Protocols that have not changed in the last 30 years
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Dmitrii Eliuseev

Are you tired of heavy web pages, browser pop-ups, flashing banners, N-factor authentication, user tracking and analytics? Well, there are some protocols that have not changed in the last 30 years and you can still try using them.

People were browsing online pages this way about 30 years ago

Let’s get started.

The FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is not only “old”, but “ancient”, compared to modern standards — the first specification was published as RFC 114 on 16 April 1971. Actually, there was no Internet at that time, computers were connected to the ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) network, and there was an obvious demand to have a protocol for files exchange. Of course, this protocol was not something immutable, lot’s of improvements were made, the phrase “FTP has had a long evolution over the years” was written in the “RFC 959” document published in 1985. This document also has internal links to the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Telnet Protocol, which were described in the “ARPA-Internet protocol handbook” in 1985 (when most of the people did not hear the word “Internet” at all).

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The FTP can be used today, for example, for remote server maintenance, but surprisingly, public anonymous FTPs are also available. I’ve searched in Google using the words “public FTP list”, and got a website https://www.mmnt.net which has a pretty large list of open FTP sites:

Readers who wish to get a feeling of how it was working many years ago, can try to log in to the FTP using the command line. I tried the first link, and it really works:

Of course, it would be much easier to use any modern FTP client, something like FAR Manager or Midnight Commander will be even more “in line” with that era and will also give an idea of how the old-school text UI was used:

Princeton‘s’ FTP is obviously intended for students, I was able to download some files from the “University Press” which can also be interesting to read:

The same book can obviously be obtained in a ‘modern’ way using a website but browsing the file listing using a text UI can be a good demonstration of how people were getting these files many years ago.

Already in the 70s scientists and engineers in ARPA already had a possibility to be online, but this was still not possible for ordinary computer users. For millions of them, Bulletin Board Systems were the first rudimentary way to connect the home computer to other machines and to exchange files and messages. Why ‘rudimentary’? Often the BBS was just an ordinary computer, connected to a home telephone line. And by the way, first modems were literally using the acoustic coupling with a standard phone handset:

Image source © https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acoustic_coupler

Obviously, like with a standard phone call, this connection could be occupied by only one user at a time, others were just getting a “busy” signal and had to wait until the line will be free again. The connection speed varied from 1200 bits/s in the 80s to 56600 bits/s in the 90s, calls were often possible only in the local area, otherwise, the telephone bills could be too high. After the successful login, it was possible to read mail, download or upload files using the text interface. Which was looking surprisingly, not bad — special formatting and so-called ANSI escape codes allowed to make a pretty complex UI. By the way, these escape sequences are still supported today by modern computers— for example, Linux and Mac users can try to enter this command:

Later providing access to the BBS became a larger business, where different services were provided, from software archives to the ‘adult’ content.

Source © PC Magazine 1993

And it is interesting to know that some BBS are still operating today. Of course, it is not a business anymore, they are supported by enthusiasts. Originally, home computers mostly used a telephone line for the modem connection, now it is much easier — using the IP connection it is possible to access the BBS from any part of the world.

Technically, any telnet client can connect to the modern BBS, but in my opinion, the free and open-source SyncTerm looks the best — its text-based UI provides the most ‘authentic’ user interface. As in the 90s, before dialing the BBS, we have to find the latest BBS List, which is now available online. I randomly selected the “Amiga City BBS”, no modem is needed, I only need to enter the syncterm amigacity.xyz command:

As we can see, the BBS provides the text interface to read the messages, list files, I even can have access to the “Electronic Mail” — a sort of high-tech in the 90s:

Let’s check the files section:

I can download some files, which are available online, I chose the ZMODEM protocol to download the file:

The download can take some time — now its obviously faster but on the real modems, the speed was about 1–3 Kilobytes per second (for people who were born in 2000 and later, I’ll repeat — Kilo and not Megabytes;), sometimes downloading of the software or a game could take several hours.

I can also upload my own files to the BBS — I’ve decided to upload the copy of my Medium article:

Finally, after disconnecting from the BBS, I can check the files I have downloaded. In the 90s on most computers, there was no multitasking — only after closing the terminal program, I could check, what files did I get. Well, inside the archive there were some Perl and text files, I have no idea what is it and if there is any chance if I need it:

-rwxrwxrwx 1   1893 Feb  4  2018 Announce.txt

-rwxrwxrwx 1 1521 Feb 4 2018 FilePost.txt

-rwxrwxrwx 1 447 Feb 4 2018 FilePostBottom.txt

-rwxrwxrwx 1 35147 Feb 4 2018 LICENSE

-rwxrwxrwx 1 1786 Feb 4 2018 README.md

-rwxrwxrwx 1 115994 Feb 4 2018 README.pdf

-rwxrwxrwx 1 1143 Feb 4 2018 bbs_announce.md

-rwxrwxrwx 1 24780 Feb 4 2018 bbs_announce.pdf

-rwxrwxrwx 1 1572 Feb 4 2018 bbs_announce.pl

-rwxrwxrwx 1 1096 Feb 4 2018 file_announce.md

This may look stupid nowadays but about 30 years ago this was exactly the way how people were exchanging files in the pre-internet era.

