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Won’t You Step Into the Web?

In April 1993,the World Wide Web became free to be used around the world. Twenty years later,we look back at the Stone Age of the internet in India,from one of the first news portals to an early e-commerce site,and the people who glimpsed the information age before it overtook our lives.

Written by Aayush Soni | New Delhi |
April 28, 2013 12:05:50 am

In April 1993,the World Wide Web became free to be used around the world. Twenty years later,we look back at the Stone Age of the internet in India,from one of the first news portals to an early e-commerce site,and the people who glimpsed the information age before it overtook our lives.

In July 1995,friends and technology consultants Kishore Bhargava and Atul Chitnis went on a tour of 14 cities in India,holding day-long “show-and-tell” events. They would turn on a computer,connect phone lines to a square box,enter the username and password,and click on ‘connect’. The box,a 14.4 kbps dial-up modem,would flicker to life with a whirring sound. Once it went silent,a black window popped up on the monitor and within a few seconds,they had logged in. What was this strange World Wide Web? What did Bhargava and Chitnis show the wide-eyed people they met? A movie review published a day ago in the New York Times but available,miraculously,on a tiny black screen in Bangalore. A letter that could be sent miles away,without being sealed in an envelope,but by clumsily moving the mouse over ‘Send’. (And what was a mouse doing on your desk anyway?) “People were fascinated and couldn’t believe what we were doing,” recalls Bhargava. “Some of them asked,‘Where are you guys getting this from?’”

Twenty years ago,on April 30,1993,CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research),the birthplace of the internet,announced that the World Wide Web,envisioned as an easy-to-use point-and-click interface that allowed access to a large mass of data stored on servers,would be free to use by anyone in the world. Or,to put it in today’s language,it had gone live. Anyone could now create a website because the source code — a secret formula — was no longer confined to an organisation or a person. It would take two more years for internet services to be formally opened to the public in India,with the establishment of VSNL (Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited),a public sector company that handed out internet connections to those who were willing to shell out Rs 15,000 to spend 500 hours online. Chitnis and Bhargava’s tour — a month before VSNL’s launch — was meant to offer potential users a peek into the coming information age. In 1998 (the year Google was incorporated as a company by Larry Page and Sergey Brin),the government ended VSNL’s monopoly and allowed private operators to offer internet services.

The Web then was not the seamless network that binds us into a parallel,virtual existence today,where we read the news and hunt for jobs,click ‘like’ on shiny,happy photographs of friends we have not met,place cash-on-delivery orders for a lounge chair and watch YouTube trailers of the new Savita Bhabhi movie. It was like inhabiting a slower,smaller place,bought with exorbitant phone bills.

The primitive beginnings of the internet,its Stone Age,if you will,preceded VSNL. In 1987,the government of India set up ERNET (Educational and Research Network),an autonomous scientific society that was partly funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to make the internet accessible to educational institutions like the IITs. “Gopher was a precursor to the search engine. So you’d say ‘go find me this’ and it would trawl the network and find a document sitting on this server. It would throw up a list of folders divided by subjects like ‘discussion groups’,‘fun and games’,and ‘news’. It would search repositories of information anywhere in the world,in universities or research organisations,and you could access them as long as they were public,” says Bhargava.

After 1995,the earliest adopters of the internet were academics,who already had a taste of its possibilities through the ERNET,those in the import-export business,NGOs and existing users of bulletin board services or BBS,which were the precursors to websites. “The NGOs used email to be in touch with their donors abroad and (those in the) import-export business used it to talk to overseas clients without spending too much money on phone calls,” says Sunil Abraham,of the Centre for Internet Societies. By 1998,the internet was the privilege of 0.1 per cent of the Indian population. According to the 2012 KPCB (Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers) Internet Trends Year-End Update,by 2012 India had 137 million internet users,roughly 11 per cent of its population. According to a December 2012 report by StatCounter.com,a website that tracks internet usage trends,58.78 per cent of Indians accessed internet on their mobile phones.

Among the people Bhargava met at his show-and-tell sessions was Rajesh Jain,a Mumbai-based entrepreneur,considered to be the creator of India’s first search engine khoj.com,the Indian equivalent of the popular Yahoo! search engine altavista.com. Under the umbrella of IndiaWorld,he also created subject-specific websites like Khel (cricket),Dhan (finance),Bawarchi (food) and Itihaas (history) among others. “IndiaWorld was formally launched from a server in the US on March 13,1995,” Jain wrote on his blog. “Emails were sent out to friends,postings were made in newsgroups,and we anxiously waited for people to start accessing the site. As the emails started pouring in,we knew we were on to a winner here. One smart thing we had done was to ensure a lot of archived content: this way,when people came in,they had plenty to see,” he wrote. It was one of the few websites that was updated in real time. Jain got the idea to set up IndiaWorld after surfing the internet at a friend’s house in the US in September 1994. The vision,Jain wrote in another blogpost,was to help connect the NRI community with their friends and relatives back home and,later,branch out into e-commerce and e-publishing. But in 1999,Jain sold the company to Satyam Infoway Ltd.

