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Five for Friday: Top 5 technology commercials from the ’90s

Like most kids born in the early ’80s, I have a very special affinity for the ’90s. My dad bought the first personal computer on our block (an IBM 386), we had a 28.8K modem at home, and cell phones were as big as a brick.

My family was unflaggingly optimistic about technology in the ’90s, eager to try new digital products and formats, most of which died before gaining mass adoption.

For one glorious year–it must have been 2001–I carried around a Nokia 5110 with custom faceplate, a PalmPilot, anti-skipping Sony DiscMan, GameBoy Color, calculator watch and clear plastic pager. Today, that collection of ancient technology is contained in a single smartphone, which is capable of more than anything I could have imagined at the time (just 12 years ago!).

It’s pretty incredible to see how far technology, convergence and communication have come in less than 20 years. Today, we’re pulling together a list of our favorite ’90s technology commercials, all of which introduce, or hint at, communication tools we take for granted today.

#1: Send faxes from your cell phone

In the late ’90s, AT&T introduced PocketNet, a text-based web-browsing interface on mobile phones. In this ad, a man stuck in a snowstorm delights his son by showing him how he reads email and sends faxes from his phone.

#2: Early unified communications (with an (800) number)

The promise of unified communications today is to connect with people instantly on any device, anywhere in the world, easily and seamlessly. Back in the ’90s, that concept was considerably more basic… most people didn’t have cell phones, voice messages were stored on tape, and faxes trumped email.

What do you do if you want to stay connected 24/7? Buy an (800) number that rings your office, home number and cell phone at the same time. It was a rudimentary idea, but was the closest thing to unified communications we had at the time.

#3: Bell Atlantic predicts telecommuting

Telecommuting is so ubiquitous today that it’s easy to take it for granted. Sophisticated communication and collaboration tools make working anywhere incredibly easy.

Video conferencing puts us one click away from our coworkers, documents in the cloud are easy to work on, and email, instant messaging, mobile phones, voice conferencing and shared calendars make us just as efficient at home as we are at the office.

In 1995, telecommuting was so foreign that Bell Atlantic had to create a commercial introducing the idea to people.

#4: AT&T predicts dozens of technological breakthoughs

I love these AT&T ads from the 1993 and 1994, because they paint a picture of how technology would make our lives easier and help us connect with one another at some point in the near future. You can feel it–these breakthroughs are nearly here.

AT&T predicted the future with incredible accuracy (not surprising, as researchers inside the company had been working on many of these products for years). Here’s what they got right:

  • E-book rentals
  • GPS directions
  • The ability to send and receive faxes from your computer
  • Electronic tolls
  • Video conferencing
  • Video on demand
  • Video-based distance learning
  • Telemedicine
  • Remote security monitoring
  • Automated computer assistants, like Siri

Some of their predictions haven’t been built yet, or were built but failed to gain mass adoption. These include:

  • E-commerce at the ATM
  • DMV transactions at the ATM
  • Voice-activated door locks
  • Portable medical history on a card
  • Automatic product scanners
  • Phone calls on your wrist
  • Automatic audio translation from one language to another

2013 is shaping up to be the year for wearables, so a Dick Tracy-style mobile phone watch could be in our very near future. Researchers are racing to improve automatic audio translation technology, and will undoubtedly solve this challenge within our lifetime.

As for voice-activated door locks, we may have to leave that to Star Trek.

#5: Pacific Bell’s superhighway of information

In 1994, Pacific Bell put out its own list of predictions, mostly around networking, intelligent switches and improved communication. The 3D graphics may be cringe-worthy, but the ideas put forth were anything but: PacBell promised limitless connections over the Internet, at a time when most Americans had yet to sign up for their first email address, and Jerry Yang and David Filo had just launched Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.

OK, now it’s your turn. Share your favorite vintage tech commercials with us in the comments, and reminisce with us about the ’90s.

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