Going Online in the Early 90s, Part 1
Delphi, Genie and the World of Online
Back in 1991, the internet was not the thing you know it as today. There was no world wide web (and thus no web sites). There was email, remote connections, file transfer, discussion “forums”, but they were all different things and not really connected to one another. To go online then you either connected to a local bulletin board system (BBS) or used a national online service, which is what I primarily used.
It all started for me in late 1991 when I got a 1200 baud Hayes modem that was given to my Dad by a friend who had upgraded to a faster one. This was an external device that connected to my ST using the serial port. I had never gone online before and found it amazing. I first tried connecting to local bulletin board systems (BBS) but there were not many in my area (and the ones that were here were often busy). I then tried a service called GEnie (General Electric Information Exchange), which provided a lot of free access for $5 / month, which was amazingly cheap and affordable for a poor college student. You had to pay by the hour to get the good stuff, though. I believe it was around $10 / hour. CompuServe was the big name at the time, but it was $12 / hour and far outside of a college student’s budget. I also tried another service called Delphi. This eventually because the one I used the most when they introduced their $20 / month pricing for 20 hours online. If you went over the 20 you paid for each hour, although I think their rate was still pretty reasonable.
Delphi was really my favorite online service. It had great pricing as I mentioned above, but it also had a good Atari community with discussion forums and a download area. Delphi also was one of the first online services to start to hook up to the bigger internet (no world wide web yet), so I had an email address there that anyone could contact me at.
Once I started writing for Current Notes, I got special privileges on Delphi, the big one being that I no longer had a usage limit. I still had to pay my $20 per month, but I could connect for as long as I wanted. To me, that was an invaluable perk!
It is important to understand how different going online was back then. You were not always online like you are now. You had to use a modem to call a phone number to go online. And you really wanted your service to have a local phone number because those calls were included in your phone bill. Phone calls outside your area charged by the minute.1
I know people like to complain about the high cost of internet or their cell phones these days, but things cost much more back then for only a fraction of the service, speed and functionality.
Anyway to go online you had to make a phone call. I had roommates, which meant that the phone was not always available. It also meant that if I was using the phone, no one else could and no one else could even call us. They would just get a “busy” signal — there was no voicemail back then.
This was a hassle so it meant that the best time to go online was in the evening when no one was awake.
Also, as I’ve mentioned you had to pay by the hour to go online. And the clock was ticking even if you were just slowly reading the user forums, for example. This tended to prevent dawdling around, that’s for sure.
Lastly, download speeds were slow. Not slow as in sometimes my internet today can get slow. Slow as in: I think I can type as fast as this data is being displayed. Downloading files took a long time, sometimes an hour or more. And if the download was interrupted because of an error such as when a roommate picked up the phone, you’d have to start all over again.
For an example of the slowness, the Hayes Smartmodem 1200 I used had a maximum speed of 1200bps. That’s bits per second. Divide that by 8 to get the maximum byte rate (which was usually slower because of extra error-correction bytes) and you get 150 bytes per second (Bps). SpeedTest.net just reported that my internet download speed is 472Mbps, which is 472,000,000 bytes per second or 3,776,000,000 bits per second! Granted, things were much smaller back then, but you were still waiting around a lot.
Genie was an online service from General Electric intended to compete with CompuServe. It was not quite as popular, but was cheaper. It was also the “official” home of Atari Corp, so sometimes they would host roundtable meetings online with staff.
I do remember when I was writing for Current Notes that I helped host some roundtable discussions, which were basically an online, moderated group chat. There would be a special guest for the roundtable. A moderator would take questions from attendees and send them to the guess to answer. All this was done as text, of course.
Overall, I didn’t use GEnie nearly as much as Delphi, but I did make sure to upload my programs there.
Continue reading in part 2:
Phones were weird back then. I remember each month I’d have to sit with my roommates to go over the phone bill and figure out who had to pay for what calls. Most of the time you only wanted make out-of-area calls after 6pm because the per minute rate was cheaper. People like to complain about monthly cell phone charges today, but a monthly phone bill back in the early 90s would easily eclipse any single cell phone bill and was far less flexible!