Just like the decades before it, the nineties was an era that produced notable events that would shape the world for generations to come. From the fear of computers crashing with the impending Y2K, to Bill Clinton’s scandalous behavior in the oval office, there was no shortage of exciting news leading up to the new millennium.
Perhaps the most exciting news, however, was not the anxiety of computers failing, but rather the developments that were occurring in the technological sector.
In the years leading up to 2000, companies were turning out innovative software and digital hardware products at a rapid pace. While these products would probably induce nostalgic laughter in most of us at this point, many of them were the driving force behind our technological advancements that contemporary society is all but addicted to.
With products such as Napster, AOL, and RealNetworks representing the starting point for many modern-day iterations, it is important to reflect on the influence these have on the current state of Product Management.
What is Google?
Google was not always around and that is strangely hard to imagine. Before, when people wanted to browse the vast networks of the internet, they had to rely on a different service: Netscape Navigator.
Of course, there were competitors, but Netscape was the superior browser. They were so dominant at one point that Microsoft was working tirelessly to develop a competitive alternative in order to gain market share.
Does this cyber dual sound familiar? It should! The battle for supreme internet juggernaut has not subsided in the current era. In reality, the desire to be top dog has only been increasing. Google, Bing, Yahoo, and all the other browsing services that were born from similar visions as Netscape, are jockeying for dominance in the global market.
Because of Netscape, the innovative nature of internet searching was brought into reality. Google, therefore, did not have to invent the wheel (so to speak), but instead they had to optimize it.
The Grandaddy of Instant Messaging
Before Slack, WhatsApp, or iMessaging, there was AOL. While AOL was a trailblazer in a wide variety of internet services, their instant messaging product was a groundbreaking feature that would define Product Management work for decades.
In the late nineties, the iconic dial-up service was almost synonymous with peer-to-peer online messaging. Even while they were battling competitors like Microsoft, AOL was able to define a delightful experience that customers were flocking to.
Like many businesses/products from the nineties, AOL was not able to continue its dominance in the tech industry. Despite their decline in status, their pioneering work was one of the first roadmaps for modern-day predecessors.
Of course, technology has been making huge strides in general since the days of AOL’s popularity. Still, Product Managers for AOL had similar challenges to face, and were carrying out the same work in order to bring solutions to customers.
To illustrate this more clearly, let’s take the example of AOL adjusting to a world that was moving away from desktop computers. As mobile cellphones and other mobile communication devices were increasing in popularity, AOL was faced with adapting to this changing landscape.
PMs were facing the challenge of creating a vision that matched the evolving technology. Just like in modern day product management, bringing this vision to life meant working horizontally across departments, managing stakeholders, along with a host of other tasks that PMs still perform today.
Napster VS. Metallica
If you were around in the nineties and early 2000s, you probably remember the infamous court battle between the heavy metal icons of Metallica and the young P2P music service.
While the music industry was up in arms over this free file sharing service, little did they realize that Napster was laying the groundwork for scores of music streaming apps that are wildly popular today.
By making music available online, Napster was one of the leaders in antiquating CDs and portable disc players (RIP Tower Records). This revolutionary shift — although legally precarious — was beginning to reposition the focus of music consumption by bringing consumers immediate gratification.
In large part due to this shift, Product Management, in modern music streaming apps, is defined by Napster. For example, hitting metrics like the number of streams, downloads, and shares is one of the directly attributable crossovers between the early streaming service and current day iterations.
The Quiet Birth of Streaming
Streaming media is not as modern as you may think. While us contemporary folk consume streaming media at an astonishing rate, many people in the nineties were doing the exact same thing.
Before Youtube, Netflix, Hulu, or Vimeo was able to break into the streaming scene, RealNetworks was serving up streamable content to millions. More specifically, according to their numbers, RealNetworks had over 100 million active users at its peak.
Another interesting detail was that RealNetworks was able to provide streaming for both audio broadcasts as well as video. In an era of VHS and radio, one could consider this feat a technological marvel.
Considering that most of the population is constantly in a state of video or audio consumption, RealNetworks’ impact on current software in undebatable. It is also safe to say that PMs at modern-day equivalents are building the vision that PMs at RealNetworks were hoping to establish.
To put it another way, Product Managers of RealNetworks saw the writing on the wall. They built what could be described as the first minimal viable product for streaming businesses.
A Lasting Impact
Almost all technology today has an ancestral counterpart that was born in the nineties. The cushy nature that apps and products provide now is largely due to the vision that Product Managers in the previous decades were building.
Product Management practices can even be attributed to the work structure of the pre-millennial decade. Creating software that requires quick updates and continuous change was a novel task. Now, it simply is the way Product Managers go about their business.
So while it the clunkiness of products of the past may bring about patronizing chuckles, we should all be saluting these foundation laying achievements.
What were your favorite products from the nineties? Have they had a lasting impact on today’s technology? Let us know! Drop us a line on our Slack Channel.
I’m Carlos González, CEO at Product School, and I enjoy sharing weekly tips for Product leaders!
This article was also published on The Product Management Blog.