During the late 1990s, I (and countless others) accessed the internet by running software provided by America Online (mailed to my house on free CD-ROMs) and using a dial-up modem to access their service. This would have been AOL version 4.0 or 5.0 for Windows 95/98. The AOL software at that time was a semi-walled garden in that a lot of the available content was AOL-specific and could only be accessed using functionality provided by the AOL software, but there was also a built-in web browser that could freely access any website on the broader internet.

I also remember that the AOL software exposed TCP/IP connectivity to the whole system -- As long as the AOL software was connected and running in the background, I could use Windows software like Internet Explorer, CuteFTP, ICQ (and I confess, Napster and Gnutella) without having to explicitly configure anything that I can remember. On one occasion I was even able to run a freeware HTTP server and allow a friend to connect to it by IP address, although I don't recall if he was also an AOL customer at the time.

In those days I didn't give much thought to how or why that worked, but thinking back now there must have been some kind of network driver or protocol that was bundled with AOL's software to expose it to the other applications. I'm curious how that worked -- if this was a capability designed into Windows' networking components, or if it was more of a custom development that AOL needed to do. Does this broad approach still work in modern versions of Windows?

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    By providing a Winsock Driver? And of course would that work today - even better, as now network interfaces can be plenty. This sounds a bit like missing research about basic windows and network knowleddge.
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Mar 5 at 16:36
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    I cannot say about the AOL software, but there were several popular 3rd party applications that consumers could buy for internet connectivity, including Trumpet Winsock, and also Turnpike (by Locomotive Software). These kind of applications generally became redundant after TCP/IP networking was included in Windows 95 and Mac OS of course, but are still relevant for retro computing purposes if you want to connect your Commodore 64 or Windows 3.11 machine. Commented Mar 5 at 16:37
  • @Raffzahn I think Winsock is now a Microsoft operating system component and nobody implements the SPI; I don't know if it's possible. AFAIK new network drivers are NDIS kernel drivers. Commented Mar 6 at 16:25

1 Answer 1


In the Windows 2 and Windows 3 days, Windows didn't ship with a means of connecting to the internet. Instead, Microsoft defined the Windows Sockets API for apps to use, and they allowed third-party vendors to provide their own WINSOCK.DLL that implemented the Winsock API on top of their own drivers.

So, if you had a Novell network, you would install their drivers, and they would provide a Winsock DLL that allowed apps to communicate over IPX. If you had a dial-up internet connection, you would probably install Trumpet Winsock, allowing apps to use TCP/IP over your PPP or SLIP connection. And if you had AOL, you got a Winsock DLL that sent things over your AOL connection.

Starting with Windows NT 3.5 and Windows 95, Microsoft started shipping their own Winsock that could use TCP/IP over Ethernet and/or Microsoft's own "Dial Up Networking" component (obsoleting Trumpet Winsock), but replacing it with a third-party version was still an option, and that's what AOL continued to do.

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    See also How did Microsoft take over Winsocks? Commented Mar 6 at 5:41
  • I remember those days. Windows wasn't the only OS that did not ship with TCP/IP. Unix almost always had TCP/IP since that was where it evolved but even then there was disagreement on how the API to use TCP/IP should be: sockets or streams. TCP/IP and sockets won.
    – slebetman
    Commented Mar 7 at 8:26
  • Did Windows 3.11 (for networks) change anything substantial for TCP? Commented Mar 7 at 23:04
  • @CaptainGiraffe Windows for Workgroups (WfWg) 3.11 had it's own TCP/IP stack and WINSOCK.DLL so it basically eliminated the need for any of the third party stacks like Trumpet. I developed network software in the 90's and prior to that it was really a hodge podge on Windows 3.x until WfWg and then later Windows 95.
    – mannaggia
    Commented Mar 12 at 21:57

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