I grew up in the 1990s and consider myself a child of that decade. It was a crazy time to be a kid, what with the catchy advertising campaigns, questionable food choices, forgettable fads, and total disregard for fashion. So here is a nostalgia-infused list of the most groundbreaking trends in tech in the 90’s, for better or for worse.
Who can forget the sound of connecting to the internet? There are kids graduating high school this year who never had the experience of making sure nobody was using the phone, then waiting a full minute for their PC to call into AOL while watching the street sign guy run across the pop up box to his buddies. You kids need to remember, the internet was still a new phenomena back then, so the fiber link broadband infrastructure was in the infancy of it’s development. Consequently, phone lines were used to connect to the internet instead. If you are too young to remember what a landline phone is, then I can’t help you. Dial-up internet started to disappear once the broadband infrastructure caught up. However, just a year ago there were still over 2 million people who used dial up internet.
2.) Windows 95 OS
While Windows 3.0 and 3.1 predated it in the same decade, Windows 95 was the most widely distributed OS in the 90s. Building off of the innovative 3.0 and 3.1 GUI features, Windows 95 incorporated plug-and-play features while being the first OS to run on 32 bit architecture instead of a 16 bit architecture. It was also the first OS to resemble what we think of an operating system today, with the start bar, shortcuts and customizable backgrounds. Furthermore, in what could only be the most 90s thing ever, the accompanying instructional video guide featured Rachel and Chandler from Friends.
When I was 13 and had my Bar Mitzvah, I received several gift cards to Media Play. Not to date myself, but do you remember a time when you wanted to hear new music, you had to go down to the neighborhood media store, filter through all the latest release and compilation CD’s, maybe be lucky enough to hear a few of them through public headphones, then sit in line to buy the albums you want before you could listen to them? Well, it’s been over 13 years since Media Play went out of business, so there’s kids being Bar and Bat Mitzvah’d today who never had that experience. While MP3 players and digitally formatted music have rendered CD’s a thing of the past, in the 90s, we didn’t have iPods, we had our Discman. Discman allowed us to walk down the street while still listening to our CD based jams. We may have had to hold them straight so the CD wouldn’t skip and scratch, and we may have had to spend hours cleaning the disks with our shirt sleeve so the laser could read the disk, but like the Montell Jordan CD I was playing in my Discman, this is how we did it!
4.) iMac G3
The iMac G3 was probably one of the most popular desktop models ever. The 90s were the dark ages for Apple. Steve Jobs had been forced out of Apple in 1985, depriving the company of it’s visionary genius and primary innovator. Without a direct competitor, Microsoft had grown in power to the point where it was broken up by the federal antitrust machinations because it had become a monopoly. Over a decade after firing Steve Jobs, Apple realized their mistake and rehired him in 1997. Just a year later, Steve Jobs gave one of his trademark presentations announcing the iMac G3. The iMac G3 would go on to take the market by storm, while singlehandedly saving Apple from bankruptcy. It was such a great product, with the sleek design, customizable and flavorable options, built in slot loading ports, including USB ports, which was revolutionary at the time, and it was very easy for non-technical people to use. This very first Apple product to be anointed with the prefix ‘i’ started a corporate renaissance and golden age for Apple which took it out of the dark wilderness and transformed it into the most desirable and recognizable brand in the world today.
While no longer serving a practical function in today’s world of LCD screens, in the 80s and 90s when Cathode Ray Tube monitors were standard, screen savers served a vital function of preventing Burn-in. By blanking or continuously moving the screen while not in use, screen savers were able to prevent burn-ins from decaying and ruining the monitor. Unfortunately, standard issue screen savers that came with Windows, Commodore and Macintosh in the late 80s and 90s were not very diverse and quite bland and boring. This being the dawn of the internet age, you couldn’t just go online and download a screensavor like you can today. Enter the fine folks at Berkeley Systems and Sierra Interactive. In 1991, they started packaging and marketing CD-Roms containing installable screensavers that were fun, interesting and unique. Some were just cool to look at screen savers, like the flying toasters, the lawn-mowing man, or the cute misbehaving dog. Others were full on games that you could play. They made screen savers more varied and interesting in the 90s.
The Polaroid I-Zone Camera was a single setting portable camera marketed towards kids and young adults in the late 1990s. With many novelty designs, this product was a marketer’s dream. As the ‘I’ in the model name indicates, similar to most Polaroid products, this camera was an instant film camera, meaning it printed the image right as you took it. Unfortunately, the first affordable digital cameras came out within a year of the I-Zone’s initial release. As the traditional film-based camera companies suffered and went bankrupt, the I-Zone ended up being nothing more than a passing fad, and the film-type is no longer in production.
I try to avoid mixing video gaming into this blog because I’ve unfortunately suffered an addiction to video games, which is a habit I’ve been trying to kick over the past year in what has been a personal success story. I can blame the initial start of this addiction on when I was handed down my cousin David’s old Nintendo Game Boy in 1994. It was the first true video game console that was handheld and portable, and also the first video game console that I owned. I possessed many cartridge games that consumed many hours and sleepless nights, such as Pokemon Blue, Super Mario, Zelda, Castelnavia, Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, and Kirby’s Dreamland. The Game Boy is possibly the one piece of 90s technology upon which I invested the most time. If there is one tech trend on this list that is the most iconic of the 90s, this would be it.
