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Riding the Tidal Wave

By Toni Alatalo
toni@an.org


After spending some time living abroad, I began noticing that what was for me a normal work and living environment is actually quite exotic for many other people. Not only is Finland's natural setting different from other places I have experienced, such as Central Europe, but so are Finland's social structures and its standards and use of technology. I believe our special Arctic living conditions play a role in the development of telecommunications in northern Finland.

The (in)famous IRC (Internet relay chat) was born and is widely used in my hometown of Oulu. Other technologies, such as automatic bank machines and online banking services, have been easily embraced here as well. The images associated with technology have been artificially emphasized here to attract international attention to our projects. It's easy to understand because these days high technology is perhaps the only thing we can really use to participate in global markets. It helps us maintain our society.

Computer Kids

Today the Internet is not about computers-at least not for me. But in order to be introduced to it in the early 1990s, one had to be quite involved with computers. We definitely were. My story is typical. My first contact with computers occurred through the Commodore family. It began with some games I played with my older cousin when I was six years old. After a couple of years, my brother and I got a few of our own. When we were 10 or 11, we did some simple programming.

When I was 12 going on 13, a certain boy moved to the neighborhood and attended our school. Not only was he familiar with computers; he also knew about modems and the world of boxes, or bulletin board systems (BBSs), which we had only heard about. After first reading messages-that's what we called the Fidonet flow, which is comparable to Usenet News today-over his shoulder for hours and hours at his house, I eventually bought my own modem and dove into this new world.

My daily routine changed. I stopped watching late-night television shows and started going to bed early so I'd be able to get up at 6 a.m. to poll new messages, have breakfast, read the newspaper, check the messages that had come, and perhaps write some before going to school. You may wonder why I
wasn't staying up late, like computer people do. The simple answer is that those BBSs hardly ever had more than one line, and that line usually was free only in the early morning. It also was nice to combine the newly printed newspaper with our discussions, although I don't think I put it together then that that's what we were doing.

At the time, many BBSs were independent islands and they actually did their jobs pretty well that way. I suppose we sometimes feel the need for some kind of closed societies and for a sysop's caretaking-as discussions surrounding virtual communities often suggest. The networks started to get more interesting. The ones we schoolkids used then were FidoNet based. One was the Fido itself, and then we had the national Finnish SF (Suomi-Fido) groups and a lot of locals (CL, for Circus Laplandia). Later we changed to UUCP and joined nullnet, which used Internet-type addresses and provided Usenet feed for those who could afford it. Most of us couldn't but we had the local pulp.nullnet groups instead-pulp as in pohjolan uljaat pojat: brave boys of the north.

Internet

At the time, I had already had my first contact with the global Internet. I was 14 and working at the university to see what working there was like. Naturally, I'd chosen the computer center, where I got to know some of the basics of networking. Of course I had heard what it was like, but having immediate access to places all over the world felt amazing. We were used to dial-up systems that changed new information once or twice a day, and international traffic was not only slow but also highly unreliable. My job was to use FTP to get up-to-date information about Internet connectivity. I still remember printing out the maps and showing them to some people there. After that week, my account was valid for one month-but for FTP only.

It was not before IRC became big in Oulu that I became really interested in the Internet. Access was a problem and the academic newsgroups-although they were interesting-seemed quite remote for a 14-year-old. But then, thanks to some friendly people at the university, we started getting limited access to the university's systems. Actually, the server we got to use was the very first IRC server there ever was-tolsun.oulu.fi-through a limited menu system called OuluBox, with time restrictions.

I already knew most of the people from the local Fido and UUCP systems, so the only difference was that we got to be online simultaneously, and hence the experience was more interactive. IRC is a lot more concurrent by nature. Typically, we'd log in at about six or seven o'clock on a Friday night to discuss with the group where to party that night, meet there in few hours, and gather online again before going to sleep.

At the time, we were perhaps more global than we've been ever since. The IRC was not so crowded by Finns yet-even though we were a kind of minor majority-and the lag to #Texas (my friend's favorite), #aussies, or South Africa (where I got my best friend at the time) was a mere two seconds.

Until 1993 we were only computer geeks and yes, boys. There was, however, one exception: one girl who started IRCing at the age of 13 and kept on for some years. We were totally dependent on the university and other schools that gave some people access even though those schools were not obliged to. But then everything changed. The OuluNet-www.oulu.net, the school network in Oulu-got started. It was initiated and run by Jukka Orajarvi, who was and still is working at www.otol.fi.

