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How the 'Star Wars: The Phantom Menace' trailer made Web history

The "Phantom Menace" trailer wasn't only a treat for fans: it was a coup for Apple and, in 1998, one of the biggest tests the Internet had faced.

It's 1998. I'm in my college bedroom, having left home only a few months earlier. A low rumbling begins to shake the room, like a fleet of heavy vehicles approaching. I stick my head out of my door and run into two of my neighbours. We know what that noise means: "He's watching it again!"

We run down the corridor to the end room -- where the one guy with a computer and a modem was playing the trailer for "The Phantom Menace" yet again, at earsplitting volume. What we didn't know at the time was that the trailer would become a Web milestone.

That was the official trailer for "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace", the first of a trilogy of prequels to George Lucas' beloved sci-fi series. Today, teasers and trailers and teasers for trailers are a huge part of the movie marketing machine, on Apple's iTunes Trailers site, YouTube and countless movie and fan sites.

But back then the previews of "The Phantom Menace" offered a glimpse not just of the new film but of the future of movie promotion and the way that fans would engage with films online -- culminating in the hotly anticipated arrival of the trailer for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens", the first in a new trilogy following on from the events of the original films.

And with incredible numbers of people devouring the videos online, "The Phantom Menace" previews were also instrumental in proving the next-generation technology that would help the Internet make a quantum leap forward.

At last, we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi

It's astonishing to think how much things have changed in the last decade and a half, and many of those changes began for me that very year. In 1998 I got my first email address -- Hotmail, of course. I hand-wrote my initial essays, until I got a word processor with a three-line LCD screen. My phone was a payphone at the end of the corridor -- you had to hope someone passing by would answer it and then knock on your door -- which is not coincidentally why I got my first mobile phone that year, an Ericsson T28.

We had the iTunes Trailers site and Ain't It Cool News, but no Facebook, no Twitter and no YouTube. Into this veritable stone age came the first teaser for "The Phantom Menace" on 18 November 1998, six months before the film's release.

The first trailer was shown before Universal's "Meet Joe Black", Disney's "The Waterboy" and 20th Century Fox's "The Siege" at 75 US and Canadian theatres. Fans queued around the block to get in, watch the trailer -- and then leave. Trailers were repeated after each movie, so some fans are reported to have ducked out before the feature presentation only to return at the end for a second glimpse of the preview.

But the real impact was seen online. Starwars.com offered a free download of the trailer in Real Video, Quicktime and AVI formats. After a decade and a half of anticipation, the world went crazy for the first glimpse of the new "Star Wars" adventures.

Always two there are

The second, longer, better-quality trailer was posted online as a two-and-a-half minute QuickTime video on 11 March 1999. According to Jonathan Bowen's "Anticipation: The Real Life Story Of Star Wars: Episode I", this was a major coup for Apple's QuickTime digital video format over rival formats. Indeed, QuickTime was downloaded 600,000 times on the day the trailer went live.

From that opening rumble of a droid invasion force to the introduction of Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor as Qui-Gon Jinn and the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, from Natalie Portman's Queen Amidala to the double-lightsaber-wielding Darth Maul -- all set to the spine-tingling Imperial March by John Williams -- the second trailer was even more of a galactic-sized hit. In 24 hours it was downloaded more than a million times. In the first five days, it was downloaded 3.5 million times, soaring to 6.4 million within three weeks. Steve Jobs himself described the second trailer as "the biggest Internet download event in history".

According to Empire, the trailer "created online congestion not seen since the publication of the Starr Report" -- and it landed at the same time as the US sporting frenzy known as March Madness, making this an insanely busy period for Web traffic. But the success of the trailer proved a new technology for handling such colossal traffic much more efficiently.

Previously, if lots of people would suddenly visit a site it was likely to become overwhelmed and crash. But a company called Akamai had come up with a way to more efficiently distribute the load. And it worked: between Entertainment Tonight hosting the "Phantom Menace" trailer and ESPN covering March Madness, Akamai successfully handled 250 million hits on just those two sites -- up to 3,000 hits per second -- while other sites covering the same ground crashed under the strain.

Akamai was founded by MIT graduate student Danny Lewin and his advisor Professor F. Thomson Leighton, who came up with an algorithm for optimising Internet traffic in response to a challenge from Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. Akamai's FreeFlow system distributes online content so that high demand for a particular site doesn't overwhelm the site, solving the problem of "hot spots" -- a solution so dramatic that Wired at the time compared it to the development of seafaring, or written numbers.

In 2001, Lewin, a former officer in the Israeli Defence Force, was flying on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles when he confronted other business-class passengers and was stabbed to death. The date was 11 September; Lewin was the first person to be killed in the 9/11 attacks.

Akamai's technology was one of many important steps forward in enabling the Internet to become the global communication tool it is today. Vast numbers of people are able to keep in touch and enjoy even intensive processes like watching video online -- which is how millions of people will no doubt spend the time while they wait for "Episode VII: The Force Awakens" to land in movie theatres in December 2015.

And "The Phantom Menace"? Sadly, the results didn't quite match up to the anticipation...

Update: Watch the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer here