The end of 2023 was the start of our “30 years of CODE” celebration year, which will continue throughout all of 2024. To look back at those 30 years, I wrote articles in the last two issues of CODE Magazine, looking at what happened 25 and 30 years ago. This time, I'll look back 20 years and explore the latest and greatest of the early-to-mid 2000s. I remember it as a somewhat turbulent time. The dotcom bubble had burst, and the glory days of technology seemed to be over. Was the internet really all it was supposed to be or was it just a passing fad? It was hard to say.

The Aftermath of the Dotcom Bubble

One of the main catalysts for the dot-com-bubble bursting was the overvaluation of many internet-based companies that had little or no profits but huge expectations. Investors poured money into these ventures, hoping to cash in on the next big thing, but many of them turned out to be unsustainable or unprofitable. Some of the most notorious examples of dotcom failures were, Webvan, eToys, and, which burned through millions of dollars in a matter of months before going bankrupt. The collapse of these and other companies sent shockwaves through the stock market, wiping out billions of dollars in value and causing many investors to lose confidence in the sector.

The world of software development wasn't immune to the effects of the dotcom bubble bursting. Many software developers who'd been hired by dotcom startups found themselves out of work when their employers went under. Some of them had to accept lower salaries or switch careers, and others tried to start their own businesses or join more established companies. The demand for web development skills decreased, as many companies scaled back or canceled their online projects. The failure of many dotcoms also raised questions about the viability and quality of some of the emerging web technologies and standards, such as Java, XML, and HTML. Some critics argued that these technologies were overhyped and underdelivered, and that they weren't suitable for building complex and reliable applications. Others defended these technologies and claimed that they were still evolving and improving, and that they would eventually prove their worth.

Despite the challenges and setbacks that the dotcom bubble bursting posed for the software industry, it also had some positive effects. It forced many companies to rethink their business models and strategies, and to focus more on customer needs and satisfaction, rather than on growth and hype. It encouraged more innovation and experimentation as some developers sought to create new and better solutions for the web. It also paved the way for the emergence of new players and platforms, such as Google, Amazon, eBay, and PayPal, which took advantage of the opportunities and gaps in the market that the dotcom crash had left behind. These companies would go on to become some of the most successful and influential in the history of the internet and to shape the future of software development.

The Impact for CODE

Luckily for us at the CODE Group, the dotcom turbulences were less severe than for other companies. Most of the projects we were working on in the consulting and custom app dev side of the business weren't classic dotcom companies. Also, we'd started CODE Magazine in the Spring of 2000 and focused primarily on the new world of software development that Microsoft was generating. The Java programming language was of interest to a lot of people but had some issues that were, as of then, unaddressed, and one way to fix it was Microsoft's approach of re-inventing the language in a top-secret project headed up by language-guru Anders Hejlsberg, codenamed “Cool.” (This became C#, and yes, C# is still cool. You may have seen the T-shirt).

C# became a key component of the then nascent .NET ecosystem, which did away with the concept of the programming language driving everything and instead created a development framework that could be used equally from various languages. This was a concept that jived very much with what we believed a modern software development magazine should be talking about, and thus CODE Magazine found itself in a sweet spot of sorts. Other magazines, like Visual Basic Programmer's Journal, FoxPro Advisor, and many more, suddenly didn't look so hot anymore. A lot of this wasn't a coincidence. After all, we'd long been partnering very closely with Microsoft - I worked for the Visual Studio team as a contractor on various projects - and we were strong believers in these new concepts.

All these goings-on meant that we were somewhat protected from the dotcom mess. Yes, we also lost some customers, and the pool of potential new customers shrank. We had to tighten our belts a bit, but overall, we came through it all reasonably well. I remember it as a time that was painful for us, but not to an existential level. And despite all the internet disillusionment, we remained stout believers that it wasn't the internet that was the problem but rather the problem was the idea that the internet made economic fundamentals obsolete. In other words, we considered it crucially important to push forward with internet-related technologies. As a Microsoft-focused organization (and a Microsoft partner), this meant mainly focusing on ASP.NET as the backbone of almost all web applications that we wrote. We had largely ignored earlier versions of ASP, but then there was this young kid of a program manager straight out of college with a vision of a better web development environment. I was very impressed with his early demos. He was a funny and rather likable kid, and he always wore red shirts. His name was Scott someone or another. I think he still works at Microsoft today. 😊

And before you ask, most of the web applications we wrote in those days were mainly built for Internet Explorer, the de facto standard browser of the time. Netscape had faded in importance as they lost the “great browser wars” against Microsoft, and Firefox wasn't a thing yet. Internet Explorer had taken the web and HTML from being a simple mechanism to displaying hyperlinked text and simple documents that supported only laughable levels of visual design, to a far more functional user interface technology. I vividly remember sitting in some internet meetings at Microsoft (this was pre-open-source and being part of these secret closed-door meetings was a big thing for us geeks) where the idea of a DOM (Document Object Model) was first discussed. How awesome would it be to be able to interact with elements on a page using scripting technologies? Mind-boggling! (JavaScript was already a thing back then, of course, but VBScript was considered equally viable by many). In hindsight, it's now easy to blame Microsoft for having created many non-standard-compliant HTML problems, but back in the day, there were no standards and Microsoft had taken it upon themselves to push things forward as fast as possible. Although I had to suffer many of the later problems this caused (and I assume, so did you), I still think it was the right thing to do at the time, and I give them credit for it.

