Computing Revolutions I Lived Through

We take the technology we have today for granted:

So, I wanted to stop and appreciate step changes in computing technology that I lived thorugh, things that were was unimaginably better. Literally — I couldn’t imagine the difference these technologies would make, before I had them. They were not more of the same, but better.

With that, let’s start:

Hard disks

The first computer I used didn’t have a hard disk. You had to boot and work off one or more floppy disks, and since each floppy had only a little space, you couldn’t store much. Computers were almost stateless devices, like cassette players. The first hard disk I used suddenly an enormous amount of space, like 20 MB. Now we could install programs and store data on the PC itself, which was a new concept. In fact, the whole notion of installing a program entered the scene with the hard disk.

GUI

After years of using the command-line, the GUI was a whole new world, much more visual, intuitive, usable and powerful. And it was beautiful, which some geeks discount, but which makes a world of difference. The GUI, in the form of Windows 95, took the computer to a whole new level. It was much eaiser to explore. Or to see what a program could do. Or to even see what programs you had installed in the first place. In a few years after Windows 95, command-line computers became obsolete [1].

Multimedia

In the 90s, a multimedia PC was a name given to a computer that had a color monitor, sound card, speakers, and a CD-ROM drive. Each of these by itself was a big deal.

Let’s start with the CD. The first time I heard of the CD’s capacity of 650 MB, it was worlds ahead of the floppy’s 1.4 MB. I knew CDs had more space, but I was flabbergasted when I learnt how much more. It was even more than the 150 MB hard disk that that computer had. CDs were removable, so I could have multiple CDs, each with more space than the entire computer! When ejected, CDs were wafer-thin. How can something with so much storage be so thin?! And the fact that it was read with a laser was even more cool! It was like space-age technology right at home. I had never seen this kind of advancement in my life. If my city got a new bus at all, it happened after a decade, and the new bus didn’t float on air.

With the sound card and speakers, computers were no longer mute. And color monitors made another dimension to everything — photos, videos, animation, even the GUI itself was more beautiful with color.

All this technology — color monitor, CD-ROM drive, sound car, speakers — was assembled together to create multimedia.

I could navigate through a multimedia encyclopedia, exploring whatever interested me, and when I chose a topic, it came to life with text, color photos, audio, video and animation. It lived up to its name of multi-ple media working together seamlessly to present information better than any one media could by itself. Unlike books, which were limited to text and an occasional photo. Or TV programs, where everything was presented in the form of video, whether or not that was the best way to communicate that point. If I didn’t understand something in a TV program, it was too late, but with multimedia I could go back and go through it again. Multimedia was the best of both worlds — books and TV. In addition to text, photos and videos (which I’d experienced from books and TV), there were new forms of media, like audio: when reading a multimedia article about a bird, I’d hear it calling. It was amazing seeing an animation of a four-stroke engine for the first time. Till then, I had only read about the four-stroke engine in books, and had to imagine how it worked. But multimedia brought it to life.

Multimedia was also interactive, which I’d never experienced before. I could explore what interested me, rather than passively consuming whatever a TV program showed. If a TV program went in a direction different from what was interesting to me, it would be disappointing. By contrast, multimedia let me go whichever direction I wanted. And once I chose a topic, like a four-stroke engine, I could click to make the engine run step by step. I was in control, not just watching it.

In fact, the whole concept of an encyclopedia on a disc was mind-bending. Encyclopedias till then came only on paper. And this encyclopedia on a CD could do things no paper book could!

A multimedia PC was worlds ahead of the black and white command prompt.

I played games for days on end. 3D was amazing, even if the graphics were blocky. And then there were cutting-edge 3D games like Doom!

I used to rent Video CDs from a nearby shop and watch movies. Till then, movies were watched on a VCR, but for the first time, I could watch them on a computer, needing neither a VCR nor a TV. This was a new concept: the computer did all the computer things and could also do entertainment things. We now take this for granted, but in the 90s, it was as amazing as having your car cook a meal for you [2].

MP3

Till the MP3 revolution, computers handled data, and music was listened to on a tape recorder. With MP3, music became files on a computer. This was mind-bending, like someone telling you that you can download a chair.

With MP3, you could organise your music in folders, like a Telugu folder for all your Telugu music, similar to how you organised your data. This made it much easier to find what you want. You could double-click to play any song, no different from double-clicking a Word document to open it. Music was just another file that could be opened. This was mindblowing. Songs were also named, as opposed to “Track 6” on a CD player — you didn’t know what that was till you played it. I’d listen to music for days on end, using excellent players like Winamp 2.78:

Playlists were a whole new concept. I could select what music I wanted to, and in what order, and make my own playlist, rather than just listening to all the songs in the order someone else decided.

