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Question: Where have all the Gophers gone?

Question: Where have all the Gophers gone? Rich Schiek <[email protected]> asks: "Several years ago when the Web was just starting there were some other technologies for sharing text-based data over the Internet. The two I recall are Gopher and WAIS, which could be used to search for weather information, university library catalogs, etc. Have these tools gone the way of the TTY terminal? Everyone has a Web page but does anyone still have a Gopher hole?"

Answer: Ah, Rich, thanks for reminding us of the good old days before the Web, when, to find much of anything on the Internet, we had to telnet barefoot to it in the snow, pushing our packets uphill all the way. Yes, Gopher and WAIS (which stands for Wide Area Information Servers) were alternate methods of publishing and searching for information on the Internet before the Web. Gopher was developed by the University of Minnesota – their mascot is a gopher – and pioneered the concept of linking sites together, since an item in a Gopher menu could be either a local file or a link to a file on another Gopher server. In fact, Gopher could handle data types other than text, but only as items in a menu, in contrast to the way graphics or movies can mix with text on Web pages.

WAIS was somewhat different. Developed by Brewster Kahle while at the supercomputer company Thinking Machines, WAIS servers were basically massive databases of text. WAIS servers provided English-like search facilities and presented the results with ranking (how likely the result was to answer your question) and relevance feedback (which enables you to say "Find me more like this one"), both of which were cutting edge concepts at the time.

What’s happened to these services? Although it’s still available, Gopher isn’t used much any more, especially for new services, although most Web browsers work with Gopher servers. WAIS was spun out of Thinking Machines into a company called WAIS, Inc., and was then purchased by America Online. Since then the only place you might find a WAIS server is as the back end of search engines accessed via Web sites. If you’re interested in learning more about these essentially obsolete services, you might check out what I wrote about them back in 1995 in Chapter 9 of the third edition of my Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh, which is old but still online in its entirety. [ACE]

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