The year 1995 could really be counted as year zero of the digital world we live in today.
Amazon, Craigslist and eBay all launched. Microsoft took its first significant plunge into the stirring waters of the World Wide Web. The PlayStation made its North American debut. Toy Story, the first all-CGI movie, hit the big screen. Future YouTube star Logan Paul was born.
People were going online in ever greater numbers. According to a Times Mirror Center survey in mid-1995, about 24 million Americans used a home computer on any given day, with about 12 million subscribing to an online service, up from 5 million six months earlier. There were massive jumps in the number of websites — from about 2,700 in 1994 to 23,500 in 1995, and from there past 257,000 a year later.
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And there was no shortage of smart, ambitious people looking to ride that wave, and many more toiling away in the vast reaches of technology, science and culture.
Here’s a look back at some of the big names of that year.
In 1995, one person more than any other embodied tech for the world at large: Bill Gates, CEO and co-founder of Microsoft. He was undeniably geeky. He was relentlessly competitive. His Windows operating system dominated PCs, and it had a big, big moment in August of that year with the splashy launch of Windows 95. Looking to appeal to the growing number of home computer users, Microsoft unleashed a $300 million promotional campaign anchored by the Rolling Stones song Start Me Up.
Behind the scenes, Gates was grappling with a sea change that he referred to in an internal memo as the “internet tidal wave.” Dated May 26, the missive laid out Gates’ plan for the continued world domination of Microsoft and Windows. “The Internet is the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981,” Gates wrote. “I believe the Internet will become our most important promotional vehicle and paying people to include links to our home pages will be a worthwhile way to spend advertising dollars.”
He rounded out the year with the November publication of the bestseller The Road Ahead, which expanded on the ideas in the memo and talked of a future full of online services and “wallet PCs” that don’t sound all that different from what we carry around with us today.
What he’s doing now: No longer at Microsoft, he heads up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, focusing on philanthropic endeavors like educating low-income students and combating malaria and other infectious diseases — especially COVID-19 right now. Typically the richest person in the world or a close runner-up, he occasionally releases a list of favorite books.
Among the threats to Microsoft that Gates identified in his memo was Netscape, “a new competitor ‘born’ on the Internet,” whose browser had a 70% usage share. Founded in 1994, Netscape held an IPO in August 1995, and it was a doozy — shares more than doubled in price on the first day of trading, valuing the company at nearly $3 billion, and they kept rising dramatically through the end of the year. Thus began the dot-com bubble, as investors fixated on tech startups as get-rich-quick opportunities.
The public face of Netscape was 24-year-old co-founder Marc Andreessen, who in college had co-developed the breakthrough Mosaic browser, the starting point for Netscape’s own Navigator. Such was Andreessen’s fame that he would be featured (barefoot, clad in jeans and a polo shirt, sitting on a thronelike chair) on the cover of Time magazine on Feb. 19, 1996, for its cover story, “The Golden Geeks” — “They invent. They start companies. And the stock market has made them INSTANTAIRES.”
But soon enough, Netscape got steamrollered by Microsoft, and in 1998, it was acquired by AOL on its road to irrelevance.
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Jerry Yang and David Filo
The internet was a novelty for most people in 1995, and someone had to help them find their way around. Or two someones: a pair of Stanford University grad students named Jerry Yang and David Filo, who a year earlier had created a directory called “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” You don’t remember that? How about Yahoo, then? That was the new name they gave the service, which they incorporated in March of 1995. That year, they also added a search engine function to Yahoo.
In the fall of that year, CNET met up with Yang and Filo at their modest offices. “Maybe 10 computers are doing all the work here,” Yang said, and they’d just installed a T3 line, which could handle 45Mbps transmissions. Every day, they were adding between 500 and 1,000 sites to their listings.
“We consider ourselves a couple of yahoos,” said Filo. “It’s pretty fitting [for] the site and the internet in general.”
“Fun, discovery, finding information — that’s what Yahoo’s all about,” Yang said. “We’re going to have to really stay on top of the internet because it’s going to change really fast.”
And did it ever.
What they’re doing now: Very rich, very low-profile.
If you were poking around the internet in 1995, you might’ve stumbled across a novelty: an online bookstore that had gone into service in July, billing itself as “Earth’s largest book store.” It was run by a Seattle startup named Amazon.com, headed by one Jeff Bezos, 31, who had ditched his job as a VP at a Wall Street hedge fund. The first book sold? “Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought.” By the end of the year, Amazon had customers around the country and much of the world.
About 18 months after Amazon opened for business, Bezos gave CNET a tour of its very low-tech warehouse. He talked about how he picks novels to read, showed off a website that’s about as jazzy as a card catalog and got revved up extolling Amazon’s pricing strategy. “We decided, in addition to discounting the bestsellers, let’s also discount the best books, so we discount every book, every week, that’s reviewed in The New York Times by 30%,” he says. “There are little things here, like we have customers review books, and we select a winner every month.”
What he’s doing now: Often clocks in as the richest man in the world (just ahead of Gates). Still running Amazon, and looking to conquer both the grocery business and outer space as well.
The term “hacker” started out with a benign definition: It described computer programmers who were especially adept at solving technical problems. By the mid-1990s, however, it was widely used to refer to those who turned their skills toward breaking into computers, whether for mild mischief or criminal gain. Which brings us to Kevin Mitnick. In February 1995, the FBI arrested the 31-year-old, a high-profile fugitive wanted on charges that he “electronically attacked” companies including Novell, Sun Microsystems and Motorola. He eventually pleaded guilty to wire and computer fraud charges and spent five years in prison.
