Download.com 20th anniversary: 20 of our most popular apps

Discover the most downloaded messaging, gaming, and antivirus software -- then and now.

Twenty years ago, when Download.com launched, software was often expensive, stationary, and complicated to use. Today, many popular apps are affordable (and often free), move with you, and are so intuitive that you don't need a manual (do those even exist anymore?) or FAQ to use them. In honor of Download.com's 20th birthday, we salute 20 of our most popular apps, then and now.

Messaging

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1996: Internet Relay Chat applications were already in existence when ICQ ("I Seek You") launched in November 1996. But the instant messenger still revolutionized communications by focusing on individual accounts and one-on-one conversations. ICQ peaked in 2001 with 100 million users, after being purchased by AOL, and has declined in popularity since. But its impact can be felt in every instant-messaging service since, from AIM and Yahoo Messenger (Windows) to Facebook Messenger (iOS, Android).

2016: WhatsApp (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS), with over 1 billion users, is the most popular messaging app today. You can use it on any of your devices to message not only text but also photos, videos, and voice messages to individuals or groups. You can even call contacts for free, whether they're local or international. And unlike instant messengers of yore, you don't have to run home and log in to message.

Games

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1996: In the sequel to Duke Nukem II, Duke Nukem 3D finds the interplanetary action hero making his way to Los Angeles in his space cruiser for a little R&R, but instead he must fight off an alien invasion. Despite controversy around depictions of graphic subject matter, such as pornography and murder, this PC game became one of the most popular of 1996 and went on to popularize the first-person shooter genre.

2016: Although Pokemon Go (iOS, Android) is grounded in 1996 nostalgia (remember the original Game Boy games Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue?), the new app iteration of the mega-successful franchise encapsulates everything that's innovative about gaming today. Pokemon Go is an augmented-reality game, relying on your mobile camera and GPS, that gets you out of the house to hunt for, capture, train, and battle Pokemon in the real world. Pokemon Go frenzy won the freemium game roughly 45 million active monthly users in its first month of release.

Utilities

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1996: In 1996 -- the era of slow dial-up and limited drive space -- an app like WinZip was a necessity for compressing large files into one compact ZIP file you could then save to a backup disk or send over email. While WinZip (Windows) trudges on two decades later, its use has waned with the advent of faster connection speeds and cloud storage.

2016: Security professionals regularly recommend having multiple, complicated passwords to prevent hacking, but how are we supposed to remember all of them? That's why password managers have become critical utilities in 2016, and there's none better than Dashlane (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS). It's cross-platform, works on your favorite browsers, stores and encrypts passwords and other sensitive data (such as payment info) for easy autofilling, helps you generate stronger passwords, and alerts you when sites you've visited have been compromised, so you can create new passwords.

Photography

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1996: Originally developed by JASC Software, PaintShop Pro was an award-winning image editing tool for Windows that could be used to view, edit, and convert graphics. 1996's version 4 was advanced for its time, supporting over 30 image formats and several painting and drawing tools. Today, PaintShop Pro is owned by Corel, and with new project templates, gradient tools, and text presets, one click adjustments, quick fixes, precise selections, layers, brushes, content-aware editing tools, and extensive graphic design tools in its 18th iteration PaintShop Pro X9 (Windows) is more powerful and responsive than ever.

2016: Photoshop CC (Windows, Mac) is the latest iteration of Photoshop, now in its 26th year. Adobe's premier digital-image creator and editor offers extensive photo- and image-editing tools, from basic functions like cropping and adjusting size, brightness, and contrast to more advanced actions like layering, color replacement, and 3D extrusion. The latest version for Windows and Mac added Adobe Stock, a professional stock-image library; the ability to add up to 10 layering styles; and a more tactile-friendly experience on touch-enabled devices. With Photoshop CC's free companion apps, Adobe Photoshop Express, Adobe Photoshop Mix, and Adobe Photoshop Fix and a paid Creative Cloud account, you'll gain the bonus ability of working on projects seamlessly across devices and work in a way you never thought possible in 1996. Today, with subscription plans starting at $9.99 per month, Photoshop has become affordable, especially when you consider its 1996 price tag of $895 for Photoshop 4.0.

Antivirus

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1996: McAfee VirusScan for Windows 95 was once the go-to antivirus software for fighting viruses from disks, bulletin boards, email networks, and the Internet. But remember how it slowed your system as it scanned all areas, including local and network drives, CD-ROMs, floppies, boot sectors, file allocation and partition tables, files, and compressed files? Its 2016 iteration, McAfee AntiVirus Plus (Windows), which also attacks more recent concerns such as malware and phishing, continues to top editors' picks

2016: Avast Free Antivirus is one of the most popular and most downloaded Windows apps on Download.com today, although the software works across Windows, Mac, and Android. It detects viruses, malware and additional threats, as well as emerging ones, so you can capture them in real time. It also gets rid of unwanted extensions, manages and protects your passwords, and more -- all for free.

