A Brief history of Internex Online (io.org)

fact sheet for Internex, 8/14/93

Forward: Internex Online (io.org) was considered "Canada's first Internet access provider for Individuals." It was a community-centered system with a strong personality, started in 1993, and grew to about 10,000 users in 1995.

By: David Mason, ca 1995.

From my perspective, IO was an extension of the original ZOOiD BBS. ZOOiD was originally a Commodore 64 dial-up bulletin board system, started in 1987 after being involved on a few other systems. Bulletin board systems tended to be more narrow in focus, and most didn't offer any non-local capability at all. Instead, people participated via discussion in the local newsgroups, or private email to local users; usually there were a few dozen to a few hundred people on each system. On ZOOiD, especially in the early days, the overall style was irreverant, humourous, and strange; definitely a disillusioned but intelligent crowd that wanted to communicate.

As time went by, ZOOiD continued to grow. After a number of years, it went briefly to a DOS system, attempts at Minix, and then a Xenix based system. Though ZOOiD was a hobby, myself and the entire user population were increasingly using the information available from sources like Usenet and the UUCP mail system; largely because of the influence of people like Marc Moorcroft (Smarasderagd).

We participated in the local UUCP mail and newsgroups proliferation, which offered our members email to Australia faster than the post office could deliver it! The system would call the various UUCP points every few hours to deliver and recieve mail and news; a permanent connection was almost unheard of in those days except for universities or research companies.

On ZOOiD, the Internet email and newsgroups proved very popular, and also attracted a new group of people, just out of university or otherwise informed about the internet, who needed net access; it was very difficult come by otherwise. As a hobby system ZOOiD was running on a cost basis, while providing free access. To new members, the community meant little, though many chose to join in and contributed to the community immensely.

By 1993 we had four phone lines, at the request of Bell running a pipe up to a third floor apartment to accomodate them. Modems included the USR Dual Standard, Telebit T2500, and at one point some see-through GVC modem. We had about 300 members.

At this time Lyn (Gaea), who later became a founder of IO, started working for UUNET Canada, as their second employee. We met Marc (Scrappy) of R-Node, the final founder. He was running another unix-based system at the time, this one more oriented towards access through the shell prompt than the BBS-esque ZOOiD. We were exchanging mail and newsgroups, and started getting together for dinner and informal meetings. We were all strongly interested in the capabilities and community of the net and of course we dreamed of quitting our 9-5 jobs to do nothing but net stuff.

The Internet was picking up some momentum in the popular sphere, but it was very home-grown and more based on impressions of BBSs or CB-Radio. (Months later, after Internex was started, I was interviewed by a CBC news broadcast doing a story on William Gibson and "cyberpunk"; they felt compelled to describe the internet as a "global party line".)

At this time, the government announced an initiative to develop internet growth in the province, called ONIP, which our group heard about. Marc, Lyn and myself put together a proposal to provide low-cost Internet access to organizations, mainly educational, government and non-profit. My motivation came from my job at a "non-profit," seeing the potential of the Internet and how it was not generally available to organizations and individuals. Dial-up access from local non-profit or commercial providers was barely less than The Phone Company's corporate service, which charged by the kilobyte for access to email (TPC's support person: "The Internet? That's our competition").

Unfortunately, ONIP's agenda at the time seemed to be to foster "Free-Nets", and our proposal was too wacky for them. We were initially asking for $8,000, a figure that we thought would be adequate to get the project off the ground. (Just to reiterate, we really were early-20s hicks of the time, and hackers as well, not at all into big-business industry, just seeing something that would be cool to do, without having any idea we were supposed to impress anyone. We thought the low figure wouild make our project seem worthwhile, I'm sure we were backward now).

Our request was turned down but we continued to consider the idea. We talked to uunet.ca and got the go-ahead to access their Internet connection at a fixed rate by occupying space in the same building; 1 Yonge Street. One Yonge Street was the Internex (and UUNet) office in the Toronto Star building; Internex itself was in a very small office above UUNet, who'd recently taken their own floor. We decided to set up shop with what hardware, skills and funds we had.

conexus.xls, spreadsheet from 3/21/93 After considering the names Conexus and TH Inc, Internex Online was incorporated on May 27, 1993. It was designed with a dual theme, on the ZOOiD side the easier to use integrated shell, on the R-Node side the more powerful unix shell. The significant thing was that it had a permanent, dedicated Internet connection.

