Computers in the 1990s, especially at the dawn of the 1990s, were very different from today. Looking back now, it’s easy to see how the 1990s were a pivotal decade for computing. And since GenXers like me live under the delusion that the 1990s just happened, I still remember it well.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about computers in the 1990s is the number of things that didn’t exist prior to 1990. In other cases, they existed, but were terrible, so nobody used them.
In 1990, 32-bit computers were something people talked more about than used. They existed, but they were very expensive. If you had a 386 on your desk at work, you were pretty important. Few people had 386s at home, and 486s were what dreams were made of.
Intel wasn’t even the biggest name in 32-bit computing, though. Motorola had its 68020 and 68030 CPUs, which Apple put in its highest-end Macintoshes. Commodore put them in its Amigas, and Atari put them into workstations based on the Atari ST architecture. There wasn’t a lot of software that took advantage of Intel’s 32-bit CPUs so Motorola owned the day. Macintoshes owned the publishing market, and Amigas dominated video production.
That said, in 1990, 8-bit computers weren’t dead yet. The Commodore 64 and Apple II didn’t exactly have good years in 1990, but both of them hung around while longer, selling fewer units each subsequent year but never completely going away until 1994.
Microsoft Windows ended up owning the decade, but at the onset, that wasn’t a sure thing. In 1990, Microsoft’s release of Windows 3.0 was a bet-the-company moment. Prior to Windows 3.0, lots of people talked about Windows but few used it. There was precious little software for it and it crashed a lot. Windows 3.0 still crashed a lot, but you could run it most of the day all week and not necessarily have it crash on you every day. That was an achievement. It also ran acceptably well on a 286 CPU, as long as it had a clock speed over 12 MHz. That meant you could buy a $1,000 286, load Windows on it, and have a Mac-like experience for half the price of an Apple.
Critically, by 1990, Microsoft had versions of Word and Excel that ran as well on Windows as their counterparts did on the Mac. So if you wanted a GUI and a mouse but didn’t care much about desktop publishing, you could get that experience on a PC.
Microsoft followed up with Windows 3.1 in 1992, which was mostly bug fixes and performance improvements. Later in the decade they followed up with Windows 95 and 98, which made Windows mostly 32-bit and gave it real multitasking. It still crashed a lot, but much less than Windows 3.0 and 3.1 did.
Microsoft brought Windows NT along in 1993 and it hit prime time in 1997 with Windows NT 4.0. Before Windows NT came along, computer crashes were something we just put up with. I’m not talking about an application deciding to quit responding. That happened a lot too, but frequently when it did, it brought the whole system down with it. Yes, you could be typing away in Word and the screen would just lock up completely. Or you’d get a blue screen telling you the computer quit responding.
Windows NT promised to end that. I don’t really think Windows NT delivered on its promises fully until Windows XP Service Pack 2 came along later the next decade, but still, the 1990s versions of Windows NT set the stage for that.
But yes, 1990s computers were so unreliable we would have these things called uptime contests. If you could run a computer for 12 months without having to reboot it, people would be impressed.
In 1990, Linux didn’t exist. Linus Torvalds announced it in 1991. It grew up fast though–32-bit Linux was usable before 32-bit Windows NT was. I remember having arguments into the 2000s whether Linux was good enough for prime time, but Amazon and Ebay started building their empires on it in the late 1990s. By the late 1990s, Linux was very usable and very capable. The dot-com boom wouldn’t have happened without Linux, and Linux wasn’t the reason for the bust. It grew up a lot in subsequent decades, but then again, so did Windows.
At the dawn of the 1990s, the Mac used a Motorola 68000-series CPU and didn’t have fully pre-emptive multitasking. Apple knew it needed a modern 32-bit operating system, and after a few fits and starts, it acquired NeXT and a bitter Steve Jobs in 1997 to get a 32-bit operating system. NeXT’s operating system evolved into what became Mac OS X. It also forms the underpinings of every other modern Apple operating system.
Apple itself struggled through much of the 1990s. Steve Jobs’ return to Apple in 1997 as part of the NeXT acquisition saved the company, but Apple’s position as the world’s most valuable company seemed a long way off even in 1999. For a time in 1999, Linux vendor Red Hat surpassed Apple in terms of market capitalization.
The Internet did exist in 1990, but the Web didn’t. Computer-literate kids with modems swapped tales they’d heard from people they knew who were in college about this thing called the Internet. At the start of the decade, it was little more than message boards and chat, all text-based. In 1993, the World Wide Web came along, and I remember helping a whole bunch of people get early versions of Netscape set up on their PCs in 1994. In the mid 1990s, the Web was largely a novelty, but by the late 1990s, we weren’t willing to live without it. It only took a few years to become indispensable.
High-speed Internet came about in the late 1990s. Copper telephone lines couldn’t deliver telecommunications speeds higher than 56 kilobits per second. By modern standards, 1990s DSL and cable modems weren’t fast either, but 256 or 384 kilobit DSL and one-megabit cable modems felt fast after dealing with a 56K dialup connection. If 90s web pages look boring, that’s why. You had to keep your designs simpler to deal with slow Internet connections.
