A nerd's eye view of history
March 25, 2013 5:49 AM   Subscribe

One insider's view of the mobile phone & internet revolution in the UK, 1992-2002. Featuring awkwardly stages pictures of the author, Simon Robinson, with Atomic Kitten.
posted by MartinWisse (6 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I was a colleague of Simon's during this same era. I can remember showing the Mosiac web browser - for the first time - to a senior project manager, up from London, from the non-nerd side of the business. His response was to go absolutely crazy about the fact that we were racking up all these international phone calls to CERN - who the hell was paying for that frivolity? In fact the answer was "almost nobody" - at that time the whole R&D site had just one ISDN link to the internet - and it very nearly neglected to renew its "bt.com" domain name that somebody had snagged.

BT's R&D labs were a strange cocktail: there was still the very rigorous and far sighted tradition that could be traced by to British Telecom's previous research labs at Dollis Hill - and then further back to Bletchley Park - theses were people who developed the worlds first digital exchange back in 1968 (scroll down to that year for details). On the other hand the company did not seem to really have the will to push through the ideas: the digital phone exchange (which could have boosted the UKs GDP by a significant percentage if it were commercialised back then) was shelved after the exchange fell over and somebody complained to a board member.

It was not until the iPhone came out that I finally felt that a company had started to implement the sort of user interface driven device that we had been dreaming of way back then. If Apple had not been piloted by such an obstinate bastard as Steve Jobs I honestly believe we might not be there yet.
posted by rongorongo at 6:19 AM on March 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

I was at Cable & Wireless Communications - the UK BT competitor formed from Mercury and the cable companies, which would merge with ntl to become Virgin Media - from about 1996 to 2000, from the call centres to product management in the consumer arm. Sadly, I sucked at product management, which is why I failed to convince the powers that be that the Internet was important, so they abandoned their cable modem project, instead investing in the ability to have a little picture of the current channel in the top-right of the screen when you opened the TV listings. Good move.

Especially since the telephone network was near collapse in many areas, because of dial-up modem access - all these 0845 numbers connected for hours and hours at a time. The 4p per minute or so cost was shared between the telephone company and the ISP, so that's where Freeserve and suchlike were coming from. This was fine for BT, which had invested in local telephony lines, but some of the old cable companies hadn't spent any money for fifteen years, so people were starting to pick up the telephone and hear nothing - no dial tone.
posted by alasdair at 7:23 AM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Something I had never heard before that had the great side effect of earworming me:

The 8110 was sometimes known as the banana phone

ring ring ring ring ring ring ring....
posted by MysticMCJ at 9:22 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

A friend, who used to be in BT's PR, was at the demonstration at Martlesham Heath where 'the Internet' (ie, Mozilla, plus some email and I think a few other services) were demonstrated to the board in the early 90s. The chairman said "Yeah, very nice. It's a fad. Like CB." and that was that for a while.

BT's internal politics and conservatism were extremely frustrating, especially when combined with the far-sightedness and technical excellence of many of the researchers. Martlesham Heath helped design the first cut of ADSL, for example, and had an experimental VoD/megabit network deployed over last-mile POTS to a village near Ipswich (I think - details escape me) for many years before it decided to make DSL available to mug punters. Likewise, it had an effectively-free 16 kbps nationwide network through the ISDN control channel, at a time when such things were really quite useful, but never made it available for two reasons: it couldn't work out how to bill per-byte at an economic rate, and ISDN was thoroughly and repeatedly knifed in the back by the existing, established, business data division. Which really didn't fancy any sort of cut-priced data getting out of the lab.

And it was an open secret that BT would make more money - indeed, every telco in Europe would - by ditching the billing system altogether and going for flat-rate subscription plus a per-call charge, anywhere in Europe, for less than the then-cost of a five minute local call. But the existing billing system provided all the cash, and it made sure it was very well protected. Which was a shame, it was huge and broken: one Christmas, all the 0800 number billing failed for about a week. Those are free to the customer making the call, but paid by the company at the other end ... apart from that Christmas. And that's just one I know about because another pal was in the billing centre on support over that period as a contractor. Lord alone knows the full picture.

Billing systems remain the dark secret of telcos - they define what can and cannot be done as much as, if not more than, the visible stuff, and they're Not Very Good. A sharky contractor with the right expertise can still make an absolute killing in that game,

(I've never worked for BT, nor come close, but everyone I know who has, has a set of war stories to shame Andy McNab,)
posted by Devonian at 9:39 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I fondly remember Genie through my Nokia 3330 period - unshackled from the big operators it felt like a revolution at the time. Its later incorporation into O2 was a dark day.
posted by specialbrew at 12:10 PM on March 25, 2013

Prestel (see contemporary video) was another BT system that accomplished much of what a web browser could do back in 1979. Unlike France Telecom's Minitel (retired only last year after having had 10 million users) it was priced too high to take off. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if this technology had been promoted by Acorn, Sinclair or other British firms pushing personal computing in the early 80s.

If anyone is interested in my link, above about early digital phone exchanges then this page has more accurate information: the underlying pulse code modulation of transmission was invented way back in 1937 - and the earliest trial with this technology was in 1962 at Highgate Wood.

While we are at it - I have to offer you the GPO (BTs predecessor) and their "Vision of the Future" of Telecommunications - video from some point in the 1960s and made by some people who did not understand Highgate Wood.
posted by rongorongo at 1:30 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

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