1995: The Year Everything Changed

Why everything from Amazon and eBay to Windows 95 and the PalmPilot came along in one memorable, wildly innovative 12-month period.

On November 6, 1995, the first issue of Fast Company debuted. Its founders, Alan Webber and Bill Taylor, were former Harvard Business Review editors who had been working on the idea for a while: in fact, they’d produced a prototype version in 1993. With funding from media tycoon Mortimer Zuckerman, they began regular publication with a cover that famously declared that business is personal, computing is social, and knowledge is power. The mantra was so prescient that it still captures our perspective two decades later.

The magazine chronicled the Internet from the start–the cover story of the first issue explained, perhaps a tad prematurely, “How Netscape Won.” And as Webber, Taylor, and crew were getting going in Boston–the magazine later relocated to New York City–people all over the U.S. were exploring the Net’s potential to transform communications, commerce, and a whole lot more.

First issue of Fast Company

Consider the following moments, all of which transpired during 1995:

In March, a San Francisco Bay Area software engineer wanted to use email to spread the word about local events to his friends. His name was Craig, he created a list, and…well, you get the idea.

A month later, a San Francisco startup called Electric Classifieds launched a dating service. It cost $9.95 a month, offered useful features such as the ability to submit a photo of yourself via fax, and was known as Match.com.

In July, after a few months of beta testing, an online merchant headquartered in offices over a Color Tile dealership in Seattle went online. Founded by a former vice president at a Wall Street hedge fund, it specialized in books and–inspired by the world’s largest river–called itself Amazon.com.

Two months after that, a programmer at famous-but-ill-fated Silicon Valley startup General Magic whipped up software to allow people to auction off items to each other. Originally named AuctionWeb, it was part of his personal site, which also offered information about the ebola virus: eBay.com.

You get the idea? In 1994, the web had been around for three years, but was still the province of early-adopter types. (Yahoo, for instance, was still a college side project, not a company.) But by the end of 1995, it was recognizable as a rough draft of the mass-market medium we know today, and some of the most important sites of 2015 were on their way to changing the world.

Yahoo homepage in 1995Photo: courtesy of Yahoo

And though the arrival of the consumer web was the single most important technological development of 1995, it had plenty of company. You can name other epoch-shifting years in tech history: I’m fond of 1977, when the Apple II, Commodore PET, and Radio Shack TRS-80 introduced the concept of plug-and-play personal computers. But from the PalmPilot to Windows 95, 1995 was a year of landmark products like no other.

Timing is Everything

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why 1995 had so much impact. It wasn’t because the year marked the dawn of anything. Instead, several trends which had been emerging for years coalesced into an ideal environment for the introduction of useful new ideas.

For one thing, the PC itself was finally on its way to becoming an everyday reality. In 1990, according to a Times Mirror Center survey, only 42% of Americans used a PC at home or at work. By the time the same organization asked the same question in 1995, a majority of respondents–54%–were PC users, and 36% of households had a computer.

In 1990, Microsoft released Windows 3.0, arguably the most important version of the software ever, from the standpoint of improving on what came before. It was enormously successful but didn’t have any particular impact on the national psyche. Just five years later, PCs mattered far more, and Windows 95’s debut was treated like a major news event, akin to the iPhone launches of more than a decade later. The New York Times, reporting from a midnight sale of the the software at a CompUSA store, hailed it as “a computer-age milestone.”

It’s important to remember, though, that the fact that PCs were a phenomenon didn’t mean that vast numbers of people were on the Internet. According to the Times Mirror Center’s 1995 survey, only 12 million Americans used online services, and in most instances, those services were proprietary walled gardens such as America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy. Just 20% of those 12 million people–or 3% of all Americans–had ever logged onto the World Wide Web.

Windows 95 didn’t even ship with a browser at first: Internet Explorer only got bundled in for free as of August 1996. But the operating system happened to arrive at almost exactly the time that significant numbers of people became curious about the newfangled, intriguingly named “World Wide Web.” Existing online services quickly figured out that they had to give their users web access–AOL, which hit one million members for the first time in 1994, launched a beta of its browser in May 1995–and startups such as Amazon and Match.com saw the potential to reach consumers, not just the scientists, academics, and computer nerds who had been the earliest web surfers.

All the innovations of 1995 fed off each other. The PalmPilot was so valuable because busy people were increasingly managing their calendars and address books on their PCs; before it came along, the most popular way to make this information portable was to print it out on dead trees. Iomega’s Zip disks mattered in part because PCs were finally getting good enough at multimedia–images, animations, audio files–to make the 1.44MB capacity of floppy disks seem puny. Java and JavaScript made the web more interactive; RealAudio used it to distribute content; AltaVista helped tame millions of sites once human-curated directories such as Yahoo were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff out there. It was a perfect storm of progress.

Durable Pioneers

Here’s another striking thing about 1995: It wasn’t just a particularly impressive year by the standards of the ones which came immediately before it, but also compared to the ones which followed. The fact that 1995’s dot-com newcomers arrived slightly ahead of the curve–before expectations for the web got out of hand–helped them in the long run.

Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, and Match.com all started small–remarkably small in the case of Craigslist, whose initial target audience consisted of Craig Newmark’s friends. Their humble origins are radically different from those of the high-profile web startups that sprung up between 1996 and 1998. Pets.com, Kozmo, and WebVan, for instance, are most famous for raising a lot of money, burning through it, and then failing in spectacular fashion.

The most significant new companies of 1995 didn’t lack for ambition, but they were prudently managed in a way that became less common as venture-capital funds became more readily available. That’s why they they didn’t get wiped out when the original dot-com bubble burst. Fast forward to late 2015, and Amazon is one of the most important companies in the world, while the likes of Flooz come up as punchlines, if at all.

Most of the actual accomplishments of 1995 look quaint in retrospect: It was a meaningful feat when Amazon made its first sale, a hardcover copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies. But the lessons behind them are timeless, and still under-appreciated. Even in the age of unicorns, we could use more years like it.

Related: Most Innovative Year: The Tech Giants of 1995 Versus The Social Movements of 2013

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.



More Stories