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Monday, April 16, 2018

Retro-Internet on an iPad Pro

For whatever reason, over the weekend I found myself musing on how far the Intertubes have come from the crazy days of dial-up PPP and ICQ and RealPlayer (you kids with YouTube have NO idea how well off you are). And just for fun I wondered how much of the "classic" Internet from its earliest years could be replicated on my iPad Pro...

Turns out: quite a bit!

Here's what I came up with after reaching back into the inner fog of time immemorial, or at least those strange days of college. Trying to find analogies on the App Store of everything that most of us had as Internet utilities on our PCs or, if you were fairly wealthy, laptops. Don't even think that we had smartphones in those days. "Internet" and "phone" usually meant waiting until your roomie was finished talking to his girlfriend before you could fire up the 14.4 baud modem (sorry about that guys).

The resulting group of apps, which with usual creative flair I dubbed "Old School Internet":

I still hate that %#$@ Gopher icon, looking at me, grinning, mocking...

That's pretty much what most people had on their Windows and Mac machines, absent having an account on a UNIX server (which students at most colleges and universities were given access to so even if you didn't have your own PC then, you still had quite a bit of Internet power to do uhhh... "work" with).

Aesthetically the most glaring omission from this group is Apple's Quicktime Player, which was the precursor of the H.264 video standard now so ubiquitous on most devices. Quicktime became the most commonly used - and most trusted in terms of security - video format on the 'net in a fairly short amount of time, supplanting RealMedia and some other competitors. But since the descendants of Quicktime are built into every browser (and Apple-built product) nowadays anyway, a dedicated Quicktime app would be worse than redundant.

For the web brower app, instead of using Safari as comes with the iPad Pro, I opted to include Firefox. Why? Because Firefox is the successor of Netscape Navigator, which was derived directly from Mosaic: the first "killer app" in Internet history. Mosaic was the first browser to incorporate the ability of using graphics and also gave greater control over fonts and text sizes. So let's pretend that this is Netscape Navigator, or even Mosaic:

The last website that Kip Chalmers ever saw...

That's the "official" website of Wyatt Oil. If you get the reference without Google-ing it, go buy yourself a candy bar and pretend you bought it from me. I'm not going to give you the candy bar because if you know the reference you already realize that giving it would be a violation of moral code.

If we seriously wanted antiquated Internet by any means, we would have to get e-mail through a UNIX system and using the Pine program. We used Pine with our accounts on the server at Elon (my own account name was was knigr5c0) but I don't have a UNIX server handy at the moment. So instead let's find an app that approximates the kind of program most of us used with commercial Internet providers. For a long time I used Eudora, made by Qualcomm. But there is no Eudora on the App Store and I didn't want to use the E-Mail app that comes with iOS devices, so I used the Google Mail app instead:

Just imagine it without the Nigerian scammers...

And now we're getting into the good stuff! I'd venture to say that the vast majority of Internet users have either never heard of Usenet or it's a vague notion playing on the edge of memory. But once upon a time Usenet was how a LOT of productivity - more or less - happened on the Internet. I know of at least two major websites, still going strong today, that spawned from their founders being active on newsgroups.

Okay so what's a "newsgroup"? Basically a big trove of publicly posted e-mails on just about every subject imaginable and some that Hunter S. Thompson wouldn't hallucinate matter how much acid he'd drop. I'm still trying to figure out what alt.muppets.bork.bork.bork was supposed to be about. Anyway, if you were a Star Wars geek, rec.arts.starwars was the big central place to pow-wow at. There was a hierarchy (more or less) and to be an "official" newsgroup it had to be voted on by Usenet, errr... users. Otherwise they were an "alt"-something. And of course this being the Internet even then one had to take anything you'd find on Usenet with a massive cow lick of salt.

I sincerely thought that Usenet wouldn't be around anymore, and I can't even remember the last time I went to a newsgroup. But there are a few Usenet servers still around. Most of them are with ISPs and are included with monthly subscription, but some out there are free... IF you can connect to them. No luck on that. Still, having a Usenet reader on my iPad is pretty neat:

Before Facebook and the Russian hackers THIS is how we got our fake news...

Telnet is a utility that is still often used in academia and other purposes. Not so much today by most private users but once upon a time this was one of the best arrows in your quiver. Telnet is remotely logging in to another computer, and usually a very BIG computer, and using it on your own desktop. It's how most of us checked the e-mail on our student accounts when we lived off campus. It's also how you could play MUDs (Multi-Level Dungeons) and join in the community on ISCA BBS. Operated by Iowa Student Computing Alumni, ISCA BBS was the "hang out place" for all the cool kids... even if we only had plain ASCII text on a screen.

So I found a Telnet client on the App Store and out of pure muscle memory typed the address, expecting it to not be there at all...

... but it WAS!


Holy crap!! ISCA is still running!! Wish I could remember the name of the account I last used on there. My first screenname was "The Man Eating Cow" and over the next couple of years I was "Jedi Master Yoda" and "Let My People Go" and a few others (why so many names? There was a girl at Elon who was stalking me. Long story...). I joined this time as "TheKnightShift" and was welcomed by pretty much the same screens that came up every time I ever logged in before.

And then there were MUDs.  Something I never got into but they were popular enough that you knew what they were.  The MUDs were essentially an MMO like World of Warcraft, except all-text.  If you ever heard of a waaaaay old game called Zork well, a MUD was pretty much Zork with a few hundred people running around inside of it.  And some of them are still online!  If you want to telnet into one of the more famous ones from the ancient times and give it a try here's the official website for ShadowMUD.

FTP means "File Transfer Protocol" and is one of those things that is now running under the hood even if you don't know (or care) that it's there.  Still, it gets a fair bit of usage, particularly when bulk uploading or downloading material.  Here is one FTP utility I found in the App Store:


I could never make sense out Gopher.  It was a search engine thingy that let you look for material on Gopher servers, usually at universities and major libraries.  If it was out in "Gopherspace" you could easily find it.  IF it was in Gopherspace that is.  But it must still be used and appreciated because there is at least one Gopher client for iOS devices and I'm assuming for Android also:

"Gophers, ya great git! Not golfers! The little brown furry rodents!"

I figured that a text-based browser like Lynx wouldn't be on the App Store.  If it is, it's so obscure that it didn't show up in a search.  And some might wonder about the point if a web browser that shows only text.  But there is quite a good rationale for it.  Lynx and other text-only browsers can tie in to software that converts the words into audible speech.  Hence, even thoughs with little or no eyesight at all can "surf the web".  Pretty neat aye?  There are some textual web browsers for the iPad Pro and other mobile devices. However none of them make it plain "Amish-style text".  All they do is strip out the graphics and other bells and whistles and generate text with the formatting, fonts etc. intact:

The Knight Shift: Apocalypse Mode
Because the wasteland cares not for your bandwidth...

And that's pretty much how it was two decades or so ago.  We were the pioneers.  The ones who had to dial in through a landline and hope that there weren't so many connections that we couldn't log in.  Who could only share photos with other users (like that girl who sounded so cute) by giving them our snail-mail address and wait a week for a Kodak print to arrive.  Who had to trust that the character waving at us inside a MUD really did have a sword equipped before we stormed the castle.  Who had to uudecode that file from a newsgroup, having good faith that it really was a pic of a computer-animated dewback from A New Hope: Special Edition and not something obscene.

That's how we had our Internet.  And we LIKED it!

"Now get off my lawn!"