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Hot on the Web

Being online

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 6, 2006
(Issue 2401, Viral Marketing)

I first ventured "online" in 1987, I guess. Former ComputorEdge editor and now best-selling author of "Windows XP for Dummies" (and all the other "Windows for Dummies" variants) Andy Rathbone and I, friends since college, had just rented an apartment together in Ocean Beach. Andy had a 300 baud modem, and had discovered the world of dial-up bulletin board systems via the old BBS list in ComputorEdge (then still called Byte Buyer).

He let me share his modem, and we both ended up being active on a BBS run by Morgan Davis and Bill Blue called PdBMS. No idea what that stood for, but it had previously been titled the People's Message System, which had the unfortunate acronym of PMS. When then-Byte Buyer editor Dan Gookin had t-shirts made up which read "PMS Commandoes" everyone assumed we were just husbands looking to get out of the house one weekend a month.

Back then, there was a clear distinction to being "online" – it mean you were connected to another computer via your modem. Offline meant something, too – the modem was off or at least disconnected.

Do such terms even have meaning in 2006?

With the continuing growth of residential broadband, both cable and DSL, more and more of us are experiencing at home what we already experience at work: Our computers are continuously "online."

And with cell phones and palmtops, we are increasingly wired into a global network.

It may be that in the very near future, being "offline" will be as much a novelty as being "online" was 20 years ago.

Life in Cyberspace

While this column is titled "Hot on the Web," it obviously takes in much more than just the Web – just as there is more to the Internet than the World Wide Web. There is e-mail, instant messaging, file downloads via ftp. In fact, IM and e-mail probably account for more of the Internet's traffic than the Web does.

And what about online gaming? Sure, with Yahoo, Pogo and other online gaming sites, a lot of that takes place over the Web.

But even more takes place in both massively multplayer online games and just multiplayer games like CounterStrike and Battlefield 2. Even old standbys like StarCraft and WarCraft take up plenty of bandwidth their 8-player games.

And online gaming continues to grow – witness the popularity of Xbox Live.

More to cyberspace than the Internet

And just as there is more to the Internet than the Web, so is there more to cyberspace than the Internet.

Back in the BBS days, each time I logged into a BBS, I was online – in cyberspace. Yet I wasn't on the Internet. I was in a small, self-contained network comprising the BBS computer and my computer. When I logged off, I was no longer part of that network.

There are similar networks today in which we are online but not part of the larger Internet.

AOL is the most prominent example of a private, self-contained network. Now, AOL has a large portal through which its subscribers can access the Internet – but if you send e-mail from your AOL account to another AOL subscriber's account, your message is not traversing the Internet. The same with all the AOL "channels" and online games – those are all part of the AOL network.

Using your cell phone puts you into a digital network (at least for most carriers these days); sending text messages or photos to someone else's cell phone takes place on a network, but not the Internet. (And of course, you can forward your photos to your e-mail account – again, using a portal to go from a private, self-contained network to the Internet.)

So while the Internet is what has defined the concept of being "online" for the past 15 years, it has never been synonymous with cyberspace, with being online.

And it is less so every day.

Even going to the ATM involves accessing a network – it is, in a very real sense, an act of being "online." When you pay with your debit card at the grocery store, the funds are transferred from your bank account to the grocer's merchant account over a private, secure network.

And so, a year from now, it may be that this space will be devoted to yet another application of connectivity – which is really all "cyberspace" is: two or more people engaged in a shared activity over a network of electronic devices.