20 years of digital evolution

We round up some of the trends that have changed the web over the past two decades and moulded digital as we know it.

Tami Iseli

By Tami Iseli, 10 minute read

While the world bunkered down for the Digital Armageddon of Y2K, a small group of young tech entrepreneurs was just getting started – literally. Australian digital agency Luminary officially launched under the name of ‘Get Started’ on 1 July 1999. The company started out with a dial-up modem, running at a paltry 14.4 Kbps. (To put that into perspective, a 14.4 Kbps modem would take around 10 minutes to load the average web page of today.) 

Things have obviously changed a little since then, so we thought we’d take the opportunity as we reflect on our 20-year history to also reflect on how digital has changed over the past couple of decades. 

But first, let’s take a look at the landscape that existed when we began.

The lay of the land 

In 1999, only 22% of Australians had internet access. The mode of connection was dial-up; the first consumer broadband service wasn’t made available in Australia until the following year. Amazon, eBay and Yahoo! had been around for less than five years, and Google and PayPal were celebrating their first birthdays. The world was yet to meet Wikipedia (launched in 2001) and ‘social media’ meant sharing sections of the newspaper over Sunday brunch. Friendster – arguably the original social network – was still a good three years away, while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was two years off graduating from high school. It’d be more than five years before the first video would be posted to YouTube – an 18-second clip titled ‘Me at the zoo’ by one of the platform’s co-founders. 

There were just over three million websites – less than 0.2 percent of today’s grand tally of more than 1.6 billion. Among the highlights, according to 1999’s Rough Guide to The Internet, was a site called ‘Driveways of the Rich & Famous’. 

Archived screenshot from Driveways of the Rich and Famous

Microsoft's Internet Explorer reigned supreme in the Web Browser Wars, having recently bumped Netscape Navigator off the perch. Nokia was the king of mobile phones – though most people didn’t even have one at that point – and the smartphone revolution was still nearly a decade away.

Total number of websites - bar graph

*Source: Internet Live Stats 
(If you want to know exactly how many websites are online right now, check out this very cool real-time counter).

Moving on from the static brochure site

The sites that populated the web in the late 90s were basically ‘read-only’. Back then, the internet was a one-to-many medium, with websites pushing information out to users and no real scope for interactivity with the user. 

This all changed with the advent of social media in the early 2000s. This era, which became known as ‘Web 2.0’, was all about connecting people and empowering them to contribute content themselves. At the same time, content management systems like WordPress were starting to emerge, making it much easier for the average Jo to create their own site. 

The third generation of the web, which we’ve started to see to emerge over the last few years, is underpinned by artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as the internet of things (IoT). These developments have given rise to hyper-personalisation (though this has been tempered in more recent times by the GDPR and concerns around privacy) and concepts such as the headless CMS – where the web is just one of a set of interconnected devices.

A visual coming of age 

Happening in parallel to the shifting functionality of the web, was a huge aesthetic overhaul. In the early 90s, web designers had little more to play with than basic HTML. This, along with the glacially slow pace of dial-up internet, was extremely limiting in terms of design. HTML was basically created to handle text alone. As a result, these early websites tended to be extremely text-heavy, with graphics few and far between. By the mid 90s, web designers had found a (somewhat awkward) workaround to the limitations of HTML by using tables and frames to arrange text and graphics. However, the process was convoluted and the result less than ideal.

Apple website screenshot 1997

 A sterling example of late 90s table-based design from Apple. 

The Flash era

When Flash arrived in the late 90s, it was hailed as the Holy Grail of web design. Flash enabled designers to inject features like music, video and animation into websites, making for a far more dynamic experience. But despite forging the web into new creative frontiers, Flash’s reign was fleeting. It required constant plugin updates, had a propensity to lead to web bloat, and left users vulnerable to malware attacks. When Apple decided not to support it with the release of the iPhone in 2007, the death knell for Flash had tolled. 

The birth of CSS

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) allowed for complete control over the style and layout of elements on a web page. For example, you could change the fonts, sizes and colours of headings and paragraphs of text, but also lay the page out in multiple columns, control margins, apply background colours or images, and more. This brought web pages more into line with print publishing. CSS meant you could change the look of an entire site using a single set of style rules, without having to touch the content. 

The rise of JavaScript

JavaScript had been used for providing basic interactivity in web pages since the 90s, such as ‘hover’ or ‘rollover’ effects (images that change when you move your mouse over them), or displaying a pop-up message on a page. As JavaScript and the support for it in browsers became more advanced, this led to more fully-featured applications being built within the browser, without the need to load a new page. Along with HTML and CSS, JavaScript completes the trifecta of core technologies used throughout the web of today. 

HTML5

Often actually referring to the combination of HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript (also affectionately termed ‘HTML5 and friends’), the final step in the web’s maturity came with broad browser support of the full power of these technologies. HTML5 (and friends) allowed browsers to provide functionality previously limited to installed applications or browser plugins, such as webcam and microphone access, inline video and audio, geographic location, accelerated 3D graphics, and much more. This meant that full-featured applications could be built purely within a browser, with no software installation required. This, in turn, has led to the development of Progressive Web Apps, which can work offline, send push notifications, and generally blur the line between website and apps.

