Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Twenty Years in the Toy Box

Whooda thunk that my main website, The Monterey Peninsula Toy Box, was twenty years old already? Not me, apparently, because I just realized it a couple of days ago!

Yup, the Toy Box was established in July of 1997. I don't recall the exact date it first appeared in cyberspace, just the month, and that only because I published it at the bottom of my home page early on.

The whole thing started on a whim. In early 1997 I signed up with America Online after I realized that my previous internet service provider, Prodigy, was going the way of the dodo. AOL was actually my second choice. I intended to use a Monterey based ISP called Redshift, as they were highly regarded hereabouts. I installed Redshift's software, fired up the modem, and got nowhere. I spent three fruitless days going round and round with Redshift technical support. Finally, in desperation, I grabbed one of those junk-mailed AOL floppy disks that was floating around my desk. I popped it in and was up and running in ten minutes. I then called Redshift back and told them to cancel my account because I was going with AOL. The Redshift lady made some snarky comment denigrating AOL before I hung up and never looked back.

The shift to AOL was fortuitous, because included with membership was 2 megabytes of personal website space for each screen name. Each account allowed up to five screen names so one could, if needed, build a website with up to 10 megabytes of content - plenty for anyone in those days. AOL also provided free HTML coding tutorials, and they were pretty easy to understand.

I saw this free stuff as a personal challenge. I wanted to see if I could build my own website. Using only Windows Notepad as a text editor, a few fuzzy photos scanned by a photo lab, and some clip-art graphics my website began to take shape. I don't remember how long it took, but before long I had the rudiments of my website up and running. It was just black text on a white background, but it was a real website about the Monterey Peninsula. Initially it included a visitors guide, a list of movies filmed on the Monterey Peninsula, and a section about the controversial Hatton Canyon Freeway bypass proposed for Carmel. The address was members.aol.com/toylandmry

But the site still didn't have a name. After showing off my handiwork to my co-workers I asked one fellow what he thought I should name it. As he was walking out the office door he shouted "The Toy Box." I said "That's perfect!" then I realized I needed to put "Monterey Peninsula" in there somewhere because that was the focus of my project, not toys. I settled on "The Monterey Peninsula Toy Box" because the name allowed me to throw whatever I wanted into it.

My biggest challenge in those early days was finding appropriate graphics. At the time I had no way to scan photos myself, and all I had at hand were a few clip-art files I converted to GIFs. The cypress tree I still use as sort of a logo came with my first word-processing program WordPerfect Works. That same program included drawing software which I used to make a graphic of Monterey's historic Colton Hall. Originally I used it on the introductory page of my visitors guide, but now it illustrates my Bits-O-History page.

After a few months I discovered a free WYSIWYG HTML editor called AOL Press which broadened my capabilities considerably. I ended up using it for several years. It allowed me to make colored backgrounds, colored text, and tables which gave me much more control over page layouts and design. The Toy Box suddenly started to look attractive, and building new pages became a lot easier. New sections were added and the site began to take on a life of its own.

A few years in, AOL expanded its personal website offerings by creating a network of member pages called AOL Hometown. If I joined Hometown AOL provided extra storage space, I forget how much, and a Hometown banner was placed above my pages with advertising and a search box to enable readers to search the entire Hometown network. My web address changed to hometown.aol.com/toylandmry, but the original URL still worked, too.

Over the years I gradually built up content and expanded into new sections. One of my proudest accomplishments was expanding the Monterey In The Movies section from a simple list and added, after months of research, detailed information on every movie shot on the Monterey Peninsula. Individual movie pages include a plot summary, a rundown on local scenery in each film, a list of stars, and complete technical details. As far as I know the Toy Box contains the most extensively researched documentation on the subject. A few years ago I packaged the movie section into a free downloadable PDF book in the hope that at least few copies of my research will outlive me.

I think it was in 2007, that I decided to register the domain name montereypeninsula.info and directed it to my AOL Hometown address. This flowed more easily off the tongue and was easier for people to remember than the clunky hometown.aol.com/toylandmry.

The following year brought big changes. In the spring of 2008 I decided it was time to break free of the AOL universe and sign up with a real web hosting service. I figured that if there were going to be banner ads above my pages I should be getting the ad revenue, not AOL. After some research I settled on InMotion Hosting, a Los Angeles based outfit. Their service has been very reliable and their customer service is excellent. It took a couple weeks worth of work to move all of my pages over to the new service, but it was worth the effort as my ad revenue covers all of my costs plus one or two trips to the grocery store every year.

It was a good thing that I decided to switch when I did. In the fall of 2008 AOL eliminated its free Hometown website hosting. The notice came during the busiest time of the year at my job, and at a particularly challenging time for me personally. Had I not already made the move to InMotion, I would not have been able to move the site on such short notice, and the Toy Box might have seen its last days then and there.

At this point I have no plans for any major changes. I'd like to make the site more mobile friendly by switching to a "responsive" layout better able to accommodate different size screens. Google has been nagging me to do that, too. Unfortunately responsive website design is beyond my current technical capabilities. But even as the site is put together now, it works perfectly well on a 10" tablet, and even looks fairly good on a 4.5" phone in landscape mode.

So the Toy Box will keep humming along for who knows how long. Twenty years ago I never imagined it would last this long!


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