Today it seems we all take technology for granted as it has permeated every aspect of our daily lives. I am typing this from a laptop while I sit on a chair in my living room as the television is playing in the background. I’m connected to the internet without wires of any kind running to the computer while I simultaneously check text messages and various other alerts from my cell phone on the side table next to me (which is also connected to the internet). None of this seems out of the ordinary but in the summer of 1998 any of these feats would have been seen as a small miracle. The prospect of simply getting online seemed exotic and exciting, and it often required going to a special room in the home where your internet connected PC was. Cellular phones were still far from common and just being able to talk on one was a novelty; who thought they would be browsing the internet from one?
The summer of 1998 was truly my introduction to modern computing and technology. Although I had been exposed to computers and even the internet prior to that summer, I wasn’t particularly impressed nor did I have any real interest at that point. During that summer things would change drastically. I would go from someone who had a partial fear of computers and used PC’s begrudgingly to actively seeking one.
So what caused this seismic shift? Honestly it was a combination of the technology being more refined, a change in my maturity level, and most importantly an increase in interesting content. We had a PC in our household as early as 1992 and although I did enjoy a handful of DOS games over the years, I primarily viewed the PC as a glorified word processor that was mainly used for working purposes. I considered PC games second rate to console games and although our IBM PS1 did have a modem built into it, we never used it. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have been old enough to appreciate it. The early days of the internet were more text based with a higher focus on message boards which would not have appealed to me then. By 1998 the technology had evolved as had I.
Early in the summer of 1998 I spent the night at a friend’s house which ended up being a major turning point for me. His father owned and operated a business and as such they had a home office for many years. My friend decided to show me a few of the things he had been doing online so far that summer and although I wasn’t very interested I decided to humor him. First and foremost he showed me a program called ICQ that he had downloaded and had been having fun with. ICQ was an online chat program that allowed users not only to chat with people they knew but to make yourself available for random chat and to randomly search for people around the globe. Users could continue to browse the internet while they sent messages back and forth to each other or they could enter into a dedicated chat session. Of course the program saved time stamped logs of messages and also allowed users to create a basic profile of themselves. This was my first exposure to anything like that and I was completely blown away.
So how did we use this amazing technology to be able to instantly communicate with people around the globe from the comfort of your den without incurring any type of long distance costs? By getting people to talk with us, acting nice at first, and then aggravating them by acting like complete pests. Yes my maturity level was truly at it’s zenith. My friend was also a wannabe hacker poser so he had downloaded a suite of programs to ruin people’s day. Or at least a couple of minutes anyway. For example he had a “message bomber” that would repeatedly send as many messages of your choice to a selected user. Since ICQ didn’t have any built in protection against these attacks at the time the recipient would have to manually click through every single message sent to close it. Obviously nothing damaging but irritating nevertheless. Over the coming weeks I became less interested in harassing people and more interested in talking with people from around the globe. There was a magic behind the concept. When my friend would fall asleep I would sneak into the office to log onto ICQ and engage in random chat sessions. Finally I asked the big question: how much does ICQ cost? When he told me it was free and that you simply went to the official website and downloaded the program I couldn’t believe it. Free? How was this possible? Why would anyone offer up something this cool and let people have it without paying a cent? In my experience games and software always came at a cost. Welcome to the internet age!
I was also excited to finally be able to look at some of the websites that had been advertised on shows I had been watching. Since pro wrestling was experiencing a boom period at the time I was really excited to visit wcwwrestling.com, nwowrestling.com, and wwf.com to see what they had to offer. Honestly there wasn’t much these sites offered at the time. An online store, a little bit of commentary, and a few bits of multimedia. Fortunately people were more easily impressed then. The novelty of watching a 6 second video clip or hearing an audio clip over the internet was enough to get users excited.
We were connecting to the internet via dial up on a 28.8k modem so the streaming audio and video we take for granted today was impractical back then. There were ways to stream content however and I was introduced to another program that I would end up having a love/hate relationship with; RealPlayer.
RealPlayer sucked. Big time. Granted some of the issues people experienced while using RealPlayer were more the fault of slow internet connections and sluggish processors but this piece of crap program was constantly trying to force itself as the default media player. It was irritating when you’d try to play a .wav or midi file and you’d see this screen open up.
As the summer wore on using that Windows 95 PC, chatting on ICQ, checking out random multimedia on the internet, and downloading free DOS games finally won me over. By the end of the summer I asked my parents for a computer for Christmas. The story of my first internet connected PC is a worthy topic itself, but at it’s root the story began in the summer of ’98 simply because of a chat program and an internet browser.