Screencast of PGH Visualiser Tool by Luminary

This product visualiser, built by Luminary using HTML5, enables PGH Bricks' clients to create a vision of their dream home to bring it to life. Read the case study.

Emergence of the mobile web

Although smartphones had been around in various forms since the early nineties, Steve Jobs’ unveiling of the Apple iPhone at Macworld 2007 hailed the true beginning of the smartphone revolution. Earlier ‘smart’ phones could only navigate a watered-down version of the internet. The iPhone’s large touchscreen could browse through websites almost like a desktop computer. The mobile web had officially arrived.

By 2013, the percentage of the Australian population using a smartphone had tipped over to more than half (53.2%). Not surprisingly, the proliferation of smartphones fundamentally changed the way websites were built. First, there was the wave of separate mobile sites to complement desktop sites. Then came ‘responsive’ design with set breakpoints. And finally, fully responsive design, where the display of a site adapts to an infinite variety of devices. Responsive design very quickly became the norm.

The other key impact of the rapid uptake of smartphones has been the explosion in mobile apps – so much so that by 2010 the phrase “there’s an app for that” had become indelibly seared into the common vernacular.

Evolution of the mobile phone

Up until the smartphone revolution hit in the mid 2000s, it was a desperate race to create the smallest mobile phone possible. 

Cashing in on e-commerce

E-commerce was around in the late 90s, but it was yet to really take off. One of the first known online purchases took place in 1994 through Pizza Hut’s ‘electronic storefront’, PizzaNet. It was an order for a large pepperoni and mushroom pizza, with extra cheese. The following year, the first sales took place on ‘AuctionWeb’ — or as we now know it, eBay. They included a broken laser pointer (for US$14.83), autographed Marky Mark underwear ($400) and a Superman lunchbox ($22). By the end of 1997, Dell became the first company to announce a single-day sales record of $1 million online. 

Since then, e-commerce has experienced steady growth, with the spread of broadband and the rise of more secure payment platforms such as PayPal being key drivers. 

In 2018, Australians spent a total of A$28.6 billion on online shopping. By the end of 2019, it’s predicted that the number of Australian online shoppers will reach 20.3 million. That’s more than our entire population as it stood in 1999. Worldwide, e-commerce is expected to become the largest retail channel by 2021.

Growth areas for e-commerce in the coming years will include mobile and social commerce, as well as online product visualisers underpinned by virtual and augmented reality to showcase products in real-life situations.

The Cloud takes over

As our CTO, Andy Thompson points out, when we started in 1999 “The Cloud was where The Rain came from and was generally not compatible with computers”. Fast forward to today and Cloud services underpin just about everything we do, from Google docs to hosting and site deployment.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, we had individual computers running websites. Our servers had names like Cascade and Boags – collectively, they became known as ‘The Brewery’. And we were responsible for keeping them alive. Site deployment was a matter of manually uploading a bunch of files and then crossing your fingers (for a long time) in the hope that the whole thing wouldn’t crash. With the Cloud, all of this is automated – and much more reliable.

Cloud hosting not only brought better efficiency, but also better control, security and scalability, allowing infrastructure to be scaled up or down to deal with fluctuations in site traffic (e.g. at crazy bargain sale time). 

What’s next?

Over the past 20 years, digital has evolved from static ‘information dump’ websites to fully immersive, omnichannel experiences. As the Internet of Things expands – and our devices get even faster, smaller and more powerful – our interactivity with digital will deepen even further. Technologies like AI, machine learning, voice, and augmented and virtual reality will play a bigger role, leading to an essentially frictionless human relationship with technology. 

We can’t predict exactly what that will look like, but what we can predict with a fair degree of certainty is that at least some of the tech we rate as ‘cutting edge’ today, will provide good comedy fodder for the next generation in another 20 years’ time!

Products we waved goodbye to 👋

These are some of the tech items that have become obsolete since 1999. 

The fax machine  - The fax was basically an electronically transmitted telegram. Recipients would stand by the fax machine waiting for a document to burst forth from their machine. Then email happened.

The dumb phone – There was a time not so long ago when all mobile phones could do was make and take calls, send text messages and play Snake. And their batteries would last for days without charging.

Photo film – The kids of today will never know the thrill of trotting down to the pharmacy and opening that little paper envelope full of ‘surprise’ photos. If you were prepared to pay a premium, you could narrow the window of suspense down to an hour.

The VHS tape –  If you were a child of the 80s or 90s, you probably watched re-runs of Funniest Home Videos on VHS (until your sibling accidentally taped over it). The VHS tape was the standard for video until it was dethroned by the DVD in the mid 2000s.

The dot matrix printer –  The dot matrix printer – with its trademark perforated page reams – was pretty much phased out by the inkjet by 1999 but we couldn’t resist giving it a mention to share this little gem from YouTube of a dot matrix in action.

The floppy disk – Before the Cloud and USB drives, there were floppy disks. Each one could hold up to 1.44MB of data (so you needed a lot of them). Today they live on in the form of the ubiquitous ‘save’ icon. 💾

The dial-up modem – Connecting to the internet used to require a phone line, which you would plug into your computer. Establishing a connection took about half a minute and sounded like this. And if someone in your house picked up the (landline) phone while you were connected, you had to do it all over again… 🙄 


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