The proliferation of online services fueled a demand for storage. In the 90s, it seemed like everyone was filling up their hard drives because software was growing faster than disk capacity was. In 1992, 170 megabytes was a medium-sized drive. By 1995, Windows 95 really needed 100 megabytes on its own by the time you loaded drivers and updates. So people replaced their hard drives quite a bit, and relied a lot on removable media.
Recordable CDs were expensive in the 90s. In the mid 90s, the discs cost $20 apiece and the burners cost $1,000. Zip drives weren’t as reliable as we would have liked but provided relatively inexpensive expandable mass storage.
In the 90s, Google was an upstart. A late 90s upstart at that. Google took the world by storm by trying to sort search results in some logical fashion, rather than just trying to give you 14 pages of results and let you figure it out. Google was one of those things that made us wonder how we ever lived without it, and made people like me quickly forget Altavista.
Digital music was controversial in the 1990s. You couldn’t buy digital music yet, so if you wanted a digital copy of music, you had to rip it from a CD. When Diamond Multimedia released its first MP3 player, the Diamond Rio, in 1998, they got sued. The industry saw the predecessor to Apple’s iPod as just a tool for pirating music.
A predecessor to modern music services appeared in 1997. It was called MP3.com, and if you proved to it that you owned a CD, it would let you listen to it online. They got sued for copyright violation and shut down in 2003 after a series of missteps.
Today we take digital distribution for granted. In the 1990s, we hoped we’d get to that someday.
In 1990, the best gaming computer was something called an Amiga. It had 4,096-color graphics and stereo sound, and to the million people like me who’d heard of it, we couldn’t imagine anything better.
Then, in 1992, Id Software took an old Apple II shoot ’em up maze game called Castle Wolfenstein and made a 3D version of it that ran nicely on mass-market 386sx-based PCs that consumer electronics stores were selling for between $1,200 and $1,500 at the time. It could even run on a 286 CPU with VGA graphics. Wolfenstein 3D turned into a huge hit, and that was the end of PC owners being jealous of Amiga owners. The followups, Doom and Quake, turned into even bigger hits, fueling the early PC enthusiast and overclocking movements, and dedicated 3D graphics cards.
Today we take 3-D games with first-person perspective for granted, but it was in the early 1990s that it all came together. 3D graphics were a hallmark of computers in the 1990s.
Online shopping has existed in one form or another since at least the 1980s, but it really took off in the 1990s. Amazon.com became a household name and everyone wanted to emulate it. Amazon.com didn’t become profitable until the next decade, but it survived when most of its imitators failed. Ebay was the other e-commerce giant to come out of the 1990s, and for some people, buying stuff on Ebay was the main reason they wanted the Internet in the first place.
Of course, neither of them were exactly like they are today. Amazon sold books and slowly expanded into things like CDs and movies. But when you thought of Amazon, you thought of books.
Ebay had a very different attitude then than it has now. Today, selling on Ebay can be big business. Back then it was people selling their extra stuff online because it seemed better than holding a garage sale.
The other big niche in online shopping in the ’90s was, perhaps unsurprisingly, computers and components. Most ’90s Internet users wanted something other than what they could find at Best Buy or CompUSA, and online computer shops were more than happy to deliver.
It was possible to do things like order pizza online, but the idea seemed silly in the mid 1990s. Most restaurants and traditional retailers saw the Internet as a way to help you find the store closest to you, and little else.
Today, if you asked someone to name five brands of computers still being made, they might struggle. In the 1990s, there were dozens of big name brands and probably hundreds of second- and third-tier brands. The quality could vary fairly widely. Dell and HP did a better job than most of combining reliability and price, which is one reason those two brands still exist today. Packard Bell was an example of a company that didn’t do a good job of consistently delivering quality at a low price, so they’re gone today. Tandy was another example of a computer that came into the 90s strong but didn’t survive.
I would be remiss not to mention magazines. In the ’90s, if you went to any newsstand, you could find all sorts of computer magazines. Some covered computing in general, and you could usually find one or two magazines that tried to cover general computing on a specific platform, be it PCs, Macintoshes, or Amigas. As the 90s wore on, specialized magazines cropped up. Believe it or not, there were magazines about the Internet. You didn’t use computers as your primary way to learn about computers in the 1990s.
I went to journalism school in the 90s with a dream of someday being the editor or publisher of one of those magazines. It’s a good thing for me that dream didn’t pan out because there are precious few of them left, in any form, today.
Today we find out about things right after they happened. In the technology field in the 90s, we had to wait a month, sometimes two. That’s very different today. Even though world-changing stuff came along more frequently in the 90s than it has in subsequent decades.
It was an exciting time. For technology, at least.
When was this article written?
Late 2017/early 2018.
Johnny come lately’s. I’d been using Radio Shack TRS-80’s for year’s by the 90’s. TRSDOS beat MS-DOS by a mile IMHO. Remember when it took 2 men and a boy to haul home an issue of Byte magazine?
I was an Amiga fan, myself. If I picked the winners and losers, we’d all be using Amigas right now.
Also bought an Amiga 1000 when they came out. Way ahead of its time machine. I wrote reviews on Amiga hardware and software for Amiga World magazine for a number of years until they and the Amiga and Commodore all went belly up. What a shame!