Early Days of the Internet

Noisy dial-up modems, GeoCities, Netscape, ICQ, AltaVista and more...
July 10, 2018
I grew up in the 80s and 90s and experienced the rise and evolution of the internet at first hand - my secondary school had one or three computers with which pupils could access the internet! (I guess the only thing we did was e-mail and purposeless browsing across the web....) Anyway, in this article I like to look at a few things anyone who grew up at the same time as me will remember of using the early internet. Just let me know if you remember the same things or that you have other memories!

I guess the first thing that comes to mind when talking about the early days of internet is the browser Netscape Navigator (first released in 1994 and mostly just called 'Netscape'). Since I had a Macintosh I almost only used Netscape - I'd only see Microsoft Internet Explorer on Windows PC's on school or at friends. Oh, and look at the picture. Do you remember that in the early days on the internet many webpages were just a grey background, with black text and blue links? So for PC users Internet Explorer pushed Netscape off the market - but as a Mac user I still used Netscape for quite a few years. Netscape was officially ended in 2008.


It's hard to imagine, but Google debuted in 1998 - not that long ago for a company that's now one the largest data firms in the world. So before Google we used search engines such as WebCrawler (1994) and AltaVista (1995) and in 1995 also Yahoo! saw the light of day. In the beginning these search engines were good enough (Yahoo! also offered a large directory with links in themes, that we actually used!). However, they proved too easy to manipulate (with keywords spamming and meta tag spanning), causing unuseful search results. Google's brilliant algorithms of using link value solved a lot of this problem - and made them as big as they are today.

Easy HTML codes
The basis of HTML nowadays is still the same as in 1994 and that's great. However, nowadays using the 'Hyper Text Markup Language' is a lot more complicated then back in the days, mainly due to all kind of additional elements (more advanced JavaScript, CSS and so on). It now almost feels more like a programming language than just a 'markup language'. In het beginning everyone could make a website with basic HTML code (you could just type it in Notepad!) and since there were almost none additional elements, almost every website would look good! However, almost all of us misused the -tags in HTML for making up the design of a webpage, causing a lot of troubles when missing a closing tag. I guess CSS is a lot better for designing pages now, although it's more complicated.

Website Under Construction Signs
In the early days of the internet many, many websites were 'under construction'. (The construction usually proved to be permanent). It was common to show to website visitors that a webpage was under construction - therefore even special 'under construction' icons were developed. The animated gif below even has been around now for almost 25 years! It took a while to understand that nobody likes websites that are under construction - though even nowadays some companies and people still don't understand...
E-mail Scams
E-mail scams are as old as the internet. Letters from Nigeria that promised a lot of money if you'd send a little money are still around. However, with the declining popularity of e-mail in favor of WhatsApp and similar services, these e-mail scams seem to become less popular. But in the early days of internet (before proper spam blockers) almost everyone received these scam letters. These scams actually seems quite harmless in comparison to the many viruses and phishing messages users can receive in these modern days.


GeoCities was first introduced in 1994 and turned out the be very popular. It offered a user friendly service for building and hosting websites for everyone - for free! (well, maybe they would show a few ads on your pages). (The 'under construction' icon was found on most GeoCites websites, since many people started a website here but never finished it). In 1999 Yahoo! bought GeoCities, which caused a bit of controversy. Many found that Yahoo! benefited from others because the company became the owner of all texts and images published by GeoCities users. However, many GeoCities websites were still around for the next 10 years. But in 2009 Yahoo! closed GeoCities. It is said that 38 million pages disappeared from the internet with the closing of GeoCities.


ICQ (pronounced as 'I seek you') is one the first instant messaging programs that gained some worldwide popularity. It was released in 1996 and bought by America Online in 1998. ICQ was easy to use and the main symbol was a flower - this flower was green when somebody was online and red when somebody was offline. In 1999 Microsoft released MSN Messenger and that proved to be so popular many forgot about ICQ. Microsoft stopped with MSN Messenger in 2012, probably because most people started using WhatsApp (first released in 2009). Microsoft said it integrated its MSN Messenger functions in a renewed Skype application, but overall it lost lot of its appeal.

Amazon.com Books - "Earth's biggest bookstore"

Just like Google, it's amazing how big Amazon got in just 25 years. In 1994 it launched its first website (with grey background, see picture) and it was actually called Amazon.com Books - since it only was an online bookstore, set up to compete with real-life bookstores. It even had the tagline "Earth's biggest bookstore" (it's below under the A in the picture, but it's a little hard to read). A bold statement at the time, but they probably make it true now! It wasn't until 1998 that Amazon announced it would expand its business beyond books. However, (e)books kept important business, as was proven by the successful release of the Amazon Kindle e-reader in 2007.
Modem sound & internet over phone line
The most iconic aspect of the early days of the internet is probably a serie of sounds - a dial-up modem seeking connection! It sounds something like prrrrr krrrrrgggg rrrrrrch. There's a brilliant joke about this in the movie The Muppets (2012) when a character named '80s Robot tries to connect to the internet and all other Muppets can't stand the sound (see video below, I hope it works, since I can't see it in the preview of this article). Oh, and last but not least: internet worked over phone lines. So while using the internet it was not possible to call or to receive calls. My mother would shout: 'Are you done internetting? I would like to make a call!'

July 2018
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