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The Internet has existed since the 90s, but how did people get apps and games installed on their computers before that and how were they accessed and saved?

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    AOL sent at least one CD per day via snail mail. Or you bought a cassette with your software of choice from your neighborhood computer store and listened to it attempting to load. Or download from the local BBS at <=2400 baud.
    – HABO
    Oct 3 at 15:50
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    Some people took the time to type in multiple pages of source code that were printed in books and magazines. Oct 3 at 15:52
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    We used to pour raw bits into cardboard boxes and ship them to customers. We even included a short manual with some instructions!
    – Geo...
    Oct 3 at 17:55
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    I feel old. Very old. Oct 3 at 22:12
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    People didn't get apps on their computer, because software wasn't called apps. Oct 4 at 6:55

12 Answers 12

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People used storage media, which they carried around to the machines they wanted to use the software on. The same way music and video were physically distributed in the late 20th century on tape and CD.

Very early on, programs and data were stored on paper tape and punched cards. Then magnetic tape. Then floppy disks. Then CD-ROMs. Even cartridges containing semiconductor memory were sometimes used, particularly for game consoles. (Now that I think about it, we still use cartridges as USB flash drives.)

You might get your software directly from the computer manufacturer. The OS usually came this way. Early on, most software was custom and written by the user (often a large company). Then custom software houses started popping up. Much stuff was ordered in the mail, especially before retail computer stores existed in every major town.

Small computer stores selling software, parts, etc., used to be everywhere, at least in Canada. They're much less common now, relatively speaking. There were two within walking distance, where I lived in the 1990s and was in the suburbs! Computers failed more often, technology was moving faster, and people didn't order as much online then. You might visit the computer store several times per year if you have the budget, often to buy the software.

Here's Windows 98, out of the box, as you might buy for a machine without any operating system on it:

Windows 98

Included is a paper manual, a registration card to mail off to Microsoft, a credit for some free Internet service, and Windows 98 itself: the boot floppy (for computers that could not boot from CD) and the Windows 98 install CD.

By this point (1998), floppy disks were too small to hold most major software releases and were limited to boot disks and small files such as device drivers. Network distribution was also common by then, but many people were on dial-up. (Windows 98 would take days to download at that speed.) The disc itself is nearly full, with Windows taking several hundred megabytes and the rest being movies and music bonus content. Before long, it would not be uncommon to have an entire set of CDs to install software, echoing the sets of floppies sometimes seen in the 80s and early 90s. Then higher density DVDs were used.

It's worth noting that plenty of people "borrowed" such kits from a friend rather than buying them themselves. Floppies, and then much later, CDs, could also be duplicated by the user. Software piracy is not new, and with commercial software, various steps were taken to combat that. For example, you might need to enter codes from the manual that were uniquely matched to the disc in the same kit.

The Internet started competing against physically distributing media (not just for software, but film and music and everything else too) in the 2000s, finally coming to dominate in the last ten years or so.

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    I still have the box (but not the diskettes) that contained MS Office for Windows 3.1 and IIRC there were about twelve 3½" diskettes. Oct 3 at 16:57
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    Even as late as 2010-2015 one could find CDs and DVDs with games and popular software (Windows, Microsoft Office) in retail stores. Even Windows Vista was marketed on DVDs.
    – vsz
    Oct 4 at 4:45
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    I remember software spread over 8 floppy disks. Please insert disk 5/8
    – gerrit
    Oct 4 at 11:58
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    Note that cartridges can also still be used for Nintendo Switch games
    – James_pic
    Oct 4 at 12:14
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    Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of mag-tapes!
    – NomadMaker
    Oct 4 at 19:52
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People are focusing on floppies and tapes. But the question is literally tagged with floppy-disk, so pointing them out may not be that helpful. The more general answer perhaps is that you went to a physical store. Almost everybody had bought their computer at a physical store, so at very least they could go back to that same store to buy some software without much of a discovery process.

In the 90's, every small town had multiple places that sold software in boxes as a physical product. Radio Shack was ubiquitous here in the US, and it always had some shareware disks or the like. At peak, that one brand had something like 8000 total stores, and the US has about 5000 towns with at least 5000 people. There were several other brands of small retail stores like Electronics Boutique and Egghead Software that would fit in a small retail storefront, strip mall, or small shop in a large shopping mall. There were also a ton of small independent or local stores in many places.