Who remembers what A/S/L stands for? While instant messaging systems are commonplace and omnipresent today with cell phone texting, instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, Kik and KakaoTalk, and many social media sites like Facebook incorporating them into their core features, it was a revolutionary innovation when AOL introduced AIM to the public in 1996. Initially developed as a means of internal communication for AOL programmers, the program became popular with kids like me who could talk to friends and acquaintances spread out across the globe, as well as speak and communicate with strangers who we happened to run across in the various chat-rooms. While our innocent curiosity may have been something our parents would have found quite concerning had they known what we were up to while we used AIM, it providing an early means for online socialization, and was the original platform upon which many texting shorthand abbreviations we still use today were coined. Lingoisms such as LOL (Laughing Out Loud) Rofl (rolling on the floor laughing) WTF (what the f@#&) IDK (I don’t know) POS (parent over shoulder) and the aforementioned ASL (Age/Sex/Location?) first appeared on AIM. Unfortunately, texting and other more modern apps have taken their competitive toll on AOL. After 22 years of instant communication across the globe, AOL officially and permanently shut down AOL Instant Messenger a little over a month ago.
Before there was Netlix, Hulu, Xfinity on Demand, Amazon Prime, TiVo or other instant video or online streaming services, there was Blockbuster Video. Blockbuster’s was the original Redbox, except with a brick and mortar storefront instead of a clunky machine. Many a date nights started with going to the neighborhood Blockbuster, sifting through the different shelves of video rentals, organized by genre, and debating with your date what movie you wanted to watch. Blockbusters always had the new releases a week or 2 before they became available for home video purchase, and also sold popcorn, candy, soda and other movie watching staples. They were also frequently and strategically located next to pizza takeout chains since what pairs better with a movie than a pizza? As a child, going to blockbuster’s was always a fun experience, and you could get recommendations from the clerks which were really helpful services and something modern streaming services cannot match. Unfortunately, since it’s heyday in the 90s, Blockbuster Video has become the much lampooned cautionary tale of the need for businesses to continuously adapt and grow with the times, instead of resting on their laurels and stagnating. In 2000, Netflix started with a business model that was intended to shake up the video rental industry. While now known as a video streaming platform, Netflix started as a video rental service that would mail DVD’s and VHS’s directly to your home, you could watch what you wanted to watch, then put the video in the prepackaged and stamped box or envelope that Netflix sent with the initial delivery, mail it back to Netflix, and receive the next one in the mail. Blockbuster Video still relied on you to make the journey to their store front to check out and return movies. Whether their executives were too ignorant or too arrogant to see that they needed to adapt, Blockbuster did not change it’s methods when it could and should have, and as a result it rapidly lost it’s market share. It’s once mighty video rental empire crumbled to the point where the only 12 Blockbuster Video locations left are in the remote towns of Alaska now that the last Blockbuster outside of Alaska just closed earlier this week.
10.) 3½-inch Floppy Disks
Before there was Dropbox and Google Drive, there was the thumb (flash) drive. Before there was the thumb drive, there were CD-Roms. Before there were CD-Roms, there were Floppy Disks. In the 90s, Floppy disks were how people stored computer data, and transferred them machine to machine. They weren’t easy to encrypt, and they didn’t have much holding space, with the maximum capacity being less than 3MB. You could password protect files, but there was some obvious concern that data could easily be copied and replicated from floppy disks, hence the ridiculous hip-hop campaign in the early part of the 90s which eerily presaged today’s anti-piracy campaign by the music and film industries. As a youth, I never realized why these disks were called floppy disks because they were rigid and not very floppy, but at my first job out of college, I was tasked with organizing and digitizing my employer’s archives, and made my boss cry when I found a much physically larger, and actually floppy, disk in a file from the early 1980’s and asked her “What is this strange contraption?”
11.) Car Phones
Cell phones existed in the 90s, but they were heavy, expensive, clunky, had minimal battery capacity, and were not going to fit into your pocket. Consequently, many people had separate phone lines installed in their car. Essentially, these car phones were Lethal Weapon Roger Murdoch’s giant cell phone installed and welded into the car. They were mobile in the sense that you could use them while driving your car, but they were not as accessible as today’s cell phones. Nonetheless, they were advanced technology at the time. Similar to how the gadgets in James Bond movies seemed cool when the films were first released, but dated if you are watching Roger Moore’s James Bond in 2018, the same can be said about many flashy tech gadgets of the 80s and 90s, including car phones. In fact, Sean Connery’s James Bond owned a car phone!
More of a gimmicky electronic toy than a piece of tech, Tomagotchi’s were all the range in the 90s. While not quite as annoying as a Furby, they were these digital creatures you had to raise, feed, water, exercise, entertain and relieve, less you let them die from neglect. They were in essence virtual pets, and taught youths the world over the responsibility of owning a pet, or having a child, without actually harming any real animals or human babies in the process. While a passing fad, the virtual pet Tomagotchi is one of the more memorable 90s fads.