’90s Tech Icons: Where Are They Now?

The 1990s comprised a fascinating, transitional time in technology — more people were buying home computers, Windows 3.1 was released, and we all started logging on to this thing called the World Wide Web.

Of course, none of that innovation would have been possible without the creative minds behind those advancements. To that end, let’s catch up with some of the people that made ’90s computers and Internet culture cool.

1. Solitaire for Windows – Wes Cherry

It’s hard to believe now, but when many people got their first home computers in the ’90s, they’d never even used a mouse before. To master this basic skill, they often turned to a little program written by Wes Cherry, called Solitaire.

Cherry wrote Solitaire while he was an intern at Microsoft in 1989 as a way to learn the Windows programming environment, and because there just weren’t that many games available for Windows at the time. Unfortunately, despite Solitaire’s presence on millions of computers for the last few decades, a contract technicality meant he never received any royalties for the game. However, the internship paid off and he wound up writing code for Microsoft Excel for most of the ’90s.

Today, Wes Cherry works with apples – but not of the OS X variety. He and his family recently moved to Vashon Island, WA, where they are planting seven acres of apple trees as part of a new venture: Dragon’s Head Cider. He still does the occasional bit of programming in his free time, but mostly, Cherry works on odd projects, like the restoration of a six-wheeled Swedish fire truck. He also makes the trek to Burning Man (see picture). Despite not getting paid for the popular game, Wes Cherry might be only person in history for whom Solitaire wasn’t a total waste of time.

2. After Dark Screensaver – Jack Eastman and Patrick Beard

Before the Internet spawned identity theft and viruses, home computer users only really worried about two things: power surges and screen burn-in. A good power strip solved the first problem, and flying toasters solved the second.

The After Dark Screensaver was released in 1989 by Berkeley Systems, a company that, at the time, wrote Mac software accessible for the vision impaired. The screensaver soon became a Mac staple and was later ported to Windows, where the signature flying toasters really took off.

Later, Berkeley released the very popular trivia game series, You Don’t Know Jack, which helped gain the attention of Sierra On-Line, the makers of classic games in the Space Quest and King’s Quest series. Sierra bought the company for just under $14 million.

After Dark key figures Jack Eastman and Patrick Beard had support from Berkeley Systems co-founders, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades. After the Sierra On-Line buy-out, Eastman left to co-found CloudSource, a developer of website production software, and is now co-founder of Eightfold Way Consultants, which offers website management software with a special emphasis on people with disabilities. Patrick Beard left Berkeley for graduate school, had stints at Apple and Netscape, and has since returned to Apple as a senior engineer. After the 1997 buy-out, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades founded MoveOn.org, which has since become one of the most popular political sites on the web. Blades also founded MomsRising.com, and is an occasional contributor to The Huffington Post.

3. You’ve Got Mail! – Elwood Edwards

Throughout the ’90s, there were only three things you could be certain of: death, taxes and another AOL CD in your mailbox. You could also expect to hear “You’ve Got Mail!” about 500 times a day — from the TV, the radio and your Great Aunt Margaret’s computer.

That familiar phrase was first uttered in 1989 by Elwood Edwards, whose wife worked for Quantum Computer Services, which later became AOL. Quantum was looking for a friendly voice for their new email program, so Edwards sat in his living room with a cassette tape recorder and spoke those now-famous words, as well as other AOL staples: “File’s done,” “Welcome” and “Goodbye.”

Edwards’ voice-over career didn’t end there. Aside from a few gigs, mostly parodying the AOL catchphrase, he’s been working as a graphics and film editor at WKYC-TV in Cleveland since 2002.

4. WebCrawler – Brian Pinkerton

Back in the early days of the World Wide Web, finding all of those X-Files message boards and “under construction” animated GIFs wasn’t easy. Then came WebCrawler, the first “full-text” search engine. The service enabled keyword search among its 4,000 indexed webpages, and set a standard that is still the norm today.

WebCrawler launched in April 1994 as a spare-time project of University of Washington student Brian Pinkerton. By November, WebCrawler had served its 1 millionth search result (for “nuclear weapons design and research”). Just over a year later, WebCrawler was purchased by AOL, which later sold it to Excite, and was then acquired by InfoSpace in 2001. Believe it or not, it’s still around today as a meta-search engine, combining results from Google, Yahoo and Bing.

Not surprisingly, Brian Pinkerton is still kicking around the web, too. After Excite closed shop in 2003, he’s worked at a variety of companies as a search engine expert, including his latest gig as chief architect of search at A9, the company that helps you find all the cool stuff on Amazon.com.

5. Hotmail – Jack Smith and Sabeer Bhatia

For much of the ’90s, the average person’s email address was tied to his or her Internet service provider. You could change providers, but that meant you’d lose the associated email address, so you were kind of stuck. But that all changed on July 4, 1996, when Jack Smith and Sabeer Bhatia launched the first web-based email service, HoTMaiL (the strange capitalization emphasized “HTML”).

Hotmail offered users free email accounts, each with a whopping 2MB of storage space accessible from anywhere and through any ISP. In exchange, users simply had to look at a few banner ads. With that kind of convenience, the service grew quickly, reaching 40 million users by 1998, when Microsoft knocked on the door with a check for $400 million. Since the acquisition, over 1 billion Hotmail accounts have been created, and there are still several hundred million active users today.

After the buy-out, both Smith and Bhatia briefly worked for Microsoft before striking out on their own. Smith founded Akamba Corporation, which made accelerator cards for high-traffic web servers, and is currently the president of Proximex Corporation, a security system software company. Bhatia has been especially busy founding Arzoo.com, a travel site that services India, then InstaColl, whose Live-Documents.com is an MS Office alternative. And in Nov. 2011, he launched JaxtrSMS, a free, international text messaging service.

Images courtesy of Flickr, monkeymanforever, Wikipedia, Wikimedia, Wikimedia

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