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1999: And your clicks for free

Two things were offered for free in 1999… music and Internet access. Only one offer lasted.

Track of the Year 1999

Husband House (Positively George Street – Sneaky Feelings compilation, 1999)

Sneaky Feelings - Husband House (Positively George Street – Sneaky Feelings compilation, 1999)

Sneaky Feelings were smart bright people making music on their own terms and completely oblivious to the storm of fashion working against them. In the south, the norm was for black wollen jumpers, whereas theirs were made of hues which in essence screamed “non-conformist”. Nonconformity can take many shapes and Sneaky Feelings fought to advance their own vision of what was good in music and took that vision around the world before most had found the northern motorway out of Dunedin. “ Husband House” is one of their finest moments. - Roger Shepherd
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Track of the Year by Flying Nun Records

Tidings of millennial doom

Just as we became comfortable with allowing technology into our inner lives, a sour note sounded with the impending arrival of the new millennium. The Y2K bug, we were told, had the potential to wreak havoc on our lives.

But rather than scaring us off the Internet, we were further seduced by the promise of yet more free stuff. The MP3 format had actually been around since 1993, but the difficulty in converting CDs to it, the computer power required to play them, the bandwidth required to distribute them and the lack of an easy way to locate new ones, gave the music industry a few years of grace. Sadly for them, they didn't take this opportunity to preempt the explosion of piracy that would happen when Napster was launched in 1999.

Music piracy becomes practical

Launched by homophonically named varsity pairing Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, Napster provided the first user-friendly interface to find and download music from the Internet. It was a democratic application that allowed us to download music shared by others and easily share our own collection if we were feeling generous. Unlike BitTorrent, which would have a similar game-changing effect on the movie industry a decade later, there was no requirement to share your files in order to enjoy the download spoils. Which suited New Zealanders and our slow Internet connections just fine.

Suddenly music was available gratis at the click of a mouse button. With portable MP3 players such as the iPod several years away, there was a corresponding surge in local sales of CD writers for computers, as we downloaded songs and then burnt them to plastic for playing offline and sharing with our friends and family.

Brendan Smyth

About the effect downloading had on the music industry.

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Brendan Smyth

Music purchasing becomes possible

The timing could have been much better for several new online businesses. Flying in the face of all this free stuff, 1999 was the year that paid music site Amplifier launched. Their business model at least offered MP3 downloads – unlike the ‘clicks and mortar’ online store from high street retailers Sounds, also launched that year, who betted that shipping CDs around the country would be a viable business. Sounds reported that sales were up 300% on expectations for the first month... but no one expected or could compete with the millions of tracks downloaded via Napster in the following three years.

Roger Shepherd

On how the net has sped up the turnaround of producing and distributing music.

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Roger Shepherd

Bands and live music fared better than CD sales over the next few years. Labels like Flying Nun that had always enjoyed a strong cult following overseas, had early web presences from the mid-‘90s to save on the cost of mailing catalogues and fan information around the world. And punters enjoyed better access to news about live gigs with sites such as Lava launching in 1998 and starting a race to be the definitive place for event guides. A race that would climax 10 years later with multi-million dollar government portal NZLive being folded in favour of a partnership with private player EventFinder.

Pigs briefly flew

Online sale of CDs never turned into a goldmine but 1999 was the start of one local e-commerce success story. It hardly burst out of the gates, with a mere 155 users registering in the first week. Trade Me however would grow from humble beginnings to having more than a million New Zealanders registered by 2007 when it was sold to Fairfax for $700 million.

Jon Macdonald

Talks about how the "BBQ effect" helped Trade Me succeed.

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Jon Macdonald

It was also the launch of one of our more notorious and high profile Internet flops. Our predilection for tall poppy syndrome came to the fore when Pacific Retail Group, Whitcoulls and e-commerce company Advantage Group launched the unfortunately named ‘Flying Pig’. Designed to be our first ‘Internet super site’ and join the dotcom boom being enjoyed overseas by the likes of, it drew immediate derision for its ridiculous name, flashy campaign and generally poor execution. The pig plummeted to the earth just two years later, showering journalists in headline gold.

