Monday, July 06, 2009

Obscured by Clouds

Last week it was announced that AOL would retire the once mighty online service business called CompuServe. For people like me its a metamorphism of sorts to see this kind of news. Its hard for people today to assess the vision and excitement of those days when the service was initially launched.

To properly understand their impact you have to consider computing before the advent of online services. Initial computers were huge capital expense and no one except really large corporations bought it. The rest of the folks leased time on these machines and this time-sharing business was worth $1.67 billion USD in the early seventies. 

Then came distributed processing with the introduction of "minicomputers". Now, if you are in the time-sharing industry this is a serious threat to your business if people started having their own time on their own machines rather than lease time on your boxes. So they morphed to use the "dumb terminal" approach wherein you use the minicomputer to log on to the much more powerful mainframes,etc

More eyeballs meant that more adoption. Then people started buying modems. Like telephones, modems need something interesting at the other end for people to buy them. Whats this gonna be?

Jeff Wilkins  then knew this was a market in search for a product. He also had to solve the problem of idle time on these heavy machines (since the businesses used, those machines were doing nothing on weekends and nights). He brilliantly organized a team that came up with the following recommendations:

* Sell the end users access to powerful machines like DEC for computing purposes.This is now reincarnated as Amazon EC2

* Sell extra storage on the same servers as the tape systems on end users' machines had very limited memory. This is reincarnated as cloud storage services that many vendors have been selling.

* Sell person to person and person to interest group communications. This was a precursor to modern day chat systems and bulletin-boards/forums

* Since any brick and mortar company has finite inventory, sell electronic software distribution services .In other words Downloadable Software as opposed to physically shipping them. This is the precursor to modern day content delivery networks.

These arent the only things they did (they did online travel reservations, fostered online communities,etc) but wanted to highlight how not very much has changed in terms of perspective since the last 35 years in the world of online services. These days all the above four are put in a bucket called 'cloud computing'. Old Wine in a New bottle..

RIP CompuServ (the e was added way later for marketing purposes)

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