It's significant to note that while the public was aware of the Internet, and we expected reasonable growth, there was no real internet "boom" of the time. It was really not much more than an offspring of the BBS scene. We thought we might expand to 3000 users by the third year, much of the access provided completely free, with much of our job involved in participation in the internet in general, for example maintaining feeds with other servers, file repositories, etc. We expected our users would be of the same type we had encountered, mainly technical people or those interested in the net for a specific reason, like research or communicating via email.

From the early days, we had no thoughts of "cashing in," late 1990s net style, but instead thought of [eventually] making decent salaries doing what we wanted to do; run a big Internet BBS for a community, as well as participate in the growing inter-organizational scene on the net. We wanted to have more community and participation than the other services of the time, which we saw as spiritless.

meeting agenda, 10/29/93 The early days were excellent times. We were working together as an effective team and were very positive. The users were a close community and were participating in the system. We felt really driven to set the system up, and we literally threw everything we had into it.

zooid network image At the same time, there were many system problems, because of our lack of time, experience, and the primitive systems we were using.

Access in general was completely unreliable. Because of our limited resources, we had to build our systems with everything interdependant on everything else. considered unreliable with the DX-2/50. We were using Unixware because it had support for the multiport board we had (about a year earlier I was quoted right after Scott McNealy in Unixworld magazine for the quote that Unixware stood for "Unix - where?").

io ad, connecting Yet, the system was expanding, and because we were the only system to economically offer true internet access, and because most of the users were technical and understood how prototypical everything was, we did well. We took to advertising in places like eye magazine to get the message out.

I probably have the largest collection of early-days io memorabilia of anyone. Here is Internex's statement to the National Science Foundation, to gain official access to the backbone of the Net at the time, from November 31st 1993.

Internex agrees to abide by the NSF acceptable use policies. We agree to be responsible for the education of our users on the proper and acceptable use of NSF Net and we will ensure that no abuses occur.

Internex is a public access Internet site which provides free and low cost Internet access to many people from all walks of life. Our reason for existance is to make affordable access to the Internet available to people requiring it, in a responsible way. Among our clients we have many educators, researchers, professionals, students and others who use our service to maintain connections with others around the world and access worldwide resources. We have many examples of persons from these fields who depend on our services for access to worldwide colleagues or resources.

We also participate in the spread of information by providing openly available access to system resources. We plan to make our system available for the use of other non profit and research organizations. We provide system resources to developers who are working on Internet dependant applications in the realms of communications and connectivity.

For the first few months, I was the only full-time worker, and others could only work on weekends or after hours. Along with much of the setup, I was doing customer services, business stuff, and so on... Among other events, I remember things like three days of non-sleep starting December 24 1993, reinstalling the main server after a crash, along with daily emergencies trying to keep the feeble hardware operating and the often barely tested software running under ever increasing demand. For two very cold months the system would crash every morning at 3am, and I would ride the Yonge Street bus from Lawrence to the tiny office to reboot it.

We were also using Linux, due to dedication to cause and a lack of choice, at a time when the networking code was completely unsuitable for ISP use. Not to mention the fact that the modems and many other pieces of hardware and software we were using were not designed for our environment (Internex did not have any sort of proper machine room until more than a year later; we had to open all the stand-alone modems up and point a fan at them to keep them running half reliably). We had to write much of the code to tie the system together, and we almost always had to learn and experiment as we went along.

Early on, because of of lack of time and focus, much of the ZOOiD personality and ideas were put aside, and it simply became the "iox shell." This was disappointing to me, but I was too busy trying to keep things going. The system as a whole was gradually getting better, we were able to hire Emily as our first salaried employee, and by the time Marc was able to quit his job and work full-time on the system, it was starting to become more reliable, with days at a time of solid uptime. To accomodate this, the prices went from starting points based on the Usenet-BBS level of $45 per year, ever upwards, and the free access, originally meant to be fully useful for basic 'net use, was trimmed to "evaluation" levels (with free time provided during non-peak hours).

Even though competitors were starting to appear, and io was starting to hit hard cold realities, it was still unique. The community was still growing, with many people meeting in newsgroups, online chat and elsewhere. People continued to make meaningful, long-term connections, and their horizons expanded. Often because of the age of many people (high school or university), but mainly because of the opportunities and connections available in the online world.