What were criticised for several years after the dotcom crash, home and abroad, as being fanciful ideas have since proven to have simply been ahead of their time – the much smaller online audience not yet mature enough to engage online with businesses in ways they now are. Some characterise it as being a 20-year journey that many had expected to take 20 only days.

Chris Thompson

On early online businesses being ahead of the market.

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Chris Thompson

Broadband finally arrives

Little did we realise, but in 1999 the new Sky Tower – which Aucklanders were slowly coming to embrace as their own – was to become as essential to our Internet as it was to the city skyline. National ISPs agreed to use the location as neutral ground for a meeting of the network equipment so that traffic could move between them. To this day, no one can explain why it was set up at the top of the tower rather than the base.

The prefix that fueled the Internet wars

The prefix that fueled the Internet wars

Claiming the stability of its telephone network is at risk from Internet users, Telecom gives ISPs until 1 August 1999 to divert customers to its new IPNet through an 0867 access number or be charged two cents per minute.

More and more traffic was moving around the nation as penetration grew ever higher and Telecom's much lusted-after ADSL broadband finally launched under the name Jetstream. The stingy monthly traffic limits of 600 MB could be used in the first few hours of each month if we weren't careful, incurring expensive additional charges. So we had something new to worry about – not how long we surfed, but how much we downloaded.

Some form of compensation arrived for mainstream surfers when our largest ISPs Clear and Xtra introduce flat-rate dialup - four years after Ihug had delivered all-you-can-eat Internet to New Zealand.

But there was no competing with a new phenomenon – the free ISP. Trying to capitalise on a regulatory loophole, which meant Telecom had to pay them for every minute a customer was connected, the legitimacy of free ISPs would spend longer being debated in court than their two-year existence. In those two years they provided a digital onramp for many who previously couldn't afford access. The downside would be the death of many smaller ISPs who couldn't compete - leaving only the largest players left by time the dust settled.

The year ended with no sign of the predicted Y2k tech-pocalypse - some say thanks to the hard work by many techies in years prior, otherwise say it was over-hyped. On 1 January, at around 12:05am however, we heard that New Zealand Internet exported more data than it imported for the first time as the world knocked on our virtual doors to see if the first country to see in the new millennium had survived unscathed. We had.

Tomorrow: The technology stock bubble finally bursts in the USA seeing billions of dollars disappear on paper and whole companies disappear in the digital dust. In New Zealand the fall-out is much less dramatic, and at any rate we are distracted by our new found love - the cellphone.




  Y2K!!... I was the owner of Wellington cybercafe Phonenet at the Barbers and we had patted ourselves on the back for having kept abreast of all the necessary upgrades to ensure our stock of computers was ready to roll on Jan 1 2000. I roll in (on my 40-mumbledth birthday no less) at 8 am to check everything before I opened the doors and was more than happy to see that everything appeared to work well... until I fired up our computerised Till that was! Of all the things in the shop, we had overlooked testing the till and its related accounting and point-of-sale software! But the wonders of the internet to the fore again and a quick check of the software developer's website revealed there was a patch available for Y2K. An email to them saw the patch emailed to me by return email and by Noon the till was fully operational again ready to be updated with all the carefully hand-recorded transactions for the morning sales. Just as well I'd stocked up on full and third bottles of bubbly to celebrate the coming of 2000 with our customers - everyone who visited that day was either handed a glass of bubbly to drink while they used our computers or was given a third bottle to take away with them for later - as the only person on deck that morning I really needed a drink by the time I'd got it all sorted out! :)  

Ian Cousins - Thursday 4/11 was launched on 16 March 1999. One of the very first topics was about the pioneer aviator Richard Pearse and featured a virtual 3D VRML version of his plane (still works if you have the right plug-in). Another ‘whizzy’ feature was a moving river on the homepage which you can see in action here. In all the years this was there nobody ever asked us why (luckily). I remember getting very excited about adding video and sound, but we had to use RealPlayer to get things down to anything like a reasonable size for dial-up. We also had a vibrant discussion forum - anyone remember those?  

