guest” and was there to introduce myself and the new RoundTable to GEnie users.

(Play the video to see images of early computer equipment and online services)

I was in awe that I was now able to reach a national audience. I was also aware of one “little” problem: the “national audience” was pretty small. In 1988, few people knew what an online service was. Fewer still, cared.

Trying to explain what I did usually produced puzzled looks. If I could corner anyone long enough to give a demonstration, the usual response was a polite, “That’s nice, but who will use it?” The vast majority of consumers didn’t have home computers and couldn’t possibly imagine any reason why anyone would want one.

Most small businesses didn’t have computers, either. Computers were expensive, and were difficult to learn how to use. Small business owners didn’t see the need to buy a computer or waste the time learning how to use something that they could do perfectly well with a pencil or electric typewriter and a couple of filing cabinets.

And then there was the cost. The going rate for a PC with one megabyte of RAM was about $3500 in 1988. (Yes, that was one megabyte, not one gigabyte.) Using the GEnie online service cost $35 an hour during weekday daytime hours and $5 an hour evenings and weekends. To reach it, you connected your computer to a modem and the modem to a telephone line. Your telephone connection costs came on top of the cost of using the online service, and could be quite be substantial if there was no local phone number to reach the online service.

The reason I owned a computer back then was because I was a terrible typist. As a freelance writer, I wasted a LOT of time and erasable bond paper retyping articles to make the finished copy look neat enough to send to editors. I knew computers made it easy to make changes on a page before the page got printed. So, I had purchased a Sanyo CP/M computer in 1983.

Sanyo computer
Photo source: www.oldcomputermuseum.com

The computer was a real bargain at $3000 (the equivalent of about $6400 today) because it came with WordStar, ReportStar, and DataStar and Calcstar, a suite of programming for word processing, databases and spreadsheets from MicroPro. The computer had a 4 MHz processor and 64 kb of RAM. There was one 5-1/4 inch floppy drive and no hard drive. It had a monitor that displayed dotty-green type on a black background. To use it, I had to put a floppy disk containing the software into the computer, let the software load, then take out the floppy disk and replace it with a blank disk to record and save what I was writing.

Self-published how-to books

The floppy disks held only about 360 KB of data. But that was enough. I used that computer to write several short business how-to books for a mail order publishing company.

The computer was hooked up to a daisy wheel printer. The name came from the fact that the print head was shaped like a daisy – but one with many petals. Each “petal” end was a letter or some other character.

Learning how to set up and use the computer was rather difficult. The manual – a bad translation – told me to turn the ON/OFF switch to ON/OFF. I figured out how use most of the computer functions I needed initially by following instructions in the WordStar word processing manual.

So, what brought me to that evening in 1988 when I launched my first online small business forum? A medical abstract company I was freelancing for started using a VAX computer system to transfer work to the company that printed their material. They told their writers that they either had to send in their work over a modem, or to come to their office and type their finished work into VAX system. I bought a modem.

Little did I know – until after I got the modem home – that I’d have to take apart the computer, find some kind of tiny switch (called a dip switch) and change the setting on it to make the computer work with the modem. I also had to find software that would let the computer send and receive data through the modem. A local Computer User Group I had joined helped me find the right program.

1200 bps modemBesides letting me transmit my work to the medical abstract company, that modem let me dial into local bulletin board systems I had heard about through the user group. These bulletin boards were usually run from computer hobbyist basements and were the only affordable way to communicate online.

Lots of people typed in all capital letters back then. The reason? Some computers didn’t have a lowercase option. 

The modem I bought came packaged with coupons to try GEnie and CompuServe — the two biggest commercial online services at the time. As soon as I tried them, I was hooked. The technology let me communicate with people around the country. I was doing freelance copywriting for a software company, and I found a forum where people in the industry discussed issues they faced. The discussions helped me learn that industry’s buzz words and improve the response rate the company got on mailings. I also found people online who could help me when I ran into computer problems I couldn’t figure out on my own.

I remember thinking,”This is really going to be big some day” and that I wanted to get into the industry on the ground floor.

I also wanted a way to use online services without having to pay so much. Sysops, you see, got free accounts for the online service. So I got a proposal for a small business forum ready to submit to GEnie, and was just about to send it in, when the service announce the launch of a small business area. I tucked the proposal away, and checked out the new forum.

