It's easy to forget that just a handful of years ago most people didn't have a cellphone, never mind one that's better termed a handheld computer. No one had laptops when I was in college (graduated high school in '96) and few people had broadband connections for years after that. Shoot, jump another decade before that and people were placing their calls using a rotary dial — one painful number at a time. When my father was a boy, technology such as cellphones, iPads and Twitter were still imperfectly defined nascent dreams from the pages of science-fiction magazines and periodicals.
Technology is moving increasingly fast. One of the videos in our collection was run in 1993 by AT&T and proposed a series of technologies that, at the time had the taste of sci-fi but now are things that many of us use every day. We're making the leap from "Gee whiz, wouldn't it be neat if we could do this someday?" to "There you go, the iPad" at an increasingly quicker pace. Each new technological discovery builds on those that came before while driving those that follow.
What that means, of course, is that we create videos about technology that end up, years later, being amazingly prophetic, brain-strokingly interesting, or just really funny. I've pored through a pile of great videos and complied this list of seven of the best eerily prophetic, disastrous or just plain hilarious early videos of now-everyday technology.
The first mobile phone service was available in the '40s from AT&T and required 80 pounds of equipment and a service plan that cost the equivalent of more than $300 per month. By necessity, the first mobile phones were installed in cars, and it wasn't until 1973 when the first truly mobile handset was developed. Cellular service hit U.S. shores in 1983, and just a few years later this gem of a video was produced.
$3,300 in 1986 money is the same as around $6,663 today. Not too shabby considering the phone stores 99 phone numbers!
'Today' show asks 'What's the Internet?'
This video is a great reminder of how fast things are moving. In 1994, the hosts of “Today” bantered (off-air) about the strange symbol “@.” It was the first time Bryant Gumble had to say it on the air, and he shared his confusion over the matter with co-host Katie Couric. Bryant further stumbled when relaying the address, leaving out the two “dots” in email@example.com.
It was clear that no one on camera had the slightest clue about email or the Internet, though Couric did bravely offer up the explanation that it was "that massive computer network, the one that's becoming really big now." Nowadays, of course, you can't be a news anchor without being firmly entrenched in Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Skype. It's remarkable to see people who we still get our news from today misunderstanding something as pervasive as the Internet on such a fundamental level. Keep in mind that 1994 was only 17 years ago — what kind of technological jumps will we make between now and 2028?
JVC HR7100 VCR commercial
VHS players first started challenging the established video standard Betamax for the hearts and dollars of consumers in the late '70s and early '80s. VHS offered longer playing times, faster rewinding and fast forwarding, though Betamax enthusiasts still insist their format had the highest quality image and sound. Even so, convenience and the ability to put a feature length movie on one tape won out and by the early '80s, the VHS tape and its accompanying VCR were sitting pretty as the established standard.
I don't know what I love more about this fantastic commercial from 1983 — the "color-coded feather-touch controls," the "remote control" with what appears to be a wire connecting it to the VCR, or the leotard-clad aerobics instructor/presenter.
UNIVAC computer commercial
"This is weather," so begins this great video from the 1950s showing off the UNIVAC computer, one of the early pioneers in computer development. The UNIVAC was made famous in 1952 when it predicted the outcome of the U.S. presidential race between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. Its initial predictions called for an Eisenhower landslide, something the editors at CBS rejected and kept off air, at least until the outcome turned out to closely match the scenario predicted by the UNIVAC.
The UNIVAC in this classic commercial could store 24,000 numbers or letters and churn out 2,000 calculations per second. An iPhone can do more than a billion per second. We're living in the future.
IBM portable computer
As technology and standards change over the years, so do the terms and words used to describe them. In 1975, "portable computer" was defined as a large box weighing 50 pounds with a tiny screen that you needed to plug in. Though we poke fun, the IBM 5100 was revolutionary in its time: This was 10 years before Windows 1.0 was released, six years before IBM’s PC. It had a 16-bit processor, 64 KB of RAM, a few hundred KB of ROM that held program code, and a five-inch monochromatic display. A computer with the same capabilities just five years earlier would have taken up the better part of your average small room.
This commercial from 1977 features a series of business professionals who used the 5100 to make their lives easier. The 5100 sold from $11,000 for the 16K model up to $20,000 for the 64K version (that's the same as $40,171 and $73,039 today), so it was only rich real estate agents, architects and insurance companies using it.
View of the Future by AT&T
This one is the scariest video for me personally. I remember seeing these videos when they came out in 1993 and thinking that it'd be awesome to live in a world where I could buy concert tickets from an ATM, where I could turn off the lights in my house from a tablet computer dealie while traveling on the train with my beautiful wife, and have a video chat with my family from a pay phone.
Well, we live there. The world that Magnum PI so smoothly describes in AT&T's series of commercials is nearly identical to the one that we find ourselves in right now.
"Borrowing" a book from thousands of miles away? Hello Amazon. In-car graphic navigation? Hello, this is the early 2000s calling, I'd like my Big Deal back.
It's the same story for sending faxes wirelessly using a tablet computer, paying a car toll automatically, buying concert tickets from ATMs, and using video chat to talk to your baby (we'll even one-up you and do it on mobile devices — forget the pay phone). All of the things Magnum says we'll do, we do.
Watch them yourselves and behold the splendor that is life in the future.
Where's my hoverboard!?
Cliff Stoll's terrible Internet call
OK, so this one isn't actually a video. Even still, Clifford Stoll's disastrous 1995 article about the future of the Internet was so woefully off the mark that it's worth breaking the rules to share. Stoll is a respected astronomer, author and famed hacker-tracker (in the ‘80s he tracked down a KGB-affiliated hacker and wrote a good book about it) who wrote an article in Newsweek in '95 that derided the notion that we'd ever do anything crazy like shop, learn, or share our stories and thoughts online. He opens his article with:
After two decades online, I'm perplexed. It's not that I haven't had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I've met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I'm uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.
Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth [is] no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.