How America Online Created the Internet
Last week Gordon Crovitz created a hornets nest of debate with an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Who Really Invented the Internet?” This new article has generated more responses and distortions than Al Gore’s interview with Wolf Blitzer on March 9th, 1999 when he said, “I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”
The goal of the WSJ article seems to downplay the governments’ role in developing technology that helped generate successful Internet businesses. What appeared to be a tech article turns out to be a political piece.
Mr. Crovitz would instead give full credit to Xerox PARC labs for their creation of Ethernet. He even managed to weave Steve Jobs into his story acknowledging Jobs saw potential in Xerox which included the graphical user interface he would later use at Apple.
I’ve read a number of articles which rebut the Journal and most mention Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn who created TCP/IP while working on the government project called ARPANET. Ironically, many articles neglected to mention Sir Tim Berners-Lee who was honored during the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. NBC’s lack of info had everyone scrambling to search his contribution in creating a web standards group. Sir Tim documented application protocols and gets credit for HTTP, HTML and the URL format used to define hyperlinks. HTML is actually derived from SGML a mark-up language that itself resulted in early research by IBM.
In fact, most of the fame given to Internet pioneers is related to the technical networks and “protocols” used to transfer or present data in a meaningful, standard way.
So when I claim that AOL, who used a proprietary communication protocol(P3) and a display convention(FDO) optimized for 300 baud modem traffic, created the Internet, I’m going to make some heads spin
Critical Mass is defined as “an amount necessary or sufficient to have a significant effect or to achieve a result.” What the Wall Street Journal and most tech historians ignore is the Internet, as we know it, would not have been possible without the millions of users instantly provided by America Online. The cost of hosting any website would not have been possible without a critical mass of customers to make it possible. Without AOL’s efforts to integrate and commercialize the Internet nobody would be spending money on your favorite website.
While I had left my lead development position in 1991, I stayed involved as a consultant to AOL and many of its partners. My initial consulting project for Capital Cites/ABC was building automated tools so they could easily upload content to build their AOL areas. The executive leadership at ABC (pre-Disney) openly acknowledged they weren’t expecting to profit by being online. Companies did see a future being online but many households still thought using a modem was for hacking into government computers. An presence online was still a research experiment for most enterprises.
During the early 90’s my replacement at AOL, who had inherited my FDO language, convinced me that HTML would allow partners to use standard tools and modem speeds could now support it. America Online clearly knew the future was in the acceptance of Internet standards to provide even more content for their members.
Thanks to the archiving of AOL Press Releases by Time Magazine’s, editor at large, Harry McCracken, I was able to find some of the evidence that helps prove my point. Source: A History of AOL, as Told in Its Own Press Releases
On June 3rd, 1992 AOL announced it was opening up an Email gateway making it simple to send Email to contacts not using AOL. Members just needed to add the @domain name to the Email name. There still weren’t a lot of Internet ISP’s so at first it mostly provided a way for AOL members to communicate with friends on CompuServe and other online services.
Harry documented when AOL passed their 500,000 member goal in 1993 but I guess there wasn’t a press release on how AOL customers were unleashed onto the USENET News Groups with its first graphical user interface. When AOL arrived there were only 4,000 news groups. According to Wikipedia by October 2002 there were 100,000. The invasion of new users provided a critical mass that allowed for groups on any topic imaginable. Unfortunately, the established USENET users weren’t happy that all these new users also meant diversity. AOL users were quickly labeled as “newbies” and worse because they didn’t know “the rules”. What had been a private playground used by techies was now available to anyone and AOL wasn’t welcomed. It was one of many contributions which were ignored and even generated negative press.
On June 2nd, 1994 AOL continued to promote Internet standards announcing an easy, graphical interface to the popular services Gopher and WAIS. At the time, these were hot examples on what the Internet offered. Apparently, they weren’t as interesting to the masses since today most have never heard of them. Both were absorbed into standards defined by the World Wide Web Consortium. ( W3.org )
By the end of 1994, AOL opened its doors providing its own content in a HTML format making the service available to Internet users not using AOL software. In November 1994, they acquired BookLink Technologies who had the most sophisticated web browser at that time. Future acquisitions continued to focus on Internet enhancements.
Two million certainly seems small by today's numbers but providing those active AOL members with easy, graphical access was key to the growth of the World Wide Web. AOL was instrumental in creating an environment to both grow a customer base and finally made it cost effective for most company’s to create an online presence. In the next year, AOL’s membership doubled to four million.
In the years that followed AOL made some good and bad choices. The decision to make unlimited online access available was radical at the time but set a standard for others still common today. Unfortunately, as most you know, this seemingly popular decision backfired. The popularity of the service was unsurpassed and the inability for members to consistently connect would permanently damage the AOL brand. So, when I wrote telling you that “America Online Created the Internet”, your reaction was probably “What? AOL Sucks”.
Most pictured here spent years working long hours with no expectations of changing the world. Many never became Internet millionaires. We just knew it was fun and shared the dream that we could provide an online world that anyone could use.