IP everywhere - Fingers and thumbs to zeroes and ones

While the history of radio and television has been well documented, telecommunications is hardly given credit for its immense impact; the terms telegraph, telephone and telecommunications only appear briefly if at all in most reference books, unless you stumble on a couple of niche titles about undersea cables or the early history of the Post Office.

As for the origins of the Internet in New Zealand, well perhaps that was being left until sufficiently forgotten to qualify as history at some time in the future? The trouble with history is that its rarely written until the eyewitnesses are no longer with us. Connecting the Clouds is present history, from the commentators of the time, and in the words of those who watched this all-encompassing infostructure embrace everything in its path.

A combination of two Greek words, tele (far off) and phone (voice or sound) became the term for far-speaking, and in one of its earliest forms was associated with music. Charles Wheatstone, co-inventor of the telegraph, used the term telephonic, and described his creation as an enchanted lyre as it transmitted music from one room to another.

Samuel Morse gave us what was effectively the first digital messaging, using coded dots and dashes before the telephone took over, but the real advances in what could be transmitted over those intersecting copper lines began to gain credence from the mid-1980s. The great leap forward particle accelerated by the arrival of the Internet protocol (IP everywhere), which signalled the end of the line for proprietary networks, heralding a new era of open systems at a world-changing intersection where previously separate disciplines converged.

Convergence is a biological term for the way unrelated organisms have the tendency to become similar while adapting to the same environment. The word was hijacked in the early 1990s to embrace the process that was breaking down the walls between the broadcast, computing, communications, and entertainment industries by reducing everything to streams of zeroes and ones. Today the majority of data transmissions voice, images, radio, music and increasingly movies and TV are carried on the Internet.

What began as a distributed military network that couldnt be crashed, transformed into the jealously guarded playground of boffins and geeks, before exploding into the public domain with such impact that it soon became indispensable for business and personal communications. By July 2007, with 1.173 billion users or 17.8 percent of the world population on board, the Internet had clearly reached critical mass. We were bored with dial-up and while we complained about the broadband bottleneck, the digital divide and that fact access was still too expensive or not fast enough, the old infostructure was being stretched like an old stocking, with predictions the Internet would undergo more change from 2007 onwards than it had in the previous decade.

HUNT AND PECK Just over two decades ago, I was wholly reliant on my Remington typewriter; rubbish bin full of screwed-up balls of paper, pondering my next paragraph as I bashed away at the keys in my erratic hunt and peck, two-fingers-and-a-thumb style. Today in my home office Im on my sixth computer, which has more grunt and capacity that all the previous PCs put together. It sits on a network with a router offering around 3Mbit/sec Internet access on a good day, wirelessly connecting to my laptop with access to total storage capacity of more than 450Gb. I have a full suite of Microsoft applications, plus professional audio and video editing software and a wonderful time-saving tool called Isys, which allows me to index and contextually search the contents of my hard disk so I never have to wonder where I saved things.

Im not a code monkey or a geek. I am a researcher, writer and interpreter, a story teller, an observer of media, a trend watcher, a one-man clipping service, a music lover, historian and poet. Perhaps thats why bulletin boards, CompuServe and the Internet, excited me from day one. I have written about technology for 20 years, with a particular focus on telecommunications and the Internet. I couldnt wait to get on-line in the late 1980s and now I have difficulty getting off. I have succumbed to information overload. I am addicted and without my wife, artist Paula Novak, strongly encouraging lunchtime walks and computer curfews, I would most likely be even more afflicted by the muscular impact of overuse than I currently am.

I had put together several proposals for a book on the social impact of technology but weekly and monthly deadlines seemed to get in the way. Then circumstances aligned after the TUANZ Broadband Reloaded gathering in Hastings in 2004, when I mentioned the idea to long-time acquaintance Peter Macaulay. He pointed me in the direction of InternetNZ chief executive Keith Davidson, who was considering such a project. After two years of hassling him about his plans, he asked me to put in a tender to write The History of the Internet in New Zealand.

