In 1991, software was a toddler

In 1991, software was a toddler

Summary: ZDNet's 20th anniversary: Paula Rooney looks back on what was hot and what wasn't in 1991.


In the fall of 1991, as the Clarence Thomas hearings were well underway, I moved back to Boston to become a new reporter at PCWeek, covering word processors and other applications.

At that time, many of the top apps were on DOS -- and WordPerfect of Utah, and Lotus 1-2-3 -- led the pack. Microsoft itself introduced MS DOS 5.0 that year but its big bet was on Windows -- and the hot shot in the industry was pushing developers to build apps on its new platform.

Windows 3.0 was on the market at the time. Windows 3.1 was the successor positioned to lead the business masses from DOS and OS/2 to the GUI OS, but its success was not a given.

Microsoft's Word for Windows and Excel for Windows were gaining speed against WordPerfect and Lotus -- but Microsoft was no doubt the underdog in all categories. Much to its chagrin, WordPerfect hesitated developing a Windows version of its rival word processing platform and lost key market share as a result -- and, of course, lost share after the debut of Microsoft's Office suite.

This was the toddler stage of the PC industry. Multimedia and collaborative apps were on the drawing board but not yet deployed. Microsoft that year purchased the company whose email would become Microsoft Mail -- but no companies were then deploying email.

CompuServe was hot. Yeah, CompuServe. I remember walking to the newsroom library to access the CompuServe terminal to find any new bug reports on applications on those forums.

The pendulum was clearly swinging to the client server model. It took almost 20 years to get the best of both worlds: a modern virtualized server, centralized and mainframe-like, serving applications services to all kinds of PCs and personal devices with no degradation in power, GUI or usability.

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates -- who still flew coach class on American in those days -- held his first Windows World in 1991. He was indeed a visionary. But even he couldn't fathom how the clouds floating in the background of his Windows GUI would come to dominate the infrastructure of the future.

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Topics: Operating Systems, Microsoft, Software, Windows

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  • Software was in the "Toddler stage" only from a PC perspective in 1991

    Both the Amiga and Mac platforms were using sophisticated desktop publishing WYSIWYG software to create magazine content distributed world wide.

    The Amiga platform was just on the verge of hosting a dominate video creating platform from NewTek that included sophisticated 3D modeling software (Lightwave) and advanced CGI and video switching effects.

    And, of course, while Microsoft was still experimenting with a GUI with the introduction of Windows 3.0 in 1990 (not the more useful and "stable" 3.1 version introduced in 1992), sophisticated CAD programs existed on both the Mac and Amiga platforms that took advantage of their GUI OS based designs.
    • By the way, Apple presented QuickTime video player in 1991

      @kenosha7777: so not all media programs were only in project-stage.
      • RE: In 1991, software was a toddler


  • You are right about Billg not fathoming 1.2 billion Windows Installations

    Who would have thought.
    Mr. Dee
  • Please expand

    "He was indeed a visionary."

    Intriguing comment, please expand.
    Richard Flude
    • Here are some examples

      @Richard Flude
      - Realizing that computers were going to get smaller and move away from this idea of a mainframe to a computer in every home on every desk. People once thought having a computer in the home meant having a mainframe in the home which would require its own room.

      - Creating the first true software company which culminated into the software industry - I learned this from Steve Jobs and he gave praise to Bill Gates for realizing that. Software was once proprietary and you had to go with whatever the vendor sold you on that computer depended upon for maintenance and upgrades.

      - Recognizing the limitations of Windows 1x, 2x and 3x and resolved by hiring Dave Cutler formerly of DEC to come work at Microsoft to create a true 32 bit operating system.

      - Sticking to NT which has lead to 1.2 billion installations of the operating system regardless of its early lack luster days to catch on.

      - Recognizing the game changer the Internet would become in 1995. Microsoft help to really normalize the Internet. Before Internet Explorer and Windows 95, the Internet was seen as a form of a hobbyist exclusive, elitist type thing.

      - Democratizing computing by providing a graphical user interface environment on top of DOS (Windows 1x to 3x) providing a good enough application stack so users didn't have to deplete their entire life savings to buy a Macintosh just to use a GUI.

      There is so much Bill Gates has contributed to this industry. If you fail to acknowledge it because of some Microsoft hatred, then you probably have issues with everybody in your life.
      Mr. Dee
      • Not so fast

        @Mr. Dee
        Oh come on... Microsoft the first true software company? For sure there were software-only companies in the 1970's (Look up Computer Associates), and probably the 1960's.
        Robert Hahn
      • No visionary from what I saw

        @Mr. Dee

        I don't hate Microsoft, I'll curse their name when something goes wrong though. I don't see Bill Gates a visionary, a contributor but the vision was never his.
      • Wow

        - The move to personal computers was driven before the IBM PC by companies like Apple, Sinclair, etc.

        - MS wasn't the first software company. Invented software companies existed before Gates including the Software Arts with their truely inventive product VisiCalc.

        - Recognising the limitations? What no one else could see the limitations of his rubbish software?

        - NT, his vision was recognising that IBM OS2 was moving too slowly and that users would accept buggy software if it moved faster.

        - Gates denied the internet. Gates failed to recognise the security impacts of his OS. Gates fmously predicted the end of spam by 2006!

