Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Say Goodbye To That 2300 Baud Modem!

I saw an article in today's Washington Post that made me wildly sentimental - AOL is moving closer to dumping its dial-up service, a decision that is probably past its time, considering that just this week, even my own 72-year-old mother-in-law, who is still highly suspect of the internet, dumped her AOL dialup account in favor of Verizon Fios high speed service.

I don't know many people who these days would have the patience for using a dialup modem for all of their internet service, but back in the day, (turn on the fog machine) AOL was the advanced way to get around online! Gather around, kiddies, and let grandpa tell you a story...

I bought my first real IBM-compatible personal computer computer at Lincoln Computer in Gaithersburg in 1991... It was custom built just for me, and if memory serves, it cost about 1200 dollars. The unit had a 386-SX processor, a 40 MB hard drive, and came with either 1 or 2 MB of memory... The 2 MB cost extra, but I sprung for it! It also came with a standard 5 1/4 inch floppy drive and a newfangled 3 1/2 inch floppy drive! All of this fit in a horizontal desktop box, which fit in a horizontal slot on the new computer desk that we also bought.

I remember discussing my new toy with one of our engineers at WMAL, an all-knowing technical whiz named Burt Cohen. Burt asked me what operating system I had for it, and I told him I had both DOS and Windows 3.0, although I hadn't yet quite figured out what Windows did, and I was comfortable working in DOS with its relatively easy-to-remember written line commands. Burt advised me to stick with DOS, because "Windows is just a fancy version of DOS, and it's a piece of crap"! Back then, most people operated in DOS, and had the option of booting up Windows... Most folks did not transition to Windows fulltime for several more years.

As for going online, I had three basic options... I could dial directly into local bulletin boards, which were a localized and very basic precursor to the internet... or I could dial into Prodigy, which was a very basic news site and a precursor of AOL.

Since modems ran at 2300 baud (1/20th as fast as today's 56K modems), there was no way you could actually look at pictures online, let along hear audio, so Prodigy would, one line at a time, paint a drawing of, say a famous person to go along with a news story. Prodigy also offered my first version of e-mail, which was little used, except by fellow computer geeks.

And then along came AOL. Robin and I were charter or near-charter members of AOL... I do not recall the exact details of how you paid for the service, but I do recall that you paid by the minute, with about 300 minutes per month for a set price. There was also a much more expensive option for unlimited service, but no one bought that... The one thing AOL provided was a "gateway" to the internet. I didn't know what the internet was, exactly, but who needed that when you could read the news and download software and send e-mail on America Online? We had AOL for years and never really fiddled around much on the internet... as strange as that may seem!

Eventually, the internet did catch on, and then companies started to scramble to come up with programming and technology to take advantage of broadband. It's been several years now since we dropped our dialup service, and switched, at first to DSL and then to fiber-optic high speed service. Frankly, it took an article about the end of dialup to take me back to a time when dialup computer service was the coolest thing EVER.

You millennials don't remember the space race OR life before the web. I'll tell you now that you missed a lot of excitement!

Jenny! Get me my walker! I'm late for Bingo!

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