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-accurate hardware, connecting to modern websites using outdated browsers over a 31.2 kbit dial-up connection /s. Be warned: page loads happen in real time.

We’ve all found our coping strategies to weather the pandemic in 2020. Biomedical engineer Gough Liu loves tinkering with technology – especially vintage technology – and decided he’d try to recreate what it was like to connect to the Internet via a dial-up connection in the past. late 1990s. He recorded the entire process in agonizing real-time, peppered with occasional commentary.

Those of a certain age (ahem) remember well what it was like: even just starting the computer took patience, especially at the beginning of the decade, when you could shower and make coffee in the time it took to boot his computer from a floppy disk. It needed a dedicated phone line for the internet connection, otherwise an incoming call could disrupt the connection, requiring the entire dialing process to be repeated. Surfing the web was just as time consuming in the days of Netscape and Microsoft Explorer.

So much has changed since then, as the internet has gone 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 today through high-speed broadband connections is not the same as it was in my childhood. In the late 90s to early 2000s, I was logging in from my non-MMX Pentium 133MHz machine with 48MB of RAM running Windows 98SE (and later Windows 2000 Professional). This experience was in itself a reflection of the fact that the “always on” internet was not seen as a necessity or normality – at the time, “ttyt”, short for “talking 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 opens showing Liu’s Techway Endeavor II computer (circa 1995) booting up, with no commentary for better dramatic effect. The tongue-in-cheek “credits” provide the base specs: a 100 MHz Intel Pentium I processor, 32 MB of RAM and a 2.6 GB Fujitsu hard drive, complemented by a Sony 3.5-inch floppy drive and 65k voice modem. . Software featured includes Microsoft Windows 98 SE, Netscape Communicator 4.8 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5.

Then come the tell-tale static sounds of dialing to connect to the Internet, and voila! We are ready to start surfing with your blazing 31.2k connection. (As Liu explains, “56k is not possible due to the analog nature of the connection.”) This is where things get interesting. It’s actually not possible to visit most modern websites directly because changes in https protocols make it impossible to negotiate a common cipher. So Liu uses a miniProxy, which connects to the site at 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 file.
Enlarge / It took 3 minutes and 27 seconds to download an executable file.

YouTube/Gough Liu

It takes a while to download a sample page from Slashdot, as the status bar at the bottom helpfully provides updates on our progress. “Web browsing technology has advanced quite dramatically over the years, and so have html standards; things like CSS and certain types of Javascript didn’t exist in the days of Navigator, so the site loads, but it looks very different from how you would experience it today in a modern browser,” Liu says.

The rest of the trip includes a visit to the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology (which still uses http), google.com, Wikipedia, xkcd (“we’ll wait a while for this comic”), and others, with all the loading in real time. It takes 3 minutes and 27 seconds to download a 120KB executable file for a simple software update. The entire video will make you grateful for all the advancements in technology over the past 20 years, especially for the relatively large amounts of bandwidth we enjoy today. Kids today don’t know how much they have it.

Announcement image by YouTube/Gough Liu

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