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THE '90S: SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

When the Internet First Took Ahold of Our Lives

By Patrick J. Kiger

In some ways, the 1990s was the true beginning of the electronic age. It was a time when personal computers evolved from curiosities into an essential, ubiquitous parts of everyday life, when information evolved from a physical thing printed on paper and stored in libraries into an ever-changing digital commodity, when the Internet and wireless communications extended their reach across the globe, and made it possible for billions of people to connect with one another. These changes created a world that moved at a faster pace than ever before, where ideas spread at a viral pace and great fortunes could be made almost overnight--and could vanish just as quickly.

One of decade’s first great game-changing developments was Microsoft Windows 3.0, a personal computer interface that hit the market in 1990. Windows mimicked many of the features of the Apple Macintosh's proprietary operating system, but could be installed on less-costly hardware by a host of different manufacturers. Instead of having to stare at screens full of green type on a black background, PC users suddenly saw fonts, graphics and color pictures, and became accustomed to pointing-and-clicking with a mouse and multitasking, or doing several things at once in different parts of the screen. The rise of Windows led to a world in which millions could own affordable, easy to use computers.

If those newbie computer users needed something to do with their gadget, they soon found it with the World Wide Web, a graphical version of the Internet invented by Tim Berners-Lee, which debuted in 1991. In 1993, Mosaic, the first easy-to-use web browser program, emerged, and was soon followed by Netscape Navigator. Soon, “surfing” the Web became a widespread pastime and obsession, even if most users had to do it by plugging their computers into phone lines and connecting at speeds that would seem glacial today. By the mid-1990s, search engines that used software robots to “crawl” the Web and index its content made it possible to find web pages and information by searching for keywords, which transformed how people gathered and shared knowledge. In 1995, an entrepreneur named Jeff Bezos launched a website, Amazon.com, which sold books he stored in a garage. It was the beginning of online commerce, which eventually would become a major part of the world economy.

The 1990s was also an era in which the mobile phone, an invention that had been developing over the previous two decades, really started to alter the way we communicated. By mid-decade, bulky brick-sized phones were giving way to slim, pocket-sized devices such as the Motorola StarTAC, which was the first “flip phone” with a fold-up keypad. That made it possible to talk just about anywhere, anytime. At around the same time, the increasing availability of SMS, a service which allowed users to send text messages to others over the phone, created a whole new, abbreviated version of the English language.

Other technologies remade the everyday world as well. In 1994, Apple and Kodak joined forces to market the first affordable digital camera that recorded pictures as electronic data, rather than using film. In 1997, movies recorded on DVDs appeared on the market for the first time, and over the next few years the shiny plastic discs would replace videotape as the way people watched movies at home. In 1998, a Korean company unveiled the MPMan F10, the first portable device that played music recorded in the MP3 format. That paved the way for a future in which songs would become individual commodities, sold or traded over the Internet.
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