Technology that changed us: The 1980s, from MS-DOS to the first GPS satellite

In this 50-year retrospective, we're not just looking at technology year by year, we're looking at technologies that had an impact on us, paved the way for the future, and changed us, in ways good and bad. (Previously: The 1970s)
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Build 409c is December 1990 build of MS-DOS 5.00.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In this 50-year retrospective, we're looking at technologies that had an impact on the world, paved the way for the future, and changed us, in ways good and bad.

Previously, we explored the 1970s. Now we continue our time travels in the 1980s...

1980: Tim Berners-Lee's ENQUIRE early Web prototype

I'm giving the nod for 1980's innovation of the year to a failed project. ENQUIRE was a project developed in 1980 by Tim Berners-Lee while he was at CERN, and, in many ways, can be considered a concept prototype for the Web.

Read also: Happy 29th birthday world wide web: Inventor slams tech giants

ENQUIRE was a bit more like a cross between HyperCard and a wiki, and required central maintenance. Even so, it was Berners-Lee's first run at the use of hypertext for group communication and information organization. Because of the centralized maintenance required, ENQUIRE wasn't really accessible to other users. The original ENQUIRE software disk has been lost to time.

If it weren't for how totally the web has transformed our world, we wouldn't have given 1980 to ENQUIRE. But even as an early prototype, if it moved the needle that would knit the web, it had amazing impact.

Runners up: Pac-Man, one of the most popular video games of all time; The Empire Strikes Back, arguably the best of the Star Wars series on the movie that kept the franchise alive; the Microsoft Z-80 SoftCard, a device that brought CP/M business programs to the Apple II; and the Timex Sinclair ZX80, one of the first very-low-cost personal computers.


IBM Personal Computer model 5150 with monochrome phosphor monitor (model number 5151) and IBM PC keyboard.

(Image: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

1981: IBM PC and MS-DOS

Which had the most impact on society: Two decades of MS-DOS compatible computing, or the first truly portable personal computer? Go ahead and argue that down in the comments.

CNET: IBM fighting counterfeiters with world's smallest computer

I chose both the original IBM PC and MS-DOS as a pair, because those two products together created the incredibly vibrant desktop PC market that dominated computing well into the late 1990s -- and then spawned Windows, which dominated until the early 2010s.

Runner up: The Osborne 1. While the Osborne 1 was the first truly portable business computer, it ran CP/M, an older-generation OS compared to MS-DOS. It was also a pain to use, with two under-capacity floppies and constant swapping of disks. The Osborne 1 existed, and for some die-hard purchasers, it was mission critical, but it didn't demonstrate the ultimate utility of notebooks and laptops.

1982: Commodore 64

What happens when you introduce a product that's way cheaper and outperforms the market leaders? If you back it with good marketing and a smart production process, it takes the world by storm. That was the story of the Commodore 64, introduced to the world at $595, about a third of the cost of an Apple II at the time, and well less than an IBM PC.

Read also: Retro Games announces the Commodore 64 Mini

At one point, the Guinness Book of World Records listed the C64 as the best-selling computer of all time. Key to the machine's success was better-than-expected graphics capability and a sound chip that made electronic music production possible for home computer buyers.

Runners up: ColecoVision, Intellivoice, Cray X-MP, and Diet Coke.

1983: Lotus 1-2-3

Earlier, we spoke about how the pairing of MS-DOS and the IBM PC created a dynasty. But it was two years later, when Lotus 1-2-3 was introduced, that what became known, simply as "the PC" became unassailable.

Lotus 1-2-3 was the PC's killer app. It was much faster than VisiCalc, had better graphics, macros, and combined features that previously required users to leave one program, swap floppies, and launch another. VisiCalc was often touted as the reason businesses bought Apple IIs. But when Lotus 1-2-3 was introduced by Lotus, it knocked VisiCalc off its business use pedestal, and the Apple II along with it.

Floppies were a pain, and when IBM introduced the PC XT, with a built-in hard drive, some of that pain went away. As you might imagine with an IBM machine, there were a lot of configuration options. I managed to talk a client into buying me one (a very big score for a kid right out of college), and I recall it was around $6,500 in 1983 dollars (or about $16,350 today).

