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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

That 70’s Web 2.0

I started working as a programmer in the late 1970s, as a co-op student working my way through university. Personal computers were very few at that time. Generally people would use a computer via a “terminal” that communicated with a central computer (a mainframe or a minicomputer) that was shared among all the users currently connected.

Then the 1980s came along, and with them the explosion in personal computers. (The world’s first personal computer, Toronto's own MCM/70, was launched in 1974, with a starting price of $4950, and the IBM 5100 was launched in 1975 — recently I bought a 5100 on eBay and it still works just fine.) As exciting as they seemed at the time, I eventually realized that they were a giant step backward. Why on earth would you want to keep all your critical files on a hard drive that you were unlikely to back up frequently, for instance? And why would you want to use a machine that required as much time to maintain (with software installations, reinstallations, virus cleaning, backups, etc.) as it saved? I began saying that the net benefit of using PCs seemed to be somewhere around zero. (And probably negative if you spent a lot of time making your word-processing documents look really nice.) Back in the 70s all the administration was taken care of by the professionals who operated the central computers. And they usually did a good job (it was their paid job, after all).

Then in the 1990s the Web came along, and it was largely a broadcast mechanism. A few publishers would put content on it, which many people would read. Not really much of a computing platform. Many ad agencies had “interactive” divisions, e.g. MacLaren McCann had MacLaren McCann Interactive (and still does, but now called MacLaren McCann direct and interactive), which I thought was unfortunate since what they produced wasn’t really interactive: it was still mass advertising material using mostly static content. When you did do anything interesting, like place a bid on eBay, you needed to get a whole new page, or at least a refresh of the existing one.

Now in the 2000s we have Web 2.0, the participatory Web. This is like the 70s again:  you use a terminal (a PC with a browser, or a cellphone with a browser, or a thin client) that communicates with a central computer, which is now called a “server”. Except that the user experience is often more like the PC era: you do something and part of the page in front of you changes (e.g. a check mark appears in the box that you just clicked), something that existed in the 70s but not that often.

So Web 2.0 is what we had in the 70s, just a nicer version. Good! The technology I worked in back then was very productive, and we used email and instant messaging and chat programs in much the same way they’re used now. (That’s right, this stuff is not new. In the late 70s I used to tag my emails, though admittedly I had to write the software myself. Apparently tagging has recently been rediscovered.) The three of us who, in early 1995, wrote the original business plan for the Sympatico Internet service and web portal had all used these tools in the 70s (we worked for the same company), and among other things we wrote about building communities online. Sounds like Web 2.0, doesn’t it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Rohan!

This is Jonathan Belisle from Montreal -

I am glad you took time to write your toughts on that 70's aura surrounding Web2.0

I would appreciate to start a conversation about the very end of the web as we know it. We could for example talk about the Geospatial Network, the Quantum Physic of Holograms and other hidden cognitive abilities that humans learn to use by mimicking how technologies mesh together and get intertwinned unto human unconscious cultural consciousness.


Sunday, May 28, 2006 at 11:19:00 AM EDT  

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