It was 20 years ago (almost) today …

I recently realized I have passed a milestone: It has been 20 years since my first regular tech column.

PapersBack then, it was for Eastsideweek, one-time sister paper to Seattle Weekly (and my editor was the irrepressibly intelligent Knute “Skip” Berger). Turns out even then I was writing on a personal computer, likely my Apple II — and I still have the text file on my current laptop.

Since that four-year-long weekly adventure, I’ve been a regular contributor or columnist, in roughly sequential order, to Seattle Weekly, Puget Sound Business Journal, KCPQ-TV Seattle, TechFlash, MindShift, GeekWire and EdSurge (the last two are my current regular columnist digs). My writing for GeekWire probably is the most direct successor to the approach and tone I set two decades ago, to GeekWire’s benefit or otherwise.

So here it is: the very first Byte Me column from May 11, 1994. Yes. The Internet has improved since then. Except for the “hot burner” part.

Byte Me
or, Dispatches from the Digital Frontier

The Internet as Goat Trail
by Frank Catalano

Next to my personal computer sits a large chunk of tree. I’m starting to think of this 817-page chunk as the driver’s ed manual for the information superhighway.

You’ve heard about the Internet from news writers and technology cheerleaders. The Internet is wonderful, they gush. It’s the information highway, predecessor of the Information Superhighway. Put your hands on the modem!

It’s like putting your hands on a hot burner you didn’t realize was turned on. The Internet bears about as much resemblance to the information superhighway as a goat trail does to I-405.

There’s something those high on pixels and packets rarely tell you: The Internet is not for the tech-neophyte.

EWorld_Main_ScreenI’m a long-time online service user. I saw AppleLink Personal Edition evolve into America Online. I was there when Prodigy was born. I’ve used CompuServe from its early command-line-only days and delightedly toyed with its new graphical interfaces.

Moving from these services to the Internet is like sticking my modem into a time machine and setting it for 1984. While every commercial online service has been slowly crawling from text-based interfaces to graphical user interfaces, the Internet is a throwback.

Not only is it text-based, it’s UNIX-based. UNIX is an operating system mainly for high-powered workstations, the kind scientists and engineers use. It is, in its raw form, user hostile. UNIX is for hard core hackers.

Internet is, in short, the Revenge of the Nerds. While Macintosh and Windows were taking over the desktop with graphical simplicity, UNIX and command-line huggers were safely claiming the Internet as their own.

And it’s being applauded with uncritical hype in the mass media. Why? Three reasons:

One. Because it’s perceived to be free. (I’ve never met a reporter who didn’t like “free.”) Like most free things, the Internet has a hidden cost: your time. Thus, the 817-page book that I bought at Costco to help navigate the Internet when confronted with a blank screen. And it’s only free if you have full access to the Internet through a government, military, commercial or educational institution, the truly direct Internet “domains.” Otherwise, it’ll cost you at least $10/month to subscribe to local services like Connected, Eskimo North, or Halcyon to get access.

Two. Because it’s cool. I use “cool” in the non-critical sense — it’s a fad. It’s exciting. It’s supported by Al Gore. It’s unexplored territory with no roadmap (except, of course, the 817-page book).

Three. Because of its promise. This is the most legitimate reason. The Internet is not the information highway or superhighway. But its anarchistic network of interconnected computers, for all its security, virus, and reliability problems, sparks the imagination of what could be.

There is help coming. Several companies are preparing commercial graphical interfaces to the Internet. But they’ll charge for them. So much for “free.” And the underlying structure of the net won’t change.

So who should use the Internet? If you’re comfortable with technology and taking time to learn it, the Internet has vast resources.

But it also has vast pitfalls. It is the winding dirt path, not the paved road — while both get you there, one has ruts and bumps and requires decent shocks. There’s nothing wrong with this, but hype leads us all to believe it’s much, much more.

For most, local computer bulletin boards and commercial online services give just enough Internet benefits (like exchanging electronic mail) to satisfy, without having to frequently pull over and search for an electronic auto club.

And you get to save a tree at the same time.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN:

The aim of this new column is to share the perspective of someone who’s not only worked with the personal computer industry, but has a prior track record as a news broadcaster and writer of speculative fiction and essays.

For the past seven years, I’ve worked inside the software industry, tracking industry trends and offering appraisals of technology and the industry to my clients and employers.

What this column won’t be is industry cheerleading, technical how-to, product reviews, or journalism.

What it will be is commentary, plain and simple. Expect analysis of technology trends, deflation of hype, and long-term views of where this may all lead us. Let me know what you want to hear about, even over the Internet. After all, “interactive” is also currently in vogue.

(Frank Catalano is an analyst and marketing strategist for software companies. He encourages comments at fcatalano@mcimail.com.) Columnist’s postscript: Two decades later, “MCI Mail” email addresses are but a memory. That’s a good thing.