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Chris Lipscombe's History of the Internet in New Zealand

21 Years (1989-2010)

Reproduced courtesy of Heyday from

In 1989 I was working for DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) in Reading, UK. DEC then had its own international network, and VAXmail and VAXnotes were the equivalents of email and UseNet. A lot of DEC thinking (and a lot of DEC equipment) went into the development of the Internet and its core protocols. It was a privilege to be part of that company at the time.

In 1990 I came back to NZ and worked for DEC in Auckland. My very first job was organising the DECUS User Conference – including the use of a personal mobile phone, hired for the duration of the project! Keynote speaker was Ted Nelson, who coined the term "hypertext" and founded the first hypertext project (Xanadu) in 1960. What a blast. I started to see how electronic networking could revolutionise traditional publishing.

In 1991 I was still working with DEC Auckland. On the insistence of Richard Naylor, then the DECUS Chair, we set up a TCP/IP to X.25 gateway to enable email communications between DEC's proprietary network and the Internet. Each email address seemed like a million characters long, but it worked. Those were the days of WAIS and Gopher – and of course Fetch, still my preferred application for transferring files over the Internet.

Go the bulletin board! In 1992 my favourite BBS was Deep Throat. Other users I met online helped me locate and download all kinds of cool utilities for my Mac Portable – also known affectionately as the Mac Luggable, as it was about the size of a small suitcase. For some incredibly large sum of money I had upgraded the RAM from 2MB to 5MB, so I could open more than one application at once. Smokin'.

Ah yes, 1993. I had a dial-up account on ICONZ and a brand-new 14.4 baud modem courtesy of Internet evangelist (and modem salesman) Jonathan Ewart. I remember being inspired at the time by Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community. A later generation of users heralding online social media as Internet 2.0 were essentially rediscovering the 'virtual community' premise behind the early Internet.

In 1994 I was running a design studio for Reed Publishing. I decided that we would set up a website, and registered the domain name with Rex Croft at Waikato University (URL still points to an online bookshop, most recently part of the Penguin empire). I taught myself html and voila! we had a place to sell books online. The trickiest part was getting the order form to work – I could receive the form content via email OK, but I had to search online for my own parser to decipher the encoded text. Those were the days of the do-it-yourself web.

In 1995 self-styled Internet princess Katherine Phelps had set up the first commercial website in Australia. She and I collaborated on writing a book for NZ users called 'Surf's Up: Internet New Zealand Style.' Part springboard, part Linus blanket, it came with a discounted Internet connection via ICONZ and a floppy disk with essential Internet software – Eudora 1.4, WS_FTP 2.01 and Win VN 0.93.14. There was even a chapter on commerce on the Internet – a whole five pages.

In 1996, after my book Surf's Up was published, I thought I'd better put my money where my mouth is and set up my own personal website at I even taught myself a bit of perl and converted a guestbook script I found online into a buy, sell and exchange for bookbinders. I'm pleased to say it's still going strong. Oh and 1996 was the year I bought my first book from It was Out of Control by Wired editor Kevin Kelly. Inspirational.

In 1996 I'd worked for a short period of time for DVP, but not on the Xtra splash page, I'm pleased to say. I did code the text-only version of the Xtra website, but only because nobody else had remembered to do it, and it was two days before the launch date. By 1997 I was working for Wang, and heading up their new Internet and Intranet development team. Knowledge management was all the rage – remember that? Came right after business reengineering, and just before downsizing.

In 1997 I moved to Wellington, and in 1998 our family was getting their Internet fix via Saturn cable. We'd subscribed for TV content delivery – reception was (and still is) pretty crappy on the south coast – but broadband at 2Mbps download was just too good to pass up. As the Internet service became more popular, however, we began to see higher rates of contention and a degraded level of service.

In 1999 I was part-owner and director of a small communications agency in Wellington. We'd worked on a TV advertising campaign during the lead-up to the general election, only to be told at the last minute that we couldn't show the TVCs as originally scripted. So we put the ads online, and ran a press campaign across the country, telling people where they could find the uncut versions. Power to the web.

In 2000 no-one was really sure what a good website looked like. But one guy – Jacob Nielsen – had been telling us since 1995 what a good website should do. Through his regular Alertbox column, Nielsen popularised usability issues that had always informed good interface design. It was around this time that I bought his book Designing Web Usability.

