Mass Media & Technology

Internet on your TV

Remember back in the early 2000s when that was a thing companies thought should exist?

SE
settopboxing
Since my previous (now a bit old and neglected) thread about reviving set top boxes seemed to gather interest, I thought it might be nice to do the same for their internet-enabled counterparts whilst I'm taking a break from the main part of the project.

So I did. Remember the Bush Internet TV boxes? or ONdigital's own ONnet service? I wanted to see how they looked back in the day - there are surprisingly few screenshots online - so I set up a fake phone line, a local server, and argued with Linux for 12 hours or so, and...

*

*

...it worked! Eventually.

The Bush box can freely browse, to the extent you'd expect a slightly dodgy 20 year old embedded web browser to be able to browse (which, it turns out, isn't very great). I wouldn't suggest anybody does, but it functions about as well as it ever would've, minus the broad availability of Geocities-class websites to view on it.

The ONnet box sadly can't freely browse (yet), it seems to require initial registration with ONdigital's back-end system, which... erm, hasn't existed for well over 15 years, so that's a bit tricky. In the meantime I've bodged it to show what it would've looked like (as best I can) by redirecting the initial registration setup page it expects to a slightly modified copy of an archived ONnet homepage from around 2000.

Unfortunately neither service's content pages are especially well archived, so they're not quite as "just like it was back in the day", but it's a nice taste of roughly more-or-less kinda-sorta what it would've looked like.
SE
settopboxing
Videos:

Bush box dialling up (no audio, unlike the ONnet box, as these Bush boxes had no audio capabilities):



Bush box browsing:



ONnet box dialling up:

JO
Joe
Once again you’ve brought back some memories.

I was growing up at a time when the World Wide Web was really taking off in households – well that was my perception anyway. It was being actively plugged as a ‘normal thing’ on the CBBC shows I was watching, it was just beginning to be used during the new ICT lessons at school (and the library had lost some bookshelves to make way for 10-15 computers; a few years later they moved the library to a brand new extension next door and the computers took over the whole room). This was at a time when the kid who had a colour printer at home was the talk of the school.

The problem was that our home didn’t yet have a computer – it was a little out of reach financially, and I was aware enough not to push the subject!

In the meantime, I was using any available opportunity to explore the internet. As a much younger child I remember misunderstanding the purpose of those old AOL CDs. Some of them promised something like ‘100 hours of internet free!’ Naively, I thought that if I could only get hold of one of these discs, I could take it over to my older brother’s house (he had a PC but with no network connection) and use it there. If I used it for, say, an hour a week, the CD could last me over two years! It wasn’t until later that I realised the disc didn’t in fact contain the entire contents of the World Wide Web, and that my plan wouldn’t work. As a result, when I did manage to get hold of a stack of AOL discs I used them in a craft project, and they didn’t come anywhere near a computer.

Another potential method for me to try the internet was in one of those fancy BT phone box replacements, that offered free email sending. I was pretty excited to try it – it wasn’t until I got my opportunity to try it, as I waited outside a shop for one of my parents, that I realised I didn’t know any email addresses to try sending a message to other than some CBBC shows – and that I wouldn’t see any replies anyway.

Thus my main breakthrough in using the World Wide Web on my terms came (and you’ll be pleased to see this, as now my rambling comes back on topic for this thread) when we eventually got cable television. It was a few years before we got a computer with an internet connection, and exploring the Cable and Wireless interactive menus whiled away many hours. I believe there were, as indicated above by similar services, games, news, sport, travel and kids. I would have loved a web browser, as that would just have afforded free reign - but I was happy enough with those options for now. Most exciting to me was the email function, as touched upon above!

This time I was ready with some email addresses I could use. I think I was still pretty limited though – probably the same CBBC shows, my older brother and a school friend, probably. But it was incredibly exciting to be able to feel connected, and through the TV of all things. I do remember once winning a CBBC good bag, and I can’t tell you how amazing that was at the time, being awarded as it was simply for getting in touch and being declared the sender of the best email they’d received that day.

