Technology that changed us : From WorldWideWeb to Drones

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we’re looking at technologies that had an impact on the world, paved the way for the future, and changed us, in ways good and bad.

1990: WorldWideWeb, the first Web browser

Of all the technologies that changed our lives, perhaps the most profound of the last 50 years has been the web. But it wasn’t the ability to hyperlink documents that made the most impact. Instead, it was the application that presented all that information to users, the browser.

The browser, in combination with the various web protocols, allowed access to the web from a wide variety of operating systems and devices. It allowed untrained users to click and browse from website to website. But even before there were public websites, there needed to be a browser.

That browser was initially called WorldWideWeb. Its name was later changed to Nexus to avoid confusion with the entity we now call the web, but back then was the World Wide Web or WWW. The web changed the world, but it was the browser that delivered those changes worldwide.

1991: Linux

In the 1990s and technology change was accelerating. But of all the innovations, of all the products launched, one stands out: Linux.

It was the message sent out on August 25, 1991, to the Minix Usenet newsgroup that changed everything. Linus Torvalds typed, “I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional…” Ah, Linus. You got so much right, but you got the scale of Linux’ eventual impact so very wrong.

Linux took UNIX and blasted it out of existence. Instead of a very expensive-to-license operating system, Linux was free. It fired up to open source. And today, Linux runs in everything, from light bulbs to cars, to almost all TVs and phones on the market.

1992: The first SMS text message

Who would have thought that people would prefer typing over talking on their phones? While the SMS concept had existed for quite some time, it wasn’t until December 3, 1992, that engineer Neil Papworth sent a message to Richard Jarvis’ Vodafone Orbitel 901 handset. The message that precipitated billions of very sore thumbs was a simple “MERRY CHRISTMAS”.

But as of now, SMS volume has been going down steadily as users migrate to an app-based message from Apple, WhatsApp, and Facebook. Even so, SMS changed how we talk, or rather, not talk to each other.

1993: Mosaic web browser

By 1993, things were heating up for the World Wide Web, which was quickly becoming actually worldwide. While Mosaic wasn’t the first browser, it was the first that could display images. For the time, it was very fast, and it quickly became popular.

Mosaic, created by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, grad students at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) located at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Mosaic eventually became Netscape, which dominated the web (for a while, at least).

1994: Amazon founded

At the time of its founding back in 1994, no one could have to know that Amazon would become one of the world’s most innovative companies. Then, it was a source for books.

Today, it’s at the core of the cloud movement, has played a primary role in killing off retail (or at least beating retailers who weren’t on their best game), has revolutionized digital books, transformed product availability and delivery, created an AI that lives in our homes, and has become a prime producer of top-tier original video content.

1995: Windows 95 and IE 1.0

By 1995, Windows had been around for a full decade. But it was in 1995 that what became the dominant desktop environment for the next two decades would be introduced. While a new Windows 10 user or Mac OS user might not know how to use Windows 3.1 on sight, every modern desktop computing user would know how to use Windows 95.

Windows 95 was the first version of Windows to include IE, which would become the dominant browser for more than a decade. While network configuration in Windows 95 was still uncomfortable, with Windows 95, Microsoft finally had the foundation for what would become the modern desktop experience.

1996: Pilot handheld (first Palm handheld)

At the time, it was hard to believe a modem company would introduce the first successful handheld PDA. Now, of course, with handheld smartphones dominant, it’s impossible to separate communications from personal devices.

1996 also gave birth to the USB and CSS. These have had their impact on technology, but it was the small, portable, relatively inexpensive Pilot handheld that replaced personal organizers and was the first device, since the watch, that came with us everywhere.

1997: Steve Jobs returns to Apple

A lot went on in 1997, but the single biggest event, arguably the one that changed all of technology, was the return of Steve Jobs to Apple.

You have to remember that in 1997, Apple was dying. It was always described as “the beleaguered Apple Computer” or “the troubled Apple Computer.” No one would have expected Apple to utterly transform music and telephones, not to mention lead the digital mobile transformation we’re experiencing now.

1998: Google founded

If you’re not sure about the impact of Google on modern times, Google it. For the early years of the web, search engine wars dominated the news. Then came the Google algorithm, famous for surfacing much more relevant information.

Somehow, a page that was simple and barebones eclipsed all other advertising, determined what was relevant to… everything, and became the dominant information verb in our lives. Founded with the motto “Don’t be evil,” it’s not at all clear whether Google will be our constant assistant and friend, or our ultimate undoing.

1999: Apple AirPort (and iBook)

Apple has a habit of taking existing technologies and molding them into something irresistible to consumers. Along the way, Apple has often set the pace, effectively giving other companies “permission” to enter similar markets.