Using an on-screen graphic equaliser was also a new experience. Graphic equalisers till then were phyiscal controls, but the physical became pixels on a screen. That concept is common today, but it was a mind-mending change when it happened.

I discovered Sonique, which had beautiful, immersive visualisations there were out of the world:

You could full-screen the visualisation, and fly through abstract worlds that I’d never seen before, not even in sci-fi. It was all the more amazing that these virtual worlds were generated in real time, on my own computer, from the music I was listening to. I had never seen the computer come to life this way.

Sonique had a windowless interface that could have any shape, not just the standard rectangle:

Sonique was fluid not just in its shape, but in its movement. Animations in software are taken for granted today, but were unheard of then. Unlike software of the era, where each screen could be well-designed but transitions between them were abrupt, Sonique was fluid and smooth. To the point where the boundaries between screens softened, and it all blended together into one polished experience of Sonique. Paul Graham said that when a new medium appears, people explore its limits early on. Sonique did that with the GUI.

For the first time, MP3 made music free, copied from relatives and friends, as compared to the unaffordable ₹500 that the entertainment industry extracted from us. Even a cassette cost as much as ₹125. MP3s had better quality than a cassette, and were free and convenient. How it this even possible, I wondered. It felt unreal, too good to be true.

Web

When the web happened, for the first time, I had access to so much information. I was keen about Java, and learnt a ton from resources like JavaWorld. I could not have learnt so much about Java till then, since physical resources like a nearby bookstore or my college library had only a few books on Java. But now I could go deep into Java. I didn’t have to settle for learning whatever topic a book happened to be available in, like databases when I was keen about Java.

The speed was 33 kbps, so I could load only two or three pages at once, or all of them would stop loading. The Internet wasn’t always-on — I’d dial in using a modem, save web pages to read offline, and disconnect, because it was otherwise too costly. Still, the Internet was amazing! I started with Internet Explorer 3 or 4, then 5. And then IE 6, which was a big step ahead in both features and polish. It was a great browser [3], and the web was awesome.

Email

When I got email, for the first time, I could communicate with anyone in the world, even relatives in the US, who until then were practically on another planet, given that neither me nor anyone in my family could afford international calls. They were so expensive that they weren’t even considered as an option. Email changed that.

I even emailed big shots like the authors of some books I used to read, and one or two of them even replied! These people were inaccessible to me before then, but email democratised things. It was heady days.

Email was the first communication medium I used which wasn’t tied to a physical device, like a landline, where the device was your identity. If someone called you, but you were at a relative’s house, you couldn’t take the call on their landline. Your landline at home rang, whether or not you were home. But with email, I could log in from any computer by identifying myself with my ID and password. This level of indirection was cutting-edge. I remember the first time I accessed my email account from another city, continuing the conversation I started when I was in my home town. I could never do this before email. For the first time, communication was addressed not to a physical location, but to an abstract ID. It was also personal — it was my email ID, not my family’s. Which, as a teenager, made me feel very important and happy.

It was mind-boggling that Yahoo Mail offered all these free. Until then, every communication method needed to be paid for. Post required an inland letter, or stamps. Phone calls were charged by the minute. Because that’s how the world worked. Of course you had to pay for things you wanted. How else can things be? When email happened, it was free. How is this possible? I wondered. It was too good to be true. I couldn’t figure it out for years. It was as if someone told me I can walk into a shop and pick up a TV without paying!

Windows 2000

Unlike earlier versions of Windows, Windows 2000 would never crash. Having a tool I could count on work no matter what I threw at it was a great feeling. Windows 2000 was so stable because it was built on top of the modern Windows NT kernel that’s used even today in Windows 10, as opposed to the original Windows 9x kernel, which had reached a dead end by then. Windows 2000 was the first of the new breed of operating systems for me. It had cutting-edge technology like protected memory, so one program couldn’t crash another program or the OS. And preemptive multitasking, so that if one program hung, it wouldn’t hang the whole system. And multithreading, so a single program could do multiple things at once. Windows 2000 was cutting-edge technology [4].

Laptop

In the 90s, laptops were anemic, and the few people who had one used them only when traveling, sticking with their desktop most of the time. The laptop was, at best, an add-on computer.