In 2009, Mitnick talked to CNET about how and why he did what he did. Through both social engineering and actual hacking, he got to Motorola’s development servers, where he found the source code for all of its cellphones. “I wasn’t interested in selling the source code or doing anything with it. It was more about the challenge of getting it,” he said. “It really was about the trophy.”
What he’s doing now: Runs a cybersecurity consulting firm and writes books, billing himself as “the world’s most famous hacker.”
Hollywood’s young stars
As regular folks were getting nervous about hacking, Hollywood took notice. The year 1995 brought us not one, but two movies looking to cash in on that anxiety.
One was Hackers, starring Jonny Lee Miller, 26, and Angelina Jolie, 20, in which teenage hackers break in to the computers of a giant corporation and get mixed up in an embezzlement scheme. Michael WIlmington of the Chicago Tribune described the characters as “a new breed: computer whizzes who specialize in using their home machines to break into forbidden territory, classified information networks. They’re a ’90s phenomenon — a product of the New Age and its information highway.”
The other was The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, 31, fresh off her leading role in the popular bomb-on-a-bus thriller Speed. As an America’s sweetheart of a movie star, she’s a more relatable, empathetic hacker than those gnarly teens, a cybersecurity specialist who stumbles into a secret FBI site, with predicaments to follow. What’s novel is how much the bad guys can learn about her from records online, even way back then. Mick LaSalle, in the San Francisco Chronicle, said this: “It’s about how our lives revolve around computers and how it’s possible to manipulate information to erase or alter a person’s identity.”
What they’re up to today: Bullock: Most recently starred in Netflix’s 2018 hit Bird Box. Jolie: Active in humanitarian initiatives, with movie projects in the works. Miller: Just finished seven seasons as a modern Sherlock Holmes in Elementary. Both Bullock and Jolie are now Academy Award winners.
Steve Jobs didn’t always work at Apple, the company he co-founded in the early, early days of personal computing. After being fired from Apple, he spent more than a decade in exile, from 1985 to 1997, but he wasn’t lounging about. He ran Next, first making very high-end computers and then focusing on software. He also was the primary investor in and later owner of the animation studio Pixar, which had some big moments in the final weeks of 1995, the year Jobs turned 40. One was the release of Toy Story, the first full-length computer-animated movie and a wildly popular one at that. The other was a smash success of a different kind, an IPO that raised $140 million and made Jobs a billionaire. (For good measure, he also took on the titles of president and CEO.)
In Time magazine’s “Golden Geeks” story from early 1996, Jobs talked about ambition. “The thing that drives me and my colleagues at both Apple and Pixar,” he said, “is that you see something very compelling to you, and you don’t quite know how to get it, but you know, sometimes intuitively, it’s within your grasp. And it’s worth putting in years of your life to make it come into existence.”
Steve Jobs died in October 2011 at the age of 56.
While Yang and Filo were creating a directory to the internet writ large, Craig Newmark was starting out with a more local focus. An East Coaster transplanted to San Francisco, where he was working as a programmer at investment company Charles Schwab, in 1995 he created an email list of social events in the area that might appeal to folks working in the software business. It was known as Craigslist. The next year, it became a website, and though it didn’t start expanding to other cities till 2000, the beginning of the end was in sight for the classified ads business, a key source of revenue for newspapers.
“I really didn’t know what I was creating,” Newmark told CNET’s Jessica Dolcourt last year. But the activity came naturally. “The internet wasn’t that much of a surprise to me in terms of what it was doing, what it could do and all that. Because, science fiction. Because, nerd.”
What he’s up to now: Doing philanthropic work. Trying to help journalism stay afloat. Craigslist, meanwhile, looks much as it did in the ’90s.
In the early 1990s, a team at Sun Microsystems set to work on developing a new computer language, looking ahead in part to a new era of consumer electronics. That language would become known as Java, and its inventor was James Gosling. The basic idea: a program could be written once and then be able to run on a variety of computing devices without having to be customized. It debuted in May 1995, as Gosling was turning 40.
In an interview with CNET’s Stephen Shankland a decade later, Gosling described the project as “an exercise in science fiction. You never really know which way the world is going to go.” As it turned out, the world went for Java in a big way. But things also got complicated. Gosling continued: “Java has become a central part of many gigantic, mission-critical systems. … When you’ve got large banks clearing hundreds of billions of financial transactions every night, small bugs have big consequences. Early on, we could do all kinds of crazy stuff, but now we have to worry hard about who we actually affect.”
What he’s doing now: Distinguished engineer at Amazon Web Services. In 2019, Gosling was named a Computer History Museum fellow for his work on Java.
For the generation that came of age with the internet as a part of their daily lives, Stephen Hawking represented science. He was a man of immense learning and accomplishment, along with a spirit unbound by his severe physical limitations. He launched into the public consciousness in a big way with the 1988 publication of A Brief History of Time. A film version of the book debuted in 1992, and Hawking made an appearance in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he played a holographic version of himself. Throughout the 1990s, much as in the decades before and after, he focused his work life on theoretical physics, cosmology and related topics.
In September 1995, at 53, Hawking divorced his wife Jane and married Elaine Mason, one of his nurses.
Hawking wasn’t always bullish on the future of technology. In 1994, he addressed Macworld Expo in Boston, one of the leading computer trade shows of the era. He took note, rather dismally, of the emergence of a dark side of connected computing: “I think computer viruses should count as life,” he said, comparing them to parasites exploiting the metabolism of their hosts. “I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.” Two decades later he also cautioned on the future of artificial intelligence, saying ” I fear that AI may replace humans altogether.”
Stephen Hawking died in 2018 at the age of 76.