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Mary Clark

The Internet Tidal Wave

This week moved away from video games a little and more into the overall development of 90s PC software and the early years of the internet. My reading for the week was The Internet Tidal Wave: a company memo from Bill Gates addressed to his executive staff. It functions as not only a primary source for what technological growth and industry competition was occurring during the mid-90s—it’s also as a window into how Gates predicted his company could ride the internet wave (into legal hot water). Gnarly. I also wanted to get some idea of what software, besides games, would realistically be on a 90s PC, whether it was pre-installed, shareware, or purchased.

In his memo, Gates’ discusses his high hopes for new digital communication developments and web browsing, but also cites many concerns he has for Microsoft’s lack of involvement (or even future non-existence) should they not coordinate their market involvement. He claims:

I have gone through several stages of increasing my views of its importance. Now I assign the Internet the highest level of importance. In this memo I want to make clear that our focus on the Internet is crucial to every part of our business. The Internet is the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981… I think that virtually every PC will be used to connect to the Internet and that the Internet will help keep PC purchasing very healthy for many years to come.”

He targets Netscape, a company “born on the internet” and their browser by the same name, as the company’s greatest threat in the internet market. With Netscape at 70% usage share, according to Gates, they are able to control what protocols and products gain traction, and could potentially exclude Microsoft in certain areas. Another interesting fear of his is the creation of a computer less expensive than a PC but optimized for web browsing, which sounds eerily similar to what current Chromebooks accomplish.

And on the note of predictions, Gates’ mentions that progress in 3D technology could lead to “virtual reality type shopping and socialization”. I’m not sure of what he pictures when he says “virtual reality”: wearing the headset, or just 3D virtual space? If he means the latter, socialization has absolutely already happened and is still happening, and the former should be in the works. Virtual reality shopping is also coming around.

What makes this memo especially historically valuable is the events that followed its delivery: the release of MSN, the creation of Internet Explorer, and its bundle with Windows operating systems (in later releases of 95 and 98) that led to the legal battle U.S. vs. Microsoft. At the time, web browsers were not commonly freeware or pre-installed software, so bundling an operating system with a web browser without hiking up the price too high meant leading the market and slaughtering competition. Microsoft “giving away” their browser became “a huge, huge problem” for Netscape, and after their rapid fall from dominance in the web browser market in the late 90s, nineteen states accused Microsoft Corporation of “anticompetitive” practices that “attempted to monopolize the Web browser market” in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The court ruled against Microsoft on all charges, with the exception of Microsoft’s arrangements with other companies to fight against Netscape.

But as a result of their (slightly illegal) strategies, Microsoft became an incredibly influential competitor and is pretty worthy of a place in a 90s exhibit. The exhibit’s PC will most likely use Windows 98 for compatibility and optimization (the OS that was already installed was Windows XP, so this won’t be a problem) so this will come with Internet Explorer, and that’s definitely something we want to keep. It’s low priority, but we could consider installing Netscape so visitors could compare the quality of the two browsers.

So in conclusion, Gates’ memo was an insightful glance into what 90s technology, particularly internet technology, dominated the market, and how large companies like Microsoft quickly adapted to meet the competition head-on. Furthermore, Gates’s 20-year-old predictions and fears for the progress of internet technologies is a great contribution to the Console Living Room dialogue; many of them either sound ridiculous, yet feasible, or are already in existence or in the making.