Top Tech Breakthroughs of the Decade
This is it: the top tech breakthroughs of the decade... as decided by me. If you think I missed any, let me know in the comments.
iPod: This is easily the biggest tech event of the decade. Apple single-handedly brought the MP3 format into the mainstream by releasing a device that put design and simplicity first. The iPod was not the first MP3 player, nor was it the one with the most features, but it was really, really easy to use. The headphones that came with the first-generation iPod (5GB! Wow!) were crappy… but they were also white, and thus turned iPod users into walking Apple ads.
The iPod begat the iTunes Music Store, and completely changed how we consume music. With downloading came piracy, and with piracy came DRM. The rise of the iPod sounded the death knell of the major-label system. In fact, Prince was selling music online years before iTunes, but, until the ungeeky iPod came along, fans had no way to listen to digital music when not in front of their computers. I was a fairly late adopter of the iPod: I used to rock the MiniDisc player.
Blackberry: The first Blackberry devices were email-only and a strange shade of blue. They weren't cool looking. They had a little clicky side-wheel. However, the Crackberry became an indispensable tool for businesspeople who needed to be reachable 24/7, and for those who wanted others to think they were that important. Nowadays, the Blackberry is a fully-featured smartphone, second only to the iPhone in popular appeal, and still the weapon of choice in the workplace.
The smartest thing RIM ever did was to loosen the Blackberry's tie a bit and market a few versions for the social set. The Blackberry fulfilled a need that most didn't realize existed, and whetted public appetite for smartphones.
Personal GPS: What was once science fiction, like Luke's targeting computer, became a given in rental cars within just a few years. Loved by geocachers and tourists, GPS units went from vaguely-accurate boxes that would direct you to drive off a cliff to highly-customizable digital assistants which could help you get from A to B while avoiding traffic, all with the help of a celebrity voice. Did Demolition Man predict this? I think it did.
Wikipedia: The bane of teachers, the junk-food of web research, the hockey puck of competing political and social interests: was there ever a creature like Wikipedia? The more obscure the topic, the less likely it is to be actually vetted by a true expert. Thierry Henry, anyone? However, Wikipedia broke down the invisible barrier between content creators and content consumers. You, too, can be an "online expert".
Social Media: Friendster. Myspace. Facebook. Twitter. NowPublic. Now the Internet is all about you. Nobody necessarily cares what you have to say, but damn it, it has never been easier to say it: oh, how we all love social media!
TiVo: Digital video recorders freed us from having to race home at breakneck speed so that we didn't miss Rock of Love. Advertisers hated it because it made zapping commercials even easier than using a VCR. Really DVRs are VCRs without tape, and therein lies the genius.
The rise of Google: Google was actually founded in 1998, but this has been their decade. The brainchild of Larry Page and Sergey Brin revolutionized search and advertising, and brought about a mega-IPO which gave Google a market cap of over $23 billion. Add forays into mobile operating systems, live chat, email, photo management, and office software has positioned Google to be next decade's Microsoft. That's both good and bad. This leads to…
Wait for it...
Google Wave: This one was mainly a triumph of hype. Google Wave generated a tsunami of geek buzz as the "email killer" approached. Google Wave invites commanded huge prices on eBay. Oh, how we tweeted about it. Oh, how we blogged. The problem was that Google Wave just wasn't that cool. With invites sent to disparate people, we had nobody to talk to (Wave to? Wave at?). When we finally did meet someone who had access to Google Wave, we found out that it was a lot like Skype. Personally, I felt like I was just using a Drupal WYSIWYG editor. That's not sexy, by the way.
Youtube: Streaming video for the masses. When I first saw Youtube, I thought, "wow, the future is here, and its UI is nauseatingly hideous". Youtube was bought by Google, who saw the future in video advertising. For my money, there is no clearer example of the gap between how we want web users to behave and how they actually behave than Youtube: instead of being a clearinghouse of original video footage linked by thoughtful commentary, most of the content is stolen, and 99% of the comments are flames.
While competitors, such as Vimeo, exist, Youtube remains king of the video hill, and still gets used by those who would otherwise have no voice.
Nintendo Wii: The Japanese gaming giant basically brought magic to your television screen with motion-sensitive controllers that made gaming fun for the whole family. If you haven't played Mario Kart with laughing children, then you haven't lived. Microsoft and Sony are perfecting motion-based controllers for their Xbox and PlayStation consoles as we speak. When playing Guitar Hero, you have to put one foot up on the couch like it's a monitor speaker.
Cloud Computing: Remote data storage took off towards the end of the decade, though a general lack of understanding mixed with headline-grabbing cloud failures have prevented the masses from giving themselves over to the Cloud more quickly. Cloud computing paved the way for Browser-centric OSes like Google Chrome OS, and made ultra-cheap and -tiny Netbooks a viable option for students, parents, and traveling businesspeople. I'm personally not sold.
Windows Vista: This was a huge step back for Microsoft as the buggy, unstable and insecure operating system debuted to disastrous reviews after a several-year delay. Companies and schools around the world refused to upgrade from Windows XP, and Microsoft had to fast-track Windows 7, whose reviews all tend to include some version of "better than Vista".
The overall effect of Microsoft Vista was to drive more people to Linux and to...
Mac OSX: Again with the simple and the pretty. Mac OSX delivered a smooth, sexy and simple user interface to PC users who were sick of the command line and vague error messages. Their simple laptops lack the external controls and first-to-market features that manufacturers deliver (Mac laptops got webcams years after PCs did), but the tradeoff is a far more solid platform.
The idea that a machine's applications should be able to talk to each other seemed like a breakthrough in 2001, when Mac OSX "Cheetah" came out. I remember my jaw dropping when I first saw it, and I ended up buying a G3 iBook as my first home machine, since I was so sick of troubleshooting PCs at work, and saw no reason to continue the headache on my own time. Even now, Apple's new-Mac announcements are hotly anticipated by fanboys and -girls around the globe. The term "cult of Mac" doesn't exist for nothing.
Am I forgetting something? No, that should pretty much do it. Oh, hang on a sec...
iPhone: Genetically, nearly identical to the iPod; like humans to chimps. The true breakthrough, as mentioned above, was the iPod. The iPhone is really just an extension. The real strength of the iPhone lies in its gorgeous UI: the tap is the new click. Again with going light on features: Steve Jobs considered MMS to be "legacy technology", apparently not realizing that not everyone on the face of the earth has a smartphone. Apple eventually enabled MMS on the iPhone.
Also, the App Store revolutionized the mobile phone-as-computing-platform, leveraging the talents of thousands of developers to offer iPhone users a wide breadth of applications. However, Apple's opaque approval process continues to piss off developers.
... So it's been a big decade for tech, though every decade we said the same thing, and will continue to do so. Maybe at the end 2019 I'll be typing this with my brain. In outer space. With a robot assistant bringing me some space coffee.