By 1993 and 1994 Oulu had become, I believe, one of the first places in Europe to give children from 12 to 19 years old-those in upper preliminary and high school and, occasionally, even younger children-unlimited Internet access from home. Soon a lot of noncomputer people were involved, and in many schools, the girls were especially enthusiastic about e-mail and chat, as often is the case.

Finally Teachers Get Along

At first, the teachers didn't know much about the network. The initiative came from outside, and the system-including technical solutions, maintenance, teaching and support, and ethical questions-were our trouble. The first job for many of us consisted of the courses led by Jukka in the summer of 1994, when we, by that time professionals, were teaching our own teachers the basics of the Internet on our holiday. The same summer, we had a workshop that produced, for example, the first Web pages of the city of Oulu-with connections to a database.

By the end of the year, the structure was pretty much there, and since then, the Internet has remained established as a part of school activities. We, the group of first pupil maintainers, were going to graduate soon, but in most of the schools, new enthusiasts were already there learning their jobs.

Into Business

There was growing demand for our services outside the school world, so we-a group of 10 from the schools-decided to found a company, Net People Oy, toward the end of 1994. That was how we were able to continue being-and working-together for the next few years. Net People's history is quite colorful, as is the history of most other Internet start-ups. The people and the profiles changed dramatically over time, and the company today is very different from the one that began in 1994. For me the freedom and the ultimate challenges it offered were crucial.

Net People Oy

The 10 founding members of Net People Oy consisted of three older students-they were 23 years old-and seven of us high school kids aged 16-19. I was 17, almost 18 at the time.

Each of the seven of us had more than a year's experience in administrating the schools' Unix servers, in taking care of people's accounts, and in teaching other kids and teachers. We also had strong technical backgrounds from the earlier years: some had been active in the demo scene, some had experience as hackers and crackers, most could program, and everyone was familiar with the Internet and spent a lot of time there.

The older three had been using the Net a lot but didn't have the same service-oriented background. All of them had been working already either at their school-the polytechnic-or at Nokia (like everyone). We, the younger ones, proudly vowed never to work at Nokia.

The business idea was simple: provide people and companies in the Oulu area with Internet services. Of course, there were already many companies doing that in Finland. The first to provide access to the Internet was, as far is I know, clinet.fi, which started back in 1986. There also was eunet.fi, which had been around since the early 1980s and was marketing to private users in the 1990s. So we bought a twin-head Sun clone running SunOS 4.1.3 and connected it first to the school's network and then to the commercial network of the local telephone company. The idea was that the telephone company would take care of the access-such as the modem pool part-and we would handle the rest, including users' e-mail accounts, home directories, Web services, customer support, customizing and programming, and installing intranets.

Problems arose right from the beginning. The first server we had didn't work. The supplier's service was bad, and we couldn't really cope with it. Somehow the boys finally managed to make things work, and we got the server running in the beginning of 1995.

The telephone company had trouble as well. Actually, its trouble was a lot more severe than ours, as the company couldn't get the modems working for quite a while. Because our customers were supposed to be the ones using the telephone company's access-which didn't work-our business didn't
really start up well.

We did have some other projects already; our first CEO was excellent finding them. By the spring we were working, and we'd made our first income for the company. What we charged for our work didn't really even cover the costs, but we didn't know it and it sounded like a lot of money, so we were happy. We had great times together.

Most of us-I believe five of us seven young experts-were graduating from high school that spring, so work was more like a hobby anyway. The company was a nice way of getting together and gaining loads of server resources and fast access for ourselves, because there were no customers yet. We didn't have any physical office. We didn't need one. All papers were on the Net; decision making was handled on various mailing lists; and most of the discussions took place on IRC. In practice there was no separate governing board, but everybody could participate in all decision making as much as they liked. We met at school classrooms, and cafés were quite comfortable. We had to travel a lot around the area installing servers anyway, so the Net made a good office.

The CEO and a few others had mobile phones in case customers called, but we really didn't care about the phones in the beginning. Soon, however, the company bought them for those who needed to be reached. I got mine the summer of 1995, and that's when I learned how to use a telephone. It quickly turned out to be the other important communication channel besides the Internet itself. I still can't use a fax machine, but many in the company had to learn how.

As an aside, nowadays digital cellular mobile phones are more common in Finland than any other type of telephone is; their use exceeded the conventional copper-wireds in September 1997. I gave away my cellular phone in Fall 1997, when I moved to Amsterdam. No one here has them, and the Net is much nicer. I guess I need this peace for a change.