At the beginning of the 90s, more computers were able to be connected to the network. Though it was possible to download and browse files via the FTP, there was an obvious demand to have a special tool to search and read the data. And a so-called “Internet Gopher Protocol” was made. In the RFC1436 protocol specification, we can see many terms which are still in use today — TCP/IP connection, client-server model, etc. To put it simply, Gopher was a sort of the “early web” protocol in a simple text-based form, optimized for the low-speed connections.

Actually, Gopher was active for now so long, it was introduced in 1991 and its popularity began to fall in 1994:

Source © https://ils.unc.edu/callee/gopherpaper.htm

There were not only technical but also legal issues — the Gopher server license was not free (it was re-licensed under the GNU License only in 2000). But computers also became more powerful and people chose more “fancy” WWW pages instead of plain text ones. Interestingly, Internet Explorer in Windows 95 was able to open Gopher links:

But already in Windows XP, this feature is not present anymore:

But again, some Gopher servers are still supported by enthusiasts nowadays, the free client can be downloaded from the https://github.com/jankammerath/gophie/releases page.

As an example, we can open the gopher://gopherddit.com:70 page which provides access to the Reddit groups:

Using the gopher://gopherpedia.com:70 address, we can read the Wikipedia:

The Usenet is another “ancient” service, which was popular in the “pre-internet” era of the previous century. The system provided access to the public “talk groups”, group names were using the special hierarchy, for example, in the group “comp.lang.c” everybody was able to discuss topics about the C programming language. Groups could be completely different, from talk.politics.animal to misc.kids.pregnancy. Everybody was able to post the message, other group participants were able to read it and if wanted, respond. Not only from a technical but also from a social perspective, this ability to talk with people who share the same interests, was actually helpful.

Surprisingly (again:), after about 30 years, some Usenet servers are still available, and it is also possible to install a client for Windows, OSX or Linux. But most of the servers, I was able to find, are not free, they provide only 7 or 14 days free trial period. On the other side, many talk groups are available via the https://groups.google.com interface, and as we can see, the same “comp.lang.c” group still have some new messages even today:

Of course, about 20 messages within two weeks — it is way less than, for example, on Reddit, but, it still works.

By the way, in the talk groups it was even possible to exchange files. Using the special encoding, the files could be converted to the text form and could be sent like an ordinary mail message. The size of each message was obviously limited, so the file should be split into several parts. As an example, I encoded the JPEG file into 3 messages:

Message #1

To medium.readers.all, share part 1/3begin 664 xaa

M_]C_X``02D9)1@`!`0```0`!``#_VP!#``4#!`0$`P4$!`0%!04&!PP(!P<'

M!P+"PD,$02$A$/$1$3%AP7$Q0:%1$1&"$8&AT='Q?$Q)!P>'Q[_

MVP!#`04%!0<&!PX("`X>%!$4'AX>'AX>'AX>'AX>'AX>'AX>'AX>'AX>'AX>

M'AX>'AX>'AX>'AX>'AX>'AX>'AX>'A[_P``1"`"``(`#`2(``A$!`Q$!_`

M'P```04!`0$!`0$```````````$"`P0%!@<("0H+_`M1```@$#`P($`P4%

M!`0```%]`0(#``01!1(A,4$&$U%A!R)Q%#*!D:$(




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2 Comments

  1. My long (long) term plan of my browser (https://wapps.app) is to bring us back to something similar to Gopher.

    First I want to make browsing web apps feel as good as browsing an app. Then I want to make it better. To do that I want to 'translate' the HTML into a common structure and create UI that can be similar across websites and rendered in a clean, easy to navigate way. Not sure if that makes sense. Join our Discord if you want to chat more about it (https://join.wapps.app)

  2. Speaking of being tired of the modern web: I think HTTP/HTML are fine. However medium really sucks, can't everyone start hosting their webpages somewhere else? This is slow on my mobile (even with adblocker) and this "open in app" bar doesn't want to disappear even if it's bringing no value