        - Gates licensed Mac OS for windows

        "If you fail to acknowledge it because of some Microsoft hatred, then you probably have issues with everybody in your life."

        I do have issues with ignorance. Sadly all too common today, in particular from the MSCEs here on ZDnet.
        Richard Flude
    • Agree; history proved that Gates was cynical opportunist who used every ...

      @Richard Flude: ... possibility to sham and scam his partners (from Allen to IBM to Apple to DOS creators, you name it) and then systematically abuse its monopoly (for which MS was numerously found responsible/convicted).<br><br>And <b>Gates so often failed as "visionary"</b>, that one could not actually count how many times. He disregarded internet, he thought MS Bob was cool, that MS Watches is the way to build watches, and that a phone without physical keyboard and stylus is nothing promising (and he even reiterated the same thing about iPad last year).<br><br>That is why global community is worried when Gates pushes Monsanto GMOs on the poor countries as part of his humanitarian activities (remember that GMOs are infertile so poor countries are forever destined to buy patented GMO seeds from monopolitic Monsanto -- or else they will die of hunger or go bankrupt). This man's "vision" lacks very strongly.

      But, of course, Gates is still genius -- in terms of capitalistic business (not as visionary, though).
  • RE: In 1991, software was a toddler

    We've come a long way. At the time, computing was really still very balkanised. Office workers used a few stand-alone business apps on x86 PCs. Back office functions happened entirely separately on older terminal/mini-computer style systems. Home computers were either still the 8-bit machines, or Atari/Amiga devices. Networks were more the exception than the rule except in the largest companies. Proprietary network protocols were common.

    Bill Gate's vision was that a) computers would really become ubiquitous home devices and b) that the fat client was the future, c) that software for this new consumer market would need to be cheap and cheerful rather than than robust and accurate, and most of all, d) that as computers become more ubiquitous, compatibility would count for more than quality. No-one would want 3 different OSes for 3 different tasks, no matter how well suited to the task each OS was.
  • RE: In 1991, multimedia software was a toddler

    The article's comment, "Multimedia and collaborative apps were on the drawing board but not yet deployed", is only true from a PC perspective.

    Here is a little history lesson for the author of this blog, Paula Rooney.

    The IOC awarded the 1996 Summer Olympics to Atlanta after an award winning multimedia presentation created in 1989 was presented by the US Olympic Committee to the IOC.

    For additional details, see:

    This multimedia presentation was controlled by an Amiga based system. Please refer to the following from the above cited article.

    "...With assistance from Georgia State University and several private companies, researchers in 1989 created a high-tech multimedia interactive program for the 1990 final proposal to the International Olympic Committee in Tokyo. The presentation won a Computerworld Smithsonian Award in 1992 and a New Media Invision Award in 1994 for its innovative use of information technology.

    The presentation featured computer-generated renderings of proposed buildings with realistic textures of brick, grass and other materials. Viewers saw the proposed Olympic Village from an altitude of about 500 feet. The presentation also allowed them to "fly" around the buildings and visit their imagined furnished interiors, as well, says Michael Sinclair, director of Georgia Tech's Interactive Multimedia Technology Center.

    "As far as we knew, nothing like this had been done before for a major marketing effort," Sinclair recalls. "We started with [head of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games] Billy Payne's crazy, long-shot idea, very little time and money, and really no idea of what we were going to do -- but it had to be high tech, and it had to provide a lot of information in an entertaining and interactive fashion."

    Using the creative minds of the project members and many volunteers, the researchers put together two interactive systems.

    "The first was a flight simulator that allowed you to fly around Atlanta via a trackball, visit the proposed venue sites and tour them," Sinclair explains. "The second system was a wide angle 'wrap around' affair that featured the proposed Olympic village/Georgia Tech campus.

    The interactive part of the second system was a small plastic three-dimensional model of the village illuminated with computer graphics. It pulled up specific vignettes about a day in the life of an athlete when a particular building or area was touched.

    The Olympic projects relied on cutting-edge computing technology, incorporating three videodisc players, three computers, computer-composed music, digitized narration and the touch-sensitive interaction system. A Commodore Amiga computer controlled the presentation, along with an Apple Macintosh IIcx and a smaller computer interface device."

    Again .. just a little history lesson for Paula.

    (Edited to reflect the correct author of this blog)
    • How did I get involved with this?

      @kenosha7777 Author of this blog? Not at all! This is Paula Rooney's post on a blog she shares with Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols.

      I'm not sure how I got roped into this one (you can find my posts on Between the Lines and The Toybox), but if it's a technical error of some kind, let me know and I'll pass it on to our crack team of engineers.

      (I'll let Paula address your actual points, of course.)
      • RE: In 1991, software was a toddler


        Sorry Andrew but the original blog byline used your name. Apparently Paula or ZDNet used your name in error.

        I see that issue has been corrected now.
  • RE: In 1991, software was a toddler

    It certainly was - I was just starting out with computers then and was running an old machine on DOS - then upgraded to Win 3.1 a little later - we used that system and dial-up to establish Australia's first ebook publisher - selling books on floppy disks...those were the days. Now, we are still selling books (paperbacks) and ebooks as downloads. What a great ride!!