Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us to innovate (and sometimes cope with) the future! Today we’re going to cover a paper by one of the more colorful characters in the history of computing.
John Perry Barlow wrote songs for the Grateful Dead, ran a cattle ranch, was a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was a founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, was a fellow emeritus at Harvard, and early Internet pioneer.
A bit more of the old-school libertarian, he believed the Internet should be free. And to this end, he published an incredibly influential paper in Davos, Switzerland in 1996. That paper did as much during the foundational years of the still-nascent Internet as anything else. And so here it is.
A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.
Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.
You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions.
You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don't exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.
Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.
We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.
We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.
Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.
Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose.
In the United States, you have today created a law, the Telecommunications Reform Act, which repudiates your own Constitution and insults the dreams of Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison, DeToqueville, and Brandeis. These dreams must now be born anew in us.
You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.
In China, Germany, France, Russia, Singapore, Italy and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace. These may keep out the contagion for a small time, but they will not work in a world that will soon be blanketed in bit-bearing media.
Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.
These increasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers. We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.
We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.
Thank you to John Perry Barlow for helping keep the Internet as de-regulated as it can be. Today, as we are overwhelmed by incorrect tweets (no matter what side of the politically isle you fall on), disinformation, and political manipulation, we have to rethink this foundational concept. And I hope we keep coming back to the same realization - the government has no sovereignty where we gather.
Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the history of computing podcast. We are so, so lucky to have you. Have a great day.
Today we’re going to cover an essay Bill Gates wrote in 1996, a year and change after his infamous Internet Tidal Wave memo, called Content is King, a term that has now become ubiquitous. It’s a bit long but perfectly explains the Internet business model until such time as there was so much content that the business model had to change.
See, once anyone could produce content and host it for free, like in the era of Blogger, the model flipped. So here goes:
“Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.
The television revolution that began half a century ago spawned a number of industries, including the manufacturing of TV sets, but the long-term winners were those who used the medium to deliver information and entertainment.
When it comes to an interactive network such as the Internet, the definition of “content” becomes very wide. For example, computer software is a form of content-an extremely important one, and the one that for Microsoft will remain by far the most important.
But the broad opportunities for most companies involve supplying information or entertainment. No company is too small to participate.
One of the exciting things about the Internet is that anyone with a PC and a modem can publish whatever content they can create. In a sense, the Internet is the multimedia equivalent of the photocopier. It allows material to be duplicated at low cost, no matter the size of the audience.
The Internet also allows information to be distributed worldwide at basically zero marginal cost to the publisher. Opportunities are remarkable, and many companies are laying plans to create content for the Internet.
For example, the television network NBC and Microsoft recently agreed to enter the interactive news business together. Our companies will jointly own a cable news network, MSNBC, and an interactive news service on the Internet. NBC will maintain editorial control over the joint venture.
I expect societies will see intense competition-and ample failure as well as success-in all categories of popular content-not just software and news, but also games, entertainment, sports programming, directories, classified advertising, and on-line communities devoted to major interests.
Printed magazines have readerships that share common interests. It’s easy to imagine these communities being served by electronic online editions.
But to be successful online, a magazine can’t just take what it has in print and move it to the electronic realm. There isn’t enough depth or interactivity in print content to overcome the drawbacks of the online medium.
If people are to be expected to put up with turning on a computer to read a screen, they must be rewarded with deep and extremely up-to-date information that they can explore at will. They need to have audio, and possibly video. They need an opportunity for personal involvement that goes far beyond that offered through the letters-to-the-editor pages of print magazines.
A question on many minds is how often the same company that serves an interest group in print will succeed in serving it online. Even the very future of certain printed magazines is called into question by the Internet.
For example, the Internet is already revolutionizing the exchange of specialized scientific information. Printed scientific journals tend to have small circulations, making them high-priced. University libraries are a big part of the market. It’s been an awkward, slow, expensive way to distribute information to a specialized audience, but there hasn’t been an alternative.