I contributed on the bulletin boards whenever I could. Then almost a year later, the sysop of that forum told me he was leaving. So, I dug out my proposal, added a note pointing to the contributions I had already made online, and sent it in.

That’s what brought me to that moment in 1988 when I was waiting to connect to my first RTC. 

SYSOP was short for systems operator. What a sysop on the commercial online services did, was to create and/or aggregate resources for people with common interests, such as owning a particular brand of computer, or running a small business, being a writer, or playing games online.

Each sysop had their own forum (special interest area – they were called RoundTables on GEnie.) It usually consisted of a download area (called a file library), a message board, and a chat room (called RTCs on GEnie).

I ran my first guest RTC a couple of weeks after that first night online. I had to use a number of text commands to run the RTC chat, and while I don’t remember what the commands were, or who that first guest was, there’s something I do remember quite clearly.

While I was concentrating on the text commands and the questions to the guest, someone opened our back door to let our cat in. But they didn’t notice the cat had a “present” in her mouth. The cat walked down the hall, into my office, and dropped the present – a mouse – at my feet.

As it turned out, the mouse wasn’t dead. I wound up with a cat and mouse playing “cat and mouse” around my feet. I remember thinking, “Thank God, computers don’t have cameras and sound” as I yelled for someone to get the cat and mouse out of my office.

My Home Office and Small Business Roundtable did well on GEnie, growing little by little. There were attorneys, accountants, computer programmers, and all types of businesses who participated regularly, talking about issues that concerned them, answering each other’s questions, and helping the Roundtable succeed.  

Somewhere along the way, GEnie gave sysops the ability to send email to anyone who had visited their RoundTable, and I started using that feature to send out mailings about once a month to let visitors know discussions were taking place, when we were having guest RTCs and what was new in our download library. After a year or two, we added a second Roundtable – a career-focused RoundTable called the WorkPlace.

Shortly after I got the contract to run the forum on GEnie, I bought a new computer – A Macintosh Plus. One of the reasons I bought the Macintosh was because I wanted to use it for Desktop Publishing. By this point the early laser printers were making it possible for anyone with the right computer, software, and some sense of page layout, to create and print documents that resembled professionally printed documents. If you had any artistic ability you could also produce graphics. I couldn’t afford a laser printer initially, so I got an ImageWriter II dot matrix printer.

Macintosh MouseAs you can see, this early Macintosh mouse got a lot of use! Software back then came with manuals, too, Printed manuals. Adobe Illustrator 88 – even back then was already a surprisingly powerful program.

The RTC commands weren’t the only thing that was text-based in the late ‘80s.The entire GEnie service was. You moved around by choosing numbers on a screen, or, if you were experienced, by typing in commands to go directly to the part of the service you wanted to reach.

Other companies were developing online services as well. At the end of 1989, an online service called Quantum Computer Service sent out a letter to Macintosh owners announcing the “Macintosh Telecommunications Research Project,” which they named America Online. Their rate was only $4 an hour at night and on weekends, and if you signed up, you became a Charter member, entitled to 20% off all future fees.

Later on in 1990, Bill Louden, founder and General Manager of GEnie revolutionized online service pricing by introducing flat-rate evening hour pricing. For $4.95 a month, you could use many of the features on GEnie for free after 6pm and on weekends. The pricing was popular – so popular that GEnie couldn’t handle the load initially. The entire GEnie system crashed within a couple of hours after the launch of the $4.95/hour rate.

History repeated itself several years later when AOL switched to flat-rate pricing and attracted more users than it could serve in the first few days, too.

After I had been on GEnie for a couple of years, the Air Force Office of Small Business decided to open up an area on the service, to let small businesses know about procurement opportunities. When they wanted help getting the area set up, GEnie staff introduced the Assistant Director of the office to me. Shortly after, he had someone call me to ask how to run a GEnie Roundtable. The gentleman who called had a lot of questions and I spent about an hour on the phone answering him and explaining what had to be done. In fact, I was on the phone long enough that I started to feel like I was providing free consulting.

What I didn’t realize then was that sharing my knowledge would result in my company winning a series of subcontracts and contracts to operate the online outreach for the Air Force Office of Small Business, first on GEnie, and later, on the Web.

Next: How I landed a contract with America Online

© 2018 Attard Communications, Inc. All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced, reprinted or redistributed without written permission from Attard Communications, Inc.

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