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This week in tech, 20 years ago

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April 21st, 1998

InfoWorld, April 20th, 1998
InfoWorld

As a person who covers day-to-day technology news, I often wonder how my writing might come off to someone in the future — and whether anyone will even be reading it. I can’t answer those questions, but I can do the next best thing: look back at what other people were writing 20 years ago.

Here are five stories — big and small — that science and tech enthusiasts might have checked out during the week before April 21st, 1998.

The hacktivist pedophile hunter who faked it all

Christian Valor was the perfect subject for a 1998 Forbes profile. Under the handle “Se7en,” he’d tracked down dozens of people who traded child pornography online, wiped their hard drives, and spread word of their crime online. “I can find a pedophile and trash his machine all within 60 minutes,” he bragged. The twist? He apparently faked almost all of it.

After Forbes and many other outlets covered Valor, Wired got him to admit that he “wasn’t even really hacking,” beyond remotely deleting a few computer files. Valor claimed the media had pushed him to tell sensational stories, and Wired tied the incident to a larger credulousness around online sex — like Time’s infamous debunked “cyberporn” story, which the author revisited in fascinating detail 20 years later.

Virtual homelessness

Last year, some people were outraged by a tone-deaf fundraiser where CEOs strapped on virtual reality headsets to “get a glimpse” of living on the streets. But the idea of virtually experiencing homelessness is pretty well-trodden. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab released a simulation called Becoming Homeless, and a variety of non-VR games have tackled the topic as well.

A 1998 BBC article presents one very early example in Virtual Homelessness, a web game from UK charity Centrepoint. (Though it’s unplayable now, you can check out an archived landing page.) But quotes from Centrepoint suggest the game was more of a “scared straight” initiative than an empathy generator. “We want to provide young people with the information they need about what might happen if they leave home, so that they can make an informed decision,” said a spokesperson.

Bill Gates’ Blue Screen of Death

Comdex 1998 was Bill Gates’ big chance to sell users on Windows 98, the operating system that was about to replace Windows 95. But when an employee showed off its incredible plug-and-play device support by connecting a scanner, his computer flashed the infamous Blue Screen of Death and went down. “That must be why we’re not shipping Windows 98 yet,” Gates told the audience.

The Los Angeles Times noted that Gates had legal as well as technical problems during Comdex. He had intended to show off a finished version of Windows 98, but Microsoft was delaying the launch while it fought a Department of Justice antitrust complaint over Internet Explorer. The company later managed to beat that complaint, but it was a pyrrhic victory: the Justice Department and 20 state attorneys general filed a major lawsuit almost immediately after, kicking off the storied Microsoft antitrust trial.

Kick out the cybersquatters

Domain name squatters exasperated companies in the 1990s, buying web addresses with famous names to either ransom the domains off or draw visitors to porn sites. A 1995 trademark-related law was designed to ban cybersquatting, and courts started to enforce it over the next few years, raising questions that CNET covers in this 1998 overview. Were courts simply preventing extortion by shady domain buyers, or were they giving companies an absolute monopoly over common words and names?

Congress passed a more detailed anti-cybersquatting law in 1999. But the practice hasn’t gone away, and it’s even played a role in recent elections. In fact, President Donald Trump has both won money from cybersquatters — he got $32,000 from a parody site creator — and benefited from cybersquatting, after someone set JebBush.com to redirect to Trump’s own site.

Did a Japanese Pepsi drinker go to space?

I like finding whimsical “news of the weird” stories in media archives, but they’re often scant on details and impossible to properly source. Case in point: “Japanese Pepsi Drinkers Could Win a Trip to Space in 2001,” which I found on a site called Space Future. Here’s the full text, reproduced verbatim:

Reuters and Wired Magazine are reporting that the Japanese distributor of Pepsi, Suntory Ltd., plans to offer it’s customers the chance to fly in space as part of a promotional campaign. Five winners will receive the opportunity to fly into space in 2001 via Zegrahm Space Voyages, a U.S. space travel agency. Due to legal restrictions, winners would be required to pay 15 percent of the $100,000 spaceflight cost. The original story came from the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun.

Wired has only a little bit more detail, confusingly offered under the headline “Online DVD Rentals.” I haven’t found the Reuters article, and my odds of digging up the original Yomiuri Shimbun piece are virtually nonexistent.

I’m assuming this contest never went anywhere. Zegrahm Space Voyages was acquired by Space Adventures in 1999, and Space Adventures has brokered only a handful of space tourism deals, starting with the $20 million flight of Dennis Tito in 2001. The whole field of private human spaceflight has grown slowly and cautiously, although Elon Musk wants to accelerate it through SpaceX.

For some interesting context around this Pepsi sweepstakes, though, you can check out a 1997 Baltimore Sun article about Zegrahm’s ambitious plans. And who knows — maybe some space-loving Japanese Pepsi fan signed up for a zero-gravity plane flight in the next millennium.