Now some researchers are beginning to use the Internet to publish scientific findings. The practice challenges the future of some venerable printed journals.
Over time, the breadth of information on the Internet will be enormous, which will make it compelling. Although the gold rush atmosphere today is primarily confined to the United States, I expect it to sweep the world as communications costs come down and a critical mass of localized content becomes available in different countries.
For the Internet to thrive, content providers must be paid for their work. The long-term prospects are good, but I expect a lot of disappointment in the short-term as content companies struggle to make money through advertising or subscriptions. It isn’t working yet, and it may not for some time.
So far, at least, most of the money and effort put into interactive publishing is little more than a labor of love, or an effort to help promote products sold in the non-electronic world. Often these efforts are based on the belief that over time someone will figure out how to get revenue.
In the long run, advertising is promising. An advantage of interactive advertising is that an initial message needs only to attract attention rather than convey much information. A user can click on the ad to get additional information-and an advertiser can measure whether people are doing so.
But today the amount of subscription revenue or advertising revenue realized on the Internet is near zero-maybe $20 million or $30 million in total. Advertisers are always a little reluctant about a new medium, and the Internet is certainly new and different.
Some reluctance on the part of advertisers may be justified, because many Internet users are less-than-thrilled about seeing advertising. One reason is that many advertisers use big images that take a long time to download across a telephone dial-up connection. A magazine ad takes up space too, but a reader can flip a printed page rapidly.
As connections to the Internet get faster, the annoyance of waiting for an advertisement to load will diminish and then disappear. But that’s a few years off.
Some content companies are experimenting with subscriptions, often with the lure of some free content. It’s tricky, though, because as soon as an electronic community charges a subscription, the number of people who visit the site drops dramatically, reducing the value proposition to advertisers.
A major reason paying for content doesn’t work very well yet is that it’s not practical to charge small amounts. The cost and hassle of electronic transactions makes it impractical to charge less than a fairly high subscription rate.
But within a year the mechanisms will be in place that allow content providers to charge just a cent or a few cents for information. If you decide to visit a page that costs a nickel, you won’t be writing a check or getting a bill in the mail for a nickel. You’ll just click on what you want, knowing you’ll be charged a nickel on an aggregated basis.
This technology will liberate publishers to charge small amounts of money, in the hope of attracting wide audiences.
Those who succeed will propel the Internet forward as a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and products-a marketplace of content.”
Today we’re going to cover America Online, or AOL.
The first exposure many people had to “going online’ was to hear a modem connect.
And the first exposure many had to electronic mail was the sound “you’ve got mail.”
But how did AOL rise so meteorically to help mainstream first going online in walled gardens and then connecting to the Internet?
It’s 1983. Steve Case joins a company called Control Video Corporation to bring online services to the now-iconic Atari 2600. CVC was bringing a service called Gameline to allow subscribers to rent games over a dialup connection. Case had grown up in Honolulu and then gone to Williams College in Massachusetts, which until the rise of the Internet culture had been a breeding ground for tech companies. Up to this point, the personal computer market had mostly been for hobbyists, but it was slowly starting to go mainstream.
Case saw the power of pushing bits over modems. He saw the rise of ARPAnet and the merger of the nets that would create the Internet. The Internet had begun life as ARPAnet, a US Defense Department project, until 1981, when the National Science Foundation stepped in to start the process of networking non-defense-oriented computers. And by the time Case’s employer Control Video Corporation was trying to rent games for a dollar, something much larger than the video game market was starting to happen.
From 1985 to 1993, the Internet, then mostly NSFNET, surged from 2,000 users to 2,000,000 users. In that time, Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1991 at CERN, and Mosaic came out of the National Center for Supercomputing applications, or NCSA at the University of Illinois, quickly becoming the browser everyone wanted to use until Mark Andreeson left to form Netscape. In 1993 NSFNET began the process of unloading the backbone and helped the world develop the Internet.
