The World Wide Wait hits home with the launch of Telecom's Xtra Internet Service Provider and a design-heavy homepage that takes most surfers several minutes to load.
We all wondered what Shayne P Carter would do after Straitjacket Fits broke up. “Crystalator” was his response. “Holy Mackerel” we all said. It still sounds rollickingly amazing in that strident “here I am, listen to me” way that only an instrumental can communicate. Who needs words when a guitar can spit out these sorts of sounds. When played first at live Dimmer shows it sets the tone of the evening perfectly. - Roger Shepherd
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Track of the Year by Records
Telecom launched its first Internet offering in 1996 renaming the unimaginative, ‘Telecom Online Services’ to the very dotcom ‘Xtra’. Clear Communications, which had only been in the market for a few years slicing off a chunk of Telecom's market share in the home calling market, also launched its more conservatively named ClearNet ISP.
With the big two's marketing muscle the Internet quickly gained mindshare. By the end of the year Xtra was the biggest ISP in the country and many more kiwis were online. They also had the ‘biggest’ homepage – the X-Ville graphic depicting a virtual world, as attractive as it was, weighed in at 135KB which at the time would take several minutes to load on even a good dial-up connection. Designed by multimedia company DVP, acquired by Telecom, it was created to show off the possibilities of the Internet. Mostly, however, it acted as a cumbersome block between getting online and the real content on the Internet.
It wasn't just the name that was dotcom at Xtra. Like most of the other ISPs at the time the environment more closely resembled that of the tech start-ups in the USA rather than a traditional business, or in Xtra's case - their parent Telecom. For the first time, having tech nous elevated you to a position of power, rather than relegating you to the back room as it did in so many other businesses. And as many of those who understood the technology were youthful, more informal dress codes and leisure pursuits invaded these office spaces. The country was beginning to get a taste of what would hit it when Gen-Y "digital natives" hit the office a decade later.
As slow dial-up Internet hit the mainstream in New Zealand, the passing of The Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 in the USA opened up their market to competition. This was to spur the broadband race onwards and upwards, first with cable and then with DSL options available to most there over the next three years. New Zealand, except for small pockets in areas such as Wellington, would have to wait for five more years for just a DSL option. Unlike the US, our TV came to us through the air, not over the coax cable that was being repurposed in the USA to provide fast Internet.
While we couldn't enjoy their speedy Internet, we could at least take advantage of new ‘web applications’ being released overseas. Hotmail, now inexorably linked to Microsoft, was launched as a free web-based email provider in 1996 before being bought by Microsoft for US$400 million only a year later. Despite having few of the features of desktop email clients, it allowed us to check our email anywhere in the Internet-connected world and so New Zealanders flocked to it as much as anyone.
As we did to ICQ, said out loud (with some confusion) as ‘I seek you’, it allowed for real-time chat without the need for the arcane commands of non-graphical IRC chat – the only option until this point. That is if pressing ‘send’ on a message and watching the icon whirl for 10 seconds and then waiting for an interminable period for someone at the other end of the telegraph to respond, can actually be called ‘real time’.
For many of us, this was also our first introduction to welcome, and unwelcome, random personal Internet encounters. The public ICQ directory allowed people to find others and message them ‘from out of nowhere’. We had the advantage of being able to tell such foreign randoms that it was ‘tomorrow’ down here and the opposite season – something that Americans in particular had trouble getting their heads around.
The predecessor to Flash – FutureSplash Animator – was released this year, opening the way for many irritating and slow-to-load intros to websites, before finding an actual use powering much of the web’s multimedia sites and providing Internet video streams.
Telecom, Clear and Telstra begin offering wholesale bandwidth to ISPs via the NZIX Internet exchange gateway. With the launch of Telecom’s Xtra ISP in May, the Internet begins growing 15 percent a month, one of the highest growth rates in the world.
Providing content was clearly not a primary service line for Telecom. The Xtra team however, knew that good local content was key to making New Zealander's first online experiences ones they would want to repeat and tell others about. With missteps like X-Ville though, it was up to other early adopters to provide the first home-grown content. For the first few years, much of this consisted of technical material such as Torkington's WWW FAQ, but by 1996 a number of niche-content web ‘magazines’ were starting to pop up.
Today we might refer to them as ‘blogs’, but the likes of Obscure, dedicated to the Wellington dance music scene and Aardvark, a telecommunications news and commentary site, are still around to this day. Sites like these became ‘must reads’ for the communities they served – and covering topics ignored by mainstream media, they were proof that the Internet was living up to its early promise.
Mainstream media weren't entirely absent from the Internet, dipping their toes in various ways. At this point, online was barely seen as a distraction from TV, newspapers and magazines; despite earlier claims about the death of various mediums, this wouldn't seriously raise its head for nearly a decade.
TVNZ's website was launched in 1996 fairly light on content and with some content that entirely missed the average Internet user's interests, like a ‘Hot Faces’ section with bios of the likes of Paul Holmes. The TVNZ online store was a relatively more exciting proposition where you could buy anything from a Thingee t-shirt to a Thingee watch to a Thingee soft toy to a Thingee puzzle…
Their online efforts may have been lacklustre for the most part, but the Internet was now a viable niche for publishers offline as evidenced by the release of the monthly NetGuide magazine. The pocket-sized magazine detailed the latest online developments in mum-friendly terms. The less tech-savvy users rushing online with the mainstream ISPs now had someone to hold their hand as they made their first steps online. They could also pick up a copy of "Surf's Up: Internet New Zealand Style" by Katherine Phelps and Chris Lipscombe or "Internet: A New Zealand User's Guide" by David Merritt and Paul Reynolds. The former even came with a free ICONZ setup disk and account discount to get you logged on.
Tomorrow: On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog - or do they? 1997 sees the web taking on both the mainstream and minorities.