Greatest Hits: Top Inventions of the 90s

The '90s will be best remembered as the decade where the age of digital technology began to fully blossom. By the end of the 20th century, popular cassette-based Walkmans were swapped out for portable CD players. And as pagers grew in popularity, the sense of being able to communicate with anyone anytime, fostered a new form of interconnectedness that would come to define the way forward. Things were only getting started, though, as even bigger technologies would soon make their mark. 

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World Wide Web

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British Physicist-Turned-Programmer Tim Berners-Lee Devised Much Of The Programming Language That Made The Internet Accessible To The Public. Catrina Genovese/Getty Images

The first major breakthrough of the decade would later turn out to be the biggest and most important. It was in the year 1990 that a British engineer and computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee followed through on a proposal to build a global information system based on a network or “web” of hyperlinked documents comprised of multimedia such as graphics, audio and video. 

While an actual system of interconnected computer networks known as the internet had been around since the '60s, this exchange of data was limited to agencies such as government departments and research institutions. Berners-Lee’s idea for a “World Wide Web,” as it was called, would extend and expand upon this concept in a groundbreaking way by developing a technology in which data was relayed back and forth between a server and a client, such as computers and mobile devices. 

This client-server architecture would serve as the framework that enabled content to be received and viewed on the user end through the use of software application known as a browser. Other essential components of this data circulating system, which include Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), had only recently been developed in the months prior. 

The first web site, published on December 20th, 1990, was quite rudimentary, especially compared to what we have today. The setup that made it all possible was comprised of an old school and now fairly defunct workstation system called the NeXT Computer, which Berners-Lee used to write the world’s first web browser as well as to run the first web server. However, the browser and web editor, initially named WorldWideWeb and later changed to Nexus, was capable of displaying content such as basic style sheets as well as downloading and playing sounds and movies. 

Fast forward to today and the web has become, in many ways, an essential part of our lives. It’s where we communicate and socialize through social networks, message boards, email, make voice calls and videoconferencing. It’s where we research, learn and stay informed. It set the stage for numerous forms of commerce, providing goods and services in entirely innovative ways. I provides us with endless forms of entertainment, anytime we want it. It’s safe to say that it would be hard to imagine how our lives would be without it. Yet it’s easy to forget that it’s only been around for more than a couple of decades.

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DVDs

DVDs. Public Domain

Those of us who were around and kicking in the '80s may recall a relatively bulky piece of media called the VHS cassette tape. After a hard fought battle with another technology called Betamax, VHS tapes became the dominate format of choice for home movies, TV shows and just about any type of video. The odd thing was that, despite offering lower quality resolution and even noticeably chunkier form factor than the former, consumers settled for the cost friendlier option. Consequently, viewing audiences went ahead and suffered through poor viewing experiences throughout the 1980’s and early '90s.     

All that would change, though, when consumer electronics companies Sony and Phillips partnered up to developed a new optical disc format called the MultiMedia Compact Disc in 1993. Its biggest advancement was the ability to encode and display high quality and high capacity digital media as well as being were much more portable and convenient than analog-based video tapes since they came in essentially the same form factor as CDs.

But like the previous format war between video cassette tapes, there were also other competitors already floating around, such as CD Video (CDV) and Video CD (VCD), all vying for market share. In all practicality, the leading contenders to emerge as the next generation home video standard were the MMCD format and Super Density (SD), a similar format developed by Toshiba and backed by the likes of Time Warner, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Pioneer and JVC.

In this case, however, both sides won out. Rather than letting the market forces play out, five of the leading computer companies (IBM, Apple, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft) banded together and declared that none of them would put out products that support either format until a consensus standard was agreed upon. This led to the parties involved to eventually come to a compromise and work on ways to combine both technologies to create the Digital Versatile Disc (DVD).

Looking back, the DVD can be seen as part of the wave of new technologies that was enabling many forms of electronic media to be converted over in a world that was evolving toward digital. But it was also demonstrative of many of the benefits and new possibilities for the viewing experience. Some of the more notable enhancements include allowing movies and shows to be indexed by scene, captioned in different languages, and packaged with many bonus extras, including the director’s commentary.              

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Text Messaging (SMS)

A text message on an iPhone announcing an AMBER Alert. Tony Webster/Creative Commons

While cellular phones have been around since the '70s, it wasn’t until the late 90’s that they truly started to go mainstream, evolving from a brick-sized luxury that only the very affluent can afford and have use for to a portable pocket essential for the everyday person. And as mobile phones became more and more a staple of our lives, device makers began to add functionality and features like personalized ringtones and later on camera capabilities. 

But one of those features, initiated in 1992 and largely overlooked until years later, that has transformed how we interact today. It was during that year that a developer named Neil Papworth sent the first SMS (text) message to Richard Jarvis at Vodafone. It read simply “Merry Christmas.” However, it took a few years after that seminal moment before phones were on the market that had the capability to send and receive text messages.

And even early on, text messaging was largely underutilized as phones and network carriers weren’t very accommodating. Screens were tiny and without a keyboard of some sort it was quite cumbersome to type out sentences with a numerical dialing input layout. It caught on more as manufacturers came out with models with full QWERTY keyboards, such as the T-Mobile Sidekick. And by 2007, Americans were sending and receiving more text messages than placing phone calls.

As the years passed, text messaging would only become more ingrained into what’s become an integral part of our interactions. It has since matured in full blown multimedia with numerous messaging apps taking over as a primary way we communicate. 

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MP3s

iPod. Apple

Digital music has become pretty synonymous with the popular format its encoded in – the MP3. The genesis for the technology came about after the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), a working group of industry experts was assembled in 1988 to come up with standards for audio encoding. And it was at the at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany that much of the work and development of the format took place.

German engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg was part of that team at the Fraunhofer Institute and due to his contributions is often regarded as the “father of the MP3.” The song that was chosen to encode the first MP3 was "Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega. After some setbacks, including an instance in 1991 in which the project almost died, they produced an audio file in 1992 that Brandenburg described as sounding exactly like on the CD.

Brandenburg told NPR in an interview that the format didn’t catch on within the music industry at first because many felt it was too complicated. But in due time, MP3s would be distributed like hot cakes (in both legal and not-so-legal ways.) Soon enough, MP3s were playing through mobile phones and other popular devices like iPods.