And the AOL story in that time frame was similar to that of many other online services, which we think of today as Internet Service Providers. The difference was that today these are companies individuals pay to get them on the Internet and then they were connecting people to private nets. When AOL began life in 1985, they were called Quantum Computer Services. Case began as VP of Marketing but would transition to CEO in 1991.
But Case had been charged with strategy early on and they focused on networking Commodore computers with a service they called Q-Link, or Quantum Link. Up until that point, most software that connected computers together had been terminal emulators. But the dialup service they built used the processing power of the Commodore to connect to services they offered, allowing it to be much more scalable. They kept thinking of things to add to the service, starting with online chat using a service called Habitat in 1986. And by 1988 they were adding dedicated fiction with a series they called QuantumLink Serial.
By 1988 they were able add AppleLink for Apple users and PC Link for people with IBM computers and IBM clones. By 1989 they were growing far faster than Apple and the deal with Apple soured and they changed their name to America Online. They had always included games with their product, but included a host of other services like news, chat, and mail. CompuServe changed everything when they focused on connecting people to the Internet in 1989, a model that AOL would eventually embrace.
But they were all about community from the beginning. They connected groups, provided chat communities for specific interests, and always with the games. That focus on community was paying off. The first Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, Dungeons and Dragons Neverwinter Nights got huge. Sure there had been communities and Massively Multiplayer games. So most of the community initiatives weren’t new or innovative, just done better than others had done it before them.
They launched AOL for DOS in 1991 and AOL for Windows in 1992. At this point, you paid by the hour to access the network. People would dial in, access content, write back offline, then dial back in to send stuff. A lot of their revenue came from overages. But they were growing at a nice and steady pace. In 1993 they gave access to Usenet to users.
In the early 90s, half of the CDs being pressed were for installing AOL on computers. By 1994 they hit a million subscribers. That’s when they killed off PC Link and Q-Link to focus on the AOL service and just kept growing. But there were challengers, and at the time, larger competitors in the market. CompuServe had been early to market connecting people to the Internet but IBM and Sears had teamed up to bring Prodigy to market. The three providers were known as the big three when modems ran at 9,600 bits per second.
But as the mid-90s came around they bought WebCrawler in 1995 and sold it to Excite shortly thereafter, inking a deal with Excite to provide search services. They were up to 3 million users. In 1996, with downward pressure on pricing, they went to a flat $19.95 pricing model. This led to a spike in usage that they weren’t prepared for and a lot of busy signals, which caused a lot of users to cancel after just a short time using the service. And yet, they continued to grow. They inked a deal with Microsoft for AOL to be bundled with Windows and the growth accelerated.
1997 was a big year. Case engineered a three0way deal where WorldCom bought CompuServe for $1.2 billion in stock and then sold it to AOL. This made way for a whole slew of competitors to grow, which is an often-unanticipated result of big acquisitions. This was also the year they released AIM, which gave us our first taste of a network effect messaging service. Even after leaving AOL many a subscriber hung on to AIM for a decade. That’s now been replaced by What’s App, Facebook Messenger, Text Messaging, Snapchat to some degree, and messaging features inside practically every tool, from Instagram and Twitter to more community based solutions like Slack and Microsoft Teams. AIM caused people to stay online longer. Which was great in an hourly model but problematic in a flat pricing model. Yet it was explosive until Microsoft and others stepped in to compete with the free service. It lasted until it was shut down in 2017. By then, I was surprised it was still running to be honest.
In 1998 AOL spent $4.2 Billion to buy Netscape. And Netscape would never be the same. Everyone thought the Internet would become a huge mall at that point. But instead, that would have to wait for Amazon to emerge as the behemoth they now are.
In 1999, AOL launched AOL Search and hit 10 Million users. AOL invested $800 million in Gateway and those CompuServe users put another 2.2 million subscribers on the board. They also bought Mapquest for $1.1 billion dollars. And here’s the thing, that playbook of owning the browser, community content, a shopping experience, content-content, maps, and everything else was really starting to become a playbook that others would follow in the dark ages after the collapse of AOL. And yes, that would be coming. All empires over-extend themselves eventually.
