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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
(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.
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.