Then The Net Happened

Published Date
01 - Jun - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Jun - 2006
Then The Net Happened
The WWW. Dial-up. Broadband. Netscape. The browser wars. Windows. Linux. The Pentium. The DVD. Napster. Google. PDAs. Cell phones. That about sums up the 1990s, except it doesn't describe how our PCs transitioned from a luxury item to a staple, and it sidelines AMD.

As we said earlier, Apple's products were niche offerings by 1990. During this decade, the company defined that niche better, coming up with innovative, colourful products-literally and figuratively. 1991 saw the Macintosh PowerBook series, Apple's first truly portable computers. They came with a 16-bit Motorola CPU, 2 MB of RAM, a hard disk ranging from 20 to 40 MB, and a 640 x 400 black and white screen. As an aside, 20 MB was quite the size for hard disks back then: 30 or 40 MB was considered large.

The fruity-coloured iMacs were launched only in 1998, with their hockey-puck mice. Specs: 233 MHz PowerPC 750, a 4 GB hard disk, and 32 MB of RAM. The monitor was translucent, and these machines ran deadly quiet. Some say that even this addition of colour was imitated by the Wintel alliance, with cabinets now coming in black, silver, and grey! In 1999 came the equally colourful iBooks, as well as the PowerMac G4.

Yes, the '90s were good times for Mac lovers (already there was a cult of Mac lovers, or fans, or addicts, or advocates). "Think different", they were told-and that's what they did. While Apple was being innovative in the features as well as the design departments, the company unfortunately, didn't revolutionise anything. The world was already sold on Windows-not so much sold on Windows 3.1 in 1992, but very, very much sold on Windows 95 in 1995. Reports at the time said people waited in long queues outside US stores August 24th, waiting to get the Windows 95 retail pack.

We can't sideline the importance of Windows 95: it wasn't merely an improvement over 3.x, it was the first "real" Windows. Crash-prone as hell, Apple fans might snigger, but for those of us who used it back then, it did the job. If you bought a new computer at the time, people would ask you if you'd managed to load Windows 95 on it-and lose interest in you if it turned out you were still using 3.x or even DOS. Windows 98, again, wasn't quite as revolutionary as the 95 version-it even had the same splash screen! But we all upgraded anyway, of course.

The operating systems were getting more demanding, but the hardware was keeping pace: March 22, 1993, the Intel Pentium microprocessor with its 3.1 million transistors saw the light, and (cutting a long story short) on May 7 1997 happened the Pentium II, with 7.5 million transistors. The low-cost Celeron was out in 1998, and the Pentium III in '99. Our PCs might have been boring, with no trace of fruity colours, but the numbers I, II and III were important: they set the benchmarks for desktop processing power.

As for RAM, hard disks and such, well, so much happened then, we can't talk about it in this space! We'll just say that around 1995 onwards, components just kept getting faster and larger: the MHz/GHz/GB/whatever race had already begun. And since you're a Digit reader, you're well familiar with that. But for those who were too young to remember, we should mention that in 1995, a 1 GB hard disk was the envy of every kid on the block, and the corresponding figure for RAM was a whopping 32 MB! By 1999, these had become 30 or 40 GB and 256 MB respectively.

But what was a computer without the Internet to connect it to? All of a sudden-from a bird's-eye view of history, that is-this connection was as important as the computer. From the de-commissioning of ARPANET in 1990 to the WWW to broadband connections, all it took was one decade. The figures, while boring now, say it all. Here is the approximate number of hosts on the Internet by year:

1989: 1 lakh; 1990: 3 lakh; 1992: 10 lakh; 1996: 1 crore; 1998: 4 crore
Boring enough, but they're indicative of the growth of mankind's greatest creation! An important difference between the Net as it was in the '90s and as it is now is how US-dominated it was earlier: the Internet pretty much was America back then.
Commercial dial-up access to the Internet began way back in 1990, with The World ( coming into the nascent market. The same year, Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first browser for the WWW. The browser itself was called WorldWideWeb, and the first version was finished on Christmas day. URLs, HTML, and HTTP were all his creations, and he used these in his model of the WWW-an information-sharing model built on top of the Internet.

