20 Game-Changing Events That Shaped the Internet, Part 1

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1995: Amazon.com offers online shopping, from soup to nuts

Early Amazon.com logo
Early Amazon.com logo
We've been buying things online for at least a decade now, so it's hard to recall when and where Internet shopping actually began. But for many folks, it all started with the soaring popularity of Amazon.com, which sold its first item online in July 1995. That first sale, a copy of the book Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought, was merely the beginning.

In January 2011, Amazon announced that its fourth-quarter sales were up 36 percent--reaching $12.95 billion. It continues to sell and ship a growing spectrum of merchandise, from books, DVDs, and CDs to vacuum cleaners and appliances. What made Amazon.com's model earth-shattering was its simple, information-filled Website, excellent customer service, low prices, great sales, vast selection, and fast free shipping with a $25 order. Lots of companies offer similar things, but none has captured the online market as Amazon has. For consumers, the site is often the first and last place to look for anything you might want to buy. And its used merchandise, with great customer support if problems crop up, is a huge bonus. Amazon continues today to show other online sellers how it should be done.

1995: Online streaming video debuts

I have shocking news for you: The first streaming video online didn't come from Netflix. Okay, maybe you're not shocked. Actually, the first event ever streamed live online came in 1995 courtesy of Progressive Networks, which later became RealNetworks. The event was a live broadcast of a baseball game between the Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees. That first stream launched an industry--now we can get movies and TV shows streamed into our homes over the Internet through a wide range of sources.

As for Netflix, it may have started out as a DVD-by-mail online business on April 14, 1998, with 925 titles up for grabs, but by early 2007 the company offered online video streaming, allowing subscribers to watch movies directly on their computers. In January 2008, Netflix began video streaming that users could watch on TVs. RealNetworks' early progress certainly helped pave the way for the incredible entertainment options we all have today.

1996: AOL Internet-access charges go 'all-you-can-eat'

America Online early logo
America Online early logo, Courtesy of AOL
It may seem minor today, but the announcement on October 29, 1996, was a landmark event. That was the day when America Online, one of the dominant ISPs in the United States, unveiled its plans to lower its fees and charge users a flat $19.95 a month for all the Internet access they wanted. The old fee structure had included 20 hours of access for $19.95, plus $2.95 for each additional hour.

The unlimited pricing plan was a game-changer for users, who could enjoy the Internet far more extensively, and huge for competing ISPs, which would copy the all-you-can-eat model and leave AOL in the dust. Do you even remember when most people paid for their home Internet access by the hour?

1996: Broadband Internet access adds zip to the Web

Early modems
Early acoustic modems
Many of us were just dipping our toes into "that Internet thing" back in 1994. We would sit there, waiting patiently as our high-tech fax modems made funny scratching noises and beeps while connecting us to the Internet. That sure seems like a million years ago, doesn't it? Though the first North American high-speed broadband services surfaced in 1996, they became available in the United States in a big way by 1999. That prompted a huge jump in household broadband use, the figure soaring sevenfold from 9 percent of households in 2001 to 64 percent in 2009, according to a report by the U.S. Commerce Department and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Thanks to fast download and upload speeds, the Internet became a place where people and businesses could truly accomplish great things.

For more, see "20 Game-Changing Events That Shaped the Internet, Part 2." And for another perspective, read "The 16 Greatest Moments in Web History."

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