That the internet would forever change the way businesses are done was perhaps not apparent then. Flipkart had not killed the bookstore,and one could not buy shirts on e-commerce sites like Jabong. But a few people tried to monetise this new phenomenon. HomeDel began as an experiment in October 1999 as an e-commerce website aimed to deliver groceries to Bangalore residents. “We tied up with main distributors of companies like Amul and Nilgiri’s Dairy Farm Pvt. Ltd who supplied the products to us,” said its founder Ravi Kumar (name changed). Customers could place orders by 3pm after which Kumar and his friends would procure the goods,pack them and start delivering them after 5pm. They would do an average of 25 deliveries a day with a minimum order of Rs 300 per delivery. Kumar was able to recover the costs of running the website for five months. But,unable to make a profit,he sold off his stake in February 2000.

As newspapers cut jobs and move online in the West,India remains the only region in the world where readership is growing. But possibly the first news portal here started from a small office in Mumbai. In 1995,Ajit Balakrishnan moved into a 600-square-foot office on Pheroze Shah Mehta Road in Mumbai’s Fort area. He placed an ad in the papers that said: ‘Wanted top-rate professionals for new Internet Business’. It described the job profile of a designer and programmer and as a “challenging job in a new emerging industry”. After screening a dozen applications,Balakrishnan hired two people with “practically no work experience.” Using basic,text-only technology available at the time,Balakrishnan launched the news portal rediff.com,on Christmas Day,1995.

“We took pride in the fact that Rediff was the first news operation,not just in India but worldwide,that created content exclusive to the internet,” says Prem Panicker,who was part of the founding team of the website. A journalist at the now defunct Sunday Observer,Panicker was summoned to the Rediff office by his boss Nikhil Lakshman who had moved to the internet startup. The idea was to provide real-time news updates to an NRI audience that often received news about India from three-day-old newspapers. “Balakrishnan tried to show me the internet on his laptop that ran on DOS,” Panicker says. “He tried to dial in and I remember it taking about 10-15 minutes to connect.” Panicker’s mandate was to figure out what constituted news for the NRI audience and the frequency with which the website would be updated. “One of the characteristics of those early days was that we had no bloody idea what would work,” he says. “Funnily enough,for the first couple of months,we worked more on pencil and paper than on the internet. There were a couple of techies who’d code the stuff we showed them on paper.”

It is only in retrospect,Panicker says,that what happened at Rediff seemed pioneering but,at the time,it was a leap of faith. It was a reflection of the state of the internet then — an unoccupied platform that allowed people to experiment with it as much as possible. One of those experiments was freshlimesoda.com,a youth portal for prose,poetry and artwork founded in 1999 by Parmesh Shahani,head of the Godrej Culture Laboratory in Mumbai. “It was a user-generated and curated magazine with an active bulletin board where people could connect with each other,” he recalls. “People would send in stories,essays,artwork,photographs and would wait to see if we put them online or not.” Shahani says that he tried to get companies to advertise on the website but because of the dotcom bust in 2000,nobody wanted to invest in a web portal.

Today,India is the third-largest country on Facebook,with 71 million active users on the social networking site,who have adapted to its rules of engagement,its argot of likes and shares,and friendship by notifications. In the early 1990s,social life on the internet was less ubiquitous. One way you could connect with strangers was Internet Relay Chat (IRC),a text-based chat service popular among those who could afford to be online. Neha Singh (name changed) was a curious 12-year-old who logged on to the ‘India channel’ and chatted with its 1,000-odd users,pretending to be a 19-year-old girl. One of the people she spoke to often was Rajiv Kapoor (name changed),who was from Jalandhar and in his twenties,and living in Delhi. When they eventually met,Kapoor was shocked to find his interlocutor’s real age but continued chatting with her. Gradually,they switched from IRC to other instant messaging services like ICQ (Internet Chat Query) and MSN Messenger that allowed private conversations. After a six-year-long courtship,Rajiv and Neha decided to take their virtual relationship offline and got married in 2005. “Now,we go online to get away from each other,” Singh says.

In 2000,Kiran Jonnalagadda,a content creator with a technology company in Mumbai,moved back home to Bangalore. His habit of keeping a diary had died during his stay in Mumbai. Now,he wanted to resume writing but not on paper,because he did not want to lug around a physical book. It was while browsing the internet that Jonnalagadda discovered Livejournal,a platform that allowed him to write a blog — an online diary of his thoughts that he could share with anyone in the world. “Back then,they had a directory and you could see which part of the world everyone was from and I found that I was the only one from India,” he says. Within a couple of years,word about Livejournal spread with Gangnam Style speed and many others from Bangalore signed up. “I created a ‘community journal’ for Bangalore in 2001 and by 2005,it had grown to 500 users,” says Jonnalagadda. Internet users were banding together into communities elsewhere. In 1999-2000,Sandeep Mittal,an IIM-Calcutta student,set up gigpad.com,a portal for music lovers like him. As word spread,bands in Calcutta joined the site,with Mittal creating individual web pages for them. “A lot of bands screamed at each other on the discussion forums.They also posted about forthcoming gigs and documenting the rock music scene,” says Mittal.

A hallmark of this restricted community culture was a lack of self-glorification. “There was nobody to promote yourself to on the internet,” says Jonnalagadda. “Back then,with so few people online,you’d look like an idiot in front of your own friends. It was like living in a small town where everyone knew everyone else.”

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