Historic innovation highlighted 1998, the year May was named National Inventors Month
We thought we were so technologically sophisticated just a couple of decades ago, when social media meant journalists who like to have a good time.
As the world was counting down to Y2K with anticipation and angst in the late 1990s, most of us were connecting to this new-fangled internet thing via the primitive buzzing known as dial-up. Words such as “texting,” “app” and “hashtag” were still years from becoming a part of our everyday language. People weren’t shutting off the world around them just to stare or type into a tablet-sized device in their hands.
In 1998, May was designated National Inventors Month. The annual observation was started by the United Inventors Association of the USA (UIA-USA), the Academy of Applied Science and Inventors Digest, which was already 13 years old.
President Bill Clinton’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair wasn’t the only history made in 1998. Here’s a look at some high-tech invention milestones in the same year that 76.3 million people tuned in for the final episode of “Seinfeld.”
The graphical operating system by Microsoft—code-named Memphis while in development—quickly became as ubiquitous on PCs as its predecessor, Windows 95. Though Microsoft referred to Windows 98 as merely a fine-tuning of Windows 95, the upgrade marked the first time a user could use a web browser as the computer’s standard command system. “The most noticeable change is that Windows 98 blurs the distinction between information that resides on a local hard disk and information that exists on the internet,” the New York Times reported.
As part of this, Windows 98 introduced the Back and Forward navigation buttons and the address bar in Windows Explorer, among other things. It introduced Internet Explorer 4, Outlook Express, Windows Address Book and Microsoft Chat.
Windows 98 also featured automated links for getting updated Windows tools from the Microsoft website, as well as significantly reducing the time it took to load complex applications such as Adobe Photoshop. An estimated 90 percent to 95 percent of all new PCs sold by the end of 1998 came with Windows 98 installed.
Though the system brought the usual scattered complaints and challenges from users, it was largely popular. Because 27 percent of Google’s page views were on Windows 98 systems as late as October-November 2003, Microsoft maintained extended support for 98 until July 11, 2006—30 months longer than originally planned.
Windows 98 was followed by Windows 98 Second Edition in May 1999. That was succeeded by Windows ME in June 2000.
Billed as Apple’s desktop computer for the new millennium, the iMac’s many impacts have ranged from practical to economic to cultural.
The iMac’s popularity began the long-running PC/Macintosh debate: Which is better? There’s no definitive answer, of course; because the Mac runs on an OS X operating system and PCs run on Windows, they “think” differently, so the best computer is a matter of personal preference.
The $1,299 retail price that accompanied the gumdrop-shaped iMac G3’s first shipping in August 1998 established Macs as much pricier than PCs, though that gap has narrowed through the years. The iMac was the first Macintosh to be designed with the internet in mind, making it Apple’s most important consumer-market computer since the Macintosh 128K debuted in 1984.
Most significant for Apple was how the iMac turned around a company that had been reeling since the mid-1990s. Apple lost a reported $878 million in 1997 but made $414 million the following year.
The iMac helped change the way our tech-happy world communicates. The small “i” prefix started an Apple branding trend that led to countless successors—the iPod, iPhone, iChat, iLife, iSight, etc. iMac also introduced the ever-present USB port and meant the end of the floppy drive.
The initial egg-shaped 1998 iMac was quickly updated with a sleeker design that enabled the computer’s slot-loaded optical drive. Many other revisions have continued since. Apple officials recently confirmed plans for the release of newer models later this year; the site macrumors.com said in early April that these offerings will likely be geared even more toward the professional market.
The MP3 player
Determining the beginnings of the MP3 player gets a little contentious, depending on which source you find most trustworthy. But many agree that the first commercially released personal music player capable of handling MP3 files was the MPMan F10, introduced by SaeHan Information Systems in Korea in March 1998. It sold for $250 and had only 32 megabytes of memory—although for another $69, you could upgrade to 64MB. Still, that only allowed for a maximum of about 20 songs.
The Rio PMP300, introduced six months later by Diamond Multimedia, also came with just 32MB of storage. But in part because it had a larger display than the MPMan and a Smart Media slot to allow increased storage capacity, it was the first MP3 player to enjoy commercial success.
The Rio quickly ran into legal trouble. Having teamed with MP3.com to offer songs from that website, Diamond’s subsidiary company RioPort was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America, which claimed the player violated terms of the 1992 U.S. Home Recordings Act. The RIAA claimed that if people ripped CDs and turned audio tracks into digital files, it would lead to music piracy. The dispute was settled the following year.
Many mistakenly think that the iPod, launched by Apple in September 2001, was the first MP3 player to hit the market. That’s probably due to the device’s instant success. A thin white box no bigger than a deck of playing cards, the iPod held 5 gigabytes of music storage and became an iconic tech staple.
A British furniture salesman, Kane Kramer, beat everyone to the punch as far as inventing the first digital music player, when he was 23 in 1979. Apple even used his notes and sketches during a separate 2008 court case. Kramer had secured a worldwide patent for his IXL device but could not afford to renew it, so it expired in 1998.
Google is incorporated
One of the most important events in technological and economic history came in a Menlo Park, California, garage on Sept. 4, 1998. Sergey Brin, whose family escaped Russia to avoid Jewish persecution in 1979, formally incorporated the company Google Inc. with his partner, Michigan-born co-founder Larry Page. The two rented the garage from a friend for $1,700 a month, according to the book “The Story of Google” by Sara Gilbert.
Page and Brin met while attending Stanford University, where they began to collaborate on a search engine called BackRub. The name they ultimately chose for the world’s most famous search engine is the result of an accidental misspelling of the word “googol” by one of Page’s associates, although details of that account vary.
The term “googol” was coined in 1920 by 9-year-old Milton Sirotta, the nephew of U.S. mathematician Edward Kasner. In decimal notation, googol is written as the digit 1 followed by one hundred 0, or 10 to the one hundredth power. As for the events that led to the misspelling, we’ll go with the account by David Koller, based on information he got from friends and colleagues in the Gates Computer Science Building at Stanford. Koller wrote:
“Larry’s office was in room 360 of the Gates CS Building, which he shared with several other graduate students, including Sean Anderson, Tamara Munzner, and Lucas Pereira. In 1997, Larry and his officemates discussed a number of possible new names for the rapidly improving search technology. Sean recalls the final brainstorming session as occurring one day during September of that year.
“Sean and Larry were in their office, using the whiteboard, trying to think up a good name—something that related to the indexing of an immense amount of data. Sean verbally suggested the word ‘googolplex,’ and Larry responded verbally with the shortened form, ‘googol.’
“Sean was seated at his computer terminal, so he executed a search of the Internet domain name registry database to see if the newly suggested name was still available for registration and use. Sean is not an infallible speller, and he made the mistake of searching for the name spelled as ‘google.com,’ which he found to be available. Larry liked the name, and within hours he took the step of registering the name ‘google.com’ for himself and Sergey (the domain name registration record dates from September 15, 1997).”
Fate was not the only force that suggested Page and Brin had a winner. By the end of 1998, Google had an index of about 60 million pages. As of late 2015, it had indexed more than 100 billion pages with apps; now there are more than 100 billion Google searches every month.