this.is/madness: Icelandic Internet Pioneer Guðmundur Ragnar Guðmundsson - The Reykjavik Grapevine

this.is/madness: Icelandic Internet Pioneer Guðmundur Ragnar Guðmundsson

this.is/madness: Icelandic Internet Pioneer Guðmundur Ragnar Guðmundsson

Published December 7, 2017

Photos by
Varvara Lozenko

Guðmundur Ragnar Guðmundsson is the type of guy who gets bored easily. This drive to always be doing something new is what led him start the first ISP in Iceland in 1993. At a time when the Internet was a brand new technology that few people understood, he was at the forefront of trying to convince people to embrace it. For a while, he and a few others ran a radio show on Rás 2, ‘Í sambandi’ (“Connected”), that helped familiarise the layperson with this brave new world.

“It was very informal and not very technical, just describing what people could do on the Internet,” Guðmundur says. “Basic vocabulary like ‘modem’ and ‘browser.’ Just to make the Internet sound like a normal thing that people could use.”

However, it was one project in particular, the domain this.is, that would catapult him and his friends into facing the prospect of multimillion-dollar deals—which inevitably fell apart due to a combination of the collapse of the dot-com bubble, and Guðmundur’s own principles.

One step beyond

The first iteration of this.is was a sort of bookmark page. It was just one idea of many, and Guðmundur already had many irons in the fire.

“We were busy with other projects,” he said. “We never had time to develop this as a business prospect.”

“The worst thing I can imagine is someone brilliant getting paid for doing something stupid.”

All that changed when he and his partners formed an agreement with an Icelandic company whereby this.is would redirect to other websites, selling this.is URLs. The simple but clever construction of this domain name would prove to be a hit. So much so that, in the early 2000s, an Icelandic company made an offer for 2.4 million dollars to buy the domain. However, they couldn’t pay all the money up front, and disagreements arose among the shareholders over whether they could trust the buyers, leading to the break-up of the agreement. In the end, Guðmundur retained control of the domain.

And then, just before the dot-com bubble burst, foreign investors behind the come.to site came to Iceland with the intent of buying this.is for 1 million dollars, but Guðmundur felt this was too little. Once the bubble burst, there was no investment forthcoming, but this.is continued, and is still running today, albeit in a limited capacity.

And then there was Bitcoin

These days, Guðmundur’s interests still include technology, especially cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. While cryptocurrency has been getting bad press, with accusations including everything from its being a pyramid scheme to a resource hog, Guðmundur sees parallels between Bitcoin and the early Internet.

“I think the parallels are that in the beginning, people just could not realise that having an email address had any value,” he says. “They didn’t see the point, or what it could offer society. It was too different, too new.”

Like today’s Internet, Guðmundur believes that blockchain technology will have numerous applications in our daily lives in the near future. Still, the early Internet also saw a period of boom and bust. Might we be seeing the same happen to cryptocurrency? Guðmundur isn’t too sure.

“Back in the dot-com boom, there were these business people in suits walking around with business plans that were total crap,” he says. “While we, the pioneers of technology, who understood how it worked and could see the potential, were not the ones going after the money. We would solve the revenue problem later. We saw so much money flowing into these companies, but our bubble did not burst.”

The right place and the right time

“You have to be there at exactly the right moment,” he adds. “If you’re too early, the market won’t be ready and you won’t be able to survive. And if you come too late, you have no chance.” And how does one know when the right moment is? Guðmundur laughs, at a loss to explain.

“I’m very bad at judging what will interest people,” he admits. “I usually get attracted to good ideas that are technically socially beneficial, but whether or not they will fly, I’m very bad at being able to tell.” As one example, he didn’t buy stock in Microsoft when they first started out because he found the concept of closed source software to be “evil.”

Ultimately, it’s Guðmundur’s fascination with the frontiers of human invention that drive him. “I like to try new things, but once it catches on, I get bored, and move on,” he says. “The worst thing I can imagine is someone brilliant getting paid for doing something stupid.”


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