Meanwhile, back in 1995, other difficulties arose. Customers were complaining they had a hard time contacting us. As business started growing, the important people in the company were busier and not reachable by mobile phone. That was quite typical. We didn't advertise or really even look for customers; they had to find their way to us. And we sometimes neglected them totally if there was something more interesting happening on the Net. Either the customers were not yet used to e-mail or their e-mail didn't work, so that wasn't an option for them.

Eventually, we decided to rent an office, where we put the servers and fax machine. The technology park was a good place because most high-tech companies in the area are based there, including Nokia. In addition, the park is only a couple of hundred meters (about three-quarters of a mile) away from the University of Oulu, where most of us young people started studying in the fall of 1995. During that time, the technology park itself and the companies situated there began showing interest in the Internet, so our workload grew. Our first task was to put up the server for them and handle the networking.

It turned out I was the one tied up at the office that summer. I answered the phone calls and most of the e-mails, looked after our own servers, and took care of the services of the technology park, such as creating new accounts and helping people. It was the same work I'd done for a couple of years while in school, but this time it was in the middle of the corporate business world. Besides the technology park itself and Nokia, our customers included companies like Elektrobit, Wasala, and BusCom, some of which are doing very well nowadays.

In addition to taking care of everyday business and answering the office phone, I was responsible for a new service we started that summer. It was a telephone support service for Finnish people who were having trouble with the Internet. The service was called 9-NET-9-the number was 0600-9-NET-9-it cost about $1 (5 markkaa) a minute and was open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. When I was not at the office, I forwarded the number so it would ring on my mobile phone.

Like most of our services, the now legendary 9-NET-9 was not profitable. The deal with the telephone company was that the telephone company would take care of the access, and we would take care of the rest of the business. We were supposed to share the profits the access would bring; after all, we'd have to take care of all of the support and service development. But because we didn't have any formal agreement on paper, it didn't turn out that way. We did get a fixed payment of Fmk30 for every user who had a mailbox and access to Usenet news and IRC servers plus the room for the home page on our server. It seems, however, that during previous years of the Net business-1994-97-charging only for access has been really profitable for Internet service providers. We charged the technology park a fixed monthly fee for access to our servers and administrating the park's own server. And we were active in many kinds of projects and really enthusiastic about them, but most didn't turn a profit.

The monthly income kept us alive, and traveling to install systems, teaching, and organizing workshops was rather profitable. Still, it took more than a year before any of us could really get paid for what we did. Even the three or four months in 1995 that I worked almost full-time didn't bring me any money but it was OK.

By the end of 1995, the Internet boom had started to reach northern Finland, and our services became more popular. Unfortunately, we didn't have real products to sell, and we were not very good workers either. Studying and other interests took a lot of time and energy, and no one could concentrate on it full-time because the company couldn't really pay for work.

Moreover, new people had begun to work in the same business. The technology park and some of companies there were not always satisfied with our service, and they hired some other students to work directly for them. We, for whom the Net was almost like a religion and the company our own tribe or church, got a bit scared by that development. Fortunately, the other Networkers in the area were our friends, so we approached them and asked them to join us, which they happily did. So we became a group of 14. Eventually, the new people became the next two CEOs and the current core of the company.

Apart from new workers, we needed money and someone with business skills. We succeeded in finding a solution in the beginning of 1996. It was quite a coincidence.

I had been, actually for the first time, alone in Helsinki in October 1995 for a party and went back there with some friends to spend New Year's eve. A few weeks later, after returning to Oulu, I spent my time at the university. One Tuesday afternoon, I was browsing through the national sfnet discussion-a part of my daily routine-and noticed a message from a guy in Helsinki looking for "people who can write HTML." I was tired and bored after working all day, so I called the phone number included in the message; I guess I was wondering about moving to Helsinki.

I was surprised to hear that the person who had written the short message had such big plans. He was looking for the best people in the country to form a group that would perform business development for Internet services. From the message, I'd thought that it was some boring, weak, HTML-writing start-up, but he was a real capitalist with successful businesses already. I told him about our company, and we decided to meet in Helsinki the next Saturday.

I traveled back south on Friday and intended to sleep overnight in the apartment of a friend to be fresh for the meeting the next morning. The friend actually is one of seven of us young first OuluNet and netppl-people, but he'd moved to Helsinki that autumn to study law. He was-and still is-participating actively on the mailing lists and handles legal and other bureaucratic issues. When I arrived in Helsinki, he told me there would be a party that Friday night. One other guy-an older brother of another netppl-founder of my age from Oulu-was leaving to do his military service and was having a farewell party. The friend I was going to stay with was there already when I was at the railway station in Helsinki, so I had no other choice than to go there too. It was a great party, but I didn't get much sleep. Those few hours were spent on the plain wooden floor because there was no furniture in the apartment.

The next morning my phone rang. Luckily, I woke up, because it was the businessman I was planning to meet. He asked me to meet him for lunch. The others were still fast asleep as I left.

The meeting was a success. We ate well and talked for nearly three hours about where the Net business was going and what we-his contacts and resources in the business world and our group of experts-could do together. His idea was to found a separate marketing company that would market our products in Helsinki, where all of the money and business in Finland are, and we could work on them wherever we'd like to and actually get paid for it. His condition was that he would own 50 percent of the company. He assured us, however, that he wouldn't force us to change the way we work. He said he thought we were like artists who couldn't be treated that way without killing the creative drive.

I reported the results the same evening on the Net for the others to read. The deal sounded promising, especially because we were in financial trouble and didn't have any resources. Selling the majority share, however, sounded problematic. Since the beginning, we 10 had owned equal shares of 10 percent each, which was for us the natural and democratic way to organize the company. One vote per person: that's how things work, we had always thought. But we were facing a dead end, and this man's promise of good global/international contacts and resources seemed promising. About 40 years old at the time, he'd been working internationally most of his life. He'd been educated in international marketing on the other side-the business side-of the Atlantic Ocean.

The CEO decided to meet him as soon as possible, so we went back to Helsinki. Things went well. We felt good together and were surprised how well this man understand our spirit. It was almost as if he'd always been one of us. Perhaps he should have been. After long discussions at his house, we felt like going for it. There was only one change in the original plan that our brilliant CEO came up with: he suggested there might be no need for a separate marketing company and that he invest straight to our business and start working in tighter cooperation with us within the same company. This was a completely new concept for everybody, but finally, after a good night's sleep and consideration, we decided it'd be the solution we would propose to the others.

After discussing the matter back home in Oulu, we invited the man to meet us there. He and the other new people we'd earlier asked to join would become shareholders: he'd get the 50 percent he wanted, and the rest would be shared among us. Everyone felt it was the beginning of a new era. We told him everything, and he, as a hard-boiled business professional, could point out the mistakes we'd made and could describe several solutions. He also had customers with projects and international partners waiting.
The spring and summer of 1996 was the time when all those promises started to come true. The seeds had finally started to grow. I was spending half of my time in Helsinki. We started our first project there, and it was really a good one.

The customer was the best-known auction house in Finland, selling high-quality antiques and fine art plus valuable classic cars. The firm was about to modernize its information systems and digitize the process of producing the auction catalog.

The catalog is central to the business of the auction house. It has to be made well and on time because most people make their buying decisions based on the pictures. That's why the quality of the print is crucial. Putting all of the information together is a hard process. Demanding customers make it even more difficult as they withdraw their items or bring in new ones to sell at the last moment. The traditional photography and print methods are so slow that the auction house can't adjust to its customers' needs. The firm hoped that digitalization would be the answer.

Another company was working on the database and the digital imaging, so our task lay in participating in that process to create the online version. Our goal was to do it so that the same database and same pictures that the new system would use to publish the paper catalog could be used to automatically create an interactive Web version of it. I, at the age of 20, was responsible for our part of the project. This time we were in no hurry. We had the whole summer.

On the whole, the project went well-or at least better than usual-because in the past we'd quite often failed to meet deadlines. One of the guys back in Oulu built the database interface for the Web, and it worked well. We also could get the system to process the images created for print to be suitable for the Web. The interface and the search engine for the online catalog were not only fine but also finished in time. It was pretty neat to be able to, say, search for all the silver rings you could buy with less than Fmk5,000 or check out how many classic Ferraris the company had sold during the years.

The only trouble was the overall graphic design of the site. The customer wanted to have all kinds of information-such as its history-on the site, and it gave us the texts as we had agreed. We asked who would make the graphics and the design that would be needed to make the site look good, and the firm promised to deliver them. In the end, it didn't. It turned out the firm had misunderstood our question and so gave us only paper catalogs to show us what the style was supposed to be. We had to do the design ourselves, and the firm was not willing to pay for it. I can't do professional graphics myself, and we had no money to pay anyone, so it was a serious crisis. Finally, after two weeks of panic and with the deadline looming, the CEO created the graphics and the whole design himself in one night, with my assistance.

Considering that at that time a lot of Web design was really poor, the results were quite good. The customer was astonished. It was so much more than the firm had expected. The project was finally over, except that the pages were not technically finished, so some other people had to go through them back in Oulu. The CEO and I had to travel elsewhere to teach, and we didn't have the time to finish them. That caused a quarrel.

