If you received a personal computer as a holiday present in the 90’s, you would have been part of a fairly exclusive group of Americans. According to US census data, only about a third of the American population had a personal computer in 1997. Fast forward to 2000 and half the American population had a personal computer. Today, almost 87% of all households in the United States have a computer at home.

Yet that cutting-edge piece of technology in the 90’s, the personal computer, was somewhat limited in what it could do. Friends family and neighbors probably questioned your purchase! The earliest mass-marketed personal computers couldn’t play any sounds, didn’t have a way to connect to the outside world, nor could they play audio CDs or send video. If you added a dial-up modem, you would find yourself very limited by extremely slow speeds to connect and limited places to connect to.

Until the late 90’s, there was no fast connectivity until DSL and Cable broadband we introduced. However, market penetration and faster speeds didn’t come until the 2000’s with broadband and later with Wi-Fi connectivity. While the World Wide Web existed, it wasn’t until 1994, with the release of the first mass market browser, Netscape, that you likely would’ve began exploring it. While email and instant messaging and texting we used in the late 1990’s, early forms of social networking was just starting to take hold in the mid-2000’s. Fast forward a few more years and personal technology truly came alive:

1995 – Amazon and eBay
1996 – Palm Pilot Handheld Computer (though it couldn’t make phone calls or connect online services)
1998 – Google
1990 – Blackberry
1999 – Digital Cameras and DVR
2001 – Digital Music Players
2004 – Facebook
2005 – Google Maps
2006 – Twitter
2007 – iPhone and Kindle
2008 – Android and iPhone App Store
2010 – iPad

Today, the personal computer is no longer king or queen. It’s the smart phone that most consumers use to perform every sort of digital task imaginable, from watching television and playing games, to reading the news or editing documents and spreadsheets, to paying bills—and yes—staying connected with friends, family and colleagues via all forms of social media and communication specific apps.

While technology has come a long way compared to what was in use in 1994, is there anything about the tech of days gone by that today’s Netflix Generation missing out on?

  • In 1994, most of U.S. home entertainment spending was videotapes. The Netflix Generation will never know the experience of spending seemingly endless time picking out a new video with family members at the local video store or Blockbuster. They will never have to remember to rewind a VHS tape (or face a fine) before returning said video. Thanks to streaming services, they also will never have to sort through late fees on returning a videotape (or DVD) to the video store.
  • In 1994, 60% of U.S. music sales were CDs. It was in the mid-80’s when vinyl records gave way to tapes, which gave way to CDs, which then gave way to digital files. The switch to digital was defined first by mp3 collections where consumers still bought albums, but the Netflix Generation has mainly been exposed to streaming services that have done away with the concept of “owning” music or a complete album. While the Netflix Generation will never know the pain of jogging with a Sony Walkman, walk into any Urban Outfitters in any mall and you will see that vinyl is not dead. That said, receiving a playlist is nowhere near equal to getting a physical mixed tape from a crush.
  • The Netflix Generation, who can pause and replay anything they watch on a screen, will never know how to calculate how much can get done in a 2.5-minute commercial break. “Is there time for the bathroom and getting a snack before the show comes back on?” said no member of the Netflix Generation, ever.
  • While some shows, like Game of Thrones, are cloaked in secrecy with widely awaited re-launches, the Netflix Generation would be hard-pressed to understand how season cliffhangers used to dominate all television programming. They would not understand why someone who watched a favorite show in the mid-90’s might not have seen every episode, before the advent of DVR’s with no opportunity for binge-watching or hacking.

While it is always fun to take a step back and be nostalgic for a moment at the past 25 years, technological innovations continue at a blistering pace. Looking out another 25 years, we can’t even begin to image the new innovations that will occur. But I’m looking forward to it!

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