Another memory is the annoyance of having to type everything on the ordinary cable remote. It meant everything took an age, but that rather adds to the nostalgia of it all I think. I remember that Cable and Wireless, and I think later NTL, really plugged the option of a wireless keyboard to use instead. Sadly I could never convince my parents to buy one.

After what seemed an age, though probably really wasn’t, our family got a computer and an internet connection. That brings back its own memories, which I won’t go into, save to mention a panicked engineer returning to our house at 8am the day after installation worrying that he’d not told us to disconnect the connection when not in use to save a huge phone bill. Luckily we’d read that somewhere already, but I smile at the concern he showed.

I look back on that time fondly. Technology moved very quickly (it still does, but the changes seem that bit less exciting) and though it always felt we were a step behind I realise now that we were fortunate.

Apologies for this recollection that is only slightly on topic - and indeed for any inaccuracies in my retelling which are a result of my childhood understanding.
NG
noggin Founding member
The advantage of the Bush STBs were that they ran RISC OS - and it was possible to get them to an OS prompt and then into BASIC. If you had a Parallel Port Zip drive you could load additional RISC OS modules via that route and get a full RISC OS desktop ISTR.

You could reprogram the ISP number too - I remember I had Freeserve (0845 local call rate) as an ISP for a while and persuaded a Bush box to switch to that from whatever they wanted you to use.

One of the big advantages of the Bush RISC OS based approach was that RISC OS handled nice anti-aliased font rendering (long before other OSs did) and was also interlace aware - so you got quite a nice flicker-free high-res display - better than you'd expect an SD 576i display to render)
VM
VMPhil Granada North West Today
I once used Telewest's interactive service to look up cinema listings.

When I turned up to the cinema it was shut.
SE
settopboxing
Joe posted:
Once again you’ve brought back some memories.

I was growing up at a time when the World Wide Web was really taking off in households – well that was my perception anyway. It was being actively plugged as a ‘normal thing’ on the CBBC shows I was watching, it was just beginning to be used during the new ICT lessons at school (and the library had lost some bookshelves to make way for 10-15 computers; a few years later they moved the library to a brand new extension next door and the computers took over the whole room). This was at a time when the kid who had a colour printer at home was the talk of the school.

The problem was that our home didn’t yet have a computer – it was a little out of reach financially, and I was aware enough not to push the subject!


I also remember that time, when computers in general (typically beige box PCs as far as I recall) and then the internet becoming "a thing" in kids TV, outside of the usual suspects like Bad Influence, GamesMaster, et al. I'm a little bit too young to have seen the likes of The Computer Programme and Micro Live first hand, but it was a all a lot more varied, before the PC crushed everything.

We'd had BBC Micros and then Acorn Archimedes series machines at school, later fizzling out with the A7000 and RiscPC machines which just about held on whilst PCs had overtaken the older machines. I tried to make the most of whatever time I could get on those as I also didn't have a computer at home until quite late. Prior to getting access to the internet I found that plenty to keep me busy with the school computers whenever I could. Likewise when I finally managed to persuade my parents that a computer was something "we" could make good use of (albeit a second hand one and no longer contemporary; an Amiga 500, which in hindsight I especially appreciate). Didn't have the internet at home until quite some time after that, but it didn't bother me as I'd not had it to miss, and later still I took to using the public library's computers, taking a large stack of floppies with me to bring back fun new treats for my Amiga.

I spent quite some number of hours learning how to do things offline, to be creative, to find enjoyment in games because I couldn't afford to get new ones, to gain an understanding of the technology. I was just happy to be able to use a computer. These days I don't know what I'd do without the internet though, how times change, eh?

Joe posted:
I was using any available opportunity to explore the internet. As a much younger child I remember misunderstanding the purpose of those old AOL CDs. Some of them promised something like ‘100 hours of internet free!’ Naively, I thought that if I could only get hold of one of these discs, I could take it over to my older brother’s house (he had a PC but with no network connection) and use it there. If I used it for, say, an hour a week, the CD could last me over two years! It wasn’t until later that I realised the disc didn’t in fact contain the entire contents of the World Wide Web, and that my plan wouldn’t work. As a result, when I did manage to get hold of a stack of AOL discs I used them in a craft project, and they didn’t come anywhere near a computer.


