Several years ago I received a phone call from Jason Scott, asking if he could come down and interview me for a documentary on the development of the Computer Bulletin Board System – BBS. I affably agreed to the visit.
He arrived camera and kit akimbo and we chatted for an hour or so on camera. Jason was an aspiring “indie” or independent film maker, an ongoing oddity in commercial film and documentary production. Occasionally one of these guys does “break out” into some commercial success. Chris Paine of Who Killed the Electric Car would be an interesting example.
There is an interesting phenomenon in that if you are early in a game and indeed pioneer it, somehow you “deserve” to be one of the ones who profit from it when it occurs. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case actually. And the reason is that the early pioneers have a specific belief system and vision of the future. As the every changing ever variable future unfolds, too many cling to the original “vision” rather than the much more exciting (to me) reality.
After several years of trying to get his documentary on the world of the BBS published, Scott has apparently given up and posted it on YouTube. Ironically, he still doesn’t get it and has specifically blocked the “embedding” feature on the release and so at this point sports almost 11 viewers of segment 2.01. In a world of exploding video, on a service that now hosts about 70% of all video shot world wide in the history of video, he still wants “control” and to somehow profit from it. Meanwhile we do 2 hours of video a week seen in 145 countries. The irony never ends. He is being left behind, in a world of EXPLODING opportunity in video, because it doesn’t match his vision of “professionalism.” It is a sad laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.
More ironically, this is actually the theme of the video segment shown here. We started in the online milieu with Fidonet in St. Louis at its inception in the early 1980s. In 1987, I published the first Denver PC Boardwatch newsletter in Denver Colorado. This grew to become Boardwatch Magazine. Along the way we started the BBSCON convention with Phil Becker of TBBS, and eventually this become the Internet Service Provider Convention or ISPCON. I sold it all in 1998, about a year before the Internet bubble burst, wiping out many hundreds of Internet related companies. The network of course survived with many successful companies since.
From our first issue, we included tips and tricks using TELNET and FTP on the Internet. I never did quite delineate a difference between the Internet and dial-up bulletin board systems. Indeed, we didn’t precisely delineate between commercial services such as CompuServe, GEnie, C-NET which became AOL, and electronic bulletin boards or the Internet. It was all part of a millieu of online communications using modems and indeed for many years Internet access was dialup, BBS were dialup, and all of it was quite tied in with Commercial services as well. The lines between them were heroic fabrications of some of the more religious adherents, and didn’t precisely exist. It’s kind of like going out into west Texas or Arizona and looking for the border with Mexico. It’s gotta be here somewhere, I saw it on a map someone drew.
We broke the game on the “secret” ways you could address mail on COmpuServe or GEnie and get them to transit the Internet, to the OTHER service, or to a Unix machine on the network, or to another bulletin board system. I actually wrote an assembly language program that ran on PCs and did the Unix to Unix copy program to swap e-mail between electronic bulletin boards and the Internet.
Most of the Internet Service Providers, and at its peak there were some 7500 of them in the U.S., were BBS operators. Once they started offering direct access to the Internet, their cash flows improved markedly and they kind of needed a new name. We coined the term Internet Service Provider and they became ISPs.
We talked about the Internet all along and I patiently explained in issue after issue of Boardwatch what was coming, what it meant, and how you connected to it. We did the definitive tutorial on installing TRUMPET on Windows so you could do a SLIP connection to the Internet on your PC and run MOZILLA – the web browser. This became THE document ISPs gave new customers to help them do the icky but necessary configuration to make Windows play on the Internet, which Bill Gates did not consider sufficiently robust for “business applications” which is what he was all about in those days.
The guys that listened did very well by the way. Most of them became ISPs and profited handsomely during a later consolidation phase in the early years of this century. EXEC-PC was sold for $21 million. Many others went at various prices from a few hundred thousand up to many millions, depending on their customer base = typically $240 per subscriber. A very heady number.
But many others clung to the vision they had prepared for, and a lot of companies went from being superstars with the phones ringing constantly and money pouring in through the ceiling tiles to selling off the office furniture at 10 cents on the dollar in a matter of months when it all finally matured. They relate the excitement and the passion with a nostalgic view of the way things were in the good old days. In the good old days, things changed daily. And if you didn’t reinvent yourself daily, you were left by the wayside.
Tim Stryker had dome very well with Galacticomm, but didn’t really think the Internet would be a factor. He went up on a mountain top and shot himself in the head in 1996, ergo the dedication at the end of this segment. He was 41 years old with several children. He was a bright, intense guy and though I didn’t always please him, I considered him one of the heroes. But he was wed to HIS vision of it and refused to adapt.
Phil Becker morphed eSoft into an Internet appliance for businesses with a cunningly managed firewall before firewalls were well understood, took the company public and eventually sold out as well. He’s done some curious work on online identity in recent years. I of course sold Boardwatch and ISPCON in 1998 and moved on. Tried golf and failed at it. Now electric vehicles. But more were left along the trail than wound their way through the hazards and prospered. Usually by clinging to a vision that was about what they WANTED it to be rather than what it was going to be.
Readers of Boardwatch who heeded the word by and large did very well. We paid as much attention to human nature, desires, and motivators as we did to the technology. Actually human desire is all about what DRIVES technology, not the other way around. And looking back on what we wrote in teh course of a dozen years, it is kind of amazing how clearly we hit on so many things. Not 100% but way into the 80’s.
No one can tell the future. But some of us are better at it than others.
The Internet was driven, from the beginning entirely by passion. Electric Vehicles share that aspect and it is largely why I’m here. This is the NEW frontier with people in it who are passionate and enthusiastic and having a terrifying EXCITEMENT in doing it. That’s what I look for and that’s where I live. Once Wall Street and the townies arrive, I’m long gone.
We have a long bloody road ahead. And it will change and evolve EVERY DAY. So much so that a “monthly” can’t do it justice. It has to be weekly. Indeed, I just can’t DO a daily video. I can’t do it physically.
If you are wed to one holy and pure vision of how it will go, you will be rewarded with the vision, but perhaps not with success. If you pay close attention to reality, we are entering a zone of INTENSE opportunity. I will take great joy in your success. And some sadness in watching many early pioneers fade from the scene, imprisoned in their vision of how it could have should have been. These are CHOICES. Not random events. It doesn’t HAPPEN to you. You make it happen.
This little documentary is well enough done that you get a sense from those who were left behind, and others such as Tim Pozar and Phil Becker who profited and went on to other things. Tom Jennings, not mentioned, actually STARTED the International Fidonet that linked all these bulletin board systems somewhere in the 1983-1985 area. But he went on early to start The Little Garden, or I think that was the name of it, a very early ISP in San Francisco. He sold it for an undisclosed but substantial sum several years later. He also drove a Propane powered Rambler in those very early days. Successful pioneers just have a habit of pioneering. Always on to the next thing.
It has come to my attention that many of our EVtv viewers are really net heads. Today IT is kind of less exciting. More like a JOB. The prairie has been settled. But the urge to recapture those days of excitement and passion and enthusiasms and FUN remains. I think they’ll show up here. I think they already are.
Welcome. If you think the last gig was hard but exciting, wait till you get a load of changing the way the world DRIVES. It’s a bit of a challenge.