20 events that shaped the Internet, part 1

The Internet changed our lives, but what made the Internet into what it is today?

1994: E-commerce comes to the Web

A year before Amazon.com opened for business, a small Nashua, New Hampshire-based company, NetMarket, became the first company to complete a secure, commercial transaction on the Internet. The item sold via e-commerce was a music CD by Sting that sold for $12.48, plus shipping, on August 11, 1994, to a Philadelphia man. Daniel Kohn, the then-CEO of the company, had built the first online music CD store that was connected to a merchandise database. From that small beginning, a global e-commerce industry would follow, as businesses quickly discovered that they could easily buy and sell to one another as well as to consumers from Websites that could serve customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Stores could essentially come to the customers, bringing them items from anywhere on earth.

Companies around the world do this every day now, and so do craftspeople, in-home workers, and other people who can create simple Websites and sell their wares globally. The opening of such a direct and wider marketplace may be the biggest change to hit the business world in history.

1995: Welcome to eBay, the global garage sale

In the old days before the Internet, if you wanted to sell some no-longer-used toys, car parts, dishes, or books, you put signs up in the neighborhood and held a garage sale. Wow, that is so 1970s! Since September 1995, when the online auction marketplace eBay.com launched, things have changed in a huge way. With its first online auction on Labor Day weekend in 1995, eBay transformed how goods are sold around the world. Now sellers could attract buyers from areas far from their homes, with the potential to get higher prices for their items.

eBay even came to the rescue in helping buyers and sellers handle their transactions, by integrating an online payment service, offering purchase-satisfaction guarantees, and more. Today, if you have something to buy or sell and you want a global reach, eBay.com is likely one of your first destinations. For collectors, garage-sale lovers, and everyone in between, if you can't find it here, you just may not be able to find it anywhere.

1995: Amazon.com offers online shopping, from soup to nuts

We've been buying things online for at least a decade now, so it's hard to recall when and where Internet shopping actually began. But for many folks, it all started with the soaring popularity of Amazon.com, which sold its first item online in July 1995. That first sale, a copy of the book Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought, was merely the beginning.

In January 2011, Amazon announced that its fourth-quarter sales were up 36 percent--reaching $12.95 billion. It continues to sell and ship a growing spectrum of merchandise, from books, DVDs, and CDs to vacuum cleaners and appliances. What made Amazon.com's model earth-shattering was its simple, information-filled Website, excellent customer service, low prices, great sales, vast selection, and fast free shipping with a $25 order. Lots of companies offer similar things, but none has captured the online market as Amazon has. For consumers, the site is often the first and last place to look for anything you might want to buy. And its used merchandise, with great customer support if problems crop up, is a huge bonus. Amazon continues today to show other online sellers how it should be done.

1995: Online streaming video debuts

I have shocking news for you: The first streaming video online didn't come from Netflix. Okay, maybe you're not shocked. Actually, the first event ever streamed live online came in 1995 courtesy of Progressive Networks, which later became RealNetworks. The event was a live broadcast of a baseball game between the Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees. That first stream launched an industry--now we can get movies and TV shows streamed into our homes over the Internet through a wide range of sources.

As for Netflix, it may have started out as a DVD-by-mail online business on April 14, 1998, with 925 titles up for grabs, but by early 2007 the company offered online video streaming, allowing subscribers to watch movies directly on their computers. In January 2008, Netflix began video streaming that users could watch on TVs. RealNetworks' early progress certainly helped pave the way for the incredible entertainment options we all have today.

1996: AOL Internet-access charges go 'all-you-can-eat'

It may seem minor today, but the announcement on October 29, 1996, was a landmark event. That was the day when America Online, one of the dominant ISPs in the United States, unveiled its plans to lower its fees and charge users a flat $19.95 a month for all the Internet access they wanted. The old fee structure had included 20 hours of access for $19.95, plus $2.95 for each additional hour.

The unlimited pricing plan was a game-changer for users, who could enjoy the Internet far more extensively, and huge for competing ISPs, which would copy the all-you-can-eat model and leave AOL in the dust. Do you even remember when most people paid for their home Internet access by the hour?

1996: Broadband Internet access adds zip to the Web

Many of us were just dipping our toes into "that Internet thing" back in 1994. We would sit there, waiting patiently as our high-tech fax modems made funny scratching noises and beeps while connecting us to the Internet. That sure seems like a million years ago, doesn't it? Though the first North American high-speed broadband services surfaced in 1996, they became available in the United States in a big way by 1999. That prompted a huge jump in household broadband use, the figure soaring sevenfold from 9 percent of households in 2001 to 64 percent in 2009, according to a report by the U.S. Commerce Department and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Thanks to fast download and upload speeds, the Internet became a place where people and businesses could truly accomplish great things.

For more, see "20 Game-Changing Events That Shaped the Internet, Part 2." And for another perspective, read "The 16 Greatest Moments in Web History."

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