It comes as a surprise to most of us that the WWW was not invented by an American, and not in America: the WWW project was at CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics; "CERN" is how it comes out in French.)

By 1991, the WWW was put in place by CERN. Two years later, Mosaic-the first graphics-based Web browser-was received rather enthusiastically by the growing population of Netizens, as you might imagine. Netscape Communications Corp. was formed in 1994, by Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark. Their first browser was out the same year, as Netscape Navigator 1.0, and "Web browsing" became a standard term. Andreessen was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1996, under an article called "The Golden Geeks." Right on the cover of Time Magazine, Andreessen sported a near-comical, sneering grin. Netscape ruled: the browser wars had begun, and Netscape was much better than IE at the time. We remember installing Netscape on our Windows 95 machines, even though IE was there by default.

Well, Microsoft wasn't stupid, and kept improving IE; by 1998, the war was over, Microsoft won, and Netscape released the source code for Navigator to the public domain.

What use is a browser without a search engine? Back in 1997, we remember, most folks' default start page was Yahoo!. It had a human-edited directory-and then came the major searchbots. The notables at the time were HotBot and AltaVista. Then in 1998, Google happened. It was initially a competitor to AltaVista and a couple of other search engines. You know the rest.

The killer app of the Web back then was, obviously, Web-based e-mail ("Access your e-mail anytime, anyplace!"). Hotmail, the first Web mail service, was launched July 4, 1996. It was a killer idea, and once it was out, a million companies followed. Yahoo!, Hotmail, and Google were the WWW staples towards the end of the '90s.

1999 saw the emergence of Napster, and the P2P revolution, for lack of a less clichéd word. Napster was a file-sharing service for music, and people "shared" music like it was the '60s, what with free love and all. Everyone was happy, except the music companies. Come to think of it, "revolution" is a good fit there: Time Magazine's October 2000 cover featured Shawn Fanning, Napster's sole creator, in an article called "How Shawn Fanning, 19, upended music... and a lot more."

And what's P2P without broadband? It was in 1998 that broadband began to be aggressively advertised: "Get 50 times the speed of your dial-up modem." By 1999, 1 Mbps and 2 Mbps DSL connections were routine. (Yes, India is a developing country.) DSL had a competitor in the form cable TV operators who provided broadband connections at the same price.

It was in 1998 that broadband began to be aggressively advertised

We've sidelined so many things talking about the Net experience, and indeed, the rest wasn't much in the news. OK, some of it was: in 1996, IBM's Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov. Sony's robotic dog, the Aibo, came out in 1999. DVD became popular in '98, and did for movies what the CD had done for music: towards the end of the decade, a computer was considered incomplete without a DVD drive.

The Palm Pilot improved PDA capabilities in 1996, and again towards the end the decade, everyone wanted "a Palm."

Cell phones in India were for the rich folk circa 1996, but soon trickled down. On the other side of the planet, there were 90 million cell phone connections in 2000.

Yes, it all happened in the '90s, for sure. The Nintendo 64. The Sony PlayStation. Java. Bluetooth. The finalisation of the initial standard for wireless LANs, IEEE 802.11. And last but definitely not least, Linux!

There's a lot we've glossed over here, but anyway, by 2000, the world was networked-and that's what matters.

The WWW 
What we absolutely must declare as the defining technology event of the 1990s is the development and expansion of the World Wide Web. We're sure you'll agree.

Some background about Berners-Lee: in 1980, he was an independent contractor at CERN, and felt the need to build a system to aid in sharing information amongst the researchers there. Sir Tim thought about hypertext for this purpose, and along with another researcher, built a prototype system called Enquire. As you can guess, it was something like a wiki. It wasn't published, but it served the purpose, and remained a private thing. Much later, in 1989, Berners-Lee thought about using the same ideas as in Enquire to create a global network. It was conceptually simple, and as he put it, "I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the TCP and DNS ideas and-ta-da!-the World Wide Web." CERN liked the idea. Later on, we all did.

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