Other Important Tech

.NET, and Visual Studio were super important technologies for all professional developers. Yes, Linux was also important, but when you worked with enterprise customers, Microsoft was where the lucrative projects were. (Some Linux enthusiasts may disagree, and I don't want to take anything away from them, but we weren't successful in making money with Linux in those days.) Microsoft's anti-trust lawsuit had come to an end, and although it had an impact on how Microsoft had to operate for quite some time to come, it did solidify Microsoft's position and the company represented a very solid and steady bet for most enterprises around the world. When Microsoft pushed out technology in the early 2000s, you could assume it was going to be not just important and successful in the market, but also a steady horse to bet on for a while. I remember consulting around quite a few Microsoft technologies back then, and they were all solid investments. I never worried that the time we spent becoming experts in one Microsoft technology or another would be wasted. (In future installments of this series of articles, I will take a much different look at this aspect of Microsoft.)

Operating systems were a big thing 20 years ago. Microsoft's Windows XP is still one of the most liked versions of Windows (Figure 1). It was Microsoft's first departure from the “battleship gray” user interface design and into a more colorful world. Most of us will fondly remember the default background image of some very green pastures, overlaid with visual elements that featured far more colors than in the past. I remember that some of our customers thought it looked “like a candy store” and it took them a while to get used to it. Some even used Windows NT as client operating systems because of it. Ultimately, Windows XP did become a fan favorite and a very good operating system for its time.

Figure 1: A typical Windows XP screen shot
Figure 1: A typical Windows XP screen shot

It may have seemed like that to a lot of us back then, but it wasn't just a Microsoft world when it came to operating systems. Linux was always around and important in certain scenarios. But there also was this niche operating system called Mac OS X. 20 years ago, I thought it was neat. After all, it had been born out of the very geeky-cool NeXT Step operating system, developed by the NeXT company founded by Steve Jobs, and later integrated into Apple with Steve Job's return. It didn't yet play a big role overall, and most people would never have considered buying a Mac. We used Macs in our magazine department, but generally, it seemed like something that wasn't very important to the business world, and it was almost non-existent in our software development considerations. (Another topic I'll have to revisit in the next articles in this series.)

Although we built a lot of web-based applications even 20 years ago, it should also be mentioned that, for most businesses, it was a “thick client” world. Many business applications were built as WinForms applications, because cross-platform deployment wasn't a big consideration for business applications. After all, why worry about users on a Mac when nobody in business used Macs? Therefore, WinForms applications, and later, WPF applications, were a very important market segment. (This isn't talked about very much anymore, but people are often surprised when I tell them how many companies are still building Rich Windows Client Apps even today.)

Apple was also not a real player in mobile computing yet. Yes, Apple had the Newton years earlier, but that was ahead of its time and was soon discontinued. Palm Pilots were also a thing of the past. But RIM's (Research-In-Motion) BlackBerry was all the rage for mobile enthusiasts (Figure 2). It may have later gotten Hilary Clinton into trouble as her email device of choice, but it was the state-of-the-art mobile business solution for quite some time. It seems quaint today, but it was considered unthinkable that a device without a physical keyboard could be feasible in business scenarios. This was an idea that Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer held onto way too long, in the process killing Microsoft's phone business. Today, most people don't even remember that Microsoft had a strong position in that market segment, with Windows Mobile and Windows CE.

Figure 2: The BlackBerry 6000, released in 2003
Figure 2: The BlackBerry 6000, released in 2003

The Fun Stuff

The early 2000s were also a fun time. After all, Microsoft released the first Xbox (Figure 3). What a machine that was! And the games it had! It may not have immediately been a strong competitor for the already established PlayStation system, but it sure put out some classics. Halo, Combat Evolved (Figure 4) was groundbreaking. It finally made first-person shooters truly work on consoles and brought such experiences into living rooms. But there were also others. For me, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic stand out as particular time sinks.

Figure 3: The first Xbox was released for the Christmas 2001 season.
Figure 3: The first Xbox was released for the Christmas 2001 season.
Figure 4: Halo: Combat Evolved
Figure 4: Halo: Combat Evolved

It's hard to believe that many of today's (and yesterday's) biggest brands in computer gaming date back to this era, whether you do your gaming on the Xbox, PC, PlayStation, or elsewhere. I very fondly remember classics such as Grand Theft Auto III, Max Payne, Warcraft III, Deus Ex, Half-Life 2, The Sims, God of War, and Metal Gear Solid II, to name just a few. Would you have guessed that World of Warcraft is now 20 years old? It seems that many of the games from back then are still on my “to be played one of these days soon” list, and not because they are classics, but just because I haven't quite gotten to them yet.

Although gaming went through a great period, I wasn't as excited about music back then. Chart toppers from 2003 and 2004 really don't resonate with me as true classics. I guess 50 Cent would disagree and rate In Da Club as one of the all-time great songs, but I'm not rushing out to buy a remix. The whole music industry took a blow from the Napster era and the Apple iPod, released in 2001, hadn't reinvigorated things yet. Or maybe I just wasn't that into that kind of music.

I did enjoy going to the movies back then though. There were some great ones. Lord of the Rings is at the top of my favorites from 2001 to 2003. Ah… they just don't make them like that anymore. Or actually, they do: This was also the start of the superhero movies, an era in which we are still stuck, it seems. Additionally, Pirates of the Caribbean resonated with people. The Passion of the Christ was released back then, and so was Finding Nemo. Star Wars Episodes I through III also fall into this time period. Yeah. I know. We shall not talk about that.

Markus Egger

Publisher, CODE Magazine

Founder, CODE Group