Bits from Bill

Technology thoughts leaking from the brain of "Bill Pytlovany"

Monday, July 30, 2012

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

qanimateYou may think AOL’s devious plan to create a critical mass of people online was the massive distribution of CD’s. Even when AOL’s Commodore service Q-Link was only available after 6 PM, it was obvious that online growth depended on modem availability. For years, AOL urged computer makers to include a modem as standard equipment. In 1990 AOL negotiated a deal with IBM to develop a service called Promenade to be installed on their PS/1 computers along with its own Prodigy experiment. Once IBM provided modems as standard equipment the industry had to follow. Thanks to AOL, all new computer owners had the ability to connect to an easy to use service without knowing of about duplexes, stop bits or parity. If not for the critical mass of consumer modem users nobody would have later invested in affordable broadband access.


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. ( )

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”.


America Online 20th Anniversary Celebration, May 2005

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.

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Anonymous Dustin Harper said...

I agree... and disagree.

AOL helped make the Internet mainstream and brought it to the lime light. Sure, it was around before, but it was mostly for geeks. Everyone knows the sound "You've Got Mail!", even if they didn't use AOL. For many, AOL was the internet. It brought the Grandma's and Grandpa's online. It brought the guy that just bought his first PC online.

Created? No. But, without it the Internet wouldn't be anything that it is today. It brought millions of people online in just a few years.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

no mention of Apple?

AppleLink Personal Edition (1988) poured tons of money into QuantumLink, and effectively became AOL.

Apple coughed up large amounts of money for AOL with both AppleLink PE and eWorld.
(not to mention some contact pay-offs in between)

The 'You've Got Mail' was lifted from Dave Kalin's code in AppleLink.

5:00 PM  
Anonymous Aryeh Goretsky said...

Hello Bill,

An insightful analysis as always, however, I think AOL's main credit has to be for popularlizing the Internet, which is a credit they will have to share with Microsoft (for Windows 95), NCSA for Netscape and also competitive services like CompuServe (which AOL later acquired).


Aryeh Goretsky

6:48 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Anonymous, It would require more than one blog post to write about Apple's relationship with AOL including my role creating the Apple II consumer version of ALPE.

Apple's role has been widely distorted which is confirmed by your comments. Not that it's a valid source but even Wikipedia states, "Eventually Apple approached Steve Case of Quantum Computer Services,..." when Steve spent about a year camped out in Cupertino trying to convince them to let Quantum create a consumer version of AppleLink. "You've got Mail" was recorded by the husband of one of our customer service reps long before Dave Kalin had heard of Quantum.

I'll let others with more information comment on the various Mac versions and deals that provided "tons" of money which I recall was initially paid to get out of their original agreement.

I do remember that when ALPE for the Apple II was released Apple ignored our recommendation to reduce the cost of the Apple Personal Modem 300/1200 which listed well over $300.

There was only so much room to make my point so I had to leave out contributions from many friends of AOL including Tandy, GeoWorks, LucasFilms, Johnson-Grace, Rob Fulop, GNN, Navisoft, Redgate, Medior, Ubique(Virtual Places),ICQ and Apple.

If Apple had more impact on AOL some might argue they may have continued promoting the proprietary protocols instead of opening the doors to Internet standards.

I don't mean to imply Apple had no role in AOL's future. Just my introduction to the Apple Human Interface Guidelines helped me promote an era of intuitive interface improvements at AOL. Changes to our FDO language required to support the Mac shaved months off the development of the first AOL for Windows. The folks at Apple I met were fun to work with and they knew how to throw a good convention.

I would enjoy to write a piece about the contributions of Apple but their role didn't fit the point I wanted to make in this article. Contributions came from individuals like Dave more than Apple Corp. I have some great stories. :)

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I represented the Department of the Navy on the Department of Defense Advisory Committee to Develop The Army Research Agency Network (ARPANET) which was a project to have computers talk understandably to each other. This waas a Top Secret Military Project originally intended to have the various computer projects being developed by the military communicate with eah other but when it wasdeveloped, the military decided that it would be a good way for the Air Force, Army and Navy to communicate in military situations. This was a TOP SECRET project that started sometime before 1965 and resulted in the first succesful transfer of reconizable dats in the Summer or Fall of 1969. It was a transmission of data from the east coast to a University in California. The project remained Top Secret over the protest and objections of many of the developers until the military allowed only University Professors to use it in 1985. about three years later in 1988, the ARPANET was released to the public for use. All these great contributions and developments referred to took place after that. Believe me that after 15 to 18 years of use by the military, the INTERNET was built on the Progress of ARPANET. Because it was a Top Secret, I was not able to talk about it to anyone and by the time all of the INVENTORS of the INTERNET around 1990 started to take credit for its invention, it took me about two years to recognize what they were talking about. I could name a few of the contractors and univeersities that word on the project and were frustrated that they could not use it. Art Fuller

11:24 PM  

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