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.