Big-Box consumer electronics stores like Best Buy and Circuit City were a little less common than the small stores since they were physically larger. But they were also pretty common. There were something like 2000 Best Buy stores at peak.

Past that, I can remember seeing occasional software at grocery and drug stores in the mid 90's. It wasn't a major staple or anything. But by that point the market was large enough that you'd occasionally see family friendly shareware games or some crappy third tier desktop publishing software for making "Welcome Home" banners. Department stores like Target always had an electronics section that stocked at least an aisle of PC games. Bookshops often had a software section as well. Buy our book on how to use Turbotax... And also buy Turbotax, was a pretty common kind of bundle deal.

Grocery stores, book stores, news stands, etc., also had an aisle full of magazines. Among The New Yorker and Guns Today or whatever, you would also see Nintendo Power, Mac User, Amiga Format, Byte, etc. All of those magazines would have ads so you could order stuff by mail.

It was definitely harder to find software in the 80's when computing was much more of a niche hobby. You might need to go to a nearby big city to find a specialist store until the late 80's. But by the 90's, software was kind of ubiquitous. In a developed country like the US the majority of households had a computer by the end of the 90's, so it was just a huge market for any retailer to ignore.

So by the 90's, a typical computer user would probably have dozens of places they could potentially buy games and other software from, with something like a reasonable drive to a mall a town or two over on a weekend. You go, pay $20 - $50 to get a Big Box. The box would have a manual, a tape or floppy in the 80's, floppies or a CD in the 90's. Stick it in the computer, and click "setup" or type "install" or whatever the process was for that app on that computer, and off to the races. If you had one of the three supported models of Dot Matrix printers, you could print a Welcome Home banner with your choice of a clip art duck or a clip art dog 20 minutes after you got home from the store.

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    Don't forget software retailers such as Babbages's, Software Etc., and ComputerLand. Every decently sized mall in America had a software store.
    – Glen Yates
    Oct 3 at 19:22
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    And also way back when, some magazines would publish the code and you'd type that in to your computer manually. Line. By. Line.
    – BruceWayne
    Oct 4 at 1:20
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    Also mail order software was around as long as mail order hardware and both were pervasive in the 1980s too,
    – Brian H
    Oct 4 at 1:45
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    I know that it's tongue-in-cheek when you talk about the banners printed on dot matrix printers. But your answer gives the wrong impression that this technology was still relevant in the mid-1990s. By that time, dot matrix printers had almost completely been superseded by inkjet printers, not least due to the highly successful HP DeskJet 500 in 1990 (the color version was introduced in 1991). Virtually the only application in which dot matrix printers were still somewhat relevant by 1995 was printing on fan-fold paper – which might include banners after all, now that I think about it.
    – Schmuddi
    Oct 4 at 11:57
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    +1 for old retail stores, which I felt was the crux of the question. I kinda miss walking into a store and seeing all the PC game boxes. (That said, it's super nice to buy a new computer and just redownload everything from Steam at like 80 Mb/s.)
    – JamieB
    Oct 4 at 13:27
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  1. Typed them in from magazines and books, saved them on tape or floppy.

  2. Get software by loading it from a tape or floppy borrowed from a friend/colleague/school/club and copy it to yourself.

  3. Use a modem to download or upload from a bulletin board system.

  4. Buy commercial games/programs on tape/floppy.

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    I used to write my own software - much more interesting. But then I was never interested in games. Oct 3 at 16:56
  • These I've also done: (5) Plugged in the code using switches and a deposit switch. Sometimes this code was the bootstrap needed for external media. Sometimes, it was the entire program. (6) Hand-soldered the program (hard-wired for real!) (7) Used a Cauzin reader. I still have mine. ;)
    – jonk
    Oct 4 at 3:33
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    Regarding 1: Nothing like typing in several pages of code and then trying to figure out which typo was causing the program to crash.
    – aslum
    Oct 4 at 14:09
  • @No'amNewman writing your own software has always been more gratifying. Games weren't off the table either. I remember one time when I had a day at work with nothing to do, so I wrote my own version of Breakout. Oct 5 at 3:12
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    @aslum: I still remember the joy of Rainbow magazine including a checksum function that at least told you the likely line number for the error. Oct 6 at 12:07
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Several ways depending on the era which you are talking about:

