So, we’re spending a relaxing weekend at the beach. I’m working of course, using the hotel’s Wi-Fi connection (that’s how I relax) and my family is enjoying the sunset from the hotel balcony. My kids are listening to tunes from my iPod. Sheryl Crow’s Lifetimes comes on and my daughters both agree, Sheryl Crow is great. So I switch the iPod from playlist to artist mode, and they listen to a bunch of Sheryl Crow songs. All I Wanna Do comes on and they start to dance, telling me how much they love that song.
I love that song, too. I recall the album and the video very well and start trying to place it in time from memory. “It can’t be!” I exclaim to myself. So I Google it (free hotel Wi-Fi rocks!) and it can be. That song came out in 1994.
Whenever I encounter a moment like that, when something that feels like it should have happened just yesterday turns out happened more than a decade ago, I start to wax nostalgic about how the world has changed. This is one of those times.
Today I can get virtually any data I want delivered to my laptop virtually anyplace I am. If I’m sitting at a hotel, I can download and play almost any song ever recorded and pop it into a playlist on my iPod. I can tell my friends about the cool new song I just downloaded using email or instant messaging. And if I want to learn more about the artist, I just Google her. That’s today, in a world being blanketed by 3G and Wi-Fi high speed wireless Internet connections, municipal mesh networks and nearly ubiquitous commercial hotspots, like the one at my hotel. But that’s today.
In 1994 I was listening to music on CDs that I had to buy from a store. If I wanted to create my own playlist, I had to use cassette tapes. In 1994 I had an application called cc:Mail that allowed me to send text-based notes to colleagues (who worked for the same company I did and were inside the same building I was – it wasn’t exactly e-mail). If I wanted to look something up, I had to use something called an “encyclopedia” – a set of leather bound books which alphabetically presented you roughly 10 percent of the world’s important facts. Although my father used to sell these books door-to-door, the closest one to my home was at the public library. In short, I never looked anything up.
1994 was the dark ages.
But I remember something else from 1994: it was the year Metricom activated its first municipal wireless data network in Cupertino, California.
I wasn’t an executive back then, just a mere worker bee. So I could only admire the big boys with their fancy toys and imagine “someday, that’s going to be me.” Toys like the IBM ThinkPad 750 (which came with a built in CD ROM! No, you couldn’t record music on it, but it made installing software SO much easier) and 120 megs of RAM (which was a lot back then, trust me). There was still no email, but if there were, you could now use your notebook computer to send and receive messages using Metricom’s Ricochet MicroCellular Data Network, the first-ever muni wireless network!
It wasn’t cheap. Today Wi-Fi modems are built into notebook computers as a standard feature off the assembly line and you can get free Wi-Fi access in lots of locations, like my hotel for instance. And Wi-Fi can be as fast as 54 Megabits per second (but it’s probably likely that behind the access point is only a 1.5 Mbps DSL line).
But in 1994, there weren’t even that many notebook computers. That was the first year Apple sold the Powerbook. And modems of any kind weren’t a standard feature. If you wanted to connect even over a dial-up connection, you had to insert a card.
But still, the notebook held out the promise of mobility, and in 1994, Metricom wanted to help deliver that promise with a cellular-based data network for portable computers. First, you needed a modem. Metricom sold theirs at a discount to subscribers for the low low price of $495. If you recall cell phones of twelve years ago, they weren’t exactly the tiny palm sized devices we have today. They were big and had thick antennas, and so did the Ricochet modem.
But the modem could attach to the laptop, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. What’s more, it was so obvious you were using a wireless data network, that having that big, clunky box with the thick antenna sticking up actually made you look cool! Remember, only executives and rich people had wireless Internet.
Once you plunked down five bills for a modem, and a sixth one for service activation you had to select a service level. In 1994, there were four:
“Economy” – 2.4 kbps for $2.95 per month; “Standard” – 9.6 kbps for $9.95 per month; “Executive” – 19.2 kbps for $19.95 per month; and “Premier” – Unrestricted bandwidth for $29.95 a month (wonder how fast unrestricted was?).
Okay, let’s stop for a moment for a quick math lesson. 2.4 kbps? Let’s say it’s 1994 and you want to download the MP3 of that hot hit song, All I Wanna Do by Sheryl Crow, over your Ricochet network. The file is about four megabytes. A byte is eight bits. Your Ricochet connection can download 2.4 kilobits per second. How long will it take you to download the MP3 of All I Wanna Do to your computer?
It’s a trick question. There were no MP3s in 1994. But if there were, it would have taken you approximately 3 hours and 42 minutes to download one song. By comparison, if you were staying at the same hotel I am on the Oregon coast, you can download that song in about 35 seconds.
Fortunately, there were no great bandwidth demands in 1994 as there are now in 2006. No one was downloading music. You probably didn’t have email as we know it today, and if you did, probably no one else to whom you wanted to send an email had an account anyway. There was no Yahoo!, no Google, no MySpace, no Amazon.com. There was no World Wide Web (although in 1994 a fellow by the name of Marc Andreesen of a little-known company called Netscape predicted the World Wide Web would become a commercial success). In fact, I’m not sure what you could use the 2.4 kbps connection for in 1994.
Even so, here is how Metricom described itself in that June 1994 press release announcing the Cupertino network:
“Founded in 1985, Metricom is a leader in digital, wireless data communications networking technology. The firm, headquartered in Los Gatos, Calif., has developed a license-free, high performance, low-cost regional data communications network system that can be used in a broad range of personal computer and industrial applications.”
Metricom promised 30 regional networks by the end of 1996.
In 1997, by the time I had reached a certain professional status whereby I was issued a notebook, we were light years ahead of where the world was in 1994. I had email accounts at work and at home and there was a commercial World Wide Web (still no Google yet). And it was in a meeting in 1997 where I learned the great value of wireless Internet.
On one end of the table was the CTO of the company I worked for, on the other end his director of network architecture – the only two people at this company to have the Ricochet wireless Internet service. In between were two industry analysts who sat opposite me. Every so often during this meeting either the CTO or his director would tap on the keyboard and the other one would smirk. You see, by 1997, we also had instant messaging. But that will be the subject of another post.
Reposted with permission © 2006 Mobility Public Relations