That was a huge expense for business, but the combination of Lotus 1-2-3 and the hard drive-based XT was so compelling, businesses by the thousands bought both. That's a killer app.

Runner up: IBM PC XT and Compaq Portable.


Apple Macintosh (1984)

(Image: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

1984: Macintosh

It was, for many years, a failed product. Built under a cloud of strife and abuse under Steve Jobs' sharp tongue and biting ridicule, the Macintosh held but a fraction of the exploding PC market.

Read also: If Apple's Mac has any future, it's in the cloud

But it changed everything. It took more than a decade, but the dominant computing UI, which we still use at work to this day, was the windows and mouse model created by Xerox and pioneered by Apple. Users of the 1984 Macintosh would identify and be able to use the 2018 Macintosh, for the basics defined as far back as 1984 are still in use today.

Further, the UI pioneering and Jobs' brutal attention to detail gave birth to the modern smartphone, and that, too, changed everything.

1985: Nintendo Entertainment System

It was the year of PageMaker and the laser printer. It was the year of 2400 baud modems and the Amiga 1000. It was the year of the Sony Discman and the first CDs. All these products had their impact on the future. But if there's one product we all identify with, and to this day seek to add to our retro collections, it's the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

CNET: Video of kid getting first NES is an '80s nostalgia bomb

The NES rescued the videogame industry. It introduced us to Mario. It brought console gaming back into our homes to stay, for good.

Runners up: Sony Discman, Amiga 1000, laser printers, and Hayes Smartmodem 2400.

1986: Automated LISTSERV

In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Voyager 2 made it to the planet Uranus. The Soviet Union (still a thing back then) launched the Mir space station. All of these were technological milestones. But did they change us?

Not nearly as much as LISTSERV, the automated first email list management system. LISTSERV allowed bulk email sends, allowed users to subscribe and unsubscribe, and vastly extended the reach of conversations online. Eric Thomas took the original LISTSERV concept and automated its functions, thereby giving legs to the early dial-up forum concept of the BBS. LISTSERV made the world just a little bit smaller and brought us all a little bit closer.


At its most simple, HyperCard was an interactive MacPaint, with buttons, fields, and scripting.

(Image: ZDNet)

1987: HyperCard

It's hard to overstate the level of buzz Apple's HyperCard caused when it was first announced and demonstrated. For the first time, ordinary users were able to create astonishingly deep graphics-based applications. I started my first company around HyperCard, and for the time, before a new set of Apple managers forgot why it was created and relegated it to the tomb that was Claris, the power of user-created content took off.

Read also: Apple has finally announced the iPad we've always wanted

HyperCard, though, was the seed for so much. It was the seed for the first wiki and, eventually, a more complete web prototype from Tim Berners-Lee. It was the seed for deeper multimedia apps on CD-ROM, and HyperCard stacks were the forerunners of today's smartphone apps. HyperCard ultimately failed, hung out to dry by an Apple that didn't then value user-created content. Even though HyperCard lived a life cut short, it changed the world.

Runners up: Windows 2.0 and Star Trek: TNG.

1988: Photoshop

Photoshop was not the first image manipulation tool, but it was the first to have the right combination of capabilities, extensibility, and marketing push. There are so many things Photoshop does and has made possible over the years that we could devote an entire series to it.

CNET: Adobe Lightroom CC faces an uphill climb

Photoshop, though, is our winner for 1988, because even now, 30 years after its introduction, most graphics professionals -- including your writer -- could not imagine a workflow that does not include Photoshop.

Runner up: The Morris worm and Prozac.


GPS provided position reports with unprecedented accuracy.

(Image: NASA)

1989: Launch of first GPS satellite

Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. Even so, we're giving this year's nod to the launch of the first GPS satellite, and saving the web for 1990, when the first web browser was created.

Read also: Your phone's GPS is about to get a massive upgrade

GPS is transformative, and impacts millions of peoples' lives every day. When my wife and I evacuated Hurricane Irma, we didn't turn to maps. Instead, we turned on our GPS and safely followed its comforting instructions from Florida all the way to Oregon. GPS keeps people on track, helps manage and track goods and services, and gets us all home safely. It's hard to imagine a time when we didn't have eyes in the sky, guiding us all.

Runners up: Nintendo Game Boy and invention of World Wide Web.

Go back to the 1970s Next up: the 1990s

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