  1. I have some really old commercial software that came on 8" floppy disk. These are pretty rare today but were quite common in the pre-IBM PC days: 8" Floppy Disk
  2. After that, and a lot due to the introduction of the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and then the IBM PC, the 5.25" floppy disk came to dominate. Very similar to the earlier 8" disks but smaller:enter image description here
  3. Next came the 3.5" "floppy" disk. The media was floppy but the hard plastic case made the overall unit not floppy:3.5" floppy
  4. After that, downloads from dial-up systems started taking over. File repositories on "FidoNet" Bulletin Board Systems, CompuServe, AOL, and others started being used for distributing software especially "shareware" and "demo" software. Around the same time, CDROM also became a distribution media and that continues to this day:enter image description here
  5. After that, the internet began to evolve as a viable, and inexpensive with near immediate fulfillment, method of software distribution.

There are, of course, some other methods which were used. The earliest consumer programs were printed in magazines and you typed in the code, some commercial software was distributed on "magnetic tape" usually targeted at mainframe/minicomputer systems. There were, and still are, some other magnetic tape formats usually in cartridge formats.

And we cannot forget Cassette Tape format!

I still have a cassette with "MicroChess" for the KIM-1:

MicroChess - KIM-1

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    When they first came out, CD-ROMs contained such a huge amount of data it was near un-imaginable. At least compared to floppy disks (and consumer tape). Home PCs were still commonly using both 5.25" and 3.5" floppies (1.2 / 1.4 MiB). I remember being amazed, copying from a ~650 MiB CDROM archive of "shareware" onto floppy disks. (At the university library.)
    – Kingsley
    Oct 4 at 0:02
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    There were also some types of storage media that bridged the transition from floppy disks to CDROM drives such as the Zip drive. I never owned one myself, but the software company that I worked for as a student used them for backups, and I think they also used commercial software that was distributed on Zip drives (or perhaps it was pirated software?).
    – Schmuddi
    Oct 4 at 12:07
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    @Schmuddi I considered adding the Zip drive, and I actually still have one, but I am not aware of any commercial or shareware software that was distributed on them.
    – jwh20
    Oct 4 at 13:34
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    @JakeRobb I'm not sure that the OP was looking for every possible variation of every possible media category. But you are indeed correct. I'll also note that some vendors, Apple, Commodore, and Digital Equipment come to mind, used proprietary disk formats.
    – jwh20
    Oct 4 at 17:05
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    I also neglected to mention Hollerith Cards, paper tape, and front panel switches.
    – jwh20
    Oct 4 at 19:45
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As far as the question is not limited to commercial software, here's an alternative view.

Before the advent of the internet or any widely used long distance packed-switched networks, long distance data distribution among UNIX computers was achieved using a store-and-forward system called UUCP, which facilitated, among other things, distribution of discussion groups (Usenet).

It was a distributed (without a single main server, unlike a BBS) discussion board system with hundreds if not thousands of various "newsgroups", some of which were used to distribute source code (partially archived at comp.sources.*), either platform-specific in an appropriately named group, or portable enough across different CPU architectures and UNIX-like platforms to be compilable and usable with little effort.

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    And binaries (uuencoded into text) as multi-part posts in newgroups under alt.binaries.*. That part of usenet still exists today, mostly used to distribute "warez", aka pirated software and audio or video files. Many ISPs that still have news servers don't carry those groups, anymore, though. Oct 5 at 1:48
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One method wasn't mentioned here: radio broadcasting.
The official Czechoslovak Radio used to broadcast a special night show for computer freaks in the late eighties, and it ended with a few short programmes for ZX Spectrum, which the listeners could record on audio tape and then LOAD ""

