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The untold history of Israel’s first online community

Kenny Sahr: An 'early adopter' tells the story of Ultinet, arguably the birthplace of the Start-Up Nation
Illustrative photo of a laptop computer (Sophie Gordon/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a laptop computer (Sophie Gordon/Flash90)

Did you ever wonder where Israel’s vibrant online communities sprouted from? The early 1990s saw the formation of Ultinet, a semi-secretive community of young geeks who later became pioneers of Israel’s startup scene.

Entry requirements into Ultinet were a computer, modem, some technical knowledge and a lot of patience. We used modems to call BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems). A BBS program answered modem calls and allowed people to signup and login – much like you do with Facebook and online forums. One phone line was good for one user at a time. For me, the busy signal was Ultinet’s theme song.

What did we do once we logged in? Ultinet had a forum of 20 or so topics – from politics to music to random chat. We wrote in a mix of English and Hebrew – though mostly English. Today, I see Israelis writing to each other mostly in English at the startups I’ve worked at. Israel’s culture of using English online emanated from Ultinet.

Unlike today’s forums, messages didn’t appear immediately. Every night, at 2-5am, Ultinet BBSes would call each other in a pyramid fashion to propagate the messages. If I wrote a message on one BBS, it wouldn’t appear on the others until the next morning. It was exciting to wait a day or two for replies – like waiting for a handwritten letter in the mail. Ultinet’s flame wars were polite compared to the trolling that is common today.

We had downloads; a mix of public domain and not-so-public-domain software. In those days, even Israeli computer stores would install shady versions of Windows. That stopped in the mid-90s.

The high-end of early 90s online communities was the multi-line BBS. Some charged small membership fees. It felt so cutting-edge to use the multi-line chat! One network of BBSes had a rack of cd-roms with free software. Having access to thousands of programs at once in 1993 was as thrilling as Disney’s Space Mountain.

Speed? We all had 9600 to 14.4k baud modems. It took anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours to download a program. Luckily, we didn’t have dvds in those days. Downloading a dvd would have taken about a month!

We saw the future on a small microcosm. Social networking, digital books and multi-player gaming have their roots in the era of BBSes. Ultinet slowly became extinct in the late 1990s. By the time it ended, there was a brave new online world out there. Social media grew from a few hundred Israelis to the massively active communities that you see today. Many of today’s startups are filled with Ultinet alumni. Collectively, Ultinet will be contributing to Israel’s rising fortunes for decades to come.

About the Author
Kenny Sahr is a startup marketing executive. His first startup, founded in 1996, was featured in Time Magazine and on 60 Minutes. Kenny moved to Israel from Miami, Florida. In his spare time, he is an avid music collector and traveler.
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