Ask Jeeves, Netscape and the era of dial-up: How the World Wide Web used to be

As Tim Berners-Lee's invention turns 30, how much do you remember from the early days?

E7B9T8 World-wide web on blue background (done in 3d)
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Free song downloads? That sounds like music to our ears, and it did to many millions around the world who couldn’t believe their luck when the file-sharing programme was released just before the end of the last millennium by American entrepreneurs Sean Fanning and Sean Parker.

WASHINGTON, DC, UNITED STATES - 2018/11/13: Sean Parker, entrepreneur and philanthropist seen during the Jack Kemp Foundation 2018, Kemp Leadership Award Dinner at the Audi Field. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster. Michael Brochstein via Getty Images

It was MP3s back then, and if you were happily clicking on Mariah Carey's Heartbreaker, so could your pals using Napster. Record sales fell, artists and labels complained and Napster had more than 50 million users before the legal cases started.

Naptser's sharing / streaming model didn't make it past 2001, but peer-to-peer sharing services continued and internet users often ran the risk of vicious malware by using LimeWire, The Pirate Bay and KickAssTorrents. With safer options such as Spotify and iTunes, we're reminded that the good things in life don't necessarily come for free.



If you’re in the majority these days, once your computer has booted up you are greeted by the colourful, spherical logo of Google Chrome – the web browser of the masses. If that’s not your thing then there are plenty of other decent options, such as Mozilla Firefox and for Mac users, Safari.

Back in the 1990s, the “Google Chrome” of the day was Netscape, until Internet Explorer came along and demolished Netscape’s 90 per cent market share, as Bill Gates made Explorer the default browser for all PCs.

Before its digital death, Netscape’s pioneering features such as gifs, Java, plugins and built-in mail, arrived in 1996. Netscape was eventually acquired by AOL in 1998.


ICQ 'I seek you'

Why send instant messages using a computer when you could just talk on a phone or send an SMS? The premise may have sounded flimsy, but Mirabilis's messenger had 100 million registered accounts by 2001. 

It was characterised by the flower logo and the distinctive "uh-oh" sound that could be heard shrilling up and down the corridors of university halls of residence around the turn of the century. It was hugely addictive, unless it wasn't your computer making the noise, in which case it became highly irritating and needed drowning out. It soon became a popularity contest … the constant stream of "uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh" clearly meant you were one of the cool kids. Then, like most crazes, it reversed and became a sign of desperation. Mute the sound, be popular in silence. 

It also encouraged laziness – why get up and go and see someone when you could just message them – for free.

Chat programmes such as AOL Instant Messenger and MSN Messenger followed, but ICQ has outlasted them and is still going today with video calls and added extras as it competes with the likes of WhatsApp.


Ask Jeeves

What would a smartly dressed, middle aged, follicly challenged gentleman loosely based on the fictional works of P G Wodehouse know? Quite a lot, it turned out. If you had a question that needed answering in the late 1990s and didn't have instant access to a library, Jeeves was on hand with a raft of answers at his disposal.

He went on to feature in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float and continued to answer questions until 2006 when he was put into retirement and the search engine was rebranded into, however, claims that it was Jeeves that decided to step down. Its help centre explains: “After 10 years of dutifully serving a growing population of internet users, Jeeves decided to step down as the face of, and retire in style. Jeeves symbolised a traditional, at-your-service butler which made people feel comfortable and at home with asking any type of question.

Illustrative image of the wbesite. (Photo by: Newscast/UIG via Getty Images)
Jeeves was on hand to answer a multitude of questions. Getty Images

“As the web became more of a real-time utility for people, Jeeves’ job dramatically changed. Users came to Ask Jeeves for more sophisticated searches. Searches that were informational, navigational, and ultimately, transactional. users wanted a search engine to help them search, get and do whatever they needed – at a moment’s notice.

“This drove us to focus on improving our robust search engine technology and give users the Web’s most useful set of tools, and gave Jeeves the opportunity to relax.”


Friends Reunited

Think of a time long, long ago when there wasn't the urge to reach into your pocket, pick out your phone and scroll through your Facebook timeline to see what your foes from school are up to – because Facebook didn't exist. Instead, you had to switch on your computer and log in to Friends Reunited. 

BT29XW Friends Reunited logo on a computer monitor.
Friends Reunited did exactly as the name says - via a computer screen.

OK, so it wasn't quite as accessible as Facebook, but the premise was largely the same – check out what people were up to and glory at the fact that you were doing much better.

Officially launched in 2000 as one of the UK’s first social networks, it was bought by broadcaster ITV for £175 million (Dh840.4m) in 2005. But many of the 10m or so registered users moved elsewhere – namely to Facebook.


Massively multiplayer online role-playing games 

We’ve been engrossed in living out our fantasies in the virtual world as far as our internet connection could take us – and in the days of dial-up, that wasn’t very far. The wizardry world of Ultima Online reached 100,000 paying subscribers in sixth months after its 1997 release and has spawned and inspired countless other titles in the MMORPG genre. 

Second life, a virtual world where a user would create a character called an avatar and play out their life amongst other like-minded folk, still had an active community of about 800,000 people in 2017. 

The daddy of them all is RuneScape. The 2001 medieval fantasy RPG is the biggest and most updated MMORPG of all time and has more than 200 million accounts.