Few would argue that the raw, clunky, disorganized mess that was using a computer and the internet in the 90’s is better than the Google indexed ,hash tagged and cloud stored world we live in today. But that gritty frontier of the 1990’s tech world was pretty friggin amazing at the time.
Here’s my Top Ten best things about computing in the 90’s. Some of these things have evolved and are still around today. Many of these ideas and technologies are obsolete now and serve only as a memory of what we thought was the pinnacle of human achievement at the time.
Got any awesome memories of staying up until 2AM on your Packard Bell? Post it up in the comments!
10. Screensavers: When you got a new computer in 1996 there were two things you did immediately. See what games were on it, and set your screen saver. Screensavers were actually useful pieces of software back in the day, because they allowed you to keep your monitor on and prevent “burn-in”. Now a days with LCD, I have my monitors set to just turn off after a few minutes. But with CRT screens every time you turned it on, you had to wait several seconds while the screen faded into full brightness.
There’s so many iconic screen savers I can remember. Flying Toasters, 3D Pipes, Stars, and of course, customizable scrolling text. Nothing more fun than setting a screensaver password on somebody’s computer and the only way that can figure it out is by solving the riddle you left for them on their screensaver!
9. Free AOL Disks: I will admit. Our first footstep on the internet was thanks to a free AOL 3.5 floppy promising 40 free hours or something like that on our 9600 baud modem. By the late 90’s AOL was begging for new users offering 700+ free hours. The service itself was of course crappy and limited. But all those Free CDs came in handy as coasters, and the free floppys were actually useful for formatting and storing your files on.
8. LAN Parties: These were awesome for me because I was a console gamer pretty much exclusively. And of course there were some great games, and great multi-player games on consoles. But the problem with those were you were always sharing a screen with your competitors. At a LAN party you had your own rig all to yourself, which you used to wreak havoc on your opposition.
Or in my case: Spend 20 minutes trying to figure out why you can’t find the server, then spend 10 minutes trying to tweak the graphics settings of the game you just borrowed so it can run on your crappy PC, then spend the rest of the night getting owned in a game you have no idea how to play. At least some things haven’t changed since the 90’s.
7. Search Engines: This could make the list of best AND worst things about computing in the 90’s. Compared to modern search engines, the available options in the 90’s SUCKED. BUT… it was the only way to discover content without going directly to the URL.
Problem was ye olde search engines were almost entirely keyword driven. Which meant any jerk off selling insurance can just fill the META tag of their website with buzz words, and you pop in searches for all sorts of randomness. On top of that, these search companies would sell search term rankings for cash. So to find what you are really looking for you had to filter through pages of irrelevant and sponsored results.
Searching in the 90’s was a practice of mixing and matching Excite, Lycos, AltaVista, InfoSpace and numerous others along with a carefully crafted search term that wasn’t too generic, but not too specific.
6. Burning CDs: CD Burning changed forever how I used my computer. Suddenly I could start hoarding files. Which was important when took about 5 minutes per megabyte to download. You see storage used to be a scarce commodity. Floppys were too small. And hard drives were expensive. There were thumb drives, but at 64MB sizes… they weren’t really cost effective either.
But CD burning all of a sudden opened up affordable storage options. I could store hundreds of songs on a single CD, or all of my Helen Hunt photos! And burning a full CD only took 20 minutes at 4x Speed.
If you got your first CD burner in the 90’s it was probably an external drive and probably cost anywhere between $100 and $400. Because your Pentium 133Mhz probably didn’t come with one, and opening up the case and adding one was a big scary thing.
5. GeoCities: For a lot of people GeoCities was their first home on the world wide web. It certainly was mine. It started out just as a collection of stuff I was interested in, and ended growing to what eventually became the 3rd largest Helen Hunt site on the web. Haha.
GeoCities was laid out in a conceptually unobtrusive fashion as most early websites were. As a community where people “homesteaded” in different cities centered around different interests, and within those cities were city blocks. Each block had 100 available addresses. So if you wanted to think about it, you lived in a community, on a certain street with a certain address, and you used that to tell your friends where to find your website.
I still miss my old GeoCities site and wish I would have saved from stuff from it. It was where I learned HTML and would probably be a blast to look at today.
4. Niche News Sites: When I found out that there was a news site was dedicated entirely to Nintendo news and updated on a daily basis, I knew that the internet and I would from that point forwards always be friends. No matter what you were interested in, there was a website out there focusing exclusively on that.
The reason it was so mind-blowing was that before that, magazines were the medium that catered to those niche audiences. You’d get updated monthly, or even bi-monthly. And other than a “letters to the editor” section, communication was pretty much one way. But with these websites, there were whole communities of like minded individuals that orbit around the content. The perfect place to find some outside encouragement for your pickle collecting habit.
3. ICQ: I know a lot of my friends used IRC, but I was ICQ all the way. It was simply a chat client. But one of the first with tons of features packed in. You had your contact list, but I’d pin my most frequent contacts to the edge of the screen so they were always on top. I spent countless hours chatting with classmates, and friends I’d made on the net. I stuck with ICQ until the bitter end. Ultimately the spam killed it for me.
That “Uh-oh!” sound you’d get when you got a new message, I’ll never forget.
2. Web based e-mail: E-mail itself was a marvel in the early 90’s, but for me, web based mail finally gave me my own mail box. And one that was safe and protected from everyone else that shared the same computer in the house. Of course ISPs offered a crummy POP account, but it was always limited by space and attachments. Plus when someone sends you one message with a huge attachment, you have to wait 5 minutes for it to download before you can read the other 25 messages. Web based mail was genius at the time and something I still couldn’t live without to this day.
1. Just Being There: Okay, so computing in the 90’s was slow, clunky, un-organized and generally pretty ugly. But the best part of computing in the 90’s was just being there to experience all the changes. It was a completely revolutionary new way of communicating with people. It was a time where computers were moving from something that primarily hobbyists and business people used, to something that was a fixture in daily life. Computers were morphing from being a tool, to a portal.
The internet was truly like a new un-cultivated frontier, and the boxy technology of the 90’s were the covered wagons that we used to traverse it. A place for you to homestead your own little patch of it and be whoever you wanted to be. To explore, contribute, consume, and discover.