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    Yep, same in Yugoslavia. We'd also order the tape cassettes with games from the bootleggers that were posting their ads in various computer and gaming magazines. Or we'd just go to the flea market on Sunday morning and meet them in person :-)
    – Luc
    Oct 4 at 21:20
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    I came here to write this, and then I found your answer! On top of all complications of this process, my tape recorder had this bass/treble dial, if you didn't put it in the perfect position you could not load the radio recording... Oct 5 at 4:18
  • How reliable was this? On my old ZX Spectrum even tape-to-tape copying on the same dual-tapedeck could be an iffy proposition.
    – DrMcCleod
    Oct 5 at 9:45
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    @DrMcCleod Very poor, indeed, R Tape Loading Error was common. Perhaps that was the reason why they withdrew it from air after a couple of months.
    – vitsoft
    Oct 5 at 11:24
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    In Germany, we had also Channel Videodat (Wikipedia page unfortunately only in German), which used a modulated video signal during the vertical blank interval. That "space" was otherwise used for teletext. Oct 6 at 9:22
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The internet has existed since the 1960s, the World Wide Web is a 1990s development. 'Apps' is used to refer to software obtained via curated 'Stores', like the Apple App Store and the Google Play store. Other than Steam, those didn't exist before the late 2000's. In general, the term is 'software'.

We used cassette tape and floppy disks, or we downloaded from bulletin boards over the phone. We typed programs in from listings in books and magazines. Sometimes we even got software broadcast over television via Teletext services like CEEFAX.

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    Well, we may not have had 'Apps' but we had 'Applications'. When phones came out, they were too small for Applications, so they were shortened to 'Apps'. :)
    – Glen Yates
    Oct 3 at 19:12
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    And the internet did not exist in the 1960s. Arpanet started in 1969, but that was a far cry from the internet. Oct 3 at 20:11
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    Don't forget 'applets', mini applications that could be embedded inside webpages!
    – dbmag9
    Oct 4 at 8:08
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    I never even heard "application" until I moved from 8 and 16 bit machines to Windows in the '90s. I found it quite an ugly term. Everyone I knew in the home computer scene until then just said "program" or "software". Oct 5 at 8:57
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    "The internet has existed since the 1960s" - not for most people. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Internet "the emergence of architecture such as the Domain Name System, and the adoption of TCP/IP internationally on existing networks marked the beginnings of the Internet. Commercial Internet service providers (ISPs) emerged in 1989 in the United States and Australia." Oct 5 at 22:07
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Just to toss a log on the fire.

One of the more novel mechanics in terms of mass distribution was through an optical scanning device.

Specifically, this was a device, about a foot long, that you plugged into your computer. It was a mini scanner. The sensor was about an inch wide, and moved down the track, like a normal flat bed scanner without the bed. And it wasn't a generic pixel scanner, it only scanned the encoded images, like a barcode or QR code scanner.

Dr Dobbs actually published these in their magazine for, perhaps, about a year or so.

Edit:

After some research and help from a fellow on another forum, this is the device I'm talking about:

Cauzin Softstrip https://rich12345.tripod.com/museum2/softstrip.html

Edit 2:

Ha! I found it!

Go to page 711 within https://archive.org/details/dr_dobbs_journal_vol_11/page/710/mode/2up and you'll see the softstrip images. I simply wasn't looking late enough, October '86. I was looking through '85 and early 86.

On page 693, they mention what they're doing.

Also, at a time there was some software distributed in magazines on flimsy 45 RPM records. And, I believe, at some point there were radio broadcasts of software that were meant to be recorded and loaded into a computer.

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  • Do you have more details of this scanner device? Maybe the name? It sounds fascinating. (If it's too much for this answer, I can ask a separate question.)
    – wizzwizz4
    Oct 4 at 16:45
  • Yes, can you explain more how this worked. You'd buy a magazine or book with encoded images and the scanner would convert it to computer code? Oct 4 at 17:33
  • I actually had one, won it as a prize somewhere, I think at a Mac show at school. But I don't recall the name. As I said, it was about a foot long, 1.5" + wide, made of brown plastic. I tried looking through some of the old Dr Dobbs, but I can't find any yet where they have the scan codes. But I almost sense that some of the pages that had them, had them removed before they published them. Hard to say. Oct 4 at 17:34
  • @WaterMolecule Yes, you could easily fit 4 "bars" of coded data across a normal page. In the Dr Dobbs articles, they had one row per page next to the source code. You'd scan it in and get a text file -- at least for the source code, but nothing to stop you from using it for binary. Oct 4 at 17:36
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    @WillHartung well that's an improvement on typing TRS-80 BASIC code character for character from a magazine. Oct 4 at 17:38
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Plenty of answers here detailing how to get your hands on some physical medium with a piece of software on it, but I don't see any of them touching on the point of

how did people get apps and games installed on their computers [...] and how were they accessed and saved?

