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Looking at the monochromatic screen, I was thrilled.
For weeks I had stumbled around the PC laptop my mom was supposed to be using to work from home. She never used it that often – mostly to check her PROFS mail on the weekends. I was okay with her inattentiveness to her tools – I’d found a new adventure.
I was online.
The last time I had used a computer, I was in junior high school. I loved the Apple IIe. During the lunch hours when we were lucky enough to get our names at the top of the reservation list we’d play a pirated version of “Conan: Hall of Volta” in all of its glowing green goodness for 40 minutes at stretch.
When I wasn’t playing Conan during lunch hours, I was logging time after school. I got good enough with the Apple that I wrote a few programs for it, including a basic tax preparation program that printed everything out in the proper places on the tractor-feed government forms.
Before the Apple IIe, I spent my weekends programming games on my TI-99/4A. My parents could barely afford the computer, never mind the pricey peripherals like the tape drive. I’d spend hours typing in the pokes and peeks necessary to play a game of dice or poker. When it came time to shut-down the computer and put it away on Sunday night, the lack of permanent storage meant that all of my hard work was lost as the machine was unplugged. Sunday nights were a tough pill to swallow.
Despite my early interest, I didn’t touch a computer all through high school and university. I had discovered girls and cars and a myriad of other things that kept me distracted. Even as my university classmates discovered word processing in the early 90′s, I wrote out my papers and essays out in longhand.
When we moved to Toronto, I had very little to keep me occupied. Remembering my earlier obsession with computers, I asked my mom if I could use her work laptop to play around on. I have no idea why she agreed to it, but she let me use it. This was the first computer I worked on that had a disk drive. I remember thinking how marvelous it was that I could save my work and turn off the computer anytime I wanted to.
None of the commands I remembered from my Apple days worked on the DOS-based PC. Digging up the manual, I quickly figured out how to navigate the file space. After a few weeks, I’d figured out where things were stored, how to execute programs and the like. I didn’t understand what some of the programs did.
For instance, I found a program that I could use to dial the telephone. It was a weird application. If I didn’t manually pick up the handset quickly after I dialed the line with the laptop, it would start screetching weird fax noises across the line – and I certainly hadn’t been trying to fax anything.
It took me a few weeks to realize that I was playing with the computer modem and terminal software. Not that knowing this helped me any, I didn’t have any remote systems to connect to.
This posed a bit of a roadblock to me. I didn’t have any real applications to play with and I didn’t have any remote system telephone numbers to connect to. The computer was essentially useless in its current form.
Soon enough I came across a list of BBS telephone numbers in a local computer newspaper.
I took me a few tries to find a working number to connect to and after some trial and error, and the unforgettable mating shriek of one modem connecting to another, there it was..blinking at me, challenging me to make the next move.
I had discovered “being online” and instantly, I was addicted.
I spent hours exploring bulletin board systems. I learned how to take full advantage of them – downloading files, chatting on the forums, reading ascii newsletters on dozens of subjects. And when that grew old, I figured out how to get more access than I was supposed to get. My specialty was guessing the passwords of other users and administrators and using their privileges to play with things I wasn’t supposed to be playing with.
Most people (including my present-day-self) use easily guessable passwords. It doesn’t take much to find an easy target. Username “vanhalen” probably uses an album or band member name as their password. Back then, it was also pretty easy to find a system that used default passwords for key administrator accounts. Not much has changed I guess.
I quickly realized that to get the level of access that I really wanted, I’d need to run my own system. Soon enough I had configured a small BBS that ran on my mom’s laptop on weekends and evenings. I quickly grew out of that and moved the BBS to a dedicated system.
This was all pre-internet. The internet existed, but we could only talk about it in abstract terms – similar to how kids talk about space travel or adults talk about winning the lottery. We knew what it was, sort of, but it was kind of mind-blowing and not all that comprehensible and none of us had used it.
The BBS grew like a weed. I gathered hundreds of regular callers per day and linked it into all the important messaging networks of the day. I’ll never forget the amount of learning I was doing. Every day, I discovered something new about the digital world of internetworked computing. It was awesome.
Before long, I got a real job working for a company that ran a BBS. And shortly after that, the BBS company turned into an Internet company. And shortly after that, the Internet company bought a small website called “Tucows”.
It was 1994.
Since then, we’ve changed businesses a whole bunch of times. We were an ISP, a CDN, a Linux company, a Music company, a domain registrar, a wholesale domain registrar, and much more. Often times, we the first doing what we were doing. More often than not, we were the largest and best at doing what we where doing.
The last 15 years with Tucows has been quite ride, but in many ways, I feel like we’re just beginning our journey. I know I’m just beginning mine.