In The Eyes of 1998 (Part 1)

1998-1

Front cover of PC Magazine, June 1998

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”

That was a quote from Bill Gates’ book, “The Road Ahead”, published in 1996.

I thought it was fitting for this post, after recently coming across a feature article from  a magazine (PC Magazine) dating back to June 1998. Describing their predictions for computing in the years 2001 and 2010, let’s see what was accurate, delayed, and just didn’t happen.

In Part 1 of the series, I’ll be covering processors, home network devices, the TV PC, and digital video.

Firstly, how was computing in June 1998?

1998-2

New NEC Direction PC with Pentium II processor.

A new desktop PC at this time was along the lines of an Intel Pentium II processor or AMD/Cyrix equivalent hitting up the 400 Mhz mark, with 64 or 128 MB of SDRAM, a 4.3 GB hard disk drive or thereabouts, 4 MB AGP graphics card, and a 17 or 19″ CRT monitor. Simplified, just three years earlier it was normal to have processor speeds and memory sizes of just a quarter of that. The operating system would either be Windows 95 or NT 4.0, with Windows 98 not far behind.  If you were a Mac user instead, a Power Macintosh G3 with similar specs to the PC running MacOS 8.1 would be had. MacOS 8.5 wasn’t far away.

Internet use was reasonably common by this time, usually with a 56 Kbps modem. Laptops were slowly gaining popularity, though you’d need about $3,000 or more for anything decent. TFT LCD monitors were just introduced though given their price point, most stayed with their faithful CRTs. AGP video for improved bandwidth and speed over the PCI bus, and USB ports for easier connectivity were also new standards.

Around the home it was unlikely for you to have your own network, nor have embedded-type devices.

So let’s see with each category their “future” as specified by this feature article.


Microprocessors

Processor manufacturers typically have a road map on their upcoming product lines for the following three to five years, so it comes as no surprise that the predictions for 2001 was reasonably accurate.

Intel at the time was transitioning from the Socket 7 interface used by the original Pentiums to Slot 1 Pentium IIs. A new low-end Celeron range, known by some as the “SX” of the Pentium II referring to the days of the 386 and 486 variations, was soon to be released. This allowed PC manufacturers to use a Slot 1 motherboard across their range, replacing the Pentium MMX. AMD and Cyrix continued offering processors for the Socket 7 that were viewed as an affordable alternative.

2001 – The prediction for the year was that Intel was to release a second-gen Merced (Itanium) processor by that time. AMD’s K7 (first-gen Athlon), Intel’s Katmai (first-gen Pentium III), and Intel’s Willamette (first-gen Pentium 4) were to be in circulation by this stage.

1998-3

Projected processor road map from 1998.

VerdictFor the most part the road map was about right for consumer orientated processors, though the Merced (Itanium) processor wasn’t initially released until 2001, not 1999 as expected. The Itanium processors were at the time to be a high-end 64-bit chip for enterprise use, though never really caught on. High cost, lack of native software, and being power hungry were some of the criticisms. What was known then as the “Enhanced Willamette” had eventuated to becoming the Northwood, the second-gen Pentium 4 in 2002.


Network Computers

Network computing consisted of not just having your desktop PC or laptop connected, but also in the form of embedded or terminal-style devices in this article. The device’s firmware for instance could have the user interface and configuration settings, though the data source is located elsewhere. Such devices could include the refrigerator or TV, which at the time seemed mostly far fetched though usually referred to as smart devices or IoT (Internet of Things) now.

2001 – In the example of a refrigerator, the magazine article suggested one could potentially browse recipes and link up with food retailers. The benefits wouldn’t be realised with only a 56 Kbps analog phone line connection, though it was expected that 1 Gbps connections would be trialled by 2001 in the United States.

Verdict I suspect it was similar in the United States in 2001, though Australian households were generally still using 56 Kbps dial-up or up to 1.5 Mbps ADSL connection on their phone line. Particularly in major cities, some took up cable internet as Telstra and Optus had been actively rolling out cable in the late 1990s. Nevertheless according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, only 35% of households at the 2001 Census had internet access.

