Remembering David Bowie's very own ISP, BowieNet

As news reached us of the tragic news of the death of rock icon David Bowie at the age of 69, we were reminded that ever the talented and fearless innovator when it came to music, Bowie also had an eye for technological innovation.

And eighteen years ago, what better way was there to innovate than to set up one’s very own internet service provider (ISP)?

Few people seem to remember it now, but back in 1998, Bowie did indeed set up his very own ISP, BowieNet, the world’s first and so far, probably only ISP ever to be run by a pop genius, unless Adele is working on something.

The ISP launched with an ambitious – for the time – webcast that featured performances from Ani DiFranco, the Jayhawks, Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacehog and the Specials, as well as highlights from Bowie’s 50th birthday bash at Madison Square Garden in New York.

It was to offer high-speed internet access across the world, offering “uncensored” internet access and naturally, an online community and exclusive content curated by Rolling Stone for fans, as well as access to Bowie himself through live chats and video feeds direct from the studio using FullView, a webcam service designed by Lucent’s Bell Labs.

“Initial applications call for the camera to be used for in-studio question-and-answer sessions with Bowie, as well as live ‘you are there’ rehearsal sessions with Bowie and his band,” said the press release, which incredibly is still available.

For $19.95 a month, users also got a a CD-ROM with two classic live audio and video tracks never before released, their own customisable homepage with a generous 20MB allowance, and a your [email protected] email address. The service supported both Internet Explorer and Netscape, at the time the powerhouse of browsers.

“The move would put Bowie near the front of the race to offer the kind of specialised, boutique access to the internet that is expected to challenge larger, broader ISPs,” opined an MTV journalist.

I wanted to create an environment where not just my fans, but all music fans could be part of a single community where vast archives of music and information could be accessed, views stated and ideas exchanged,” said Bowie at the time.

All things considered, BowieNet – which came to the UK a few months later – had a good run of it, surviving until 2012, when the shutters were finally brought down on the service.

“Some say that it was a Mayan prophecy for 2012 and was forever thus. Others suggest it may have been deliberate sabotage by gremlins, finally successful after a sustained attack over many years,” said a statement on Bowie’s Facebook page at the time.

“And one bloke said: ‘Your big end’s gone, mate, the whole thing’s a write-off.’.”

Rest in peace, David. You will be greatly missed by the Computer Weekly team.