AWAKENED BY THE NET So what qualified me to write this book apart from having lived through and reported on those pioneering times when the Internet was gaining ground? Well, the Anagram Genius web service delivered up the most intriguing reshuffling of my name: Net waken him. And it had. Looking back over my family tree, I discovered my grandfather helped put in the first telephone lines along the Wairarapa coast between his service in the Boer War and the First World War. Perhaps the first experiences that began to shape me for writing about technology were, as a six-year-old in 1960, watching a man in a silver robot suit on a long walk from Wellington, stiffly striding past my temporary home at Tatum Park near Otaki, and a few years later, immersing myself in classic science fiction.

When I managed bands in Sydney in 19741976 I played my first games of electronic table tennis and while working for Channel 9, I was shown the mainframe-based teletext-style trading system that used the spare bands on the TV signal for selling goods on-line. I wrote a freelance article about robots for the Sunday News in 1979, and a scare story about Big Brother privacy threats for Massey Universitys Chaff magazine that same year. My first encounter with a personal computer was in 1982, when engineer and production guru (the late) John Haines set up the first music database at pioneering FM radio station 2XS in Palmerston North, where I worked in the newsroom.

In 1984 I replaced old-school journo, and later NZ Herald leader writer, Garth George, as sub-editor on Challenge Weekly newspaper in Auckland, and would return after hours to write poetry and short stories on the Compugraphic typesetting machine, sans the cut-and-paste features, which eluded me. My first PC was an 8088 clone with a dot-matrix printer, which I acquired in exchange for writing PR material for Dale Farnsworth of Software Plus in 1986. It had no hard disk, and the word processing program, First Choice, had to be held in memory, while content was written back to a five-inch floppy disk. I wrote screeds on this early DOS machine. My first serious attempt at writing anything legible about the computing industry however was as a features writer for Suburban Newspapers, when I agreed to let IBM tell me about its new IBM AS/400 operating system. I have never been so confused in my life and was ready to give up there and then.

I worked late shift on the subeditors desk at the Auckland Sun newspaper, where I retrieved copies of Computerworld from the rubbish bin. I regularly spotted stories I felt should be followed up for mainstream news. When promises of a comprehensive ISDN network began to appear, I got excited about the potential for pervasive electronic communications. Next thing, I was co-opted as the technology writer and got several months of columns in before the Sun went down. It was at that point, in 1988, that I was employed by Computerworld to replace journalist Richard Wood, who was in desperate need of a short-lived break from technology writing.

IN AT THE DEEP END I was immediately in the deep end, writing about relational database management systems, business computing, and the arrival of the PC as a mainstream tool. Still I made every opportunity to keep in tune with communications technology. Before long I had a CompuServe account. I was tutored on the basics of telecommunications by TUANZ secretary William de Hamel; the meandering philosophies of connected concepts and the IZE database a precursor to HTML by Andrew Tearle; Tony K (Tony Krzyzewski), introduced me to Chameleon for FTP, email and early web browsing. Mr Internet John Houlker and his feature-length conversations kept me on a steep learning curve during my on-line infancy; Jim Higgins and others continually stretched my understanding of public good connectivity and Internet governance; and US broadcasting veteran Bob Cooper from Coopers Beach, who provides 50 plus channels of cable TV to Cable Bay and surrounding areas, shared deep insights into the satellite and television business.

My first Internet service provider (ISP) was Jon Clarkes newly launched Internet Company of New Zealand (Iconz) and later Ihugs satellite broadband service. My first attempts at web publishing came with the special add-on to Microsoft Word, which evolved into Front Page. My first Web pages went live in 1997. Despite what may appear to be a harsh stance on Telecom throughout this book, I have remained an Xtra customer for the past decade.

There have been dozens of mentors and strategic thinkers who made an impact on my understanding; Trevor Eagle is recalled for long lunches, endless ideas, lateral thinking, and introducing me to Geographic Information Systems (GIS); Brian Eardley-Wilmot inspired me with a subscription to Fortune magazine and a copy of Scientific American packed full of futuristic thinking from information and communications technology (ICT) industry leaders; John Blackham, a great connector, was forever turning me on to the next great possibility; Alan Morton of Software Images was always full of encouragement and chose Buzz Words, my first multimedia poetry CD, as the pioneering Blue Book CD-Rom release in the country, sending it to his extensive database for Christmas 1997.