The notion of smart devices around the home was still several years away, partly due to slow or lack of internet connectivity, but also from consumer disinterest. Having an internet connected refrigerator was considered expensive and gimmicky. Consumers didn’t see the value of using the internet while taking out the milk. Now the concept and cost is more plausible, and the idea of even controlling your home security system from it is realistic.


The TV PC

The idea behind combining the TV with computing isn’t a new one. In 1998 this really meant just having some form of box connected to the TV, that would support web browsing, play DVD movies, video calls, and support digital broadcasting. Though at the time the only thing closest to this that had any success was a console gaming machine such as the Sony PlayStation or Nintendo 64.

Microsoft among others in tech believed there would be strong take up from people who’d want to use the web and e-mail in front of their TV. In 1997 Microsoft purchased for $425 million US a startup named WebTV, that offered dial-up internet on your TV. Windows 98 would also have WebTV included, for those that had a TV tuner card in their PCs. Elsewhere, Microsoft was also pushing for Windows CE to be a viable operating system for set top-boxes.

1998-4

WebTV CEO Steve Perlman at product launch in 1996. Photo credit: Mark Lennihan, Associated Press

2001 – The magazine article didn’t articulate a clear indication as to what to expect in 2001, just that there would be next to nothing in terms of product offerings in the short term. A conflict in industry standards was seen as a challenge for this segment.

VerdictIt was the year that Microsoft decided to dissolve WebTV and merge it with their MSN (the Microsoft Network) online service, becoming MSN TV, though still utilising dial-up. A new initiative was to develop a broadband ready model running Windows CE, to be launched in 2004.

WebTV/MSN TV’s uptake despite closing down years later in 2013 didn’t prove to be a hit for the majority of consumers. Using the web and handling e-mails just wasn’t what peopled wanted to do on their TVs. It also didn’t help that many web sites didn’t render correctly on such a device connected to a low resolution CRT TV.

It was a game changer in the late 2000s when devices such as Apple TV and the integration of Google’s Android into smart TVs, with their apps and streaming services, became widely accepted. We still don’t naturally turn to our TVs to search on Google, but we’re passively using the internet more than ever with them.


Digital Imaging

Digital video was still unfavourable in output quality and ease compared to producing for analog TV. Movies began to be released on DVD, a major step-up from VHS cassette tapes, though PCs required a dedicated MPEG-2 decoder card for playback. Video-editing software was primarily aimed for the professional environment, with non-intuitive user interfaces and complex features.

Having a DV camcorder that could provide near-broadcast quality was still an expensive toy. A January 1998 issue of the same magazine reviewed two entry-level DV camcorders, priced at around $3,000 US, that could record at 720 x 480 (NTSC) resolution. Only one of the two models could transfer digital video directly to a PC, with the use of a FireWire video capture card if you were to have one. Video otherwise would only be converted to VHS quality. Mid-range camcorders were priced from $4,000 US up to $12,000 US, and TV station models could be priced up to $23,000 US.

2001 – Most PCs by this time were to be capable of surpassing TV for video quality, and an entry-level system could play MPEG-2 DVDs without additional hardware. More consumer orientated video-editing software with event-themed templates, containing features on par with 1998 professional software was expected. Adobe was to release a scaled-back version of their Premiere product.

Camcorders would all be easily capable of transferring directly to a PC. USB or FireWire ports would be readily available withdrawing the need to have a capture card in order to do this. $1,000 camcorders would be able to provide near-broadcast quality.

Verdict – Most PCs provided they had an 8 MB AGP video card or greater generally had no issues with DVD playback. Windows ME and XP both provided a consumer orientated video-editor known as Windows Movie Maker, though weren’t able to create MPEG-2 video. Adobe didn’t have a simpler version of Premiere until 2004 with the first release of Premiere Elements. Apple though had iMovie 2.0 by 2001. Pinnacle Studio (by Pinnacle Systems) and VideoFactory (by Sonic Foundry) among others expanded the options available.

Camcorders did support FireWire and USB, though FireWire was the more popular option. One of the more affordable camcorders I could found from this time was priced at $1,200 US, the Sharp VL-NZ10U. Using MiniDV tapes however, the resolution was still set at 720 x 480 or 720 x 756 depending on whether it was set to NTSC or PAL, comparable to the $3,000-odd camcorders from 1998.


In Part 2, I’ll be continuing with graphics, hand-held devices, and home automation.

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