Internet browsers

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1996: Netscape Navigator, now discontinued, was once the preferred cross-platform Web browser on Download.com. In 1996, Netscape Navigator 3.0 was scoring rave reviews for its better mail and news clients and useful plug-ins. Succeeded by the Netscape Communicator suite in 1997, the browser was doomed in the 2000s as usage of Microsoft's Internet Explorer increased and Netscape's technical innovations decreased. But Netscape developers can still take pride in the fact that their Mozilla Application Suite formed the basis for the Firefox (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS) browser.

2016: Google Chrome (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS) is the most popular US Web browser today with over 40 percent of market share, according to NetMarketShare. It's cross-platform and syncs tabs, bookmarks, and recent searches across devices. It also offers plenty of themes, apps, and extensions to customize your experience, and powered by Google, its search suggestions can't be beat.

Music players

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1996: In the mid-1990s, digital music-playing options were limited. Windows Media Player, developed by Microsoft, enabled Windows users to play audio (CDs and WAV files) and video (WMVs), and to view images on their desktops. Microsoft eventually added classic Mac OS and Mac OS X editions and mobile versions. Unfortunately usage decreased after Microsoft stopped bundling it with Windows after Windows 7.

2016: If 1996 was all about owning physical CDs, Spotify (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS), with 100 million active users, proves that today it's about music streaming services including Pandora (Web, Android, iOS) Apple Music, and Google Play Music (Android, iOS). Under the music-streaming model, users can sometimes stream music for free on desktops with ads or pay to listen without ads and with far greater control over desktop and mobile. Of all these services, Spotify is our favorite for its excellent music discovery, robust music offerings, excellent sound quality, ever-expanding features -- Concerts, Running, Party mode, and Daily Mix -- and affordable rates. It's startling to think that for less than what we once paid for a single CD, we now get a month's worth of unlimited tunes that we can take with us wherever we go.

Productivity

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1996: Microsoft Office 97, released in the fall of 1996, was a major upgrade, as it introduced Command Bars, natural language systems, and sophisticated grammar checking. It was also the first to integrate with the Web, allowing users to create and publish Web documents, find information, and collaborate with others on the Internet. The bestselling productivity suite -- which included Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook -- introduced the interactive, animated paper clip Office Assistant, known as Clippit or Clippy, which acted as a liaison between the user and the Office help content. The price tag on CD-ROM was $209 for an upgrade and $499 for new users. Today users can access Office for far less -- $6.99 a month with an Office 365 account -- and use it across all of their devices.

2016: Today Google apps fulfill most users' productivity needs without the expense of Office 365. Users can enjoy the word processor, Docs (Web, Android, iOS), the spreadsheet maker Sheets (Web, Android, iOS) Slides (Web, Android, iOS) for presentations, email service Gmail (Web, Android, iOS), and Drive (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS) for cloud storage -- all for free.

Video Players

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1996: QuickTime, bundled with MacOS and previously supported as a standalone app for Windows, is Apple's extensible multimedia framework for playing various formats of digital video, picture, sound, panoramic images, and interactivity. 1996's QuickTime 2.1 update boasted improved music support and sprite tracks, which allowed the creation of complex animations with the addition of little more than the static sprite images to the size of the movie.

2016: VLC Media Player (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS) is an open-source application that gives you the ability to play media from your computer or a disk, or to stream it from the Web. Have your favorite videos playing in a snap through this app's intuitive interface over Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS. As a bonus, you can customize the software with skins and extensions. Developers claim that the app is free, without spyware, ads, and user tracking.

Email

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1996: Outlook Express, originally called Microsoft Internet Mail and News, is a discontinued email and news client bundled with Internet Explorer 3.0-6.0. Internet Mail and News supported only plain text and rich text (RTF) email, but not HTML email. Outlook Express would eventually become one of the earliest email clients to support HTML email and scripts, but as a result emails were often infected with viruses, and scripts could automatically be opened as an attachment. Outlook Express also struggled to support files over 2GB and users often faced file corruption when the client database was overwhelmed with stored emails.

2016: Today we are fortunate to have Gmail (Web, iOS, Android), a free email client that works across all our devices. Gmail provides real-time notifications, multiple account support for up to five accounts, predictive search across your entire inbox and great organizational tools, including archiving, labeling, starring, deleting and reporting spam. Integrated with the Google apps family, Gmail enables you to answer Google Calendar invites and Google+ posts, directly from the app. Best of all, backed by Google Drive, Gmail allows you to email attachments larger than 25MB as a Drive link.

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Download.com 20th anniverary: software's long strange trip

About Joshua Rotter

Joshua Rotter is a copy editor for Download.com and covers iOS.