So, there were several ways. In the very early days, before my time (aka in the 70s and 80s) computers often didn't have a hard drive in them. Each time you booted them up, you had to supply some physical media (a tape or a diskette) that contained the software. You put in the media and pressed the power button. The computer loaded the software in memory and you continued from there. This is quite similar to older game consoles that need to have a CD or a cartridge in, before you can do anything with them.

As the 90s rolled around, hard drives became cheap enough that most computers started to have them. Or maybe a bit earlier, as I said, this was before my time so I'm a bit murky on the dates. This meant that software could now be copied to the computer itself. Operating systems started to reside on the hard drive, while other software could still be run directly from an external media, or also copied to the hard drive. This copying part was known as "installing" and most software usually came with an extra "installer" program which ran directly from the disk and copied the software to the hard drive. A lot like installing an app on your phone, except you had to launch it manually from the physical media. Most also included and "uninstaller" program that you could later use to delete the software from your hard drive.

As for saving data - well, you also used either the same (or different) external media, or saved your files to the hard drive.

Added:

Also I should note that back then you had to be at least somewhat familiar with all the folders (directories) on your computer. Today when you install an app on your phone you have no idea where exactly its files are. It's just "somewhere on the phone". Similarly with saving files to "My Documents" or whatever. But back then you had to know at least the path to the executable file itself so that you could locate it and run it. And when you saved/loaded some files, you had to know where they are located too.

However that applies only if you had a filesystem to begin with, so that includes various disks and diskettes. Tapes were different, but I have no experience with those.

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    Good point! My first hard disk was more expensive than the complete computer. (30 MB for an Atari ST for 3000 bucks.) Oct 4 at 7:32
  • My first two computers, Atari 800 and Tandy 2000 both came sans hard drive. But by the end of the 80s hard drives were a standard feature. Oct 5 at 11:31
  • @thebusybee I had to pay 15 month' salary for a PC-XT with 10 MB HDD back in 1989 but I never regretted. Booting without waiting for a floppy to load DOS 3,0 was luxury. As it hasn't got realtime clock chip, I had to manually set date and time after each restart.
    – vitsoft
    Oct 5 at 11:37
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    @vitsoft Actually, my first own computer (set aside programmable calculators) was self-designed and built, run an 8080 with 0,0009 GHz system clock, with 1 KB RAM, 20 keys and a 6-digit 7-segment LED as I/O. Yes, no ROMs, no "mass storage" (tape, floppy, HD, ...), no screen, no network. Boy, was this a great time, and I had so much fun with it! Best thing, I could afford it from one month' compensation of non-military service. Oct 5 at 11:47
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Another aspect that no one has mentioned yet is, many computers had dial-up modems that worked over telephone landlines. They worked by converting streams of data to sound, which was sent as a voice call, and back (modem originally was short for MODulator-DEModulator, although today it mostly means boxes that connect to cable and DSL internet). These transmitted at a tiny fraction of the speed of the modern Internet (early ones might transmit only a few hundred bytes per second), but files were much smaller then, too.

Some people would get extra landlines to their homes and have a modem listen on them, which would pick up and connect any user who dialed up to a text-only forum called a Bulletin-Board System (BBS). This would run a program that (like a console on Linux, Mac or Windows today) emulated a terminal with sixteen colors. this normally brought up a menu, but you could log in to leave messages, play some games (Rogue Trader being one of the most popular) and download files. The vast majority of BBSes had only one landline with one modem, so users would need to be considerate and not hog the line.