In Y2k they made over $4 billion in subscriptions. 15 years of hard work was paying off. With over 23 million subscribers, their market valuation was at $224 billion in today’s money and check this out, only half of the US was online. But they could sense the tides changing. We could all feel the broadband revolution in the air. Maybe to diversify or maybe to grow into areas they hadn’t, AOL merged with media congomerate Time Warner in 2001, by paying $165 billion dollars for them in what was then the biggest merger (or reverse merger maybe) in history.
This was a defining moment for the history of the Internet. AOL was clearly leveraging their entry point into the internet as a means of pivoting to the online advertising market and Warner Cable brought them into broadband. But this is where the company became overextended. Yes, old media and new media were meeting but it was obvious almost immediately that this was a culture clash and the company never really met the growth targets. Not only because they were overextended but also because so much money was being pumped into Internet startups that there were barbarians at every gate. And of course, the dot com bubble burst. Oh, and while only 1% of homes had broadband, that market was clearly about to pop and leave companies like AOL in the dust. But, now Time Warner and Time Warner Cable would soften that blow as it came.
2002, over 26 million users. And that’s when the decline began. By then 12% of homes in the US were wired up to broadband, likely DSL, or Digital Subscriber Lines, at that time.
Case left AOL in 2003 and the words AOL would get dropped from the name. The company was now just Time Warner again. 2004 brings a half billion dollar settlement with the SEC for securities fraud. Oops. More important than the cash crunch, it was a horrible PR problem at a time when subscribers were falling off and broadband had encroached with over a quarter of US homes embracing faster internet usage than anything dialup could offer.
The advertising retooling continued as the number of subscribers fell. In 2007 AOL moved to New York to be closer to those Mad Men. By the way, the show Mad Men happened to start that year. This also came with layoffs. And by then, broadband had blanketed half of the US. And now, wireless Internet was being developed, although it would not start to encroach until about 2013.
AOL and Time Warner get a divorce in 2009 when AOL gets spun back off into its own standalone company and Tim Armstrong is brought in from Google to run the place. They bought his old company Patch.com that year, to invest into more hyperlocal news. You know those little papers we all get for our little neighborhoods? They often don’t seem like tooooo much more than a zine from the 90s. Hyperlocal is information for a smaller community with a focus on the concerns and what matters to that cohort.
2010 they buy TechCrunch, 2011 they buy The Huffington Post. To raise cash they sell off a billion dollars in patents to Microsoft in 2012. Verizon bought AOL in 2015 for $4.4 billion dollars. They would merge it with Yahoo! In 2017 as a company called Oath that is now called Verizon Media. And thus, AOL ceased to exist. Today some of those acquisitions are part of Verizon Media and others like Tumblr were ruined by mismanagement and corporate infighting.
Many of the early ideas paved the way for future companies. AOL Local can be seen in companies like Yelp. AOL Video is similar to what became YouTube or TikTok. Or streaming media like Netflix and Hulu. AOL Instant Messenger in What’s App. XDrive in Google Drive. AOL News in CNN, Apple News, Fox News, etc. We now live in an App-driven world where each of these can be a new app coming around every year or two and then fading into the background as the services are acquired by an Amazon, Google, Apple, or Facebook and then fade off into the sunset only to have others see the billions of dollars paid as a reason to put their own spin on the concept.
Steve Case runs an investment firm now. He clearly had a vision for the future of the Internet and did well off that. And his book The Third Wave lays out the concept that rather than try and build all the stuff a company like AOL did, that companies would partner with one another. While that sounds like a great strategy, we do keep seeing acquisitions over partnerships. Because otherwise it’s hard to communicate priorities through all the management layers of a larger company. He talked about perseverance, like how Uber and Airbnb would punch through the policies of regulators. I suspect what we are seeing by being sent home due to COVID will propel a lot of technology 5-10 years in adoption and force that issue.