Some of my favorite memories are from IRC in the early days; the community, openness, intelligence and humour I could find there was a good representation of what the net had to offer (it was also fun to poke fun at the really obnoxious IRC denizens - before they became overwhelming). During that summer, there were some great parties and get togethers and lots of amazing projects going on. Many of the people I met have had a strong impact on me. Eek a Geek, which was probably doomed from the start, was the greatest internet cafe ever. Generally it was incredibly interesting to see my own "hobby" and interests suddenly become the focal point of so much public interest, and meet so many people who also had some of the same interests. But overall, what was most important was that we met many interesting new people during this time, and new possibilties were always opening up.

And then, the real internet boom started happening, with more frequent mention of the net in media and solid demand for services. Internex was taking on hundreds and then thousands of customers, and we were trying to keep up with demand, but the original "vision" of the system was almost completely lost as everyone concentrated on trying to make things go. The free access was made useless.

I started getting interested in the other things that were happening on the net, as well as analysis of the ISP business. I found I wasn't able to communicate what I was seeing to others involved in the company. Marc seemed uninterested in anything outside of the day to day technical details of the operation, Lyn was busy with her job at UUNet. Because I was spending more time working from home (due to the cramped office conditions) on business development and general admin (along with business dev and some customer service, I was writing the accounting system at the time) I became less connected to what was going on at the system. My attempts to keep things moving forward, to push for business practices, analysis, and so on, were ignored, and I seemed more and more to be coming from the outside. Email that I sent to discuss these issues was disregarded and meetings I tried to call were skipped.

On the system, the quirky and aware tone was being replaced by meaningless business-speak. The original emphasis of being a very personal news, mail, shell and chat oriented system with a community was becoming simply a provider of network services; the less Internex could promise the better, to protect itself. Even so, the system was unable to expand quickly enough to meet the new demand. The original community was disillusioned with changes. Fragmented cliques were formed and the direct contact between users and admin all but disappeared. And as on almost all other services, in the public forums the old community was overwhelmed by bickering customers and retreated to IRC, MUDs, the world of commerce, and other places.

Alternatives like interlog.com were now available, they certainly learned from our mistakes... but there was ever more demand for access. The word ISP had barely existed in 1993, but now it had become big business. I found (once again) that I wasn't interested in business. I started getting interested in the "other" things that are happening on the internet. I was spending an increasing amount of time checking out the net in general, in terms of impact and technical possibilities. I had projects in mind that didn't seem to fit into what Internex Online had become. I wasn't able to communicate what I was seeing to others involved in the company, and it wasn't going in the same direction as me. I met someone who was interested in becoming involved with the Internex of the time, and sold my shares and resigned as President in September of 1994.

I lost interest in what went on afterwards. I felt I had tried to steer the company in a way that was positive to me, but it didn't work out, so I left. I had considered a number of options, but I know I'm not a straight-ahead business person. I'd rather seek out my own point of view and see if there are others like me, which is why I was drawn to the net in the first place, and still the thing I'm most interested in.

I enjoy the fact that our naitivitee and focus caused Toronto's early internet access to be very inexpensive. This enabled many people access who wouldn't otherwise had it; we were strongly in opposition to systems of the time like Compuserve. Additionally, at least to me, free access was always a big part of the system. Above all the focus was to enable people to escape what is sometimes the world of mundaneness to a more abstract place.

I'm glad that I met so many people, and was able to be part of contributing access and the online experience to so many people. I'm constantly amazed by how many of Toronto's early internet adopters got their start on Internex. These days the internet seems to be more about getting the customer to click on a "buy now" button, I hope the early ideas of sharing information and time carry through that to become a more significant factor. It is still possible to speak to newcomers about these values and meanings, which provides me with hope that the larger messages of the net are not lost, and perhaps the connected intelligence it brings will provide us with something more useful than more vapid consumerism.


Notes:

Some old ZOOiD BBS material is archived at Marc Moorcroft's site at http://pantransit.reptiles.org. I lost a large and interesting collection of documents in 1994, including the original less than serious Internex advertising. Somewhere I think I have an old tape of ZOOiD just before it became Internex, though I haven't had much luck finding it.