ZDNet at 9,600 bits per second (and we liked it)

ZDNet at 9,600 bits per second (and we liked it)

Summary: ZDNet's 20th anniversary: Before ZDNet was on the Internet, it lived on an online service: CompuServe at 9,600 bits per second, and we liked it!


It was 1991, and only academics, researchers, and the military were on the Internet. For most people, going online meant connecting with a v.32 modem, at the blazing speed of 9,600-BPS (bits per second) to a Bulletin Board System (BBS) or an online service. The most popular of these services was CompuServe and so it was that Ziff Davis, them the publishing company parent of ZDNet, decided to start its own mini-online service, ZiffNet, on CompuServe, and I was there.

Under the CompuServe/ZiffNet ID, 72441,464 and then, as now, one of ZDNet's most prolific writers, I was writing on the online discussion forums, helping to manage them as a "sysop," and doing some trouble-shooting. You, if you've come to the online world since the Web arose a few years later, would barely recognize 1991's ZiffNet.

For starters, everything was text-based. Oh, someone might post a message with ASCII-art from time to time, but that was it. That isn't to say though that you could read stories on CompuServe/ZiffNet. At first, you couldn't. All you could do is "talk" with each other and Ziff writers and editors on the various publication forums, such as Computer Shopper, PC Week (later eWEEK), and PC Magazine. These publications live on but no longer have any direct connection with ZDNet.

We also boasted an online forum for executives, Executives Online, or in CompuServe terms: ZNT: EXEC. There, Esther Schindler, noted writer, editor and sysop supreme, would host technology industry movers and shakers as they would 'talk' to forum members.

Unlike today's online discussions, most people were, dare I say it, civil with each other. Oh, there were flame wars then too, but there were far less of them. When they did erupt, they were usually quickly put down by sysops and the greater community of readers. At their best, the ZiffNet CompuServe forums really were communities of people sharing information about computers, programs, and their lives.

In part, that's because while most things have gotten much better online over time, we--and here I mean everyone on the Internet--really haven't come up with a better online discussion model than the one the CompuServe platform provided. It was easy to start discussion threads and when, as they always do, started to go off track, it was easy, as a sysop, to cut the off-topic conversation away and create a new discussion thread based on it.

Of course it may also have been that back n those days you paid for your time online. If you wanted to fight with someone online you had to pay a pretty penny for the privilege. Few people wanted to fight to the tune of several dollars an hour!

A lot of people were willing to pay money to go online to download the latest software though. Today, we don't even think about it. Want the latest version of Google Chrome? Bang! You've got it. Chrome would have taken most users an hour to download then and that time would have cost you. Still, it was cheaper than buying boxed software-remember when almost all software came in shrink-wrapped boxes?--so many people tied up their phones for hours downloading the newest programs.

ZiffNet, with its large library of free software and shareware, was very popular. Its direct descendent lives on today as CNet's Download.com (http://download.cnet.com).

If doing all this at a mere 9,600BPS seems insane to you, I assure you, it didn't feel that way to us at the time. We had just recently moved up from using V.22bis modems, which topped out at 2,400BPS. 9,600BPS was four times faster. It was like kicking in the afterburner on a fighter jet.

Today, of course, we grumble if we're stuck at a mere 1.5 to 3Mbps (Megabits per second) on a slow DSL. The first ZDNet lived on a far, far slower network.

As time went on, ZDNet start posting stories from its related print publications online-a radical idea in its day! No one though was writing 'online' yet though. Although some of the forum's technical discussions became every bit as involved and detailed as any article, news and features were still written for print first and only weeks later they might appear online.

By 1994, though, the hand-writing was on the wall. Neither CompuServe nor Ziff, AT&T, and Washington Post's experimental online service Interchange was going to be the way forward. The future would belong to those who lived on the Internet, and on April 27th, 1995, ZDNet started its move from its online service roots to the Web-based version you know today.

» Return to ZDNet's 20th Anniversary Special

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  • But the downloads weren't of graphical stuff

    You could stand 9600 bps for another reason: You weren't downloading graphical-interface software, so your programs and files were much, much smaller then than now.

