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In the early days of the internet, shell accounts were commonly used for Internet access. After the early 2000's, it seems like shell accounts all but disappeared, and after searching, I can't really find why.

Were they not user friendly enough? Did competing services (i.e. AOL) become cheaper and mainstream?

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    Shell accounts are still commonly available. Some widely known providers include the third ISP, Panix, and a small online book-monger known as Amazon. Feb 24, 2023 at 13:07
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    OpenShells is an example of what happened to some shell providers: somebody did some crimes, which tainted the whole server so that it was seized by the investigative agency, taking the server down for everyone. Feb 24, 2023 at 13:10
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    Once you can buy a computer, and once you can install TCP/IP on that computer, there's little incentive to use someone else's computer to connect to resources you can connect to yourself.
    – dave
    Feb 24, 2023 at 13:36
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    Could it have been search engines like Altavista making gopher searches obsolete and the fact that more and more web browsers could handle the FTP protocoll that made it easier to use a webbrowser instead of a shell account?
    – UncleBod
    Feb 24, 2023 at 14:46
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    I don't think Amazon offer shell accounts in the traditional sense, they offer virtual machines, but that is a rather different service from a traditional shell account on a shared box. Feb 24, 2023 at 16:37

7 Answers 7

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There were probably many reasons, but I can think of these:

  • Misuse/abuse. When I had shell access to systems (with my private TCP/IP provider, or later in uni) in the mid 1990's, there was a constant battle between hackers (in the "good" sense of the word) using the systems they had access to the fullest, and the poor understaffed admins trying to curb us in. For example, I was into raytracing back then, and once wrote a little script which automatically cut a rendering job into 100s of smaller parts, distributed across all the workstations at my uni. I did not do this often or for very long, and never got found out, but I am certain that I used orders of magnitude more resources than your average student, and I annoyed plenty of other users who found themselves on a slow-as-molasses machine which rendered my jobs. I don't even want to know how many students used their shells to download .... stuff .... on a regular basis.
  • Security. Having shell access, even with a regular user account, is an infinitely larger attack surface than not having shell access. And while a Unix system is inherently more safe in that regard than others, this certainly also did play a role to make shell access not top of the list for providers.
  • Need. Back then (i.e. in the days of BBS, dialup mail distribution networks and such), it was very hard for a person not associated with an university to get direct TCP/IP internet access at all; and while Linux eventually came along, it was not necessarily easy to get a Unix'ish system running at home, what with CD-ROMs or even floppy disks being the main distribution medium, and hardware driver support not as great as today. And the WWW was not around either; many services only made sense in a shell (like IRC, telnet, MUAs, Usenet etc.). Yet there were simple VT1xx terminal clients for basically all OSses, having shell access opened up a lot of functionality. Eventually, Linux became mainstream, and the nerds installed that in a dual-boot fashion or as their only OS. Later, the WWW took over and basically all reasonable services one would use on the 'net were available in your web browser; so it became irrelevant whether you had a Unix'ish system or something else, and you did not need to dial into a shell provider anymore (which would not be able to display the newfangled graphical stuff anyways).

So there you have it. These days, everybody who wants a shell can trivially get it; and every device is fully on the 'net anyways. There's simply no big need for a provider to provide this to the masses anymore.

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    Your third bullet is the reason why I have no use for a shell account today but loved having one in the 90s. Before Linux, UNIX flavors were not cheap or easy to deploy on a home PC. Another factor is the transition on Macs from OS 9 to OSX (now called "macOS" of course), which means everyone with a Mac has a shell right at home. I feel like another aspect of the "need" bullet is the rise of web interfaces for email. POP clients on Windows kinda sucked in some ways so using elm or pine in a shell had advantages. But a decent webmail interface negated the benefits of elm/pine. Feb 26, 2023 at 14:44
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The two most significant reasons were:

  1. Direct TCP/IP access via dialup SLIP and PPP protocols (and later via broadband connections to homes and offices) eliminated the need to access the Internet from the ISP's Unix/Linux hosts.
  2. Web browser support for graphics and a wide range of fonts and lettering sizes on websites, beyond the types available from text-mode terminal emulators, made shell account access less attractive for users.
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    I suspect another reason is that it has become far less common for a URL path to have any relationship whatsoever with any actual file system layout, and far more common for paths to be processed by scripts that perform database queries. A Unix shell may be a reasonable took for driving programs like mv, cat, and cp, but it's not great for handling things like database queries.
    – supercat
    Feb 24, 2023 at 16:31
  • Since the OP is specifically about the Internet, I think your number 1 is the main reason. I watched it happen--when my ISP that originally provided a shell account added SLIP and later PPP, the use of the shell accounts declined heavily.
    – trlkly
    Feb 25, 2023 at 18:16
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    A Unix shell is a great tool for doing database queries provided you have a shell command to execute them. The trouble is that you do not want people to be accessing the database directly under any circumstances, nor do people want that. How successful would Amazon be if you had to write the insert into the orders table yourself?
    – JeremyP
    Feb 28, 2023 at 8:42
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Note that the fall of provider-managed UNIX shell accounts coincides with the rise of freely available BSD or Linux distributions.

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    What is the causal link? Could you elaborate more? Feb 24, 2023 at 13:08
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    I'm not convinced that these are even temporally linked as closely as this answer implies. Feb 24, 2023 at 13:09
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    @Mindwin One of the use cases of a shell account is to provide access to a UNIX environment for people who need or prefer it. In the absence of freely available UN*X clones for home use, provider-managed shell accounts would have persisted.
    – Leo B.
    Feb 24, 2023 at 15:16
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    make that comment part of the answer. Comments are transitory. Feb 24, 2023 at 17:14
  • @Mindwin who needs an ISP shell account when you’ve got broadband and Linux on the desktop? No one, that’s who.
    – RonJohn
    Feb 25, 2023 at 16:47
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Dan: Those were good times, huh Rorschach? What happened?
Rorschach: You quit.

- Watchmen

Shell accounts never died, and became more important...

Because the Web runs on them. Think about how you install a Wordpress instance:

  ssh hostisp.example.com 
  cd public_html 
  wget https://wordpress.org/latest.zip
  unzip latest.zip 

Thats a shell account! That's the exact same shell account we used in the 90s for email and Usenet.

So instead of being a private browsing toy, it's now the backbone of the Internet.

... just to way fewer people

So you're really asking not why they died, but why they faded away in consumer use. The answer is LAMP.

The mixed text and graphics of the Web were cute... but the real win came when the Web's multimedia was able to bridge into the transactiony-databasey stuff that we always needed the shell to do. Thanks to more robust Linux-based web servers like Apache talking to databases like MySQL via connecting languages like PHP or Perl. It turned a lot of typing into mostly a point and click affair, and reduced the need to know commands.

For consumers, the shell's "killer apps" were picked off one by one. Email moved to a web-based UX (thank HoTMaiL), Amazon developed a web frontend instead of the telnet interface, Melvyl did the same... Usenet either got a web frontend or was wholesale replaced by web based BBS's or other services like this one.

For web developers, a lot of us couldn't live without shell.

Also, computers run *nix natively now

Which means your own PC has shell accounts locally and you don't need to go out to an external server for that. Back in '91-95, local PCs could barely run a windowing OS like System 7 or Windows 3.11.

So I don't need to go to a shell account for 98% of my shell usage, I can just open Terminal and I'm at one. Honestly the only thing I regularly hit a shell for is 'wget' because I can't be bothered to install it locally. And managing my websites, obviously.

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    Interesting take. But ... perhaps in the way of combining this answer with the spirit of the OP's question: they're now back in the form of full-featured cloud development environments like Gitpod, Codespaces, and Jetbrains Spaces. Generally IDE-based, 'cause that's the way we roll now, but there are plenty of terminal windows in there to use ...
    – davidbak
    Feb 27, 2023 at 5:57
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For me it's virtualization. The things I would have used a shell account for in 2000 I'd just spin up a VM nowadays.

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  • Indeed, and a VM in the cloud is an even closer approximation of the old shell accounts.
    – MSalters
    Feb 27, 2023 at 10:14
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If you mean free shell accounts, such as used to provide bots on IRC channels, I see two main factors:

  1. Lower popularity of IRC protocol... not many people have chat clients on their PCs now, as we have social networks and messenger apps.
  2. SPAMing, crypto-mining and other forms of using somebody else's PC. You still can have a VPS or cloud server if you pay for it but... in general you'll not get free server access just like that. Those days are over, because many people could overuse or misuse those resources.
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Shell accounts became far less necessary as more powerful home computers became commmon, and higher dial-up modem speeds spurred the use of graphics (and other multimedia) on the internet.

Combined with the abuse and security challenges others have already mentioned, ISPs were quick to drop shell services and switch everyone over to PPP-only.

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