In the U.S., the phone company would not normally charge extra for local calls, no matter how many you made or how long they lasted, even if someone were using the phone line all day, so all BBSes recruited from a local area code. Some were free, and some charged a subscription fee. They would advertise in computer ’zines, or I remember some stores having flyers with a list of local BBSes. However, many would regularly call each other up, or exchange data through what was called the FidoNet.

When the Internet came along, most of these were replaced by dial-up Internet Service Providers. There was an intermediate stage with proprietary networks that were nationwide, with offices in each area code where subscribers could make a local call and connect to a modem. AOL is the best-known, gave all its users Internet access in the mid-’90s, and eventually stopped offering dial-up service at all, instead charging for access to its subscriber-only chat rooms from the Internet. Most phone companies have since replaced their old analog wires with Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service, and now offer high-speed Internet connections over those. Nevertheless, a few BBSes have hung around, replacing their landline connections with Telnet-protocol connections to an Internet address.

Today, add-ons for some vintage computers plug into the same ports as a vintage modem and emulate one. A variant of that at the time was to connect two computers with a “null modem cable,” which simply connected the input pin of one computer’s serial port to the output pin of the other, and could be used for a sort of two-person LAN party.

Also, if you’re reading this site and have not seen WarGames yet, you absolutely should!

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    let's play global thermonuclear war ... on second thought, that might not be such a good idea right now Oct 4 at 3:36
  • @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact Still topical as ever? Oh, that reminds me: check out the true story, too. Stranger than fiction!
    – Davislor
    Oct 4 at 3:48
  • I read that several years ago. Didn't think of the connection though. Oct 4 at 3:49
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    "modem originally was short for MODulator-DEModulator" It still is. It is still necessary to modulate and demodulate signals sent over cable or DSL links, amongst others.
    – Graham Nye
    Oct 4 at 9:45
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There were a myriad number of ways that consumers would get software for their computers. You could buy physical media from a store, or by mail order, or by calling a toll-free number. You could download digital media from things like Usenet and BBS systems. People would copy software onto all kinds of media, from disks to audio cassette tapes. Software listings were found in some magazines that you could subscribe to monthly, quarterly, annually, or something else. It sounds crazy now, but back in the 1980's and perhaps earlier, you could go to various stores that sold magazines or electronics and find various code listings that you'd have to painstakingly type in one line at a time, sometimes for hundreds of lines. Before the day of the Internet, people came up with all kinds of creative ways to share and distribute software in various forms.

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Way back, you'd load a bootstrap loader into the computer using toggle switches on the front of the computer ). The loader would read in an inital program via paper tape, typically from the paper tape reader on the side of the teletype that acted as the console. That program might be a more sophisticated loader. Finally you'd "boot" the computer.

Here is the front panel on a PDP-8 Front panel on a PDP-8

Notice that the switches are group into 3 to a color. That's because the PDP line used Octal (3 bits) rather than Hex (4 bits) as the number base. You'd get the bit pattern right and then toggle the load (?? - it's been a while) switch. Also note that there are 18 switches available, even though the PDP-8 is a 12 bit machine (sorry, I don't know why, PDP-8s are before even my time).

The "Rim Loader" bunch of octal numbers in the rectangle on the left is probably the bootstrap loader - all 32 instructions, each 12 bits long.

Anecdote

Legend at my first employer had it that a much bigger competitor was trying to move into our business (which was automation software for paper mills). They used PDP-11s (I think) and much of their software was on paper tape. They had just about finished up their system when they went home for the weekend. The procedure was to stash the paper tape in a drawer in the computer cabinet, lock the cabinet and go home.

The computer used magnetic core memory (which was non-volatile), so it didn't need to be loaded from paper tape very often.

Over the weekend, something happened. The paper tape caught on fire, burning the computer and effectively all the software.

We offered to get the customer up and running in less than a month. Everyone in the company set to work taking a system they'd installed in another customer's mill and converting it to this company's needs. The result was our first product (everything had been highly customized before that).

Our competitor stepped back from being our competitor after than. But, 5 years later, they bought us. The project manager (and the guy who'd locked the cabinet) ended up running the new subsidiary (and being my direct boss). He heard references to this story many times.

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