I don't think I ever really thought that, not to the extent that I imagined I'd be able to use it, but it was definitely something that sounded tempting. It sounded so easy, didn't it? With this one CD, or with this piece of software on a magazine disk, the internet can be yours! I don't suppose I really quite understood ISPs then either, but it sure did sound enticing.

Joe posted:
Another potential method for me to try the internet was in one of those fancy BT phone box replacements, that offered free email sending. I was pretty excited to try it – it wasn’t until I got my opportunity to try it, as I waited outside a shop for one of my parents, that I realised I didn’t know any email addresses to try sending a message to other than some CBBC shows – and that I wouldn’t see any replies anyway.


Yeah, unless you were a frequent user of them, or perhaps a temporarily internetless enthusiast, I imagine a lot of people would've had a similar series of thoughts. Sounded like a good idea, but I'm not entirely convinced they were quite as practical as they appeared on the surface. Never used one myself though.

Joe posted:
Thus my main breakthrough in using the World Wide Web on my terms came (and you’ll be pleased to see this, as now my rambling comes back on topic for this thread) when we eventually got cable television. It was a few years before we got a computer with an internet connection, and exploring the Cable and Wireless interactive menus whiled away many hours. I believe there were, as indicated above by similar services, games, news, sport, travel and kids. I would have loved a web browser, as that would just have afforded free reign - but I was happy enough with those options for now. Most exciting to me was the email function, as touched upon above!

This time I was ready with some email addresses I could use. I think I was still pretty limited though – probably the same CBBC shows, my older brother and a school friend, probably. But it was incredibly exciting to be able to feel connected, and through the TV of all things. I do remember once winning a CBBC good bag, and I can’t tell you how amazing that was at the time, being awarded as it was simply for getting in touch and being declared the sender of the best email they’d received that day.


Since I didn't have cable, and only had Sky Digital much later on (and then only briefly, as far as me personally having full ownership of it), I didn't really experience that. I imagine it would've been like teletext was for me though, being able to navigate around all this information and "stuff" from other people, right in the living room. Sounds a bit odd to be saying things like that in 2020, I'm sure, but given I didn't have the internet (or any real experience of it when I was discovering teletext) and interactive TV wasn't really a thing yet, it was the closest thing I had.

Must've been like that for people fancy enough to have had modems and had discovered BBSs, it was all text after all, same as teletext, and still data transmissions from some mystical unknown location(s) that could've conceivably been anywhere or from anyone.

Joe posted:
Another memory is the annoyance of having to type everything on the ordinary cable remote. It meant everything took an age, but that rather adds to the nostalgia of it all I think. I remember that Cable and Wireless, and I think later NTL, really plugged the option of a wireless keyboard to use instead. Sadly I could never convince my parents to buy one.


I have a few of those in my collection, but I haven't had much of an opportunity to try them out. I think they're similar to the ONnet keyboard in terms of quality though, which isn't half bad (for a TV internet box keyboard - it's no clicky mechanical keyboard any means). The Bush's keyboard, in contrast, is bloody awful.

I've got a couple of Sky keyboards too, but having more of an idea of what was available on Sky than cable I'd question why anybody would've bought one at the time, I can't imagine they'd have used them much.

Joe posted:
After what seemed an age, though probably really wasn’t, our family got a computer and an internet connection. That brings back its own memories, which I won’t go into, save to mention a panicked engineer returning to our house at 8am the day after installation worrying that he’d not told us to disconnect the connection when not in use to save a huge phone bill. Luckily we’d read that somewhere already, but I smile at the concern he showed.


How far we've come, eh? These days you can leave your internet on 24/7, even on your phone, and not end up with a huge bill (that you'd no doubt get a severe "talking to" about). Even working on these boxes last night gave me a slight sense that I needed to hang up the line as soon as I'd finished each test.

Joe posted:
I look back on that time fondly. Technology moved very quickly (it still does, but the changes seem that bit less exciting) and though it always felt we were a step behind I realise now that we were fortunate.