    (Remember when it jumped to 28.8? What a delight! Then 52K -- in theory, anyway - didn't seem as much faster as I expected...)

    OK, this means nothing to most people, but if you started out, as I did, at 300 baud -- 300 bits per second, or about 30 *characters* -- you could almost read it coming across the screen! -- then every jump was exciting: to 2400, 4800, 9600, 28.8, 52K -- then here comes cable, and the world changed: You no longer had to worry about how big a file was! Ahhh!

    mac mccarthy
    • RE: ZDNet at 9,600 bits per second (and we liked it)

      @mcwong <br>Lol i never saw 52k only 56 k...I could imagine now adays having to use a 1-3 Mpbs connection that would be terrible considering home speeds are over 50 and cell downloads never drop below 8 but jump to 20 on lte lol
      I do remember the old BBS days and making the red and green tone generators for free calls and free connections lol
  • And for foreigners too it was a huge thing!

    I'm french. I used Compuserve in the early days and i had to connect to an american phone number to connect (2.4k then 9.6k) and here, in France, the rate of a minute call was huge! I made the connection, grab all the messages, and quicly cut the connection. Then, i spent hours to read these and send my thoughts later, in another quick contact. PAst times! now, we stay on line all the time, and even forget that we are connected.
  • RE: ZDNet at 9,600 bits per second (and we liked it)

    I don't remember the speed but the first time I connected was with a friend in the same city in 1984 with those old phone modems. Looked like you were giving your handset rubber boots. LOL No long distance charges so time meant nothing. I sent him some shareware games just for fun. Waiting for that was like watching water boil. Go for supper and come back to find it still uploading. LOL Still felt exciting for me at the time but from today's perspective it seemed painful.
  • RE: ZDNet at 9,600 bits per second (and we liked it)

    The good old days. 2400 and 9600.
    DOS Telix ran my BBS, downloading a game meant waiting till I went to bed and letting it run while I was asleep.
    I still have my PP 14.4 modem in the closet.
    Zmodem and Xmodem and using those prefix numbers to make long distance way cheaper.
  • RE: ZDNet at 9,600 bits per second (and we liked it)

  • RE: ZDNet at 9,600 bits per second (and we liked it)

    I remember using an Atari 800XL with the cup-style modem. That was always fun. Also, I remember AOL and a 33.6k modem... then along came NetZero with data compression, and that 33.6k suddenly became something like 70 or 80 k when it averaged out, meaning Windows Update for Windows 95 would only take an hour instead of 3 or 4 (if AOL didn't hang up first).
  • RE: ZDNet at 9,600 bits per second (and we liked it)

    FidoNet on an Apple (1) computer at 300bps. Everything showed up in caps.

    I remember thinking back then, "This is going to change the world. One day, people all over the world will communicate with each other in message boards just like this one. Only it'll be faster. It'll have pictures. It'll be so cool!" And so I became I computer programmer.

    I don't miss the bad old days one iota. But I do wish I could live a hundred more years just so I could see what the technology world will be like then.
  • I remember when...

    I was in graduate school getting my Masters in Library and Information Science. I justified the cost of my Compuserve account because it was obviously going to be very important to libraries. (FWIW, I still amaze people at how I can get information they ask for, using the skills I learned to create online queries for Westlaw and other online article services. Compuserve's cost per hour was a drop in the bucket compared to these services, but to grad students or professors doing research it was well worth the cost.)
    One Saturday night I took my then-girlfriend up to the library school on the top floor of the library to show her this amazing service. She was very taken with it, and the next thing we know, it's 0-dark-30 and we're explaining to the campus cops how and why we got locked in the library!
  • Ahh,dialup.

    I read about an OS called Mandrake. I had 56K dialup and a download manager that allowed me to pause and resume, kind of a primative bittorrent. It took a week and 24 online hours to get my ISO,but I got it. It was about the aveage ISO size now, 680 Meg. I had to learn a lot of new tricks. Now, I re-connect or cancel if it takes more than 15 minutes.

    I do miss the chatrooms that came with AOL and the people I met there. I still connect with only one. That's the only thing I miss about those days.