But I think the most interesting aspect of that book to me was when he talked about R&D spending in the US. He made a lot of money at AOL by riding the first wave of the Internet. And that began far before him, when the ARPANet was formed in 1969. R&D spending has dropped to the lowest point since 1950, due to a lot of factors, not least of which is the end of the Cold War. And we’re starting to see the drying up of the ideas and innovations that came out of that period transition heavily regulated.
So think about this. AOL made a lot of money by making it really, really easy to get online and then on the Internet. They truly helped to change the world by taking R&D that the government instigated in the 70s and giving everyday people, not computer scientists, access to it. They built communities around it and later diversified when the tides were changing. What R&D from 5 to 20 years ago that could truly be beneficial to humanity today hasn’t made it into homes across the world - and of that what can we help to proliferate?
Thank you for joining us for this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We are so lucky to have you and we are so lucky to make use of the innovations you might be bringing us in the future. Whether those are net-new technologies, or just making that research available to all. Have a great day.
The first episode of this podcast went up on July 7th 2019. One year later, we’ve managed to cover a lot of ground, but we’re just getting started. Over 70 episodes and so far, my favorite was on Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.
They may seem disconnected at times, but they’re not. There’s a large outline and it’s all research being included in my next book.
The podcast began with an episode on the prehistory of the computer. And we’ve had episodes on the history of batteries, electricity, superconductors, and more - to build up to what was necessary in order for these advances in computing to come to fruition.
We’ve celebrated Grace Hopper and her contributions. But we’d like to also cover a lot of other diverse voices in computing.
There was a series on Windows, covering Windows 1, 3, , and 95. But we plan to complete that series with a look at 98, Millineum, NT, 2000, and on. We covered Android, CP/M, OS/2 and VMS but want to get into the Apple operating systems, SUN, and Linux, etc.
Speaking of Apple… We haven’t gotten started with Apple. We covered the lack of an OS story in the 90s - but there’s a lot to unpack around the founding of Apple, Steve Jobs and Woz, and the re-emergence of Apple and their impact there.
And since that didn’t happen in a vacuum, there were a lot of machines in that transition from the PC being a hobbyist market to being a full-blown industry. We talked through Radioshack, Commodore, the Altair, the Xerox Alto,
We have covered some early mainframes like the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, ENIAC, the story of Z-1 and Zuse, and even supercomputers like Cray, but still need to tell the later story, bridging the gap between the mainframe, the minicomputer, and traditional servers we might find in a data center today.
We haven’t told the history of the Internet. We’ve touched on bits and pieces, but want to get into those first nodes that got put onto ARPAnet, the transition to NSFnet, and the merging of the nets into the Internet. And we covered sites like Friendster, Wikipedia, and even the Netscape browser, but the explosion of the Internet has so many other stories left to tell. Literally a lifetime’s worth.
For example, we covered Twitter and Snapchat but Google and Facebook
We covered the history of object-oriented languages. We also covered BASIC, PASCAL, FORTRAN, ALGOL, Java, But still want to look at AWS and the modern web service architecture that’s allowed for an explosion of apps and web apps.
Mobility. We covered the Palm Pilot and a little on device management, but still need to get into the iPhone and Samsung and the underlying technology that enabled mobility.
And enterprise software and compliance.
Knowing the past informs each Investment thesis. We covered Y Combinator but there are a lot of other VC/Private equity firms to look at.
But what I thought I knew of the past isn’t always correct. As an example, coming from the Apple space, we have a hero worship of Steve Jobs that, for example, reading the Walter Isaacson book often conflicts with. He was a brilliant man, but complicated. And the more I read and research, the more I need to unpack many of own assumptions across the industry.
I was here for a lot of this, yet my understanding is still not what it could be.
Interviews from people who wrote code to put on lunar landers, who invented technology like spreadsheets,
I wish more people could talk about their experiences openly, but even 40 years later, some are still bound by NDAs
I’ve learned so much and I look forward to learning so much more!