Technology that changed us: The 1990s, from WorldWideWeb to Google

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 1980s)
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

WorldWideWeb showing many of its functions.

(Image: Tim Berners-Lee for CERN/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 1980s. Now we continue our time travels in the 1990s.

1990: WorldWideWeb, the first Web browser

Of all the technologies that changed our lives, perhaps the most profound of the last 50 years has been the web. But it wasn't the ability to hyperlink documents that made the most impact. Instead, it was the application that presented all that information to users, the browser.

Read also: No internet: The unbearable anxiety of losing your connection

The browser, in combination with the various web protocols, allowed access to the web from a wide variety of operating systems and devices. It allowed untrained users to click and browse from website to website. But even before there were public websites, there needed to be a browser.

That browser was initially called WorldWideWeb. It's name was later changed to Nexus to avoid confusion with the entity we now call the web, but back then was the World Wide Web or WWW. The web changed the world, but it was the browser that delivered those changes worldwide.

Runner up: Windows 3.0.


Floppy disks holding a very early version of Linux.

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

1991: Linux

We're now into the 1990s and technology change is accelerating. The first website went online at CERN. In fact, so much happened that we have a few articles devoted to 1991 alone. But of all the innovations, of all the products launched, one stands out: Linux.

CNET: Nintendo Switch turned into Linux tablet by hackers

But it was the message sent out on August 25, 1991 to the Minix Usenet newsgroup that changed everything. Linus Torvalds typed, "I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional..." Ah, Linus. You got so much right, but you got the scale of Linux' eventual impact so very wrong.

Linux took UNIX and blasted it out of existence. Instead of a very expensive-to-license operating system, Linux was free. It fired up open source. And today, Linux runs in everything, from light bulbs to cars, to almost all TVs and phones on the market.

Runners up: A lot, plus the first website.

1992: The first SMS text message

Who would have thought that people would prefer typing over talking on their phones? While the SMS concept had existed for quite some time, it wasn't until December 3, 1992 that engineer Neil Papworth sent a message to Richard Jarvis' Vodafone Orbitel 901 handset. The message that precipitated billions of very sore thumbs was a simple "MERRY CHRISTMAS".

Read also: Facebook was tracking your text message and phone call data

At the top of its usage curve, US cell phone customers sent 2.3 trillion SMS messages. But as this chart from Statistica shows, SMS volume has been going down steadily as users migrate to app-based message from Apple, WhatsApp, and Facebook. Even so, SMS changed how we talk, or rather, not talk to each other.

Runners up: Windows 3.1, first ThinkPad.


Mosaic was the first widely-popular graphical web browser.

Image: National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

1993: Mosaic web browser

By 1993, things were heating up for the World Wide Web, which was quickly becoming actually worldwide. While Mosaic wasn't the first browser, it was the first that could display images. For the time, it was very fast, and it quickly became popular.

Mosaic, created by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, grad students at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) located at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Mosaic eventually became Netscape, which dominated the web (for a while, at least).

Runners up: Windows NT, Myst, DOOM, plus the first webcam to improve caffeine intake efficiency (technically, the Internet of Things was born here, as well, and, as it should be, it was all because of coffee).

1994: Amazon founded

At the time of its founding back in 1994, no one could have know that Amazon would become one of the world's most innovative companies. Then, it was a source for books.

Read also: Amazon's Jeff Bezos was, for a day, the world's richest man

Today, it's at the core of the cloud movement, has played a primary role in killing off retail (or at least beating retailers who weren't on their best game), has revolutionized digital books, transformed product availability and delivery, created an AI that lives in our homes, and has become a prime producer of top-tier original video content.

Runners up: Sony's first PlayStation, PHP, and, sadly, banner ads.

1995: Windows 95 and IE 1.0

By 1995, Windows had been around for a full decade. But it was in 1995 that what became the dominant desktop environment for the next two decades would be introduced. While a new Windows 10 user or Mac OS user might not know how to use Windows 3.1 on sight, every modern desktop computing user would know how to use Windows 95.

Windows 95 was the first version of Windows to include IE, which would become the dominant browser for more than a decade. While network configuration in Windows 95 was still uncomfortable, with Windows 95, Microsoft finally had the foundation for what would become the modern desktop experience.

Runners up: JavaScript and SSL.


An early model -- the PalmPilot Personal.

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

1996: Pilot handheld (first Palm handheld)

At the time, it was hard to believe a modem company would introduce the first successful handheld PDA. Now, of course, with handheld smartphones dominant, it's impossible to separate communications from personal devices.

Read also: Today's cheapest iPhone vs the PalmPilot

1996 also gave birth to the USB and CSS. These have had their impact on technology, but it was the small, portable, relatively inexpensive Pilot handheld that replaced personal organizers and was the first device, since the watch, that came with us everywhere.

Runners up: USB, CSS, and IPv6.

1997: Steve Jobs returns to Apple

A lot went on in 1997, but the single biggest event, arguably the one that changed all of technology, was the return of Steve Jobs to Apple.

CNET: Steve Jobs' 1973 job application up for auction

You have to remember that in 1997, Apple was dying. It was always described as "the beleaguered Apple Computer" or "the troubled Apple Computer." No one would have expected Apple to utterly transform music and telephones, not to mention lead the digital mobile transformation we're experiencing now.

One more thing: It could be argued that other companies would have created mobile devices, but it was the force of Jobs' personality and his steadfastness of purpose that overcame the impenetrable blocades and old style of business practiced by mobile operators. Sure, we would have had smartphones. But smartphones would not be what they are, the dominant technology worldwide.

Runners up: Netflix founded and Wi-Fi 802.11 standard adopted.

1998: Google founded

If you're not sure about the impact of Google on modern times, Google it. For the early years of the web, search engine wars dominated the news. Then came the Google algorithm, famous for surfacing much more relevant information.

Read also: Google erases 'Don't be evil' from code of conduct after 18 years

Somehow, a page that was simple and barebones eclipsed all other advertising, determined what was relevant to... everything, and became the dominant information verb in our lives. Founded with the motto "Don't be evil," it's not at all clear whether Google will be our constant assistant and friend, or our ultimate undoing.

Runners up: Windows 98 and first iMac introduced.


Original (Graphite) AirPort Base Station.

(Image: Jared C. Benedict/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

1999: Apple AirPort (and iBook)

Apple has a habit of taking existing technologies and molding them into something irresistible to consumers. Along the way, Apple has often set the pace, effectively giving other companies "permission" to enter similar markets.

CNET: Apple will stop selling its AirPort routers when supplies run out

While neither the 1999 Airport Wi-Fi access point nor the easy-to-mock clamshell design of the Apple iBook were barnburners, they showcased one feature that has changed computing. Before the AirPort (and Wi-Fi), computers were always tethered. If you wanted to access a network, you had to plug in. But with the advent of Wi-Fi, we could take our machines anywhere in the home or office, without wires.

The AirPort showed it was possible, and the entire world followed.

Runner up: BlackBerry and preparing for the Y2K bug.

Next up... the 2000s

Go back to... the 1980s

19 retro gadgets we think should get a reboot

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