Harken back to the late 1990s with this re-creation of the dialup Internet experience

A demonstration of the late 1990s dial-up experience using near-period-accurate hardware, connecting to modern websites using legacy browsers over a 31.2 kbit/s dial-up connection. Be warned: Page loading happens in real time.

We have all found our coping strategies to beat the pandemic in 2020. Biomedical engineer Gough Liu likes to tinker with technology, especially vintage tech, and decided to try and recreate what it was like to be back in the late 90s. He captured the entire process in painful real-time, littered with occasional commentary.

Those of a certain age (ahem) remember well how it used to be: even booting up the computer required patience, especially in the early part of the decade when you could shower and brew coffee in the time it took to get up. start one’s computer from a floppy disk. A special telephone line was required for the Internet connection, otherwise an incoming call could disrupt the connection, forcing the entire dial-up process to be repeated. Browsing the web was equally time consuming in the days of Netscape and Microsoft Explorer salads.

So much has changed since then, as the internet has turned from a curiosity to a necessity, reshaping our culture in the process. As Liu noted on his blog:

The internet has become an essential part of our daily lives, but the way we experience it now through broadband high-speed connections is not like it was in my childhood. In the late 90s to early 2000s, I was dialing in from my Pentium 133MHz non-MMX machine equipped with 48MB RAM running Windows 98SE (and later Windows 2000 Professional). This experience in itself was a reflection of the fact that the Internet was always not considered a necessity or normal—back then, “ttyt,” short for “talk to you tomorrow,” was a thing.

Liu had to use a miniProxy to connect to modern websites.
enlarge / Liu had to use a miniProxy to connect to modern websites.

YouTube/Gough Liu

The video begins by showing Liu’s Techway Endeavor II computer (circa 1995) starting up, uncommented for the best dramatic effect. The ironic “credits” provide the basic specs: an Intel Pentium I 100MHz CPU, 32MB RAM, and Fujitsu 2.6GB hard drive, complemented by a Sony 3.5-inch floppy drive and 65k voice modem. Recommended software includes Microsoft Windows 98 SE, Netscape Communicator 4.8, and Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5.

Then come the telltale static sounds of dialing in to connect to the internet, and voila! We’re ready to surf with your blazing-fast 31.2k connection. (As Liu explains, “56k is not possible due to the analog nature of the connection.”) This is where it gets interesting. It is actually not possible to visit most modern websites directly, as the changes in https protocols make it impossible to negotiate a common cipher. So Liu uses a miniProxy, which connects to the site in https, downloads the content and sends it back to Liu’s computer with all the links rewritten so they can go through the proxy.

It took 3 minutes and 27 seconds to download an executable.
enlarge / It took 3 minutes and 27 seconds to download an executable.

YouTube/Gough Liu

It takes a while to download a sample page from Slashdot, as the status bar at the bottom gives us helpful updates on our progress. “Web browsing technology has improved quite a bit over the years, and so have the HTML standards; things like CSS and certain types of Javascript weren’t around when Navigator was around, so the site is loading, but it looks very different from how you would experience it today in a modern browser,” says Liu.

The rest of the trip includes a visit to the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology (which still uses http), google.com, Wikipedia, xkcd (“we’re waiting for this comic”) and others, loading everything into real time. It takes 3 minutes and 27 seconds to download a 120 kb executable for a simple software update. The entire video will make you grateful for all the technological advancements of the past 20 years, especially for the relatively large amounts of bandwidth we enjoy today. Kids today don’t know how lucky they are.

List image by YouTube/Gough Liu

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