The transcript reads like the last words of a group sentenced to some sort of mass execution, or perhaps the scene on the deck of the Titanic. Amid typed-out cries of "nooo," "Sad sad sad!" and "bye bye!" came the periodic countdown notice:
"System going down in 2 minutes"
"System going down in 40 seconds"
"System going down IMMEDIATELY"
At midnight last Saturday, the plug was pulled on a piece of Internet history, as service for Netcom's shell-account users was shut down. The San Jose-based Internet service provider, started in 1988, was one of the original companies to provide network service for computer hobbyists, which it initially offered in the form of shell accounts--a text-based mode of communicating over Unix-running systems that predates the World Wide Web by years.
The corporate story behind the termination of service is a familiar one in this age of conglomeration: Mindspring (a relative newcomer, having been founded in 1994) bought Netcom from ICG Communications in 1999; a year later, Mindspring merged with Earthlink.
Earthlink decided to shut down the service, which still had 3,100 subscribers, three months ago and let those users know in a mass e-mail that was sent out at the end of July. "We reached a point where we had to make a decision," said Linda Beck, Earthlink's vice president of operations (and a former Netcom employee). "The quality of the service wasn't what we wanted it to be for something we were moving forward on," she said. According to Beck, Netcom first had considered discontinuing shell service in 1996.
Beck also cited security concerns behind the closing of shell access. "Shell users have a lot of freedom to modify files on the system or delete programs," she said. "The shell community is very tight and self-governing, but if someone wanted to it would be very easy to mess up the other people on the server."
Earthlink has promised to forward e-mail for its Netcom customers until the end of next year. Beck held out the possibility that Earthlink could support the "netcom.com" addresses after 2001, though she said this might be prevented by technical issues associated with Netcom's former owner ICG, as well as adjustments that would have to be made within Earthlink's own network. (In other cases where Earthlink has acquired an ISP, it has allowed customers to keep their original e-mail addresses.)
Having a Netcom e-mail address had a certain amount of geek cachet--in the early days, some say, a list of Netcom subscribers could've made up a veritable Who's Who of the technology industry. Mindspring's own founder, Charles Brewer, was one early subscriber to the service. So conscious are Netcom's now-former customers of their status that many had taken to listing the year they signed up in the signatures attached to their e-mail: If you started subscribing in 1994, for example, you are a member of the "Class of '94."
"The thing that [Earthlink] did that people are most upset about is they took our e-mail," said Rex Wockner, a former Netcom customer. Even with Earthlink forwarding his mail through 2001, Wockner, a journalist, feels certain that he will lose contacts he has collected from around the world over the years.
"I used to brag to my friends that employers come and go, but my e-mail address will always be firstname.lastname@example.org. How wrong I was!" wrote former Netcom customer Bruce Jilek from his new e-mail address. Jilek, of Austin, Texas, was so eager to continue having shell-account access that he started his own Internet service provider, Ola Grande Networks Inc., after hearing from Earthlink about the termination of service. Jilek's new ISP already has several hundred subscribers--almost entirely composed of former Netcom customers like him.
Many Netcom alumni have also shuffled over to Panix, a privately owned ISP based in Manhattan. Relatively small ISPs like Panix that cater to a more tech-savvy clientele are the last hope for shell-account users. As for Earthlink: "They're a big, faceless corporation like AOL, MSN, the rest of them," said Harv Laser, Netcom class of '90.