But by the aughts, with the relentless march of technology, laptops became powerful. The first time I used one extensively, around 2002, it was amazing. It had all the functionality of a desktop — screen, keyboard, pointing device, speakers, microphone, hard disk, CD or DVD drive, ports and Wifi (in later years). All this was packed into an impossibly compact form. I remember picking one up and asking myself if everything in the huge PC tower is really in here.

Laptops ran the same software as desktops: the same powerful Windows or Mac operating system, with all the same programs. You didn’t have to give up anything from a PC. You got a lot of portability, using the same laptop in multiple rooms of your house, or other places like your lab or office. Or even taking it with you when traveling. Your data and tools were always with you. And you didn’t give up anything for this.

The hardware was powerful enough that you could use a laptop as your primary computer, and once you did, you didn’t go back to a desktop.

Broadband

It was one thing to hear about broadband, but another to experience it in the mid 2000s. Pages would load instantly. I could open multiple pages at once without everything grinding to a halt. I could see full-sized images, rather than tiny, grainy ones. A whole new world opened up. While a 33 kbps modem let me look at this world only through a peephole, broadband opened a window to it. The notion of connecting when needed, downloading what you want, and disconnecting gave way to being always connected.

Firefox

When I first used Mozilla Firebird, as it was initially called, it was at 0.7, but already much faster than IE, to the point where pages loaded instantly. I never even realised till then that that’s possible.

With tabs, you could open and read multiple web pages at once. Tabs are common today, but they were a UI revolution when they appeared. Unlike windows, which tended to get lost, tabs were always neatly organised. Rather than digging out a window and switching to it only to find that it hadn’t loaded, and then having to find where your previous window went, with tabs, you could see the status of a background tab via a spinner right in the tab, without even switching to it.

Firefox could handle more pages at once without bogging down than IE. Firefox was such an amazing browser that, after using it for 5 minutes, you had no reason to go back to IE. Or the pre-Firefox Mozilla browser.

Gmail

Before Gmail, I had 4 MB storage in Yahoo Mail. If Gmail offered 50 MB, that would have been amazing. But Gmail offered 1 GB. This was so beyond what was expected that nobody knew if it was an April Fools joke, since it was announced on April 1. But as the weeks wore on, Gmail turned out to be real. The space was effectively infinite — I never had to worry about running out of space again. That was the first time that the progress of technology had changed the hitherto universal reality that storage is always limited — in floppies, hard disks, pen drives, everywhere.

In the future, that would change — I’d eventually have 2 TB of storage on Google Drive, 1 TB on Dropbox, 2 TB in my desktop, a 512 GB SSD in my laptop, and 5 TB in an external hard disk. I now have a 200 mbps Internet connection, which is more bandwidth than I know what to do with. The computer I’m writing this on has 32 GB memory. And CPUs have been so fast for years that things never slow down for that reason, either. So, in today’s world, storage, Internet speed, memory and CPU speed are all more than anyone needs. The hardware limits of tech have disappeared. But in 2004, none of that had played out yet. We were still living in an age of poverty. And Gmail was the first step of this change. Google decreed that from 2004, email will no longer be limited. A new milestone had been reached. The days of deleting email to make space were gone forever.

Unlimited storage introduced the notion of archiving: till then, read emails accumulated in the inbox, adding clutter. That wasn’t much of a problem with Yahoo’s meagre 4MB space — you couldn’t have too many mails in your inbox! But with Gmail’s 1GB, you could have a lot of clutter. If you wanted to clean up your inbox, Yahoo made you delete emails, but if you did that, you lost the information forever. Gmail introduced the notion of archiving mails, to mark that you’re done with them, making your inbox work as a to-do list, while still saving everything in your Archive in case you need them later.

Then there was search, which let me find what I want immediately, rather having to manually file things in folders. Search is better because you can’t possibly create folders ahead of time for everything you may want to look for at some time in the future, because there are multiple ways of looking up something. For example, if I have photos from my vacation to Goa, should I file it under photos? Vacation? Goa? Office trip? Trying to organise things works in only some cases. Search is a superior solution. And Gmail’s search required advanced technology like full-text indices to search a gigabyte of data instantly. Unlike, say, Windows search, which was slower to search less data.

When I used Gmail, I noticed for the first time that clicking a link, like Inbox in the left navigation, didn’t cause the whole page to reload. The navigation and UI of Gmail remained in place and only the content reloaded. This was the first time I’d seen that on a web page. It was much faster and felt app-like. I didn’t even know that was possible on the web. Gmail was, for me, the first thing that felt like a web app rather than a web site. I then realised what the Yahoo folks were trying to do with their headers, but because the header didn’t stay in place, it didn’t feel like a header. It felt like a colored bar at the top. The whole design fell through.

