Browsing the Web in the Nineties
Quora is a site that strives to “answer any question you might have”. A Quora member recently asked “What was it like to browse the Web in the nineties?” Great question. Brian Hayashi, CEO of ConnectMe 360, decided to provide the answer. He did a very nice job of it, and with his permission, I am sharing it here.
“To understand how exciting it was to view the web during the 90s, it’s helpful to understand the alternatives that it replaced. We had the Internet, and from about 1985 to 1992 it was a bit of a horse race to see who could capitalize on the promise first. During that time, there was actually a great deal of interest in about a dozen or so possible scenarios such as: LEXIS/NEXIS, which to me had the closest “feel” to today’s browsing experience (albeit at $$$$), which was primarily available through universities and law firms. The French had Minitel, and RBOCs like Qwest were busy trying to adapt it to the US market. What is now Time Warner had invested in something called QUBE, an interactive TV project whose alumni were some of the most prolific at creating new media ventures in cable television and the early web.
Marc Canter had built his company Macromedia into a dominant provider of learning software with a thriving community of some of the world’s most talented artists and developers that encompassed MIT grads and rock stars like Todd Rundgren. Apple had created HyperCard and a developer community had started to form with people like Dave Winer, Danny Goodman, Britt Blaser and Steve Drazga. Ted Leonsis had started a CD-ROM outfit called Redgate Communications, a kind of precursor to today’s app store. He later joined forces with Steve Case at AOL, while Sears and IBM had banded together to form Prodigy.
Microsoft was convinced that its Office product was going to be the dominant authoring tool for Internet content. For a long time, the smart money was on Microsoft. So, when I first saw the web in December 1992 at a Digital Hollywood event in Santa Monica, the first site I ever browsed was “Kaleidospace”, a kind of gallery showing off the various digital works of local artists. HTML looked like a primitive version of the same markup language used by WordPerfect, but less useful. My first reaction was that it was incredibly naive to think the platform had even a prayer of competing against the other options that had greater funding, better sponsors, etc. Little did I know.
By the time 1994 rolled around, it was clear that something brilliant was actually happening with the web. The head of our group, Bruce Ravenel, had worked with John Doerr at Intel and was active in the Netscape IPO, so my job had shifted away from interactive television and towards understanding how the emerging web would influence advertising. They even made me perhaps the first creative director for a cable television operator, to assist me in my work with TV networks and ad agencies. My overriding impression was that it seemed like the world had actually become quite small, seemingly overnight, and that fun little sites like Yahoo and Excite were constantly revealing new sites, each like a little unique snowflake, embodying some new way to look at things. (Looking back today, it is amazing how isolated companies and their employees really were from each other, before email and the web gave us their cheap, ubiquitous connections.) At the same time, it felt that innovation had stopped being something that normally took years to come together, and instead it was something that could happen quite quickly.
The early engineers at Netscape thought they would be past the 100th version of the Netscape browser by the time Microsoft got to their third iteration. You didn’t need to wait for the December “Digital Hollywood” trade show to see what kind of progress people had made during the past year, it was as if the future of information was literally unfolding before our eyes. For people like John Patrick over at IBM, it was as if everything he had been predicting for years had suddenly come true in a nanosecond. Sure, mistakes were made. Who knew that Pointcast would be such a dud, or that Groupon would follow its same trajectory years later, almost note-for-note? That Digimarc was way too early and that it would be almost 15 years before Stipple got it right? Or that e-commerce would take so damn long to realize a fraction of its potential? But most importantly for me, it was validation.
For years I had toiled on CD-ROM and interactive TV projects, and for the first time, I could meet someone at a bar and they would actually understand what I was saying. And just as the early web gave people like me a useful platform, I could see how the web would also give all kinds of people the kind of voice they never had before. Of course, the Web circa the 1990s was very American: American rules, American conceits of property and privacy, American-sounding domain names and some peculiarly tortuous American concepts of propriety. From 1994 to 1996, I met with dozens of international organizations like Hinduja, Canal Plus, and Cisneros, all of whom were saddled with mid-20th century telephony and television, who suddenly saw the opportunity to be on an even playing field with the United States, made possible by the web.
Years later, I would get to meet a beautiful girl in Sweden who worked for Telia, and I could see my early experiences mirrored in her as she expertly navigated her mobile phone, using wireless services that we wouldn’t see in the US for several years. I can’t begin to tell you how beautiful that moment was for me. So for me, browsing the Web in the nineties was like having a front row seat to the most wonderful show, the story of how access to a simple computer could unlock so much human potential, in ways both big and small.”