A lot can happen in 20 years. It’s really quite sobering to think how things were back then when Annie Millar first organised an ‘Internet Gala Dinner’ in 1997 (if you’re wondering what happened to the missing year, we slipped when the event moved from November to spring in 2004).
In 1997 there was no such thing as an iPad of course. Neither was there Facebook, or Youtube, or even Wikipedia. Google did exist, but it was strictly a niche search engine, an upstart speck compared with Yahoo and Altavista. Back then, everyone assumed the future was in content presented on curated ‘portals’. Search, the wise heads said, was just a stop gap.
Even more astonishing is when you think how people were using the net. There was no broadband. At all. Most Internet users at that time could get 28kbps, if you were lucky you might get 56kbps. That’s 56 thousand bits per second - fast enough to download a 4Mbyte picture that you might take on your iPhone (if you had one, which of course you didn’t) in 12 blistering minutes. But that was only part of the problem. Just to visit a website or look at your mail - you had to plug your modem into the phone line (no calls for a moment, please!), dial your ISP, then get everything done as quickly as possible so that you could disconnect again. Forget to disconnect and you could be facing a massive phone bill.
In this wild-west environment there was already a growing cluster of businesses in Manchester - designing websites, looking at digital marketing strategies, wrestling with the complexities of e-commerce. Enough of them to buy tables at a Gala Dinner and give prizes to the most impressive work. We don’t have the details of who won what that year. But I can remember what the talk was about. The conversation in the bar that night was security - how to reassure members of the public that they could safely use their credit cards to buy things on the net. We knew it would be solved - we all knew the Internet was changing everything. The Netscape IPO that arguably started the dot-com boom had been back in 1995 (Netscape has long disappeared as a brand, but its DNA lives on in Firefox).
Lots has changed in 20 years, but in 2018 when we will award a prize for the first time for ‘Best Use of Machine Intelligence’, that sense of being at the centre of change remains.