While neither the 1999 Airport Wi-Fi access point nor the easy-to-mock clamshell design of the Apple iBook were barnburners, they showcased one feature that has changed computing. Before the AirPort (and Wi-Fi), computers were always tethered. If you wanted to access a network, you had to plug in. But with the advent of Wi-Fi, we could take our machines anywhere in the home or office, without wires.

2000: Google AdWords

It’s not hard to see the impact AdWords had on the online advertising industry, but one thing is for sure: nothing has been the same. AdWords took the risk out of advertising, at least mostly.

Instead of buying an ad for a period of time and paying the fee, advertisers could buy a certain level of performance in terms of click-throughs. But it was also up to the advertiser to properly construct their ads, with better-performing ads rising to the top. This is a huge business. By 2017, Google’s ad revenue was nearly $100 billion.

 

2001: Apple iPod

We continue to look at products that laid the foundation for the modern world. Windows XP and OS X (now macOS) 10.0 were both released in 2001, and served as the foundation for our current desktop operating systems.

But it was the iPod that continued the tech world’s inexorable move to a mobile-first environment. There had been many MP3 players before the iPad, and, in fact, Apple promoted its own music format. But the iPod was introduced with, for then, was such shocking capacity that, for the first time, music lovers could carry their entire music collection with them wherever they went.

2002: The Tor Project

Tor, based originally on an onion router project developed for the US Navy, is designed to keep communications secure, even at a level that may surpass VPNs. The idea of an onion router is that there are layers of security (like layers in an onion) that would have to be peeled away to find out a user’s identity. Since Tor transmits through a series of IP addresses, the destination IP address will never know that of the originating IP.

In a world where privacy is becoming ever more difficult to secure, where governments, terrorists, and criminals are actively spying on users everywhere, a tool to protect privacy becomes ever more important. Unfortunately, like many technologies, privacy provided to the innocent can also be used by bad guys. Even so, the non-profit Tor project exists to preserve and protect identities the world over.

Tor, itself, may not have changed the world as much as something like Android did. But Tor enabled the world changes to work safely and freely to change the

2003: Android founded

Most people think of the Android operating system as something Google developed, but that’s not the whole story. Android was founded as a company, initially intended to build an operating system for digital cameras. At one point, the company was so close to closing down, it couldn’t pay its rent.

That was then. This is now. Today, Android is the most successful (in terms of the number of users) operating system in history. It is, unfortunately, fragmented almost beyond recognition, and suffers from many security concerns and forks. Even so, Android is dominant numerically, and will likely remain so for years.

2004: Facebook founded

In addition to Facebook, the company Mark Zuckerberg founded in 2004 as TheFacebook owns Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. Together this juggernaut dominates messaging and social media to a degree never before seen.

Not only has Facebook transformed how people connect and communicate, it’s also created its own vast walled garden, filled with details about nearly every human on the planet. How it uses that data, how it manipulates that data, and how it protects that data will be a problem for all of us for years to come.

2005: YouTube

In 2005, it was very difficult and expensive to distribute video. I did some videos for clients and the challenges and costs were enormous. All that changed when YouTube made internet video free for everyone.

According to Google (who owns YouTube), more 18 to 49 yearolds watch YouTube video on mobile than any broadcast network. Google also says that same demographic group dropped TV watching by 4 percent, but in 2015, increased YouTube watch time by 74 percent.

2006: Twitter

What can you say about Twitter in 140 characters?

Although Twitter upped its character count to 280 last year, the micro-blogging service created a new way to reach a tremendous number of people, instantly. Perhaps nothing showcases Twitter’s power more than Donald Trump’s unexpected and improbable rise to President of the United States. By using Twitter, #TheDonald bypassed all the gatekeepers and built his own audience of dedicated fans.

2007: iPhone

The iPhone. It was rumored and anticipated for years, but when Steve Jobs finally held it up to show it, it still exceeded everyone’s expectations. The thing was, it wasn’t just the iPhone that blew the PC, music, landline, and cell phone markets apart. It was the apps, which took another year.

Once Apple introduced the App Store, and created a way for users to get at apps for a few bucks and the touch of a button, the last bit of friction between digital technology and digital technology use was gone — and the world was forever changed.

 

2008: Airbnb

The techie in me would like to give this year to Google Chrome, Windows Server 2008, or Hyper-V, because all were impressive, influential products. But the charter for this list is technologies that changed us, and Airbnb is impacting housing, hotels, towns, and cities the world over.

What seemed like a simple sharing economy way of letting folks let rooms in their houses has become a worldwide phenomenon, causing civil governments all over the planet to rethink their approach to zoning and land use. It’s not all good, with Airbnb blamed for rising rents and the reduction in the availability of rental properties. Even so, Airbnb gets our nod, because it’s like nothing that has come before.

