TREotM: The Nineties and the Internet

By TREotM Archives
Cover image for  article: TREotM: The Nineties and the Internet

Chapter 10, Part 9

This is a book in progress. Gohereto read the previous chapters.

The Nineties ushered in a new very "wild west" with the World Wide Web.  The Englishman (and now Sir) Tim Berners-Lee's CERN memo became reality.  Linus Torvald released the Linux software kernel. 

In 1990, Rouzbeh Yassini co-founded LANcity and introduced the first commercial cable modem allowing high speed Internet to actually work.

By 1993 the dam was fully broken when Marc Andreesen released the Mosaic browser and Steve Case's AOL offered direct access to the Internet.

That year also brought a new President, Bill Clinton, who beat the incumbent George H. W. Bush partly because the out-of-left-field candidate and businessman Ross Perot ran for the office mostly on television buying huge blocks of time creating an "electronic town hall."  That set a trend of politicians "going over the heads of traditional media" by directly connecting with answering questions with the public.

At the beginning of the decade, the US had almost 94m TVHH and 65% had more than one set and 69% had VCRs.  Some 51.7million subscribers were connected to 9,575 cable systems.

Jeff Bezos, in a suburban Seattle garage, founded Amazon in 1994.  At the time, Barnes & Noble dominated American booksellers.  Today Amazon does and Barnes & Noble is a shadow of what it was then.  Amazon went from selling books online and distributing them via UPS and USPS to selling just about everything on earth and distributing "stuff" still via the same vendors but fulfilling from centers built all over the world to deliver faster.  Amazon is also testing drones for deliverables today.

Early the same year a couple of students – David Filo and Jerry Yang – at Stanford started a sort of online directory of the World Wide Web called Yahoo! (complete with exclamation point).  The first major portal, Yahoo! established a way for casual users to connect different Web pages by searching first before connecting.

And General Motors owned GM Hughes Electronics launched the first small dish direct broadcast satellite service called DirecTV.  The first customers were in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

HotWired and Time, Inc.'s Pathfinder became the first major publisher to produce online versions of their magazines.  Nintendo released the Game-Boy and video gaming joined the world of media as developers began creating more and more intricate games that included storytelling.

Panasonic, Philips, Sony and Toshiba jointly created the DVD "optical storage format."  Shortly thereafter, floppy discs all but disappeared.   Microsoft debuted the Explorer browser … and later ran into trouble for bundling it with Windows.

Tele-Communications, Inc.'s Dr. John Malone, speaking at the Western Cable Show, predicted a future with some 500 linear TV channels distributed via cable.  He was speaking of capacity, compression and possibilities.  It almost came true.

Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandating V-chips in TV sets.  TV networks, including cable nets, developed a ratings system based on movie ratings that worked with the V-chips to enable parental controls.  More importantly, the Act also brought significant deregulation to the entire television eco-system and sparked a dramatic increase in mergers.  TV station groups merged.  Cable operators merged.  The trend continued through the decade culminating with the acquisition of Tele-Communications, Inc. by the original AT&T … then relegated to riding down the end of long distance revenues.  AT&T didn't last long as a cable operator; it sold to Comcast just a few years later.

Time, Inc.'s American Television & Communications merged with Warner Cable to create Time Warner Cable.  And Charlie Ergen's DISH launched providing competition to DirecTV and PrimeStar.  Another entrant, AlphaStar, had lasted only a few months.

Not limiting themselves to merging cable systems, Cablevision Systems bought Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall.

At the National Cable Show in 1997, Comcast's Brian Roberts challenged Microsoft's Bill Gates to invest in the cable business in order to help jump-start Internet access via high(er) speed cable … a couple of months later, Gates invested $1b in Comcast.  Gates had hoped to also become a major supplier of set-top boxes (complete with the Windows operating systems) and a major cable programmer.  Neither quite worked out; cable operators just didn't want to become a subsidiary of Microsoft or find the industry dominated by Gates, as did personal computer manufacturers.  Gates did join with NBC to create the MSNBC online and cable news channels; but backed off years later.  Comcast paid back Microsoft in spades. 

Meanwhile, IBM's Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in a televised chess match.  Cox Cable became the first MSO to offer telephone service.

In 1998, computer magazine publisher Ziff Davis and Yahoo! combined to help launch ZDTV, later Tech TV, covering tech issues with news, demonstrations and more.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin – another pair with Stanford roots – developed a Web search engine that ranked pages based on how many other pages linked to them.  Google was founded in 1998 and overnight became a verb.

In 1999, Shawn Fanning, only 19, launched a file sharing service for music and began a massive disintermediation of the music business.  From that year through 2011, some 5,384 record stores in the US closed.  PrimeStar's cable operators gave up and sold out to DirecTV.

Mass panic was expected as the clock ticked past 11:59:59 pm on December 31st.  But the much-ballyhooed "Y2K" doomsday predicted for computers never appeared.  (Guess that click from 1999 to 2000 wasn't quite the equivalent of a meteor falling.)  Along with sighs of relief were bemused expressions everywhere.

If you're seeing a trend here or, actually, a whole lot of trends, you're right.  So what's the biggest?  Digitization?  Consolidation?  Some (near) mass extinctions? All that, yeah.  But I'd argue that the biggest trend is the merry-go-round as technologies appear, disrupt, destroy … and continue to change the world.  The only real difference is in how fast that merry-go-round is moving.  Something we'll discuss when we start looking at the future.

Next week: Chapter 11, Part 1 – The 21st Century

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