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Goldstuck on Gadgets

The month it all changed

Twenty years ago this week, South African newspaper readers were given their first in-depth exposure to the Internet. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK looks back at the birth announcements of the commercial Internet.

The headline looks quaint today: “Visit another world at the end of your phone”. But 20 years ago this week, it was like a light-bulb being switched on. That was when a South African newspaper, for the first time, provided readers with a guide to the newly-commercialised creation called the Internet, along with its poor relation, the electronic bulletin board service (BBS).

PC Review, a supplement to the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian), had been the first South African publication to begin covering the Internet in 1993. In April 1994, it ran an 8-page special on the connected world, sparking a frenzy of interest and coinciding the newspaper becoming the first in Africa to go online.

The features and articles were both groundbreaking and – in retrospect – archaic. Guides to Telkom’s Beltel (“the largest interactive bulletin board service in Southern Africa”) and smileys (“How to see sideways”) shared space with reviews of 14kbps dial-up modems.

A fascinating aspect of the special edition was the range of writers represented, as well as individuals featured for their early adventures in the cyber world.

Johnny Clegg spoke about how he had promoted his 1993 American tour via the BBS community. Today he is still touring the world- and is also a partner in a business that disposes e-waste.

Andile Ngcaba, then head of information technology at the ANC, spoke about the new information highway. Just weeks later, he would become director general of the Department of Communications, and today heads up Convergence Partners.

PC Review was started by Irwin Manoim, co-editor of the Weekly Mail for its first decade or more. He was recently awarded an honorary doctorate in journalism by Wits University for his pioneering work in creating the foundation for what remains the leading investigative newspaper in the country. He also revolutionised computer-based publishing in this country.

I had been news editor of the Weekly Mail and joined Irwin as his assistant on PC Review, eventually becoming its editor.

The biggest challenge was not finding topics to cover: personal computing was in an explosive state back then, even before the Internet and mobile phones arrived. The Windows 3.1 operating system, the CD-ROM drive, the first truly portable notebook computers, and a bewildering array of startling new uses for computers were just some what made it feel like the birth of rock ‘n roll.

The real challenge was marshaling a team of talented writers who were more fascinated by the emerging technology than by deadlines.

Most memorable were the Cape Town team of Internet caf√© pioneer Stephen Garratt and “communications addict” Leon Perlman. The latter went on to become founder and chairman of the Wireless Application Service Providers Association (WASPA) and, now with PhD in hand, is one of the world’s leading experts on mobile commerce law.

Sean Badal, writing for PC Review from the cutting edge of technology as culture, is today an established novelist, best known as author of Dead Sanctities, Seeds of Disorder and The Fall of the Black-eyed Night. Back then, he was warning consumers not to rush into buying this “fashionable” new device called a cellphone.

Reg Rumney, the Weekly Mail business editor who not only wrote about new devices in PC Review, but also helped get the gadgets to work at the Weekly Mail offices, is now the head of the Centre for Economics Journalism at Rhodes University.

Toby Shapshak, made his debut in tech journalism with a review of the Lara Croft Tomb Raider game in PC review. Today, he is editor of Stuff magazine and the country’s leading high-tech journalist. He still remembers the opening line of his first ever review: “Don’t call Lara Croft babe.

Mish Middelman, founder of Praxis Computing, was the first high-tech agony aunty with his Dr Byte column. Bruce Cohen, the force behind the online edition of the newspaper, produced South Africa’s first regular column about the World Wide Web. William Ramwell introduced readers to Digitec Online, the country’s largest BBS, which was about to evolve into PiX, the first service provider in South Africa to provide an Internet starter kit.

That pioneering edition holds many a cautionary tale. Back then, Compuserv was the world’s best known commercial Internet service provider, search engines didn’t exist, and a list of phone numbers of electronic bulletin boards was regarded as a revolutionary public service. Twenty years from now, expect a look back at today’s Internet to seem equally archaic.

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