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Online Before the Internet

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Most people think the word "online" means the Internet. But there was an "online" before the Internet, and some early pioneers have published a fascinating account of creating the world that was the principal ancestor of the web.

The web is now so ubiquitous it's hard to imagine life without it. But the tools and services we take for granted today are mere infants compared to some of the earliest online information systems.

Take Google -- a mere toddler, barely five years old. Or the web, scarcely more than a decade old. Even the Internet itself, in the form we know it today, dates from just the mid-1980s.

But online information systems have been around since at least the early 1970s. Two of the earliest were Dialog and ORBIT, and the stories of the founders who developed them, growing into both collaborators and fierce competitors, are absolutely fascinating.

Searcher Magazine has begun a series of articles profiling the early days of online information services. The first installment, Online Before the Internet: Early Pioneers Tell Their Stories, recounts a day-long meeting between Roger Summit (Dialog) and Carlos Cuadra (ORBIT), at the home Dick Kollin, the creative genius behind several online innovations.

The day was wide-ranging, covering both the technical and business challenges involved in literally inventing a new industry. A couple of choice quotes:

Roger Summit : "Retrieval was very crude in those days; it was all done by batch processing, tape spinning. You'd have a bunch of retrieval queries on punched cards and your database on tape, and you'd start processing that tape one record at a time and matching against the queries that were on cards."

Carlos Cuadra: "I surveyed about 7,000 users of information... In effect, considering the 7,000 survey returns and looking at the results, it said, "There is no business here." I looked at the data for a while and thought, "Maybe my survey's dumb." ...But I finally decided that my survey was wrong, or the respondents were wrong. I decided, "Once we do it, they'll want it." So I put the survey away locked it in a drawer and went to management and said that we had to start an online retrieval service. We started almost by accident."

There's a lot more of these types of insight. It's a fascinating glimpse of the early days of online, a world that wasn't so long ago in terms of years, but was vastly different than our own time when the net is now tightly woven into the fabric of our daily life.

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