Let's just admit it. Back in the mid-1990s, most of us who were alive at the time hardly knew what the Internet was. Oh, there were exceptions, but for most Americans, it was limited. Maybe we used email for work; maybe we had pay-by-the-hour dial-up service with AOL at home. Maybe we read in dead-tree media about this weird network of computers that would change our lives. It all still seemed like the future. Heck, until September 1995, you could still register domain names for free.
That's the environment in which Jeff Bezos launched Amazon, 20 years ago today, after giving up a lucrative Wall Street job and heading to Washington State. No matter what you think of his company and how it changed the world, it took a special kind of vision to be able to see what the world would look like in the future, back when most people were still rooted in a 20th-century, analog mindset. Here are 10 observations about the mid-1990s that will put it further in perspective.
1. On a timeline, Amazon's debut was closer in time to the Pet Rock than it is to the present day.
Yes, the mid-1990s seem like quite a while ago, but I have to admit this little thought exercise blew me away. The Pet Rock (whose inventor I consider the greatest entrepreneur of all time) made its debut in October 1975-in other words, 19 years and nine months before the launch of Amazon, which is now 20 years old.
2. When you won an auction on eBay, you had to mail a check.
Technically, eBay didn't launch until September 1995, but set that aside. There were no fast, secure ways to send money over the Internet at the time. So when buyers won auctions, they literally had to write a paper check, mail it to the seller, then wait for the check to clear before they got their stuff.
3. Not only was there no Google, there was barely a Yahoo.
Yahoo had launched the year before, but it had only recently shed its original name, Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web. Granted, that sounds like a joke now, but it's legitimate. The site was a hierarchical list of websites, as opposed to a search engine.
4. A webcam photo of a coffeepot was still a big draw.
I had an internship around this time in the (tiny) computer-assisted litigation department of a major company. I remember a colleague who was considered the most tech-savvy among us predicting that the Internet would be remembered as a fad on which nobody was ever able to find useful information. Exhibit No. 1 was this website dedicated to hosting a 24-hour-a-day image of a coffee machine in an office in England.
6. MTV's website was owned by a former employee.
In 1993, MTV reportedly had little interest in the Internet. So one of its VJs (this was back when MTV actually played music videos) asked for permission to create a website on his own using the mtv.com domain. Around the time Bezos launched Amazon, MTV was still suing its former employee, trying to get its domain name back.
7. Big-time spam was about a year old.
There had been smaller incidents before, but around the time Bezos was setting up shop in Washington State, two Arizona lawyers had come up with an innovative idea: sending unsolicited messages to thousands of Usenet groups, advertising their services in helping clients with the "green card lottery." By 1995, they'd been written up in The New York Times, and they had just authored a book together titled How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway.
8. One of the world's top news websites had been built for $120.
The website for the British magazine The Economist had been launched by one of the magazine's correspondents, with the budget coming out of his own pocket. His motivation: embarrassment in admitting to other tech aficionados that his magazine had no online presence. Still, by the end of 1994, America Online named it one of the world's 10 best news sites.
9. Politicians had just joined the party.
The White House's website had gone online just the previous year. I won't even spoil it for you except to say it looks like something a modern-day fourth grader would be mortified to create; you should check it out. Meanwhile, the 1996 Clinton and Dole campaigns were the first to have websites; they're still archived here and here.
10. The first banner ads were pretty recent.
They were on Hotwired (described in Time magazine at the time as "the sassy online sister of [the magazine] Wired]," and they advertised things like Zima alcoholic beverages, 1-800-Collect, and Club Med. Things were so nascent that as Wired reported in 2010, the ad agency buying the ads ran into an obvious but unexpected problem: "It had to create websites for its clients, who weren't even sure that interacting online was a good idea-or that the ads were even legal."