Looking back on obsolete online tech we used to use every day

Obsolete internet technologies show how far the online world has come, and offer pointers to where it’s heading..

Monday, 31 July, 2023

Younger readers may be surprised to learn that the internet hasn’t always been ubiquitous, accessible wirelessly and fast enough to support HD streaming.

They may also be surprised to discover that technologies we’re blasé about nowadays (including smartphones and tablets) didn’t exist as recently as 15 years ago.

In their place, early adopters of the internet had to endure bulky hardware, conflicting software codecs and sluggish connectivity across copper phone lines.

That was less of a hardship considering the internet’s wondrous nature – a new and exciting world as yet unspoiled by trolling, zero-day malware, deepfakes and cancel culture.

Even so, it’s worth considering the obsolete internet technologies which helped to shape today’s digital world.

Not only does this provide a timely reminder of how far we’ve come, it also gives us a few pointers regarding the future shape of connectivity and online communications…

Dial M for modem

Show a Millennial a dial-up modem, and they’d probably laugh. Yet those screeching boxes served as gatekeepers to the internet long before broadband rollout gathered pace.

Having to ring an ISP’s telephone number to connect to the internet made us more accountable for our actions online, both literally and psychologically.

Today, it’s far easier to stalk, abuse and harass other occupants of cyberspace thanks to private browsing, VPNs and anonymous public WiFi networks.

Taming the ugliest excesses of social media will require a swing back towards a time when our online activities left indelible footprints – an age before the recently-renamed Twitter, Tor and trolling.

If all social media accounts were linked to unique personal data like a passport number or ISP account, the current epidemic of online abuse would diminish overnight.

BlackBerry picking

Today’s smartphones may be always-online symphonies of glass and aluminium, but their on-screen keyboards will never be as practical as the QWERTY pads on BlackBerry devices.

These pebble-shaped handsets seem antiquated nowadays with their small monochrome displays, yet their CrackBerry nickname was entirely justified.

The BlackBerry first introduced the concept of never fully leaving work behind, giving many people their first experience of on-the-move IMAP email provision.

In an age before home working and Trello, the BlackBerry seemed revolutionary. Today’s phones are far better for gaming and streaming, but less convincing as miniature computers.

Tomorrow’s folding handsets may provide a better balance between leisure and work use, just as the BlackBerry first granted us mobile internet access in a pre-iPhone era.

Flash in the pan

Adobe Flash was both a blessing and a curse. It enabled people to make animations at a time when webpages tended to be static and dull to both look at and use.

Unfortunately, many devices weren’t compatible with Flash. It couldn’t be indexed by Google, often required a plugin to operate, and routinely caused software conflicts.

Many people would find error messages or blank windows displaying where dynamic webpage content should have been.

It was this lack of compatibility (allied to the presence of competing codecs) that inspired the development of HTML5 – a universally accepted gold standard for webpage programming.

When HTML6 arrives, it’s likely to offer features like browser-selected image resolutions and better annotation in direct response to the public’s desire for a single global standard.

Windows onto the world

We’ve previously debated the best version of Microsoft’s iconic Windows operating system, but many people’s first online forays took place on an XP-powered PC.

Launched in 2001, just as the internet reached critical mass among consumers, XP sold over 400 million copies. It was a nimble and stable OS, with minimal system requirements.

The mistakes Microsoft made in replacing XP with the bloated and unreliable Vista have haunted it ever since, though they arguably made subsequent Windows iterations better.

The latest Windows 11 OS is one of the software giant’s best offerings – an incremental improvement on 10 as opposed to Vista’s botched attempt at wiping the slate clean.

When Windows 12 debuts late next year, you can expect minor refinements like a floating taskbar and search box, rather than a complex new OS users have to learn from scratch.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!