Twenty years online: a personal account

This is a biased (and therefore probably nostalgic) personal account about my relationship with computers, programming and the internet. Any conclusions or extrapolations are mostly based on anecdotal evidence and might not be comparable to your own experience, or even be accurate for that matter.

Humble beginnings

Before ever using a computer, I had only tinkered with consumer radios, cassette tapes, calculators, tiny solar panels, batteries and light bulbs. I’d take things apart to find out how they work, a task that was only half as difficult as putting them back together again in working order. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

My 486 PC running Windows 95 also had Visual Basic 1.0 installed on it from the day I got it, but with documentation missing I was limited to learning from sample programs. The only books at my disposal were a MS-DOS 4.0 User’s Guide and Reference and a GW-BASIC book. The former taught me a lot about how an operating system works and got me comfortable with using the commmand line (I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Windows 95 had MS-DOS underneath, albeit a later version). I spent weeks reading it from cover to cover many times over. Having hit a wall in learning Visual Basic, I resolved to writing ever more complicated Batchfiles instead.

I started learning HTML in 2001 by editing files that came with various apps. I quickly got my hands on a copy of Microsoft FrontPage 98 and was amazed by what it could do–especially the hover buttons! As a side project, I forced myself to learn touch typing, a thing the people in movies did.

At the time, PC magazines came with software on CDs that was mostly freeware and shareware, and as a pastime activity I would try to install and check out as many programs as I could. I wasn’t subscribed to any of the magazines, but I would borrow the CDs from whomever happened to have them. The limiting factor here was the 66MHz Intel 486DX2 CPU, not to mention the mere 8MB of RAM it had to work with. It was 2002 and by then most software expected users to have a Pentium processor and some even started requiring Windows 98 or later. I did manage to obtain a copy of Windows 98, but was dismayed by its refusal to install on systems with less than 16MB of RAM.

Things got better

The leap to a better system happened in April 2003 when I got a new Intel Celeron-based PC. The massive gain in CPU power (it was basically a watered-down Pentium 4) was matched by equally impressive increases in RAM (8MB to 256MB) and harddisk space (162MB to 40GB). And, to top it off, it also had a dedicated graphics card, an nVidia GeForce4 MX 440. This was no longer a system for playing old DOS games. I could actually run newer titles on it, two of my favorites being Battlefield: 1942 and Return to Castle Wolfenstein.

No more error messages complaining about insufficient RAM or disk space, either. I skipped Windows 98, ME, 2000 and went straight to Windows XP. While I did try out 98 and ME and liked them, the gaming performance was far superior with XP. More power meant that I could also run better, more recent software. I replaced FrontPage with Macromedia Dreamweaver, Visual Basic 1.0 with Visual Studio 6.0. But the more recent a program was, the more it had something to do with the internet. Yet I was constrained to the world of offline computing. Something had to change.

The internet

I got my first taste of the internet in the summer of 2002 through a local internet cafe. It was like discovering a new world and it felt even better than waking up to Christmas presents. While most kids around me were involved in multiplayer games, I was hopping from one website to another and maintaining casual conversations on IRC. Between my internet cafe visits, I made paper lists of websites (anything that I could read and had “www” before it, really) to check out the next time. I made a free Yahoo! email address and was silly enough to think that everyone had one and would readily receive my message if I put in their_name@yahoo.com. It’s no surprise that no one I emailed had an email address.

A year later, in September 2003, I was done with internet cafes. Getting a 56k modem installed in my PC meant that I could use a telephone landline for dial-up internet access. It wasn’t cheap, but it was cheaper to use at night. Back then you had to pay for both a prepaid internet access card (or a subscription) and for using the landline while you were connected. Sometimes the landline provider and the internet provider were different. Looking back, it was a terrible way to get online, but I was satisfied, even with the frequent drops. It was like that until October 2005, when I got a stable, always-on connection. Not paying extra for always being online really made up for the mere 32kbps I was getting.

IRC

Casual conversations were slowly replaced by discussions focused on programming and IRC itself. In late 2004 I got involved in several PC security groups and would spend time helping people get rid of viruses. What I learned I shared with others through classes and tutorials.

IRC bots provided services such as security, games, weather forecasts and web search results. At first, I was only changing existing ones that were written in mIRC’s scripting language. Starting my own project meant that I was now writing code purposefully. Each day I’d spend hours working on new features and in early 2004 I decided to freely release it out into the world.

The initially modest reception pushed me to add more features and make it as user-friendly as possible. Improved versions amassed hundreds of thousands of downloads across several niche websites, which lead to support and feature requests pouring into my inbox and forum. Yet the project’s success wouldn’t have been possible without a small global community pitching in code, intensive testing, web hosting and support.

But in September 2007, however, I decided to pull the plug. I had put a lot of effort into promoting it over the years with great results. My decision to end the project’s good three-year run was a “real shame,” according to someone replying to my take-down email. I’m not happy with that decision either and I’ve been thinking about the reason behind it. Part of it might have been teenage angst, but perhaps another was seeing people move away from the things that got me hooked online. Interest in IRC declined with the advent of social networks and instant messaging.

Linux

Linux was the answer to “Why doesn’t this software package have an .exe file for me to run?” but getting a distribution over dial-up wasn’t feasible. Some of my IRC contacts offered me shell accounts on their machines and I learned the basics that way. After switching to an always-on connection in 2005, I asked around about which distro I should install. People who I figured were knowledgeable enough urged me to try Slackware Linux 10.2, so I spent days downloading the full 6-CD set at 4KB/s. I installed it alongisde Windows XP and it didn’t take long to accidentally erase some files on my Windows partition. But I was hooked.

Linux also opened the door to my experimenting with better programming languages, such as Python and Ruby. Tcl and PHP I didn’t like as much, but were nonetheless an important part of my toolkit. I distro-hopped a few times, trying out Fedora Core and Debian, but in 2006 Ubuntu (with its flavors) became my go-to distro. Canonical, the company behind the project, even mailed out CDs to whomever wanted them, for free! Perhaps not due to free CDs, Ubuntu eventually took over the Linux world.

“There’s an app for that!”

The way people use the internet has drastically changed in the last ten years or so. I’m still mostly a desktop PC or laptop guy, but phones and tablets have prevailed. Just like certain parts of the world skipped landlines and adopted cellphones when they became widely available, people that had never or seldomly used the internet before readily adopted smartphones. Entire generations, both older and younger, have pretty much skipped using a “conventional” computer and have made the unconscious (and, admittedly, frictionless) decision to lock themselves in various walled gardens of centralization through their mobile devices.

It might be just me getting older and having less time to explore the internet or it might be that there’s a “Big Crunch” going on. The number of websites (or apps) that most we seem to use is often a single digit. And we’re frantically jumping from one walled garden to the next hoping that something new pops up.

I think we’re going to be stuck in this loop for a long, long time.