Long before the iTunes Store was a glimmer in Steve Jobs' eye, Download.com launched in 1996 as the most comprehensive, safest place to get all your software, from the latest drivers and codecs to professional-grade programs. It was, and still is, notable for scanning and testing its software catalog to ensure that none would infect your computer. We take a look at the history of the software world before Download.com, the rise of modern software, and where software stands now.
The software world before Download.com: The software world grew rapidly throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1983, for example, Microsoft actually distributed the first version of Word as a free insert in PC Magazine. Microsoft's Windows 1.0 wouldn't even debut for another two years. By 1986, the first computer virus, called Brain, began making its way around the world, and within in a year, the VIRUS-L mailing list began discussing how to stop computer viruses. Early participants included Eugene Kaspersky and John McAfee, who would later lend their names to their antivirus programs, which are still in use today.
Nine years before the launch of Download.com, and some of the software world's most defining characteristics had already begun to lock into place. Viruses and other malware, Microsoft Windows, and software stalwarts like Microsoft Word would soon be boosted by a series of low-profile but massively important changes to the Windows operating system itself. VGA support arrived in 1990, giving Windows the graphics power to compete with Mac, and scalable fonts came in 1992. File archiving was popularized in 1991 by WinZip, which would five years later become one of the must-have programs available on Download.com. Its lifetime download count from Download.com at the time of writing is 77,000 downloads short of 204 million.
On the software front, two high-profile expansions from Mac to Windows lent Redmond's operating system credibility. Aldus PageMaker was the first major program to be ported from Mac to Windows in 1987, followed by Adobe Photoshop 2.5 in 1992. By that point, there were more than two dozen security programs, including Avast Antivirus back in 1988, VirusScan from McAfee, Vaccine from Sophos, Dr. Solomon's from S&S, and VirScan from IBM. Norton AntiVirus and Grisoft's Anti-Virus Guard, later renamed AVG, took their bows in 1992.
Meanwhile, modem use had exploded, and the capability to render both words and pictures on the World Wide Web accelerated its dissemination into pop culture. Although he doesn't mention the Web explicitly, the neurosurgeon Dr. Leonard Shlain wrote about this phenomena in his 1998 book, "The Alphabet versus the Goddess." The Web, heretofore limited to left-brain coding languages and the written word, suddenly became a forum for right-brain imagery as well, as the new Web browser Mosaic debuted in 1993. Mosaic was the first browser that didn't have to download images from Web sites separately, its biggest but not its only contribution to how we interact with the Web. It also had bookmarks, icons, and a home button, all tools which are still in use 18 years later.
The year 1993 also saw the arrival of WinRAR, the first major competitor to WinZip. The Opera Browser took the stage in 1994, and then Microsoft changed everything again on August 24, 1995. Windows 95 brought partial 32-bit support, the capability to run 2GB of virtual RAM, full FAT32 file system support and long file names, and a little program called Internet Explorer. As you can see in the infographic, a year after its debut, IE had claimed 20 percent market share.
Download.com and the rise of modern software: When Download.com launched on October 23, 1996, with a catalog of Windows and Mac software programs numbering in the thousands, it had thrust itself into a software world that was already well under way and gaining speed. By comparison, Download.com now lists more than a quarter of a million products in a software directory that now includes mobile and Web-based apps.
That year would see the company Mirabilis deliver the first Internet-wide messaging service, a homophone of "I seek you" called ICQ. A year later, AOL would buy Mirabilis for $407 million--the most ever paid at the time for an Israeli technology company--and use its tech to power AOL Instant Messenger, better known as AIM. Instant messaging was massive in the mid-1990s, with Yahoo Instant Messenger and Excite Pal vying for your smileys along with ICQ and AIM.
Download.com played a major role in the early distribution of software. There were nearly 200,000 total downloads per week in 1996, and within five years this would skyrocket to more than 5.25 million per week. In 2011, that number stands at 9.595 million. Music would also drive interest in Download.com, with the arrival of the music jukebox WinAmp and its unique llama iconography in 1997.
