Top 10 tech developments of 1991

ZDNet's 20th anniversary: I was only 17 back in 1991, so my recollection of tech from that time is somewhat hazy, but thanks to the marvels of modern technology and the collective intelligence called The Internet, I've been able to delve into the archives.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

I was only 17 back in 1991, so my recollection of tech from that time is somewhat hazy, but thanks to the marvels of modern technology and the collective intelligence called The Internet, I've been able to delve into the archives to bring you the "Top 10 tech developments of 1991."

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1 - The first web site

Let's kick off this list with the single, most important tech development of the past 20 years - The Internet.

The Internet has touched on everything tech related - the way we work, the way we shop, the way we get news and information, the way we learn, the ways we chill out and the way we communicate with family, friends and coworkers. There's hardly a thing that people didn't do 20 years ago that isn't today done differently because of this single invention that allowed a PC on someone's desk or in someone's home to be connected to million of other PCs and servers all across the globe.

If you're guzzling bandwidth over a high-speed DSL connection, spare a though for those browsing he web in 1991, the year when 14.4 kbps modems were introduced. How fast (slow) is that? Well, going full blast, a 14.4 kbps modem would take 9 minutes 15 seconds to download a 1MB file. A 1GB .ISO file would take a a whopping 154 hours, 19 minutes and 15 seconds!

Back in 1991 the first web site was built at the CERN labs and put online on August 6.

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2 - AMD Am386

1991 was also the year when Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) announced its AMD 386 microprocessor which was developed to offer direct competition to Intel's 386 chips, rather than a secondary source of x86 processors. This paved the way for long-term competition in the CPU market, which was good for consumers!

While the Am386 was released in 1991, it was actually developed several years earlier, but held up because of legal action by Intel.

AMD actually managed to squeeze a fair bit more out of the 386 architecture than Intel did, pushing the speed up to 40MHz as opposed to Intel's best of 33MHz. In fact, AMD's 40MHz 386 was so good that it could outperform Intel's 486SX-25 in benchmarks and real-world tests.

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3 - Intel i486SX

In April of 1991 Intel launched the Intel i486SX chip, bringing a lower-cost processor to the PC market. It was a modified i486DX with the FPU (floating-point unit) disabled. In fact, all early were in fact i486DX chips with a defective FPU, with the the FPU's power and bus connections were destroyed with a laser.

The i486SX came in 16, 20 and 25MHz flavors.

Some systems allowed owners to upgrade the installed i486SX to a CPU that featured a FPU. The FPU upgrade chip was called the i487, which was in fact a complete i486DX chip which was installed in a separate upgrade socket on the motherboard and disabled the already installed i486SX.

This CPU was a steal at $258.00!

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4 - Notebook introduced by most PC vendors

Notebooks. We take them for granted nowadays, but back in 1991 they were big, heavy and very expensive. But despite these limitations, business users (and tech enthusiasts) still went out and invested in them. In fact, notebooks were getting so popular that by 1991 most of the hardware OEMs of the time had notebooks in their lineup.

It was also the year that Apple introduced the PowerBook. This came in three flavors (PowerBook 100, 140, and 170), featured a 25MHz Motorola 68030 processor, up to 8MB of RAM. a 640 X 400 monochrome LCD panel, and a 20MB, 40MB, or 80MB SCSI hard drive. The package cost between $2,299 and $4,599, depending on spec!

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5 - First color image scanner

Scanners are another bit of technology that we take for granted in 2011. Nowadays scanners aren't even stand-alone, but are instead combined with printers and fax machines into a single all-in-one device.

Back in 1991 thing were different. In fact, it was the year that HP introduced the first color scanner - the HP Scanjet IIc. This featured single-pass color scanning at 400-dpi resolution, pushing that to 800-dpi resolution with software interpolation techniques. Doesn't sound all that impressive nowadays, but back in 1991 this was something special indeed!

Price ... $1,995.

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6 - First stereo Creative Labs sound card

May of 1991 saw the release of the first stereo sound card. The Blaster Pro, CT1330, released in May 1991, was the first significant redesign of the Sound Blaster's core features. The Sound Blaster Pro supported faster digital sampling rates (up to 22.05 kHz stereo or 44.1 kHz mono), and added features such as a "mixer" to provide a crude master volume control, and a crude high pass/low pass filter.

The Sound Blaster Pro was fully backward compatible with the original Sound Blaster, and the AdLib sound card. The Sound Blaster Pro was also the first Creative sound card to have a built-in CD-ROM interface.

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7 - First multimedia PC standard

The Multimedia PC, or MPC, was a recommended configuration for a PC with a CD-ROM drive created by the "Multimedia PC Marketing Council", which was a working group comprising of companies such as Microsoft, Creative Labs, Dell, and Gateway.

In 1991 the first MPC standard was introduced, consisting of:

  • 16 MHz 386SX CPU
  • 2 MB RAM
  • 30 MB hard disk
  • 256-color, 640×480 VGA video card
  • 1x (single speed) CD-ROM drive using no more than 40% of CPU to read, with < 1 second seek time
  • Sound card outputting 22 kHz, 8-bit sound; and inputting 11 kHz, 8-bit sound
  • Windows 3.0 with Multimedia Extensions

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8 - Symantec releases Norton anti-virus software

1991 was a busy year for viruses. A variant of Stoned called Michaelangelo hit PC users. This was a virus that spent most of its time dormant, but on March 6th is would overwrite the first one hundred sectors of the hard disk. It was also the year that saw the release of the Virus Construction Set which gave pretty much anyone with a PC the ability to create a virus. It was also the year that saw the release of Tequila, a virus which not only featured stealth, was polymorphic and multipartite, but it was also an anti-anti-virus virus.

With so much malware hitting PCs, it was a great time for security firms. Following its acquisition of Peter Norton Computing from Peter Norton, Symantec when on in 1991 to release the Norton anti-virus software. Twenty years on, Norton AntiVirus still exists, and remains one of the most popular, and one of the best performing destop antivirus solutions.

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9 - Microsoft changes the name of OS/2 v3.0 to Windows NT

OS/2 began life as a joint IBM/Microsoft project back in August on 1985. The initial idea was that it would serve as the protected-mode follow-on to PC-DOS. However, in 1990 the partnership started to erode as Microsoft began to see success with Windows 3.0, a platform which sold millions of licenses in the first year and supported a wider range of hardware than OS/2.

In 1991 Microsoft renamed OS/2 v3.0 as Windows NT and left all future OS/2 development to IBM. This was a pivotal move in Microsoft's history as it lead to Windows NT 3.1 in 1993 and eventually the unification of consumer and professional operating systems with the release of Windows XP in 2001 and leading to Windows 7 today.

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10 - Linux

While Microsoft was working on MS-DOS and Windows, Linus Torvald was busy working on the Linux kernel, driven by his frustration with the licensing of the MINIX operating system which limited its use to educational purposes only. Torvald's completed work on the first Linux kernel on August 25, 1991.

While Linux has never really acheived the sort of success on the desktop that many enthusiasts hoped, it has become a very important operating system on servers, embedded devices and on mobile devices.

Note: Tux the Penguin wasn't adopted as the Linux mascot until 1996. Tux was created by Larry Ewing who drew Tun in the first publicly available release of GIMP.

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