Gmail was seminal in many ways: unlimited storage, archiving, search and web apps [5].

Google Maps

Online maps were amazing. There was nothing like seeing the map of the city I grew up in for the first time, and noticing how different it is from the mental map I had where all roads were either east-west or north-south, not angled or curved. Google Maps was an endless canvas — I could keep panning and more and more of the map magically appeared. I could keep moving, and the world never came to an end. Till then, I’d seen only paper maps, where a piece of paper held only a small amount of information. Google Maps was an infinite sheet of paper. And a paper I could zoom into or out of, all the way from the world to my house. Google Maps was magical. Only rarely do people overcome the limitations of an old medium so well. I’d spend hours and hours playing with maps.

File Sharing

When I was growing up, music cassettes cost an unaffordable ₹125, to say nothing of ₹500 for a CD. Likewise films. But file sharing made it all free. In IIT, we used DC++, and had access to an unimaginable number of movies, TV serials, music, music videos and more, each of which used to cost a fortune. The data was at least 50 TB, in an age where my computer had a 120GB hard disk. The IIT network was like the Internet to me! My computer had a fast 100mbps connection, unimaginably fast compared to the 512 kbps or so broadband speeds I could get otherwise.

File sharing had a lot of advantages: I could download something faster than going to the shop and buying a physical copy. If it was not enjoyable, I didn’t feel bad that the limited amount of money I had was wasted. Tricks the media companies played on us, like splitting good songs into multiple albums to get us to buy more, no longer worked. The content was download to my PC, rather than having to juggle physical disks. I could easily reshare them.

File sharing was too good to be true. For years, I was concerned I’ll be arrested for doing something so wrong, like I would be if I robbed a music shop.

Blogging

Before blogs, only professionals had access to mass media like newspapers or TV. The rest of us common people could communicate only privately with one person at a time, such as via post or phone. Blogs, for the first time, democratised access to mass communication, letting any of us reach the world. Blogger’s slogan, Push-Button Publishing, was inspiring. In my IIT days, I was talking to a couple of friends from another department (not CS), and they were telling me they read something my blog. I asked, “Which one? I have three.” They were impressed.

Mac OS X

The first time I used a Mac was when I joined Google in 2007. They gave me a high-end Macbook Pro, 15-inch, running OS X Tiger. It was beautiful, not merely functional, as Windows XP was. Even the Mac installer was more beautiful than the core Windows XP operating system [6]. There weren’t hundreds of unnecessary settings. It was very responsive. Safari was better than IE. Mac software was far more polished. The Mac reached a standard of quality I wasn’t even aware existed. It was software and art, at the same time.

HD Video

The first time I paused a HD video, I found it to be as clear and crisp as a photo. I thought I had downloaded a photo, and checked which app was active. It was a video player, not an image viewer. I wondered if I was still being tricked somehow. Until then, videos had lower resolution. VCR and Video CDs were blurry and blocky. DVD was noticeably better, but still far from lifelike.

Later, I realised that the 1920 x 1080 video resolution was more than that of the 1440 x 900 screen I was watching it on. This was new. Earlier, video resolution was much less than screen resolution. For example, DVDs were only 720 x 576. That was accepted as the way videos worked, but HD video changed something that was true for decades [7].

Wifi

I got Wifi in 2007. Soon after, as I was browsing the web, something seemed wrong. When I stopped and thought about what was wrong, I realised that it was that I was online without an Ethernet cable plugged in. To my mind, it seemed as wrong as a fridge that was working despite not being plugged in. That’s what happens when something that was the case for years — you need to plug in a cable to go online — changes.

Chrome

I first used Chrome internally at Google, and I was amazed by its speed, just as many years back, I was amazed by how fast and responsive Firefox was. Chrome would never crash even if a tab crashed, thanks to its multiprocess architecture. This was advanced technology that so far existed only in OSs. Even Windows 98, which I used a decade back, didn’t have it. Firefox had layers and layers of UI, like the window title bar, then address bar, then tab bar, then bookmarks. By contrast, Chrome’s UI was minimalist and put the focus on the web sites. Chrome automatically updated itself. Chrome was a huge step ahead for browsers.