I can't disagree. It did seem more exciting back then, I think partly because there was so much scope for improvement, so many directions to go, and because a lot of technology was still so primitive then it wasn't insanely difficult to make a big step forward from "this is quite good" to "this is absolutely bonkers". These days it's much harder, we've been pushing things to the limit for half a century now and computers have reached a point where everything's already so fast, so powerful, so graphically impressive, it's a lot less eye-catching going from "quite shiny photorealistic 3D game" to "slightly more shiny photorealistic 3D game" than it is going from 2D primitives to detailed sprites to textured 3D models in about 10 years or so.

I mentioned above being thankful in hindsight about having an Amiga, but I mean that in several senses. Of course I was glad to have a computer, many people didn't, but I'm also glad it was an Amiga. As a side-effect of that scrappy "whatever I can get, even if it is 10 years behind the curve" I feel like I've had the opportunity to experience a broader spectrum (ahem) of machines, operating systems, approaches to computing, and it taught me patience too, back when I had to make do with slow machines and be glad about it. Acorn and Amiga machines were both very good, they made the PC look like a joke, and it was (and is) a pleasure to be familiar with them.

Joe posted:
Apologies for this recollection that is only slightly on topic - and indeed for any inaccuracies in my retelling which are a result of my childhood understanding.


Now you'll not have to feel quite so self-concious about having rambled, given I have too... But to tie everything up in a nice little package, I think that's perfectly fine. After all, I can take all the screenshots and videos I like of all this stuff, but the human element of having experienced this stuff is just as important. I have my own experience with some of it, but I didn't experience all of it, so the more the merrier.

If it weren't for that context, this stuff would all be worthless, computationally deficient waste, and long forgotten and buried. It's the memories and the things they made us feel that make people like me (and thankfully others) do this stuff.
SE
settopboxing
The advantage of the Bush STBs were that they ran RISC OS - and it was possible to get them to an OS prompt and then into BASIC. If you had a Parallel Port Zip drive you could load additional RISC OS modules via that route and get a full RISC OS desktop ISTR.

You could reprogram the ISP number too - I remember I had Freeserve (0845 local call rate) as an ISP for a while and persuaded a Bush box to switch to that from whatever they wanted you to use.

One of the big advantages of the Bush RISC OS based approach was that RISC OS handled nice anti-aliased font rendering (long before other OSs did) and was also interlace aware - so you got quite a nice flicker-free high-res display - better than you'd expect an SD 576i display to render)


Indeed, I've had a bit of a poke about in the RISCOS prompt and a little bit of trying to recall my dim memories of BBC BASIC. I dunno if I'd have much practical use for a full RISCOS desktop on it (what with emulators and the Raspberry Pi being quite capable), but it's something I've always thought was rather a neat bonus feature, that ZIP drive desktop loading.

It's quite apparent that the Bush boxes and its predecessors (the NetStations and whatnot) were basically Acorns in a different box, which is quite impressive really. I never thought of them as being that sort of machine at the time (A30x0/A5000 era, some years before these boxes), but it says something that they found a use in that space, still making good use of the power of ARM and the vastly underrated (by many, especially those who didn't grow up with it) RISCOS.
DR
Drew1440 Central (West) Midlands Today
With ONdigital I remember they launched an email client first (onMail) that had a dongle that plugged into the STB with a keyboard remote. There was a software update than enabled the guide button on the remote which was used for Onrequest and Onmail. They never launched a EPG within the Ondigital boxes, instead relying on MHEG Teletext/ONview guides that took ages to load. i wonder if the onNet pages are on archive.org?

The Sega Dreamcast had a web browser back when it launched which was my first experience with browsing the internet on the TV. The PlanetWeb browser it used wasn't built into the console, and had to be loaded off a separate disc like a game.

Didn't Sky also had something similar with talk21 and open?
SE
settopboxing
With ONdigital I remember they launched an email client first (onMail) that had a dongle that plugged into the STB with a keyboard remote. There was a software update than enabled the guide button on the remote which was used for Onrequest and Onmail. They never launched a EPG within the Ondigital boxes, instead relying on MHEG Teletext/ONview guides that took ages to load. i wonder if the onNet pages are on archive.org?

The Sega Dreamcast had a web browser back when it launched which was my first experience with browsing the internet on the TV. The PlanetWeb browser it used wasn't built into the console, and had to be loaded off a separate disc like a game.

