Sunday, March 11, 2007

Thinking about WAIS, Gopher, and ExecPC

I was reading a post by Brad Abrams, where he was wondering why WAIS and FTP had died out.  While I disagreed with the idea that FTP has died out, WAIS is one of the long gone technologies of the Internet.  Unless you were using the Internet in the early '90s, the odds are that you have no idea of what WAIS was.  WAIS is over.

I remember trying it and not being terribly impressed by it when I got my first dialup Internet account (to get cheap access to ExecPC).  In the late 80's and early 90's, ExecPC was a super (as in huge) BBS, run on a bank of 386 machines.  At the time, ExecPC was one of the best places to get Amiga and DOS freeware and shareware.  While writing this post, I found out that ExecPC was still up and running, just without any modem access.  You can telnet into it from here.  I took a quick peek and it looks exactly the same as as it did the last time I logged in, back in 1998.

I got my first fast modem from an ExecPC auction.  Back in the days where 14,400 baud modems were the top end and 9200 was the norm, US Robotics had their own HST protocol that ran 16,800 downstream.  You only got HST speed when connecting to another HST modem, but the better BBSes had a least one HST modem.  One fine day, ExecPC upgraded their modems and they auctioned off the older ones.  A buddy and I got a couple of Courier HST Dual Standard internal models.  I think we paid about $150 each, at the time HST Dual Standard were going for $500.

If two those modems were not the original prototypes from US Robotics, then their serial numbers were still in the single digits.  These were full length cards and they had wires running all the place..  They worked great though.  After a couple of months, I was able to trade mine in for a new external Courier V.Everything modem.  This was back in 1994 and it was probably the fastest modem available on the consumer market.  I was able to upgrade it to the V.34 and V.90 standards when they became available.  It was is built like a tank.  I had stopped using it 7 years ago, when I got broadband, but my in-laws used it until last year, when they finally got broadband.

ExecPC was run in Wisconsin and it was expensive to call from NY.  ExecPC had a deal with an ISP named Concentric Research (CRIS).  If you had a CRIS account with a local dialup number, you could access ExecPC through the CRIS Unix shell as a local call.  When you dialed into CRIS with a terminal program, you got dumoed into a menu, from which you could access ExecPC.  It had other things on that menu.  You could drill down into WAIS and Gopher space, you could run Lynx (a text based browser), Pine (a text based email app), or even drop down to a Unix shell.

I had that CRIS account so long ago, they didn't offer a PPP connection when I signed up.  I had to use their SLIP implementation.  And this was with Windows 3.1, which didn't have native support for the Internet protocols.  I remember having to go through all sorts of gyrations getting the Trumpet Winsock to work.  You take for granted how easy it is to hook a PC up to the Internet these days, prior to Windows 95 you had to do some work to get it set up the right way. 

It's kind of funny what pops out of the deep recesses of memory by the reference of an archaic acronym.

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