Chrome was intially available only on Windows, so when I went back to the Mac, the overall experience was an upgrade, except for the browser, which is a critical app. Firefox was frustratingly worse. It was like trying to run through waist-deep water.

iPhone

The iPhone 3GS was the first iPhone I used. Compared to non-smart phones, it had a huge, high-resolution screen. Instead of a physical keypad, it had an onscreen keyboard, and typing on the screen was a revolutionary idea. The entire UI was driven by touch, which was very accurate and responsive. For the first time, you could touch an app. It gave a sense of immediacy that you could never get via an indirection like the mouse, where you moved a physical object, and an on-screen pointer, which is a proxy for your hand, moved. When you touched the iPhone, it responded with unimaginably smooth animations, at 60 frames a second. Even computers didn’t have such a smooth UI. Many of the screens looked so beautiful by themselves that I had trouble considering them as merely UI.

The iPhone had a browser that could display desktop sites. Unlike earlier phones that came with a fixed set of apps, the iPhone could be extended by downloading more, like a computer. And these apps were highly polished, distilled versions of their desktop counterparts, which there clunky in comparison. All this was underpinned by a top-notch operating system — Mac OS X. Such a powerful OS had never been used before on a phone. At the same time, a lot of the complexity of the PC — shutting down background apps, managing the filesystem, installing and uninstalling apps, manually saving data — was left behind.

The iPhone performed the role of many devices: portable music player, calendar, compass, watch, camera, video camera and torch.

The iPhone was one of the high points of tech.

Google Docs and Sheets

The first time I edited a document in the browser, it was a mind-bending experience. I no longer had to buy a costly program, install it, keep updating it, or get locked into one version. My data was always available, rather than locked to one computer. I could share it with others, and they and I could edit at the same time! I no longer had to save — all my changes were autosaved. I could even restore earlier versions! Unlike Microsoft Word and Excel, which were overly complex, Google Docs and Sheets had the right level of complexity. They had everything I needed, and none of what I didn’t, with an intuitive, streamlined UI. Microsoft Office was a dinosaur.

Google Docs did so much right that it’s impossible to overstate its impact.

Dropbox

Before Dropbox, folders lived on one computer. To store your data in the cloud, you accessed it via a browser, and used a different app like Google Docs. These were two different worlds. But Dropbox, for the first time, gave me a folder that lived on the computer and the cloud, at the same time. After all, all of us had legacy files. Not all data lived in cloud-first apps like Google Docs. Dropbox provided a solution for the world as it was. It let me use PC programs and still get the benefit of the cloud. And everything worked offline, unlike cloud-first apps like Google Docs. And since sync happened in the background, a slow or flaky Internet connection never came in your way. Dropbox was the best of both worlds.

One way to quantify the value of a service is by how much you paid for it, and I used to pay $100 a year, more than any other service before or after, that too for just 100 GB.

VR

The first, and only, VR I used, Google Daydream, literally made me feel I’m in another world, rather than looking at it on a flat, rectangular screen. The resolution is low, but it’s still out of the world [8].


[1] I don’t consider Windows 3.1 to be the first GUI operating system, since DOS was the real operating system underneath Windows. The computer booted into DOS, not Windows. And you could Exit Windows, like exiting a program. You did this because you still had DOS programs, and it was better to exit windows to run them. So, Windows 3.1 was a halfway measure. The first real GUI operating system was Windows 95.

[2] This trend that continued for years, as more and more physical objects were replaced by software — clocks, cameras, video cameras, music systems, walkmans, torches, compasses…

[3] Web developers from the late aughts dislike IE 6, because it had stagnated for many years and became a pain for frontend engineers. But I wasn’t a web developer, and mostly used IE 6 during its glory days, so I have only fond memories for it.

[4] Windows XP was an upgrade to Windows 2000, and a good one. You didn’t want to go back to 2000 after using XP. But 2000 was a bigger upgrade over Windows 98.

[5] Unfortunately, email is dead today, replaced by messaging, both for personal (WhatsApp) and work (Slack) communication. You’ll be missed, old friend.

[6] Now, Windows 10 is as responsive, fast, stable, intuitive and usable as macOS. On the other hand, the Mac has declined due to a lack of upgradeability, a war on ports, a walled garden, bad software quality, defective keyboards and more.

[7] UltraHD was a smaller improvement over HD than HD was over SD. Once you reach a certain quality, further improvements have diminishing returns.

[8] I don’t agree with the conventional wisdom that VR has failed in the mass market. It’s so out of the world that it can’t — imagine watching sports while you’re in the field. Or a VR movie where you’re in the movie. Or a documentary with dinosaurs walking around you. Or games. So many things can be done better with VR that I believe it has a big medium- to long-term potential.

I think VR is in the same phase as phones with apps were before the iPhone came along. It still needs time to figure itself out.