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20 years ago, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace's trailer made web history

The 1998 teaser for the return of Star Wars wasn't just a treat for fans: it was a coup for Apple and one of the biggest tests the internet had faced.

Lucasfilm

I feel a disturbance in the Force.

I stick my head out of my door and run into two of my neighbours. "He's watching it again!" We run down the corridor of our college residence, our new home since leaving home only a month or two earlier, to the end room -- where the one guy with a computer and a modem plays the trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace yet again, at earsplitting volume.

Lucasfilm

It was 1998. Like Star Wars fans all over the world, my buddies and I couldn't get enough of the Phantom Menace trailer. Long before Star Wars' current ubiquity, long before The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi and Rogue One and Solo, before even the Clone Wars cartoons, the return of the sacred saga to the big screen was set to be a world-shaking moment. The trailers for The Phantom Menace gave the first glimpse, and therefore were huge events in themselves.

But they were more than that. Today, teasers and trailers and teasers for trailers are a huge part of the movie marketing machine on YouTube and countless entertainment and fan sites. But back then the previews of The Phantom Menace didn't just offer a peek at the new film: for some of us the Phantom Menace trailers were our first significant brush with this new-fangled invention called the World Wide Web. And they were instrumental in proving the next-generation technology that would drive the burgeoning internet's 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, not only did I go to college, but I also I got my first email address -- Hotmail, of course. I hand-wrote essays, until later that year I acquired a word processor with an LCD screen that displayed three lines of text. My phone was a payphone at the end of the corridor, and you had to hope someone passing by would answer it and knock on your door -- which is why I also got my first mobile phone, an Ericsson T28, that year.

By 1998 we had the iTunes Trailers site and news site Ain't It Cool, but there was no Facebook, no Twitter and no YouTube. Into this veritable stone age came the first teaser for The Phantom Menace, six months before the film's release, exactly 20 years ago, on 18 November 1998.

The first trailer was shown at 75 US and Canadian theatres before Universal's Meet Joe Black, Disney's The Waterboy and 20th Century Fox's The Siege. Star Wars fans queued around the block to get in, watch the trailer and leave before the movie. Trailers were also repeated afterwards, 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 since Return of the Jedi, the world went crazy for the first glimpse of the new Star Wars adventures.

Always two there are

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

The second trailer was even more of a galactic-sized hit. Opening with a room-shaking rumble of an oncoming droid invasion force, the trailer introduced Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor as Qui-Gon Jinn and the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, as well as Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala. Like fans around the world, my friends and I went nuts for the spine-tingling Imperial March by John Williams and the double-lightsaber-wielding Darth Maul.

In 24 hours the trailer 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". As if that wasn't enough, 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 web held. In fact, the success of the Phantom Menace trailer demonstrated the success of a new technology for handling such colossal traffic.

Previously, if lots of people suddenly visited a site it would be overwhelmed and crash. But a company called Akamai had come up with a way to more efficiently distribute the load.

The Phantom Menace promised a long-awaited return to the Star Wars universe.

Lucasfilm

Akamai was founded by MIT graduate student Danny Lewin and his advisor Professor F. Thomson Leighton, who met a challenge from web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee to come up with an algorithm for optimising internet traffic. Akamai's FreeFlow system distributed online content so a spike in traffic hitting a particular website didn't cause it to crash, solving the problem of "hot spots". Akamai's solution was so significant, Wired at the time compared it to the development of seafaring or written numbers.

In March 1999, the technology proved itself. Between Entertainment Tonight's website hosting Phantom Menace trailers and ESPN's online coverage of March Madness, Akamai successfully handled 250 million hits on those two sites alone. While other websites covering the same ground crashed under the strain, Akamai's technology juggled as much as 3,000 hits per second.

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 hijackers 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. A few million people watching QuickTime videos might not seem like much in an age when billions have viewed Despacito and Gangnam Style, but the Phantom Menace trailers gave a preview of how huge cultural events would soon be voraciously consumed and discussed online. They gave a glimpse of the future of movie promotion, and the way fans would engage with pop culture in the coming online age. And they proved the technology that helped lead to today's world of high-speed internet video, like YouTube and Netflix the forthcoming Disney+ streaming service that will be home to Star Wars TV shows like The Mandalorian and a Rogue One spinoff.

The Phantom Menace trailers were a milestone in creating today's online world. And the film itself? Sadly, the results didn't quite match up to the anticipation...

This story was first published on 28 November 2014, and has been updated for the 2018 anniversary.

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