Not one of us got paid for the project. The database designer did the Web engine as his master's thesis in order to graduate from the polytechnic. We did our parts for fun and to learn and just because we had to. The company didn't charge enough, so the income covered only expenses-such as travel, telephone calls, the secretary's salary, and other running costs. It was quite sad, but at least we'd managed to finish one real project and we got good publicity as a result.

The autumn after that auction house summer brought an even better project with even more work, publicity, and no pay. The Swedish royal family was coming to visit Oulu, and the town wanted to get whatever it could out of it. Our CEO was involved in the planning, and-being the amazingly creative propeller he is-he came up with great ideas, found the partners, and convinced the representatives of the city to go for it. So our company worked like crazy most of August, and when the royal family came, we'd just finished everything-in fact, the same morning, after a 28-hour day of work-to be ready for the show.

You can still see the results at http://www.ouka.fi/victoria/. It was a good example-and one of the first in the world, I believe-of the way modern Internet communication services combined with mobile digital technology can be applied to share with people across the world important events as they happen. The site functioned as a press center for the international media and also was the fastest news channel for the public We borrowed two digital cameras from Canon and the hospital in Oulu that the photographers were using. The pictures taken were transferred immediately to our office from the field from the backseat of a taxi via a laptop with a GSM datalink. In our office they were Photoshop'ed and published for the press to use and for people to watch-with short explanations of what was going on. Our best-quality pictures were 1200x800 or even larger, so they were good enough for the print media to use. Some places the royals visited had video cameras installed so that we could send their stream live on the Net too. We also had digital pocket cameras, and we were using such cameras ourselves. Some pictures I took of Princess Victoria's arrival at the technology park were published in real time too.

Of course, today, with all of the media giants using the Web extensively to report, for example, the Olympic games, all that is nothing new. Back then though, in the far north of Scandinavia-in the middle of nowhere, if you prefer-it was quite an achievement for a bunch of youngsters. The one coordinating the work the day the royals visited was 23 years old and later became CEO of Net People.

I was 19, like most of the technicians taking care of ISDN and videoconferencing systems, the CU-SeeMe link, the outgoing Mbone feed, and the basic Web services. The girl-there's one in the group-finishing the pictures for the press was 18. All of them world-class professionals, I'd say. The middle-aged man who'd bought half of the company was in the office in Helsinki, 600 kilometers (372 miles) away and happy to follow everything on the Net.

By the end of 1996 and during 1997, the company was becoming organized, established, and serious. Business had slowed down and things became quite boring compared with the crazy early times, but at least the ones now working nine to five every day-instead of 30 hours a day and then disappearing-get paid and live normal lives. The customers can rely on them. The current CEO has a family and a child, and the workers have to pay their rents, so they can't do it just for fun anymore like I-we-always did. There's still much of the spirit left, though.

Most of the founding members of the society-it wasn't really a company in the beginning-are somewhere else: the first leader, creator, and spirit maker CEO moved to the countryside and is working on his own projects; some of us youngsters are busy studying other things-law, sociology, languages, cultural studies-in other parts of the country or abroad; and some of the professionals have moved on to other companies for better pay or different work. Many of the originals are, however, working full-time. I think that, combined with the newcomers, they form the core of about eight active people at the office. And naturally also, we who are away, only for a while I hope, still hang around on the Net as always.

The main product is our own package called Net Access, which is a basic service whereby people and companies use the Internet-from home and/or at the office-with a modem or an ISDN connection. We have our own modem pool now, which brings in basic income from about 1,500 customers. There also are some cable modem users. The server services are OK. For example, the whole an.org is on netppl's systems in Oulu, and I happily use it from all over the world every day. Some are working on projects, mainly building Web sites sometimes combined with more advanced database facilities.

The biggest challenge in the future is to find a new business model, now that the whole service business is changing. Although good local service is a strength, globalization appears to be necessary. A long-term strategy has been to form good partnerships and try to move out from the tiny markets in northern Finland for the global markets. Only some hundreds of thousands of inhabitants are there and competition is tightening. This is one reason I've been traveling and meeting Internet Society people and why I came to live here in Amsterdam, which for international business is about the best place on the Continent.

I also hope the Finnish chapter of the Internet Society will help us take this step. Otherwise, the fight is lost and we will die away because the old world of telcos, big media, and information technology corporations is taking over the Net as it becomes just a regular part of the society. Then those delightful memories of the past years will represent nothing but a useless effort. But there's nothing I hope more than to show the world it was only the beginning.

Revolution! Or at least a good life.

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