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See Inside June 2005

A Customer Base of One

Personal fabricators aim at letting you manufacture your own products


Thirteen years ago I unboxed my new Apple Macintosh, plugged it into the phone line, and discovered the existence of another world. Spirited, unruly discussions on everything from quantum physics to punk rock ebbed and flowed across a borderless electronic forum called Usenet. Anyone anywhere could join in. More definitive sources of information--how to combat an infestation of pine-tip moths, join two boards with a dado joint or locate the great nebula in Orion--resided among a far-flung collection of computers called Gopher servers, a precursor to the World Wide Web. So much had been happening beyond my awareness. I felt like an African bushman turning on a radio for the first time.

It wasn't just words and pictures that had been lurking out there. With the chirps and squawks of modem tones, I could download animated clocks, perpetual calendars, a gizmo that made my keyboard clack and ding like an old Smith Corona typewriter. Legions of amateur programmers were creating and distributing, largely for their own amusement, a multitude of virtual machines.

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