In 2001 the Illy Group (a bunch of IT and creative types meeting in the former Illy Café in Blair Street) had come up with the idea of using Wellington's CityLink and connected computers as a virtual computing grid. The RingRoad project was completed over Easter weekend 13-16 April 2001 with the help of John Hine from VUW. We were able to create a stable software platform computing a 3-D weather simulation running five Sun workstations in parallel across the broadband fibre network. Crosstalk and software shaping issues created significant commercialisation issues, but it was an early and impressive example of grid computing.

In 2002, some of the original members of the Illy Group put together a proposal for a desktop-to-desktop broadband connection between Wellington and Singapore, supporting fast reliable data transfer and digital collaboration between businesses and organisations in both locations. The proposed service (called First Light) foundered on last-mile issues in Singapore, but for a split second we almost had our first international digital trade route out of Wellington.

By 2003 everyone seemed to be talking about broadband infrastructure and services. The NZ Government had won international recognition for its work on metadata standards, although rollout of e-Government services seemed a little harder to deliver in practice. And who could forget Project PROBE? Launched as a joint initiative between Ministry of Education and MED, this attempt to link up schools and communities via high-speed broadband was gazumped by Telecom, who used it as an opportunity to accelerate their roll-out of DSL over copper nationwide.

In 2004 a friend and I got very excited about mobile metadata. We were convinced that a ubiquitous Internet would create a situation where people would want access to a wide variety of information about everyday objects through personal digital devices. Our funding application to FRST for metadata development was unsuccessful, but what we didn't foresee was that a metadata layer might be required to allow devices to access information from each other! Welcome to the 'Internet of things'.

Most of us who were trying to straddle creative content production for print and web were committed to buying two large and expensive product suites – one from Macromedia, and the other from Adobe Systems. When Adobe Systems acquired Macromedia in 2005, Freehand disappeared, as did Adobe’s GoLive – originally Adobe PageMill. By the following year it seemed as if Flash 8 and ActionScript 3.0 were all over the web. But with HTML 5 now gaining ground, Flash may have had its day.

In 2006 my online buy sell and exchange for bookbinders was invaded by web-bots, writing irrelevant and sometimes offensive entries via my unprotected entry form. So it was back to the perl scripting manual to figure out how to insert a captcha in my entry form to distinguish humans from software and then process the output in a modified cgi script. I noticed similar protective devices appearing on many other web-hosted forms. was a revelation. In 2007 I entered my details on the website and managed to track down a couple of old school friends who were living in Australia. One thing led to another, and eventually twenty of us got together the following year in Waihi. There we were, from England and Australia as well as all over New Zealand, celebrating 35 years since we had been friends together at school in Hamilton. Thanks to OldFriends.

It must have been 2008 when I first ventured onto Facebook, mostly because I was finishing a postgrad degree at Victoria University and many of the people I was studying with were keeping in touch via Facebook. A lot of my business contacts were already using LinkedIn, not so much as a communications mechanism (although that’s changed as LinkedIn has become more Facebook-like) but more as a way of maintaining an up-to-date business profile online. When I proudly showed my daughter my LinkedIn profile for the first time, she said, “That’s nice Dad, but what can you do with it?”

2009 saw the demise of the Digital Development Council, an offshoot of the Labour-led Government’s Digital Strategy 2.0. Just before the end, I worked with the late (and sadly missed) Paul Reynolds on a proposal for the DDC to advance three priority areas for creative content development on the web. These priorities had been identified in a public forum the previous year – develop a new content licensing framework, explore new economic and business models, and protect and develop the public space. I think you’d have to say that all three areas are still a work in progress.

For me the big event for 2010 was setting up an online election campaign for Wellington Regional Council. I had to get my head around setting up ad campaigns on Google and Facebook, using Facebook and Twitter to publicise events and issues, and setting up and maintaining my own blog and video site using WordPress. Congratulations to Local Government Online and the team behind the website for their work supporting local government candidates and voters across the country.

If any of these entries ring any bells with you, or you want to exchange reminiscences about what a particular year meant to you, drop me a line at

This article has been translated into Serbo-Croatian by Vera Djuraskovic, Mongolian by Chinua Dalan, Roumanian by Irina Vasilescu, and Brazilian Portuguese by Artur Weber and Adelina Domingos. I don't really understand why my story should be of any interest to readers in these different languages, but there you go.

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