Beginnings of the Commercial InternetFrom the late 1970s on, the importance of the connectivity provided by the NSF and its educational alliances cannot be overstated. There was no commercial viability or the Internet at this time, but it continued to grow at an incredible rate. The reason was the community of universities that took it upon themselves to provide the hubs necessary for a large volume of interconnectivity. Originally, telecommunications budgets were justified by the research aspect of this new Internet, but the volume of traffic grew to the point where there was a significant commitment required to continue growth.
Without the support of universities and their dedication to the ideal of a “free” Internet, there simply would not have ever been a commercially viable Internet. This idea that the Internet was to be free – and everything on it should be free as well – was both the biggest single reason why the Internet became a commercial success and the biggest single problem to its commercial viability.
Throughout the 1980s, however, the technical and hardware barriers to a commercially available Internet were systematically being eliminated. Telecommunications companies were investing heavily in networking infrastructure, while companies like Xerox, Intel and DEC were developing Ethernet, laying the groundwork for both wide and local area networks.
The Invention of EmailAs more hosts were added, more people began working on protocols and applications for the Internet. The first of these applications to meet our modern understanding of a killer app was email. Prior to email, communications between computers were like a chat. This had limitations in that you could only talk to someone in real time.
In 1972, Ray Tomlinson, an ARPANET contractor, tackled this problem. He came up with the addressing system – [email protected] computer – as well as the basics of an email message. Messages were sent using utilities called SNDMSG and read using READMAIL. The RFC system helped refine email, and soon email represented a majority of all the traffic going back and forth over the network.
ARPANET can also lay claim to the first instance of spam, when Gary Thuerk sent a mass email about a new machine at Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) on May 1, 1978.
In a grand perspective, email was the first compelling reason for making the Internet commercially available. The ability to send electronic messages to any connected computer gained value as more and more computers were networked together. Even now, email is one of the primary ways in which people use their Internet connections.
Telenet and UsenetEven though most of the network power in the world was being used for research or email, some people still found a way to have fun. Telenet and Usenet provided examples of how the Internet might one day become a tool for entertainment.
Usenet was launched in 1980 by two graduate students at Duke University. It was the first example of a public Internet discussion group that served as a precursor to bulletin boards and Web forums. Telenet was commercial – and one of the activities people were using the connection for was to play a text based role-playing game in the form of a multi-user dungeon (MUD), foreshadowing the massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) that would become popular in the future. In both cases, however, the people using networks for entertainment had to have a high degree of technical knowledge just to get started.