Sunday, July 07, 2013

BPN 1644: The Switch to Internet in The Netherlands (5)

How did the sudden switch to internet come about

Since the beginning of new media in the Netherlands at least five online technologies had been introduced and by 1997 only internet combined with e-mail had survived as proper online media, disregarding the one way television Teletekst service and CD-ROM as packaged bandwidth.


Illustration 2: Online technologies available in the Netherlands from 1980 onwards (Illustration produced by Chris Driessen Desktopping; Leiden, The Netherlands)

Commercial videotext services from 1980 till 1997 had only attracted 350.000 occasional users; however internet gathered almost a million users by the end of 1996. And within less than five years only three online technologies were left of the six, with only internet and e-mail as two way technologies. The technologies had gone through a wormhole, a term used in the Startrek TV series for a disturbance of the time/space-continuum.

Illustration 3: The wormhole of  technologies in The Netherlands (Illustration produced by Chris Driessen Desktopping; Leiden, The Netherlands)

So the question can be posed: what did internet have that videotext for example had not? Was it the technology of internet, the organisation of the services or the demography of the internet population or a combination?

- Technology of internet. When internet was introduced by 1991 the technology was not embraced by the telephone companies. They were busy promoting the seven layer OSI model. Internet technology however was originally embraced by university computer centres. So why did it spread fast? One of the explanations could be the disruptive technology theory by Clayton Christensen[i] . This Harvard professor observed that new technologies could wipe out great existing. He posed that big firms like IBM developed new technologies in line with the wishes of the clients. This leads to incremental and costly innovation. When another firm comes on to the market with a technology in the same field but more limited and less costly, a switch might set in. IBM in the seventies and beginning eighties was known for its room filling mainframes. It introduced in 1981 the PC which started to cannibalise the mainframe market. But also other companies started to develop PC’s and won the battle from IBM, which eventually sold its PC business to the Chinese company Lenovo. The same development started to show with internet. While the settled telephone companies were busy with their OSI seven layer model, the academic world was busy with their TCP/IP protocols, which turned out to be cheaper and more practical. So by 1993 TCP/IP started to succeed the OSI seven layer model on the Dutch academic network. From 1995 TCP/IP became a common standard in telecom.

- Organisation of the providers and services. The first online systems such as ASCII databases and videotex services started in the strict hierarchical systems. Dumb and intelligent monitors were linked to a mainframe or mini-computer. Then the distributed systems came en vogue and Bulletin Board Systems started to spread among amateurs. This lead to community usage of the BBS’s. One of the most famous ones was The Well, The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, best known for its fora, which was started in 1985 by Steward Brand and Larry Brilliant. The organisation of the BBS’s was not hierarchical, but more directed to virtual communities. Howard Rheingold , the guru of the virtual community, was in fact triggered by The Well. The free organisation of the The Well mirrors the later organisation of the internet. The Well happened in the USA. To a certain extent, a less hierarchical organisation of an information service could be seen in the French variant of the videotext systems. The Teletel/Minitel organisation was less hierarchical than the British Prestel organisation, which was being run by the British Post Office (BPO). The BPO controlled every aspect of the Prestel service from the network, the technology, the information service, the keyword administration, the marketing, the collection of subscriptions and fees and the marketing. The French PTT with Teletel/Minitel was more a network and technology provider, an information provider of the telephone directory as well as financial administrator. An information provider had more freedom in terms of running and marketing his service. - ASCII databases and videotext services could be seen as the digital equivalent of the printed media: information was going from the publisher to the reader. With internet this changed to interactivity between the publisher and reader and users amongst themselves.

- Demography. From 1980 there were two types of online services in The Netherlands: ASCII databases and videotext services. ASCII databases were seen as for business and scientific professionals. Videotex was seen as a Volkswagen, for traders and consumers. BBS’s were for computer amateurs. The number of new media users grew slowly, but with the CD-ROM it became interesting contentwise to buy a PC . However online users did not grow proportionally to the number of PC users.
On the other hand Dutch students were using PCs more than ever and in computer courses were required to have a PC of their own. Besides the Dutch academic network SURFnet started to play a role in teaching and research with free access to the network and network resources such as e-mail and access to libraries. They experienced problems when they finished their study and got a job in society. They no longer had automatically free access. So they became a thriving force to link to internet for business and in their private environment. With information providers such as XS4ALL, Euronet, Planet Internet and World Online coming up from 1994 onwards a new generation of experienced users was born. By 1996 the milestone of the first 1 million users was reached.  In 1995 internet users between 20-70 years formed 48 per cent of the internet users and 71 per cent of all internet users had online experience of less than 1 year.

Conclusions of this archaeological work can only be that:
a.      Internet was a disruptive technology for ASCII databases, videotext services and BBS’s;
b.      Contrary to the hierarchical organisation of ASCII databases and videotext services, internet
stimulated virtual communities;
c.      The academic environment trained students in the use of digital media and particularly internet.
d.      Dutch business and consumers caught on in the slipstream;
e.      It is clear that internet was a disruptive technology, which crept in through the universities and especially the university network and prepared students as precursors of internet for Dutch society.

[i] Christensen, Clayton (1997), The Innovator’s Dilemma. Harvard Business School Press.

Instalment 1: The Switch to Internet in The Netherlands

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