I believe that it will take decades, maybe generations, before the world – whatever it may look like then – will really understand how the internet changed everything and what those changes meant for the actual lives of actual people. And, how to live the kind of life everyone wants with the internet as the context.
Let me unpack this a little.
As I understand, ARPANET, basically, was a US Department of Defense project that began in the 1960s to create a network, sort of an electronic analog to the Interstate Highway System of the 1950s, linking up computer databases and resources to make knowing and reacting to change more efficient and effective. It didn’t take long before things got messy. A Brit named Tim Berners-Lee invented a system of universal resource location as a better way to find what anyone with access needed among all the documents and stuff available. (I’m really skipping over a lot of innovation, creation, and politics here. Sorry.) By 1993 or so, Bill Clinton and Al Gore started seriously selling the Information Highway to the public and we were off to the races.
I was sitting in my Silicon Valley office in 1994, trying to understand the implications of an email I just received from a university professor in Perth, Australia. He was reaming me out about how dare we say on our new web page that our software product could be had for USD 99, when the only way HE could buy one was to pay three or four times that much to our exclusive Australian distributor. Wait, what?
In a flash, as if lightning-struck, I realized that the veil of secrecy had forever been lifted from international PC-software sales, a marketplace I’d helped develop from 1984. BI (before the Internet), language barriers, but mostly technology and political barriers, meant that our job as a software marketing company was to sign up distributors in countries wherever IT folks (including professors of computer science) could use our products. Local distributors were free to charge whatever they wanted or needed to make their own numbers.
Our Aussie prof had free and easy access to our new web page, spoke English, and wanted our stuff. He had a great point. I saw that soon, our prospects in France, Italy, Hong Kong, and Angola (places where we had set up distributors) would see our web page too, and clamor for better terms. And that’s how it happened.
Meanwhile, we worked on how to take orders and cash online. That’s another story. Within a few months we were live and in business, eventually selling 75,000 copies of the product to about 350 universities in eight countries over two years.
In that microcosmic experience were the seeds of the economic revolution wrought by the web. Subsequent articles will explore further.