Didn't Sky also had something similar with talk21 and open?


I'm yet to have experienced the ONmail stuff, I don't know much about it, but it makes sense to look at it, given it ties all this together.

Trouble is, that MHEG stuff you mention, that'll sadly all be gone now, unless somebody happens to have a mux dump that contained it, which seems fairly unlikely these days. Would've been nice to have been able to bring that back too. Also, having used some MHEG apps on older ONdigital boxes (after they went bust), the dialup boxes almost felt a bit like that. Slower than the MHEG, and obviously recognisable to anybody who ever used dialup, but still a similar experience of waiting for the thing to render.

The ONnet web content is partially archived on archive.org's Wayback Machine, that's how I got hold of the pieces of web page to display them on my box, but there are sadly large pieces (most obviously images) missing, so it's quite incomplete. Likewise the Bush internet portal, it's sort of there, but with chunks missing. Could perhaps be reassembled by hand, but would take somebody who's good at art to recreate it accurately, and there's not a lot of source material to recreate it from.

The Dreamcast stuff isn't quite my scene personally, but what is interesting is that they too have been using the methods I used to get these boxes online for some years now, to play online games and use the Dreamcast's browser, via the dialup modem (as the broadband adapters are now expensive and hard to find), which is pretty cool.

Sky did apparently have an email portal via BT and Open..., which I hadn't been previously aware of, though again it would've suffered a similar fate to the MHEG applications on ONdigital in terms of whether it could be brought back. I do have a couple of Open.../Sky keyboards, but as Sky never had a web browser on their boxes it had always made me wonder how useful they would've been. I guess email would be one big use of them, that'd make sense (to whatever extent people ever actually used set top boxes for email at least).
NJ
Neil Jones Founding member Central (West) Midlands Today
People do collect the AOL/Compuserve CDs that were given away free either by people requesting them or finding them bundled with every magazine, comic, book, and God only knows what else. Though the trend at the moment seems to be the versions of the disks that were in the US (I dare say the UK ones were pretty much the same only with a different dial-up number).

Of course the concept of 100 free hours was just that - 100 free hours via freephone number. Back in the days before Freeserve came along, one had to pay the phone call charges AND the charges to AOL/Compuserve, and it was only at dial-up speed, something like (if you're lucky) 28kbps. You were considered top dog if you had a modem that could connect at the then breakneck speeds of 56kbps.

When Freeserve came along they shattered the existing establishment with a PAYG solution, you didn't pay Freeserve any money (not directly anyway), you just paid for your internet sessions as part of your phone bill. This model allowed any Tom, Dick or Harry to set up ISPs of their own under any brand and aside from the call charges it was free to the end user. Later expanded to your now traditional "pay £x per month and spend all the time you like online", later replaced with always on-broadband. Brilliant.

The internet was a different place in the 1990s and 2000s though. More emphasis on fast loading and less on flashy content and adverts, since most people would only have dial-up access in the first place. One of the key things internet companies learnt was that if their website didn't load in a reasonable time on a crap connection the customer could - and would - go somewhere else.

This probably also applied to the integrated browsers in the set top boxes (yes that wasn't just a pointless ramble above!)

13 days later

DR
Drew1440 Central (West) Midlands Today
So I was browsing Youtube and the almighty algorithm recommended me this;

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MjZdKtv9ak

Seems to be a program that renders websites using a modern browser engine (Blink), compresses and saves as an image and converts it to an older format, allowing it to be rendered on older and more embedded browsers like the Bush internet TV or the ON net. I wonder how far you can push it in regards to which website will load, and what the older device/browser you can use with it. Might try it with an old Win 98 pc
AndrewPSSP, Mort and paul_hadley gave kudos
NJ
Neil Jones Founding member Central (West) Midlands Today
Same principle as PiHole it would appear, you just force all your internet traffic through it and it strips out all the adverts on all devices without a need to use Adblock on. All you're doing in this case is just going through a proxy server aka the Pi.

If you don't have an old PC knocking around as a doorstop Smile, VMWare, Virtualbox (or any virtual machine of your choice) will do the same job, you can just install whatever old version of Windows you like into it.

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