seeing the future? this 1980s internet service’s incredible story will wow you

A promo picture of the Quantum Link service.

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You’ve heard of America Online (AOL) — if you’re old enough, you may even remember the compact discs AOL used to hand out.

These CDs promised something amazing by 1990s standards: hundreds or even thousands of hours of free internet access.

In the present day, that doesn’t sound too impressive. We have unlimited data all the time on all of our devices. But just a few years before those AOL CDs appeared, people were willing to pay 8 cents per MINUTE for online services, on top of a monthly fee of $9.95.

What was this amazing product that early web users were eager to shell out for? It was called Quantum Link — and it might just have predicted the evolution of the internet.

A compelling addition to the Commodore 64

The Commodore brand has been consigned to the dustbin of computer history. But for a time — the early Eighties until the early Nineties — the Commodore Business Machines 64 was the most popular PC on the market.

The Commodore 64 was both more powerful and less expensive than its competitors: better-known early computers like the Apple II, the TRS-80, and the IBM PC. Tens of millions were sold, making (in the words of a PC World writer) “instant geeks out of millions of people.”

Quantum Link, or Q-Link, was introduced in 1985 as an online services add-on for the Commodore 64. Kind of like BMW charging a monthly fee for heated seats, or Tesla for an Autopilot subscription, Commodore’s vision was for Q-Link to produce some recurring revenue over and above what they were generating in hardware sales.

And that visionary concept is just one part of what made Q-Link unique.

A clever GUI

Quantum Link built upon one of the features that made the Commodore 64 a market leader in its time: color graphics.

Out of the box, the computer’s graphics were confined to programs running off of floppy disks. The genius of Q-Link was to use the Commodore 64’s powerful CPU to run web apps.

Building on the work of a company called PlayNet, Q-Link introduced a model for internet services in which the heavy graphical lifting was done by the user’s computer. With the CPU handling the graphics, only a little bit of data had to traverse the web.

Keep in mind that internet speeds were painfully slow at the time: 300 to 2400 bits per second. (56K dial-up, which came later, is 56,000 bits per second.) By minimizing data transfers, Q-Link’s model was a smart way around that problem.

An all-in-one communications and entertainment solution

What, exactly, did a Q-Link subscriber get for their $9.95 a month?

The list is long:

A subscription to Grolier’s Online Encyclopedia.
News and entertainment updates.
Stock prices, plus the ability to buy and sell stocks.
15,000 Commodore programs in the public domain.
The Comp-u-store, billed as the nation’s largest online store.
Travel bookings through a program called Eaasy Sabre (run by American Airlines, hence the spelling).

But these were just the “Basic” offerings. Q-Link Plus services, which cost an additional $0.08 per minute, were even more extensive:

People Connection, a collection of public and private chat rooms.
A wide array of online games, including the very first massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), Club Caribe.
Classified ads.
Tutoring and online classes.
Curated events, e.g., game nights.

It’s not just the breadth of Q-Link’s offerings that is impressive. Many of the Plus services, like online chat and online gaming, appeared nowhere else in the mid-Eighties outside of niche hobbyist communities.

Even more remarkably, the Plus products had operating hours. They were “open” from 6pm to 7am on weekdays and all 24 hours on weekends.

“Join clubs, share opinions, even sit in Q-Link’s ‘Bars’ and chat as late into the evening as you want,” a Q-Link brochure enthused.

The forerunner of the friendly internet

The real legacy of Q-Link isn’t the colorful GUI — which looks a whole lot like Windows 8 — or online gaming, or even the innovative combination of chat and email.

The true “killer app” is the underlying technology that made Q-Link possible.

PlayNet, which had the bright idea to run client-side web apps, was just one piece of the puzzle. What made PlayNet run was the network created by a company called Control Video Corporation.

Incorporating the ideas of PlayNet and the networking tech of Control Video, Q-Link aimed to be “a more colorful, easier, friendlier online experience that would be as welcoming to homemakers and humanities professors as it would to hardcore hackers,” in the words of tech historian Jimmy Maher.

Initially exclusive to Commodore, Q-Link signed partnerships with IBM, Apple, and Radio Shack later in the Eighties. None of these worked out, commercially speaking.

But the Apple version of Q-Link, named AppleLink Personal Edition, was given a new lease on life when it was renamed America Online.

AOL, of course, later became THE way to access the web. Thanks in no small part to those free CDs, it made the internet mainstream in American households.

Even AOL’s iconic You’ve Got Mail tagline has a Q-Link connection. Elwood Edwards, the voice actor responsible for the line, was married to a Quantum customer service rep. She submitted Edwards for consideration after hearing that the company wanted to add a “voice” to its service.

And, AOL aside, it’s not a stretch to say that we have Q-Link to thank for many of the features of today’s web: instant messaging, multiplayer online gaming, e-commerce, and more.

illumy also owes a debt of gratitude to Q-Link’s vision. We’re aiming to combine IM, email, file sharing, and voice service into super-fast threaded conversations that, like Q-Link, will be colorful, easy, and friendly.

But unlike Q-Link, there won’t be operating hours. illumy will be available 24-7.

Image courtesy Paleotronic.

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