It didn't take long for the MP3 audio file format to disengage from the desktop. The world's first MP3 player, Eiger's MPMan F10, hit the streets in 1998, followed by the easiest way to get music: the decidedly not-legal file distribution network known as Napster, in 1999. Named for a co-founder's hairstyle, Napster's impact on helping to popularize the format is undeniable.
Many of today's most popular programs got their start in this late '90s to early '00s era. Ad-Aware's 1999 debut became a massively successful response to growing malware threats. Tim O'Reilly's Open Source Initiative officially kicked off the open-source movement in 1998, creating the original crowdsourcing business model for software development. Sun Microsystems relaunched StarOffice as the OpenOffice project, an open-source alternative to Microsoft Word in 2000. AVG Free Anti-Virus upended the paid security software business in 2000, too, and Avast followed suit in 2001. iTunes for Mac kicked off the beginning of the year, followed by the iPod in October.
Following Napster, peer-to-peer file-sharing subsequently changed the face of digital downloading forever. The casualties of the past decade--see Napster, Grokster, LimeWire, Kazaa, and Morpheus below--demonstrate the risks associated with the file-sharing industry, but the continued adaptation and popularity of peer-to-peer BitTorrent clients and social networking indicate that sharing is here to stay. Interestingly, Bram Cohen's torrent protocol also debuted in 2001.
Not so surprisingly, at the same time that people started sending and receiving files willy-nilly all over the world, incidents of viruses, spyware, and other malware began to invade home users' computers. The Melissa virus (1999), the ILOVEYOU e-mail (2000), and the Blaster worm (2003) were only the beginning, as millions of users found themselves face to face with ridiculous pop-up windows or worst, blood-boiling blue screens.
Security software has ruled the roost on Download.com ever since, despite significant security advances by operating systems and browsers in recent years. Video software continue to stalk the pace, driven by users' apparent need to convert pornographic movies to 21 different formats and then transfer them to 13 different devices.
Steve Jobs and Apple blew up the Windows jukebox market in 2003 with the highest-profile program port from Mac to Windows since the early 1990s, as iTunes for Windows opened up the larger Windows user market to the joys of the iPod. But that was the same year that several Kazaa developers introduced Skype for the first peer-to-peer voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).
Where software stands now: From the ashes of Mosaic rose arguably the most successful nonprofit, open-source software company to date: Mozilla. The company's Firefox browser kicked off a new round of browser wars in 2004, quickly grabbing market share from the stagnating Internet Explorer, followed in 2008 by two disruptive program debuts: Malwarebytes Anti-Malware delivered a shock to security software with its fast and accurate protection; and then Google got its hands on an open-source project called Chromium.
The Chrome browser was remarkable for two reasons. It forced browser makers to re-evaluate, for the better, their priorities in the age of high-speed broadband. Suddenly, browser interfaces began to emulate Chrome's minimalist, get-the-heck-outta-the-way style. Performance also became a key issue, as the need for speed couldn't be understated. But the second way that Chrome changed software was its rapid-release cycle, which brought smartphone app update sensibilities to desktop software. No longer was the browser version massively important, since it updated every six weeks or so. Security patches could be pushed to users with much less effort. By de-emphasizing versioning, Google put an onus of effort on itself to make sure that the program would "just work right," straight out of the box. When Mozilla adopted the same practice, albeit with a Firefox flair, it proved that rapid-release cycles and the influence of mobile apps were here to stay.
And of course, this influence hasn't escaped Download.com. The site now hosts more than 500,000 mobile apps, more than all other software platforms combined. Windows itself is moving toward a mobile-style, with the integration of the Metro mobile phone interface into Windows 8, and Apple is looking for greater cross-pollination between OS X and iOS. But at the end of the day, whether you call it a program, an application, software, or the monosyllabic "app," chances are it's going to be on Download.com.
CNET's Peter Butler, Senior Content Manager at Download.com, contributed to this story.