About this time 10 years ago I was loading £8,000-worth of IBM RAID server into the car to take it back to work after the Christmas break. The server had FirstClass installed on it and had been set up on a trestle table in our bedroom. Over the holiday period I'd been grabbing short moments to teach myself how to administer the 'FirstClass Intranet Server' that was to sit at the heart of the ruralnet|online service. ruralnet (as it was referred to then) was launched in March 1998.
The server had 4 modems attached to it so people could dial in to use it. It was also connected to the internet from a small 'office' in Atherstone, North Warwickshire, so people could connect that way too. However, in those days you had to pay £120 a year for a dial up internet connection and then you had call charges on top of that. Freeserve was just around the corner.
Since the launch we have run an uninterrupted extranet service to our users that has included a telephone helpline. I think this is a record for the UK voluntary sector. Any challengers?
The launch of ruralnet|online was the culmination of 18 months of market research, business planning and fund raising. A funding bid to the Big Lottery (then the National Lottery Charities Board) had been rejected and we were not allowed to ask why. But funding for the ICT elements of the project was forthcoming from the IBM Trust and was provided through the Communities Online initiative which my friend David Wilcox co-founded. ACRE also invested £3,000 and in exchange we put all of the Rural Community Councils online. At least in theory. Remember that this was at a time when people in Cornwall and elsewhere were telling us that "email will never catch on here".
Even at that time we were anxious about the software platform we had chosen: FirstClass. Every two or three years since the launch, systems would come along and the doom merchants would say that these "would blow us out of the water". We looked at these but stuck with FirstClass and were reassured that the Open University did too. What the doom merchants didn't realise is that there is a lot more to running an online system than the technology.
The ongoing review of alternative ways of delivering our online services has continued and, two years ago, with the emergence of the 2nd Generation of web tools (aka Web 2.0) we decided that we needed to diversify our technical platform. We are still offering FirstClass-based services to those who need an easy to use group working system with integrated email, forums, calendars etc but we've successfully migrated many of services onto Web 2.0 platforms.
In March this year, to coincide with ruralnet|online's 10th Birthday, we will be launching ruralnet|online 2.0, a completely re-engineered system with all the tried a tested services in place, like Experts Online, whirring away on Web 2.0 technology.
What will this look like? How will it work? What services will be included? Well that will be up to you. An open consultation on all these issues will be launched shortly. Watch this space.