Until 2007 I remained largely focused on chronicling the unfolding history of the Internet for mainstream and trade publications, with occasional sidelines into poetry, producing music-focused radio programmes for Radio New Zealand National and publishing my first history book, Ratana Revisited an unfinished legacy, for Reed (Raupo).

During my IT-writing era I have contributed to many publications including: Computerworld; Network World; PC Magazine, which I edited from 19951997; Metro a monthly column from 1996-2000; the New Zealand Herald; Oliver Lees annual Home Technology publication, which I have edited for nearly a decade; MIS magazine; TUANZ Topics; e.nz, the professional engineers magazine; and Telecommunications Review. In my research I have frequently referred to The Dominion Post including the former InfoTech Weekly insert and The Press IT pages. The Weekend Herald and the Sunday Star Times are among the few hard-copy newspapers I still read. I Google almost everything else or catch the news on-line from numerous reliable sources.

It was sad to discover along the way that the management at some long-running publications, rather than acting as custodians of a valuable heritage, had binned thousands of photographs of the past because they took up too much room. Even a number of valuable digital archives had also been purged. Some of those who did have valuable archival photographs charged too much to justify using them. It was also strange to watch certain web pages that contained valuable stories about our Internet past disappear only months after I had accessed them, and to observe the changing URLs on a number of sites that made it difficult to create accurate and lasting footnote references for others to follow in my footsteps.

Connecting the Clouds attempts the broadest possible coverage of connectivity from pre-regulation to deregulation and back to re-regulation. My zigzag approach is intended to be chronological, but because the Internet has impacted on almost every area of our society, I have at times digressed in my weaving to explore the evolution of each sector. Each chapter swelled with ridiculous amounts of information and research before being culled, cut, and distilled back to a palatable and hopefully, informed, dialogue.

While I have tried to remain a passionate but independent observer, the facts kept telling me this was no time for a soft sell. An important history needed to told as it unfolded, a story that touches all of our lives, whether were technically literate or not; the story of how the Land of the Long White Cloud got connected across its own geography and beyond the tyranny of distance out to the wide world.

Through my IT-writing career and in piecing this book together I kept wondering, how it was possible for a former government-owned telecommunications monopoly to become so blatantly obstructive in impeding this nations advancement? How could various governments hold so many talkfests and commission so many reports, yet so flippantly disregard the long-term impact of technology? How was it that the first nation to deregulate the telecommunications and broadcasting environments could get it so wrong? In Connecting the Clouds, I got to explore that thinking in depth.

Making headway in the connected world was left to a handful of pioneering technical gurus in our research, science, and academic institutions who made quiet history learning on the job, often operating way beyond their job descriptions. With no government support they cobbled together a number 8 wire most popular psychic solution to ensure New Zealand became the first nation in the Asia-Pacific region to have a full connection into the US-based Internet backbone. They then set about creating a fledgling nationwide network that forever set the pace for not only public sector but private sector Internet access.

The Internet is at the heart of the most significant and rapid powershifts in history, opening the way for a new age of creativity, free thinking and collaboration. It redefines everything it comes into contact with challenging old ways of doing things, breaking down geographical, social, cultural, political, and business barriers. Just as the printing press and the Reformation took the Bible from the hands of the pope and a few priests who claimed to speak for God, so the Internet takes every form of knowledge, arcane and otherwise, to the streets and opens the doors on free and open communication that defies distance and dogma. Never before have like-minded people had such an opportunity to find each other.

Connecting the Clouds is dedicated to the pioneers who brought us the Internet and the ISPs and technical innovators who helped transform it into what it is becoming today; to the persistence of the radical thinkers, entrepreneurs, and visionaries who caught the technology tidal wave and learned to surf it before most of us had even heard of broadband. A double dedication to the dedicated ones who are still there after many frustrating years, still trying to shed light on the path weve yet to tread.