The history of technology in April contains the foundations of companies and services that still dominate the industry’s landscape. From the beginnings of Apple and Microsoft to the launch of Gmail and the iTunes Store, this month stands out as the time to start a world-changing enterprise. Read on for all the details.
The world’s most valuable company had its humble beginnings in a Steve Jobs family’s garage in Los Altos, California. It was there that Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne signed a business partnership to market Wozniak’s recently-developed Apple I computer. Wayne left the company 12 days later after designing the original Apple logo and writing the manual for the Apple I.
With no start-up capital, the two Steve’s resorted to selling their personal property to raise the necessary funds to build their computers. Jobs parted with his Volkswagen Type 2 minibus, and Wozniak sold his HP-65 programmable calculator, netting them less than $1,000 to start their venture.
Their sacrifice paid off. By the end of summer 1976, the Apple I sold around 200 units at a local computer store chain called “The Byte Shop.” From there, Apple’s story would see dramatic successes and failures. And ultimately change the world several times.
In 2001, Google tasked software engineer Paul Buchheit with building a web-based email service to compete with Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail. Buchheit developed the first version of Gmail in one day by recycling code from Google Groups. Over the course of three years, Buchheit’s team expanded to about a dozen developers, and the product was tested in real-time by Google employees.
When Google announced the launch of Gmail on April 1, 2004, many thought it was a joke. Not only because of the April Fools Day timing of the press release but also because the service seemed too good to be true. Gmail promised highly improved email search, threaded conversations, and a whopping 1GB storage capacity for each user. But it all turned out to be true, and Gmail was an instant success.
Today, with over 1.8 billion active users, Gmail is the most-used email service worldwide. It’s also the most popular personal email service in the United States and the United Kingdom, where around 44% and 67% of people have a Gmail account, respectively.
Founded as Mosaic Communications Corporation, Netscape is primarily remembered for its browser application that dominated the internet in the early days of the World Wide Web. The company released Netscape Navigator on October 13, 1994. And by the end of the year, it had captured the majority of the internet browser market share. This sensation led to a stunningly successful IPO for the company the following year.
Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Netscape was locked in a bitter war with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer for dominance as the top web browser. A war in which Netscape was at a distinct disadvantage since Microsoft could afford to make Internet Explorer free of charge. Netscape ultimately lost the top spot. The company was acquired by America Online in November 1998.
Despite AOL’s best attempts to revive the browser, subsequent versions of the software failed to recapture the market share it had enjoyed in the mid-90s. On March 1, 2008, the company officially retired the brand.
Today, everyone knows Microsoft as the distributor of the Windows operating system, Microsoft Office and Xbox. But it wasn’t a decade after its founding that the company started launching its most iconic products. The origins of Microsoft can be traced back to when computer programmer Paul Allen spotted the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics while walking through Harvard Square in Boston.
The magazine featured a demonstration of the world’s first microcomputer, the Altair 8800. Allen bought the issue and took it to his high school friend, Bill Gates, who was attending Harvard College nearby. Allen suggested that he and Gates develop an interpreter of the BASIC programming language for the product.
Gates contacted Altair’s manufacturer, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), and set up a meeting. Since the pair didn’t actually have anything to show MITS, they spent the eight weeks before the meeting creating a BASIC interpreter for the Altair 8800. The gambit paid off and Gates and Allen formed Microsoft (originally Micro-Soft) out of necessity when MITS awarded them the contract.
Microsoft had been in the graphical user interface business for seven years before launching Windows 3.1. However, previous iterations of the operating environment were plagued by bugs, user complaints, low sales figures, and even a historic lawsuit filed by Apple. But that all changed when Windows 3.0 arrived on the scene. The third generation was a commercial and critical success. Microsoft had learned the lessons of the 80s and incorporated their signature product into new PCs for the first time in the form of Windows 3.1.
Windows 3.0 introduced several elements that would come to define the software for decades to come. Namely File Manager, Program Manager, native screensavers, and built-in games like Solitaire and Reversi (later replaced by Minesweeper). Windows 3.1 kept all these tools and enhanced stability by requiring at least an Intel 286 processor and 1MB of RAM to run the software. 3.1 also saw the introduction of TrueType fonts, including Arial, Courier New, and Times New Roman – all of which are still in use today. Additionally, 3.1 saw improved support for multimedia, workgroup networking, and desktop publishing.
Windows 3.1 was a watershed moment for Microsoft. It reached more people than any previous iteration of the software and set the stage for Windows to cast off its DOS shell beginnings and become an operating system in its own right three years later with Windows 95.
When Sony announced Betamax in 1975, there was already competition in the nascent VCR market. Namely, the U-matic and the Philips N1500. But, Betamax’s superior audio/video quality and user-friendly nature quickly made it the top format for home entertainment.
That all changed when JVC introduced VHS a year later, sparking a decade-long format war. While Betamax had picture quality on its side, it was more expensive than VHS and had a substantially shorter recording time. VHS was also a more open format, leading to adoption by several critical industries. By the end of the 1980s, VHS was the clear winner of the format war.
However, Betamax’s loss to VHS didn’t mean the death of the format. It retained a devoted following of videophiles that appreciated the premium picture and never parted with their library of tapes. Sony didn’t stop selling Betamax cassettes until 2016.
Nintendo developed the Game Boy in the late 1980s following the success of the Nintendo Entertainment System. It wasn’t Nintendo’s first attempt at a mobile gaming system. In 1980, the company released the Game & Watch series. These were hand-held versions of individual games like Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., and Zelda. The Game Boy was an innovation because it incorporated the NES’s cartridge-based system, allowing users to play multiple games on one mobile console.
Within two weeks of release in Japan, the Game Boy sold out its entire initial stock of 300,000 units. And Nintendo sold over a million units when it released the mobile gaming console in North America later that year. The success of the Game Boy was a cultural touchstone of the 1990s, and it (alongside its successor, the Game Boy Color) remains the third highest-selling game console of all time.
When Apple launched the iTunes Music Store in 2003, it revolutionized how the world bought and listened to music. Up to that point, music fans could only buy songs and albums on physical media like CDs, tapes, and vinyl records. And these purchases were almost entirely limited to brick-and-mortar stores. However, peer-to-peer file-sharing services like Napster introduced the world to the possibility of downloading whatever music they wanted straight from the internet in an instant. When the flagship of music piracy sank in June 2002, Steve Jobs and Apple were already working on a legal replacement.
Jobs approached Warner Music, Universal Music Group, and Sony Music to sell their music for 99 cents a song and ten dollars for a full album. With their sales devastated by illegal file-sharing, the music labels were eager to staunch the bleeding and struck a deal with Jobs. The iTunes Music Store breathed new life into the dying music business and swelled Apple’s bottom line. Within a week of release, iTunes sold over a million songs and became the top music retailer in the United States in just five years.