Digital Life 16.4.2014 07:00 am

The month it all changed

Image courtesy stock.xchng

Image courtesy stock.xchng

Twenty years ago this week, South African newspaper readers were given their first in-depth exposure to the Internet.

The headline looks quaint today: “Visit another world at the end of your phone”. But then, it was like a light-bulb being switched on. That was when a South African newspaper, for the first time, provided readers with a guide to the newly-commercialised creation called the Internet, along with its poor relation, the electronic bulletin board service (BBS).

PC Review, a supplement to the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian), had been the first South African publication to begin covering the Internet in 1993. In April 1994, it ran an eight-page special on the connected world, sparking a frenzy of interest and coinciding the newspaper becoming the first in Africa to go online.

The features and articles were both groundbreaking and – in retrospect – archaic. Guides to Telkom’s Beltel (“the largest interactive bulletin board service in Southern Africa”) and smileys (“How to see sideways”) shared space with reviews of 14kbps dial-up modems.

A fascinating aspect of the special edition was the range of writers represented, as well as individuals featured for their early adventures in the cyber world. Johnny Clegg spoke about how he had promoted his 1993 American tour via the BBS community. Today he is still touring the world – and is also a partner in a business that disposes of e-waste.

Andile Ngcaba, then head of information technology at the ANC, spoke about the new information highway. Just weeks later, he would become director-general of the department of communications – and today heads up Convergence Partners.

PC Review was started by Irwin Manoim, co-editor of the Weekly Mail for its first decade or more. He was recently awarded an honorary doctorate in journalism by Wits University. He also revolutionised computer-based publishing in this country.

I had been news editor of the Weekly Mail and joined Manoim as his assistant on PC Review, eventually becoming its editor.

Finding to-pics to cover was not a challenge: personal computing was in an explosive state back then, even before the Internet and mobile phones arrived. The Windows 3.1 opera-ting system, the CD-ROM drive, the first truly portable notebook computers, and a bewildering array of startling new uses for computers made it feel like the birth of rock ‘n roll.

That pioneering edition holds many a cautionary tale. Back then, Compuserv was the world’s best known commercial Internet service provider, search engines didn’t exist and a list of phone numbers of electronic bulletin boards was regarded as a revolutionary public service. Twenty years from now, expect a look back at today’s Internet to seem equally archaic.

 

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