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   Anita Bora

"It's gone from 'cool' to 'I can't live without it'" - Madhu Menon, user experience consultant, Bangalore

Also Read:
-- Atul Chitnis
-- Radhika Nair
-- S Anand
Bangalore-based Madhu Menon has been working with computers since his school days in 1986, but his first exposure to the Internet was in February 1994 at a university in Australia.

Back in India, he managed to convince a cyber café owner into letting him use his facilities free in exchange for trouble-shooting work. Today he admits he'd be seriously lost without the Net.

Tell us about your early days and what you were doing then…

Studying for my degree in computing, or at least trying to. I preferred using the university's facilities, where all computers were connected to the Net and each other. Connectivity wasn't good by today's standards. The university had only a 64K link to the Internet, and everyone shared that. We geeks used to have all-night Internet sessions, when connectivity was excellent.

In those days, there were no mp3 file sharing networks, very few sites, and the people using the Net were a small group of students and techies from around the world. The Internet hadn't gone mainstream yet. So the link we had was pretty good.

Later that year, I bought a PC and a 14.4K modem that I used to connect to the University servers and get Net access.

At the time (1994), there was this weird thing called World Wide Web, something that looked like an interesting concept, but one whose time, many of us thought, hadn't yet come. We were right, but we overestimated the time it would take.

How small was the Web then, you ask? Small enough that the University had a little booklet on interesting sites on the WWW, updated monthly by a Scott Yanoff of the USA. A Google search for his name will yield interesting results. Of course, Yanoff would later abandon his guide, after the WWW took off, and updating it became nearly impossible.

Can you imagine someone printing a book today that lists the sites on the Net?

What was your early browsing experience like?

The first browser I used was called Cello, followed soon by NCSA Mosaic, and Netscape 0.9. Today, you'll find those browsers only at a site that archives them, like this one.

Sites at the time all looked pretty much the same. The ubiquitous grey background, linear style of arranging information. HTML 2.0 didn't support much in those days, no banner ads (how I wish this were still true), and it looked every bit like the geek's world. The Internet Wayback Machine can show you what sites looked like a long time ago, though its archives go back only till 1996.

What were some of your first impressions and initial activities online?

I was hooked! I could download game demos, sound files, shareware and even stuff like 'the terrorist's handbook' or 'the MIT guide to lock-picking'. I also had a place to debate things with people I'd never met -- all very fascinating.

Email eight years ago was still manageable. I stored all my email on ONE floppy disk. Think about that. 1.44 MB was enough to store a computing student's email. As I write this, my email folder is 300+ MB, and that's only email for the past year.

My three primary uses for the Internet at that time were email, Usenet newsgroups, and FTP. There were no instant messengers, but we sometimes used email as a makeshift instant messaging system.

A big part of my Internet life then, but something I rarely use now, were the Usenet newsgroups. The university also made good use of newsgroups. Today, I think they'd call that an Intranet.

My senior geeks introduced me to the wonderful world of FTP servers. In those days, the Web practically didn't exist, and we used to connect to FTP servers around the world, especially those of universities, and download programme code, shareware, games, sound files, etc. It was great fun.

What were you doing two or three years later?

After returning to India, I got a job as an information systems manager. I also started writing for technology magazines here.

Unfortunately, Internet access was ridiculously expensive in India (VSNL sold 500 hour packs for Rs 25,000) as were modems (28.8K modems sold for around Rs 14-15,000) and connectivity was pathetic and unreliable. I couldn't afford a connection at home.

Fortunately, I found a cyber cafe in Bangalore (one of the few at the time to actually have a 64K leased line connection) and made friends with the systems administrator there. In return for troubleshooting his computers and network, he allowed me free access to the Net. I was in heaven.

By then, I stopped using the Usenet newsgroups like I used to, but found mailing lists in their place, something I use a lot today.

What are your primary online activities today?

The most important change for me is that it has gone from a "wow, this is so cool" stage to "I can't live without it" in the last eight years. Almost any information you want is now available in a couple of minutes, and 'Googling' is standard terminology on the Net.

Thanks to the Net, I can communicate with people all over the world, share my views and listen to theirs. I'm on several discussion groups that tap into the intelligence of thousands, making us all wiser in the process.

I'm one of the admins at evolt.org, one of the largest communities of Web development professionals online. Its mailing list on Web development has got 3000+ subscribers from places like USA, UK, Australia, Sweden, Iceland, Chile, Germany, Kenya, South Africa, and India. Only the Internet could bring these people together without moving them from their seats.

The Net has also proven to be an excellent research tool for me. It can make you an instant expert. When I first got introduced to wine, I wanted to learn more. I spent two or three hours combing through wine sites, and now can tell my Gewurtztraminer from my Chablis. :)

As a writer, the Internet allows me to look up news, quotes and facts in a few minutes. I can also ask several people questions without getting them on the phone or visiting them. I get a few hundred emails in a day, from mailing lists to newsletters, and if I go without the Net for a couple of days, I feel the strong urge to get back.

I'm also amazed that the Internet, despite its apparent commercialisation, still remains a place for people to interact, share, and help each other out selflessly. And I hope it stays that way.

How do you see the Internet evolving in the next five years or so?

I'm not going to make any predictions.

Prediction is a dangerous game, and what you predict can come back to cause embarrassment. Bob Metcalfe, the famous man who invented Ethernet (so he must know his stuff), predicted that the Internet would go spectacularly supernova and die in 1996, or he would eat his words.

It didn't, and Metcalfe had to put his column into a blender and eat it. If Metcalfe couldn't get it right, what hope do I have? I just hope the connectivity problems go away in the next five years, and we get reliable, affordable, 'always on' high-speed connections for our homes.

The 'new trend', and the 'flavour of the month' articles will eventually disappear, as will the fads themselves. This is a regular cycle, and one we can't avoid.

Oh, and I think 640K should be enough for everybody. Wait, someone already said that!

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Also Read:
-- Indian prodigies setting the Web alive
-- Losing friends made difficult
-- Way back in time
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