I was rooting around in my storage closet a few days ago when I came across a pile of old Wired magazines. Talk about a trip through time--they're all from the early nineties, the first few years of Wired, and they combine a cute-but-ironic enthusiasm for new tech interlaced with full-page ads for long-dead software products and companies (anyone remember Kai's Powertools?).
In the interest of historical research I thought it would be fun to go through an issue to see just what was hot and happening back in the day. While flipping through the issues one in particular caught my eye: issue 1.6, December 1993. It caught my eye because the cover featured Wired's Man of the Year sitting at a desk, smoking a cigar, leering at the viewer: Sonic the Hedgehog. The cover story was "Sega's Plan for World Domination," by John Battelle with Bob Johnstone.
Oh, the irony. Having pulled slightly ahead of Nintendo in the US market (Sega had 45% of the market compared with Nintendo's 44%), Sega was looking beyond its popular Genesis system to a future where it owned "Nothing less than the whole interactive entertainment enchilada--delivered through your cable or telephone lines, your Sega VR headset, your next-generation Genesis box, and, should you care to actually go somewhere, through myriad, networked Sega theme parks scattered across the land."
Sure, sure, Sega all the way. 1993 was the year of Sega, a time when the Genesis was selling only slightly better than the Super NES, but it was the system the cool kids had: it had cachet. Things were really coming together for the company. The Sega channel, a joint venture between Time Warner, cable company TCI and Sega that allowed users to download games to their Genesis, was on the horizon. Also anticipated was The Edge 16, a modem to connect Genesis users. The future was looking grand.
Of course the future wasn't grand for Sega, and these days, well, I think they still make Sonic games. For other systems. Like, say, Nintendo's.
The seeds of Sega's destruction are mentioned in the article. The $229 Sega CD (an add-on for the Genesis) had been introduced in early 1992, and well over a year later sales were still only "a modest 250,000 units." More importantly, the next generation Sega gaming platform, the Saturn, was expected to come out in 1994 (expected price: $500). At the time of the article's writing the Saturn may have sounded like the next big thing, but in reality the quick shift from Genesis to Sega CD (which was essentially a new platform) to Saturn within the space of a few years made third party game producers leery of writing software for quick-change artists Sega.
And a foreshadowing of Sega's ultimate ruin lies in a single sentence of the article. Nintendo was looking forward to its 64-bit machine, then called "Project Reality," later, of course, called the Nintendo 64. The CD seemed the way of the future, and Project Reality would likely include a CD player. "A prototype, based on Sony technology, reportedly awaits a nod from Nintendo's conservative management."
Nintendo ultimately declined to include a CD player in the Nintendo 64, but Sony didn't waste the experience of building the CD gaming technology. They turned around and came out with the Playstation, and then a few years later brought out the Playstation 2 which, amid lots and lots of hype, overshadowed Sega's Dreamcast to the point where cash-strapped Sega's empire crumbled into sand.
The other company featured in Wired 1.6 is Apple. It's not featured so much in the actual writing as in the ads--ads for Apple litter the pages like dead leaves on a late fall day. December, 1993, is after The Steve's fall from grace at Apple, but before his return. As such, the ads show a company struggling to sell whatever it can. CD-ROMs were hot, and Apple leapt on the bandwagon with all its strength by sponsoring a set of multipage ads pushing Apple CD drives. Obviously, they made drives for their own computers, but did you know that you could also pick up an Apple multimedia kit for your Windows computer? It even came with your choice of three Windows-based CD-ROMs.
Speaking of multimedia, another ad in the same issue informed readers about the "Apple Multimedia Program," which wasn't an actual software program so much as it was a, well, it's kind of hard to figure out from the ad. There was a membership involved, and you could get access to a multimedia bulletin board, and special discounts, and some sort of orientation kit, and videos from developers, and market research reports, and anything else Apple could think of that had anything remotely to do with multimedia. Who did the Apple Multimedia Program appeal to? Everyone and no one.
Apple took the gee-whiz amazingness of multimedia several steps further with a three page ad that announced "the first personal computers that will send faxes, read you your mail, take phone messages and work with your video camera, VCR and TV." For the Mac fanboys, the ad was referring to the Centris 640AV and Quadra 840AV computers--could they really do all of that? If so, why can't my computer do all of that today? The fine print in the ads reveal that, indeed, the computers would record from a video source, but the hardware specs are a little puzzling: they could take up to 128 MB of RAM and 1GB of hard disk space. That's either a very short, or very tiny, or very fuzzy video. And while the computers could play CDs, they couldn't actually burn them. Insert another floppy disk to back up your video, please.
Apple did have one hot product, though: the Newton. A two page ad in Wired asked, "What is Newton?" It was both "as powerful as a computer" and "as simple as a piece of paper;" it could send faxes or e-mail, help the user get organized, manage a schedule. It was an amazing product, especially for its time, and had Apple been able to capitalize on the promise of the Newton...well, they probably still would have been screwed, because they still would have had a hard time getting a new version of the Macintosh OS out the door. The 1990s saw Apple become increasingly marginalized as Microsoft came out first with Windows 95, and then Windows 98, neither of which were ground breaking, but both of which intruded on the ease of use that had been Apple's hallmark. Copland, Apple's next generation Macintosh OS, sputtered and died in 1996 without ever being released. The company acquired a new leash on life when they bought NeXT in 1996 and The Steve took the helm of Apple, again. Employees and ideas flowed from NeXT to Apple, and the consumer version of OSX (much of which was based on NeXT software) was introduced five years later.
Apple today is a different company than it was in late 1993, one that has a much stronger idea of where it is going than it did fourteen years ago. It has a robust operating system, leads the MP3 player market, and produces some excellent computers (this column is written on one, in fact). One thing it doesn't have, though, is a PDA like the Newton.
Of course, who knows what functionality might be lurking deep in the heart of the iPhone...