2009: Fitbit Tracker

Although Fitbit has a raft of competitors today, most notably the Samsung Galaxy Watch &Apple Watch, the idea of gathering data on personal activity to help drive health and fitness has been gaining traction ever since that first Fitbit. With the graying of the population, the increased cost of healthcare, and the need for us all to get healthy, the quantified self may be a way for us to manage our way to better health.

2010: iPad

The original iPad came to market at an affordable $499 base price. It was simple, understandable, reliable (mine still works today), and — for the time — fast and responsive. Although the tablet market has mostly been consumed by larger form-factor phones and attacked by the no-setup-required Chromebooks, it’s clear that the iPad and tablet computing helped break the dominance of the desktop PC, particularly among consumers.

2011: Chromebook

Microsoft and Windows had a stranglehold on computing for more than two decades. The rise of the smartphone changed all that, but so did the Chromebook. Initially considered little more than an amusement because all it ran was the Chrome browser, the Chromebook has taken education by storm. Because of the growth of the cloud, the Chromebook is demonstrating that, really, you can do almost anything you need to do with a powerful browser and no native apps.

2012: Raspberry Pi

Ever since humanity discovered how to make tools, there have been makers. But the ability to add advanced computing power to projects was limited by the cost of entry. The Raspberry Pi changed all that. There was a $25 device that could run Linux and be at the heart of a vast array of projects.

 

2013: PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since the latest console generation was introduced. That said, games for the Xbox One and the PS4 have eclipsed those of previous generations, providing what has become almost a new golden age of video games.

This is also the first game generation to fully embrace 4K TVs and, in the more advanced models, better HDR image quality. Nintendo, which earlier made a big splash with the Wii, would skip most of this generation with the subsequent failure of the Wii U. Nintendo stays off the field until 2017, when it launched the Switch.

2014: Satya Nadella and Windows 10

By late 2013, Microsoft was rapidly becoming a has-been in the minds of many users and analysts. Windows 8 was a total failure. Microsoft was late to the smartphone party and Windows Phone was a dismal failure. The acquisition of Nokia was insanely expensive and ultimately fruitless. Microsoft had lost all its luster.

But then came two events: Satya Nadella took over Microsoft from Steve Ballmer on February 4, 2014, and Windows 10 was announced on September 30, 2014. Prior to Nadella, Microsoft only had two leaders, Bill Gates from 1975 to 1999 and Steve Ballmer from 2000 to 2014. The computer industry of 2014 was a very, very different beast from that of 2000, and Ballmer seemed mired in old school thinking.

Since then, Microsoft has been firing on all cylinders. It has opened up with apps on competing devices. It has launched its own line of competitive computers. It has planted its flag in the cloud space with the hugely successful Office 365 and Azure offerings. It has even embraced Linux alongside of Windows. And, finally, Windows 10 is a clear success.

2015: Amazon Echo and the Alexa ecosystem

When I first looked at the Echo, it seemed kind of useless, but interesting. Since then, I’ve incorporated six Alexa devices into my life.

It’s important to understand that Alexa is what Siri should have been. Alexa is smart, fast, personable — and has a huge library of apps, called Skills. Amazon has been smart, allowing other vendors to license and embed the Alexa technology in their products.

As a result, the voice-based personal assistant, which is also the core of a home-based IoT hub, is now a practical aspect of everyday life.

2016: Pokémon Go

So, that happened. You may have heard Microsoft talking about the HoloLens. You may have seen Apple’s keynote, where they talked about the potential for AR(augmented reality). But for millions of people, AR is already here… in the form of a ridiculous computer game/experience.

This odd little game, where you chase after animated monsters you view in meatspace through your phone’s screen, has been downloaded more than 750 million times as of last year and has generated more than $1.2 billion in revenue. More to the point, however, is that it has exposed a vast range of the technology-using planet to the concept of augmented reality.

2017: Nintendo Switch

Nintendo. Like Microsoft, Nintendo has shown us that it’s possible for previous leaders who’ve lost their mojo to find their way back to the top. The Nintendo Switch is a surprising combination of home console and portable machine, with Nintendo’s exceptional game design and the right price.

2018 and beyond

We haven’t showcased a lot of technology that’s still got enormous potential, but hasn’t yet rocked the entire world. Stay tuned for vastly improved drone technology, along with a fight over whether or not drones are intruding on our privacy. Look for VR and AR to take hold, as price, performance, and the ever-present nausea are conquered by developers. AI and intelligent assistants, along with commercial and personal IoT will be growing at a tremendous pace. Enterprise computing, the cloud, and the distributed office will be a trend that keeps on giving.

But there’s also a dark side. Privacy will continue to be assaulted, both by criminals and our own governments. Hackers and identity thieves will be rampant. Social networks will sacrifice our safety for their own reasons, possibly changing the outcome of world governments. And the proliferation of real fake news, scandals around every corner, and politician on politician battles will keep us all cranky and stressed out.