Riding the Tidal Wave
By Toni Alatalo
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.