Jamie Mackay - Tuesday 26/10

  On a personal note, they say everyone had the one song - something they'd previously thought they'd never hear again - that would turn them on to the possibilities of mp3s and online music. For me it was "Yoo Do Right" by Can - a distant memory from student radio suddenly became as real as an mp3.  

Robyn - Monday 25/10

  I was working at Xtra at the time Project Toast - the secret plan to introduce a flat rate for dial-up. It was a response to Ihug's flat rate - at the time Clear Net was till on a similar hourly rate to Xtra. Xtra was originally going to better Ihug's rate by 5c $44.95 to Ihug's $45. But about a week before launch, Clear suddenly announced they had a flat rate of (I think) $45. So Xtra were kind of forced to go one better - finally launching with a flat rate of $39.95. [Editors note: we've updated the chapter to remove implication that Clear's move prompted Xtra's flatrate decision - thanks!]  

Robyn - Sunday 24/10

  I had a summer internship at a large independent accounting firm that was in the process of preparing for Y2K. My desk was in the data entry & server admin office, so I got to observe a lot of the panic as staff raced to migrate data before the old system crashed. The company had a fledgling intranet - my job was to populate it - but the internet was considered unnecessary and unsafe. This meant that all pre-Y2K data migration was via floppy disk. Only the front receptionist had an internet connection; she would print inbound emails and fax them to the relevant staff member.  

Andrew - Friday 22/10

  1999 was the year we finally got online at home in the UK. Dad was off on a 6-month round the world trip and we decided email would be the best way to stay in touch. His trip culminated in us all meeting up in New Zealand for the New Year. In the few months between us getting internet at home and the new year, I had quickly become hooked on various forms of chatroom from Channel 4 and ICQ. MSN Messenger too, I imagine, with whichever schoolfriends were also connected. Being in NZ over the millennium was fun as the Y2K bug question was the first anyone at home had to ask. In reality we just sat on the deck of our cousins' house in Tawa watching the fireworks go off.  

Paul Capewell - Friday 22/10

  I worked for Flying Pig for its entire two years of online existence, from launch to bust, starting out in order fulfilment, moving to content and ending up as general manager. We had a dedicated, close-knit group of staff based in our Freeman's Bay office and despatch warehouse who had the determination and drive to make the business work. There were many factors to account for the Pig's crashlanding, but principle among these were the website's instability in the critical first few weeks after launch, the tech-stock collapse causing investors to pull support, and the simple fact that too few NZers had yet to form the habit of making online purchases. Paul  

Paul Scoones - Thursday 21/10

  I registered with TradeMe as member 599, and can remember exchanging emails with Sam Morgan about how much it cost him to get a huge billboard on Courtney Place advertising TradeMe, when he had less than 1,000 members. At work we were spending several millions to fix Y2K programming issues in our quota trading system before 19100 came around. Y2K was only one of a number of date issues approaching since the 1960s. I look forward to using my Y2K knowledge in 2038 to make a fortune in retirement.  

Mike Pearson - Thursday 21/10

  In 1999 I was part-owner and director of a small communications agency in Wellington. We'd worked on a TV advertising campaign during the lead-up to the general election, only to be told at the last minute that we couldn't show the TVCs as originally scripted. So we put the ads online, and ran a press campaign across the country, telling people where they could find the uncut versions. Power to the web.  

Chris Lipscombe - Thursday 21/10


Down to the Wire is a story that evolves with your memories and contributions so please contribute personal anecdotes, key events and web resources you think others might find useful.

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