Roger Ridey: Charlie's having the time of his life on the Net

'Mind-numbingly long upload and download times notwithstanding, Charlie's First Video was a big hit'
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The Independent Online

It's six o'clock on a Sunday evening and Charlie is getting ready for his weekly webcast. He sits in front of the computer, listening to his favourite MP3s and smiling up at the webcam that's perched on top of the machine. Meanwhile, on computers across America, his loyal fans log on and watch the show.

Charlie's been doing these webcasts for about eight months, but he's had his own website for at least twice that long. So he's experienced both the highs of the dot.com boom and the lows of the dot.com bust. He hasn't made an instant fortune on his internet start-up, but then again he hasn't lost one, either. He's never bothered to write up a business plan or made a pitch to a venture capitalist. He never even made it to a First Tuesday meeting.

Yet Charlie and his website are a true internet success story – something that can be quite hard to find these days. At this point, I have to admit that I'm somewhat biased. You see Charlie is my 21-month-old son.

It all started back in December 1999, when my friend and Network columnist Chris Gulker gave me a wonderful Christmas present. He registered the domain ridey.net for me and kindly offered to host it on one of the many computers (11 at last count, I think) in his home in Silicon Valley. I had registered ridey.com the summer before at the height of the dot.com boom, just for the hell of it, but I hadn't got round to doing anything with it. Likewise, I didn't get round to doing much with Chris's gift for a few months, either.

Then three things happened. I bought a digital camera, I bought a digital video camera and, most important of all, I bought an iMac DV SE. The Charlie Ridey multimedia extravaganza was just about to be born.

With my very limited knowledge of HTML, I managed to hack together a simple but (I thought) stylish home page. Then the real fun began. I connected the digital video camera's FireWire cable to the iMac, loaded Apple's iMovie DV editing software and produced Charlie's First Video. It was only about two minutes long, but the Quicktime movie file weighed in at a massive 29Mb (I had a lot to learn about things like compression and codecs). I think it must have taken me about five hours to upload it to the website over my 56k modem connection. And it probably took Charlie's grandparents, aunts and uncles at least that long to download it on their computers in America (well, at least they didn't have to pay for the phone call to their ISP, I told myself). Mind-numbingly long upload and download times notwithstanding, Charlie's First Video was a big hit back in the States.

From that point on, we were able to share all of those precious little milestones in Charlie's life with family members thousands of miles away, and often only hours after they had happened.

One morning last summer, I managed to grab the digital video camera just in time to catch Charlie crawling for the first time. Within two hours, A Short Film about Crawling was on the website (and at a mere 3Mb download this time, thanks to my discovery of some fantastic software called Media Cleaner), and his mum was watching it with her colleagues in the London office where she worked.

Fortunately, Chris Gulker being an easygoing sort of free internet service provider, he didn't impose any restrictions on the web space or bandwidth consumption that ridey.net was allocated, so I was able to build up an archive of videos (the "Charlievision Channel") on the site: Charlie having a laugh, learning to stand up, opening his Christmas presents, taking his first tentative steps...

When I got a BT Openworld broadband connection last autumn, uploading the videos to the site took minutes rather than hours. A photo album was also added with the assistance of Apple's iTools, so we could share digital photos without having to email them individually to family members.

The videos and photos were great, but they somehow lacked that sense of immediacy. So I hooked up a webcam and soon Charlie was doing his weekly webcasts, during which the whole family gets together on ICQ.

OK, so they're not webcasts in the true sense of the word, just a webcam that updates the photo on the website several times a minute. But we anxiously await the day when we'll be able to stream live video on ridey.net. At the moment, live streaming is something that BT Openworld only allows Windows PC users to do.

When I show people Charlie's website, they often look at me with amazement, no doubt impressed by the incredible web development skills they wrongly assume I possess. But the only amazing thing is just how easy it's all been. Believe me, you don't have to be an expert to do the things I've done on Charlie's website.

That said, building and maintaining the site has been a real learning experience. And I don't just mean learning how to write HTML and edit digital video. It's also taught me some important things about the internet itself, things that some people seem to have forgotten over the past few years.

I have learnt that the internet was never meant to be about buying and selling books or flights or DVDs of The Sopranos or even Tesco's Finest vine-ripened tomatoes.

The Net wasn't meant to be a way for investors to make – or lose – millions. It wasn't meant to be about things like initial public offerings or share options.

No, the internet's meant to be about communicating with each other. Even a (nearly) two-year-old knows that.

r.ridey@independent.co.uk

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