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Personal computers and the Internet Social media only a fringe benefit

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Tue June 11, 2013

by Benson Feddows

It is now about 20 years since the public proliferation of the Information Super Highway, otherwise called the Internet. It was initially created for and had been previously and almost exclusively used by the Military Industrial Complex and Military Services of the United States. I have had the privilege of using the embryonic forerunner to the Internet, the more restricted intranet. As an employee of the Ford Foundation’s Communications and Information Unit in New York 27 years ago, the intranet was used mainly to send and receive emails between the headquarters and field offices in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The intranet was gradually replacing the two other main means of communications employed by the foundation, namely Cablegram and Telex.{{more}}
 
What a difference then and now. I have been using the Internet from a personal point of view for eighteen years. I bought my first new computer, a Compaq Presario, in 1995. My first computer was a used IBM 386SLC or 486SLC, can’t recall exactly, which I bought at an auction sale held by the Farmington School District in Michigan, in 1989. As they upgraded their systems, they auctioned off the older ones.

My first introduction to computers was to the rudimentary IBM’s Wang Word Processors, in the early eighties, while at Brooklyn College and Crown Business Institute, New York. The Wang was an electronic upgrade from manual and electric typewriters. Now armed with my brand new Presario, complete with HP Deskjet printer, I was on top of the world. As part of the sales package at Best Buy where I purchased the computer, was the incentive of signing up with competing Internet Service Providers (ISP’s). There was America Online, Prodigy, Netscape, and a few other smaller networks. Conglomerates such as Yahoo, MSN, and Google etc, came along later.
 
Back then the Internet was pretty much a free for all, in terms of regulations. In terms of service it was not free. I tried all of the above ISPs before settling with AOL and Yahoo. At one time or another I have had Hotmail, MSN, Google and other accounts. My AOL account was dormant for some time. Incredibly, recently, after about eight years of dormancy, I tried to log in to it one day and to my great surprise and pleasure it was still active. I try to use it intermittently so that I do not lose it, even if only for nostalgic reasons, since I have had it now for 18 years. In the beginning the Internet Service Providers charged a monthly fee for their service. Some may still have a monthly fee. You were allowed a given number of hours, after which you paid by the additional minutes, similar to cellular phone billing. The base charge was about nine ninety-nine ($9.99) per month.

Back then you could get almost any information on the net free of charge. It was not long, however, before the folks in Silicon Valley, California and other enterprising entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, realizing the marketing potential of the Internet, began to capitalize on it. The monthly fees for the most part disappeared, as most of the revenue earned by the service providers came from online marketing, advertising and purchasing. Silicon Valley’s so-called “Dot Com” businesses proliferated as venture capitalists threw billions of dollars behind the online start-up businesses which took over cyber-space. Some of these businesses employed a few programmers, software engineers and sales representatives and operated from homes or rented office space.

Between 1995 and 2000, dozens of dotcom businesses, some of them totally virtual, with at most a server or two and other basic equipment, vied for supremacy and market share. Traditional brick and mortar business persons and corporations either tried to get in on the dotcom bandwagon or stood on the sidelines and complained that these virtual businesses were setting a bad precedent. They contended: “There is no brick and mortar”.
 
The resentment came mainly because, for the most part, the founders and owners of the dotcoms were newly graduated college students and in some cases college drop-outs. After all, these traditional businesses, business persons and corporations had been around for decades and, in some cases, centuries. It took them a lot of hard work, millions of dollars spent in Research and Development, Marketing and the construction of infrastructure. Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, these dotcom start-ups, most of them barely in business for a year or two, began launching their Initial Public Offering (IPO) on National Association of Securities Dealers (NASDAQ). They fetched some ridiculously high IPO share prices, which made the founding members instant billionaires literally overnight.

Some of the traditional businesses recognizing that the trend was here to say, employed the age-old strategy of “If you can’t beat them, join them.” They began to create their own dotcom businesses and to go on aggressive mergers and acquisitions strategies. In many instances, these acquisitions were unsolicited and hostile. The creators of Broadcast.com started it up as alumni of Indiana University and only wanted to be able to follow their alma mater’s collegiate sports teams.
 
It was not long before they realized that with online streaming and postings, they could turn their hobby into a viable online business. Within three years, these two enterprising recent college graduates sold that business to Yahoo for a whopping five billion dollars. Mark Cuban, using a portion of his 2.5 or so billion dollars, purchased the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. His partner attorney Todd Wagner, with whom I became acquainted, when I moonlighted as a concierge at his Dallas, Texas, high-rise condominium residence, has created and bought other companies and also started a foundation. They have still maintained some common business interests in several entities.

The warning began to be sounded that the so-called ‘dotcom bubble” could not and would not last. This caused an even more frantic pace of development, as individual entities and companies rushed to get their start-ups pass the Securities and Exchange Commission’s criteria for granting of Initial Public Offerings (IPO) licenses. Many made it and others fell by the wayside. The warning proved to be prophetic, as the bubble did in fact burst, leaving millions of casualties in its wake. There were suicides by depressed investors who lost millions.
 
Lawsuits were filed by the dozens on a monthly basis in courts, mainly in the United States. One day a company was worth billions on paper. A few days later, downgraded to junk status or delisted and excised from NASDAQ’s stock offerings. There was a shaking-out process that eventually stabilized the online business environment. With regulatory safeguards instituted over the last decade or so, the surviving online business community is by and large financially stable and structurally sound. Overnight multi-millionaires are still made; however, they are not as commonplace as in the heyday of the dotcom craze.

In St Vincent and the Grenadines, as in many other countries of the world, most users of the Internet see and use it as a tool for social interaction. However, the possibilities are literally endless. New cyber millionaires are mostly made by virtue of creative inventions, which are then being bought by a traditional business or established online enterprise. In terms of creativity, ingenuity and enterprise, Vincentian youth stand as good a chance as does any kid in Asia, Africa, North, Central or South America and Europe, of being the next information technology whiz kid or technology prodigy, courtesy the Unity Labour Party Government’s “One Laptop Per Child Initiative”.
 
We cannot underestimate the value of something as basic and casual as introduction to computers and information technology. With fiber optics, broadband and 4G technology, the so-called “Digital Divide” has for all intents and purposes, been bridged. I look forward with great anticipation to the Vincentian youth who will break away from the superficial social media fads and the “text and ping” crowd to become an information technology and Internet maverick. That is not to disparage social media sites.
 
They can and are being used for social and political awareness, business and professional development, networking and marketing, notably LinkedIn and other sites. Billionaire founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg was only 21 when he created that entity. Dr J.P. Eustace was also only 21 when he started the Intermediate High School. The billionaire founders of Microsoft, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, still in their teens, started with used computers in the basement of Gates’ family home. The sky is the limit.
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