ZDNet UK at 10: 1996 and all that

Remember 1996, when the hot IT news revolved around NT 4.0, Netscape Navigator, and the aborted merger of Psion and Amstrad. And the launch of an online news site called ZDNet UK...

ZDNet UK is 10 years old this week. Our first articles appeared on the Web on 10 July, 1996, and ever since we've been bringing you the latest news, features, product reviews, comment and more.

And what a decade it's been. We've lived through the dot-com boom, closely followed by the dot-com crash and the dot-com bounceback. We've seen Microsoft grow ever-more dominant, only to fall foul of the authorities and then realise that Google could prove its nemesis. Unless Linux gets there first.

There were mergers, acquisitions, triumphs and disasters. And through it all, like a metronome, there was the steady sound of technological progress. Chips got faster and faster, storage ever-more capacious, and connection speeds rocketed.

The last 10 years have flown by. But, as our archived news from July 1996 shows, we've come a very long way...

A decade of change
The hot news on our first day was that Netscape — in the days before it was bought by AOL — was secretly working on a new version of its Web browser. Back in those days, Netcape Navigator was the undisputed king of the browser world.

Version 4 looked important because it would include better functionality for collaborative applications over a company's intranet. Of course, we can now look back and see that Communicator 4.0, as it became known, suffered from some fairly horrible HTML layout bugs and became notorious for slow performance and occasional crashes.

This helped Microsoft's Internet Explorer rout it within a few years, as did the anti-competitive business practices that eventually saw Microsoft brought to book. IE 4 and IE 5 were the key, as these were the first versions to be bundled with Windows. In July 1996, though, Microsoft was still working on IE 3 — it released a second beta version in the middle of the month.

But Microsoft had bigger things on its plate than Web browsers. Namely NT 4.0, which launched in late July with the kind of marketing fanfare we expect from the company. These were the days when many Microsoft users were desperate to move to a new platform in search of extra stability.

The decision to use several features from Windows 95 also helped adoption, with the ironic end-result being that NT 4.0 is still in use today.

Younger readers may be surprised to learn that Apple was struggling 10 years ago. Under the leadership of Gilbert Amelio, it was making fewer sales and larger losses. At the time, Apple thought its future lay in multimedia PCs — although the iMac was still two years away.

The last 10 years were less kind to Psion. Back in the mid-1990s, it was on a roll thanks to its early success in the handheld market. And then, in July 1996, it suddenly pulled out of a plan to merge with Amstrad.

The proposed deal had been controversial, as it would have created a firm with interests in everything from PDAs to satellite set-top boxes. But it's tempting to speculate how such a UK titan might have succeeded.

Would Palm have found it much harder to drive Psion out of the market? Would we have been denied the pleasure of smirking at Amstrad's e-m@iler? And would Sir Alan Sugar ever have made The Apprentice? On such moments of fate do empires rise and fall.

1996 was also the early days of the dot-com boom. Back then, before investors lost their heads (followed by their wallets), the likes of Yahoo were struggling along on quarterly revenues of just $3.3m. Small potatoes today, but exactly $3.3m more than it managed in Q2, 1995.

Hardware has also made huge strides over the last decade. In our first month, Intel was gearing up to launch its fastest ever mobile Pentium processor. But at 150MHz, the chip failed to impress many vendors.

Western Digital was excited about its first SCSI hard drives, which weighed in at 2.1GB and 4.3GB. Today, the company is keeping up at the top end with 500GB — and it's all SATA.

And Epson started making Iomega's Zip drives, charging £179 for a 100MB version. This was before prices of CD-Rs and hard disks fell so dramatically, which themselves were overtaken by today's USB flash drives. Change, all is change.

Or nearly all...10 years ago, the first replicating Macro virus able to infect Microsoft Excel spreadsheets was discovered. Last week, security experts warned of a hole in Excel that could allow malicious hackers to hijack a PC. Microsoft security holes — reliability in an uncertain world.

1996 was just the start. From these humble beginnings we brought you tales of dot-com hubris and success, the Y2K bugantitrust trials and tribulations, the digital dividethe rise of open sourceGooglevirusessoftware patentsmobile roaming rip-offs and much, much more.

All this week, we'll be reliving the highs and lows of the last 10 years. So do keep coming back for more, and thanks for sharing the ride with us.