The Technology of the Decade


TechnologyIn a few short days the calendar will roll over two places leaving behind the aughts or zero years of the 21st century and heading into our century’s awkward teen years. And in the finest traditions of calendar journalism that means its time for a wrap-up or best of column. Today’s entry will announce the Inaugural Thom Mitchell winner of Technology of the Decade, an award given on a decennial basis.

My criteria for nominees are fairly vague, but basically the technology must be widespread and in use by actual people. It doesn’t have to have been created during this decade, but it must have attained both ubiquity and mindshare. But use alone isn’t sufficient, it must also have legs. This is why Facebook and Twitter et al won’t make the cut. While they have large numbers of users and a disproportionate amount of mindshare and buzz, it remains to be seen if they’ll still matter 5 or even 10 years from now. After all people are fickle, remember when Friendster and MySpace were all the rage?

So without further ado here are the nominees :

DVDDVDs – yes, I know the DVD has been around since before 2000, but in 2000 VCRs still costs a chunk of change and DVD players were exorbitantly priced. It wasn’t until 2000 and 2001 that DVD player prices started to plummet enough that the widespread rapid adoption of DVDs began to take place. This revolutionized entertainment viewing while killing the market for multiple products – when was the last time you saw a tape rewinder for sale? The DVD allowed a company such as Netflix to exist, can you imagine mailing over 2 million videotapes every day like Netflix does with DVDs.

While DVDs may be at the peak of their existence right now, they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The HD-DVD and Blu-ray format war may have decided which format will succeed the DVD, but consumers aren’t running out to replace their DVD libraries with Blu-ray discs by the millions like they bought DVDs to replace their VHS libraries. My prediction is that Blu-Ray will never penetrate as far as the DVD because movies and other content are increasingly being delivered online. Even Blu-Ray players are now touting how they support Netflix, Pandora and Youtube streaming.

USBUSB– Yes, this is another product that existed before the decade began but it wasn’t until this decade that the USB flash drives and USB hard drive capacities increased enough to be useful while also dropping in price for their adoption to USB killed the floppy disk and made the CDR a quaint way to exchange data as it is doing to the various flavors of DVD-R. The original iPods used Firewire to connect to the computer, but it wasn’t until the iPod architecture was changed to use USB (and to work natively on Windows PCs) that consumers started purchasing them in large volumes. But beyond the USB as a means to move data – its utility as a connection device for keyboards, mice, cameras, microphones has since been extended into other areas like USB Microscopes, USB coffee warmers, USB fans, USB bottle openers and USB speakers.

Wordpress logoWordPress– This blog is written on WordPress which I have hosted at a hosting provider (Bluehost.com – the service has been very reliable and I’ve gotten help when needed – try them out yourself). I can add functionality to my blog in seconds with only a few clicks by adding a plugin. Sure people were able to blog back before there was blogging software, and yes there are other blogging software tools, but WordPress is the market leader and it’s allowed millions of people to publish on the internet in a quantifiably different way than the early Geocities or tripod websites were ever able to.

I would argue that WordPress enabled and was a precursor to the social media revolution – not the specific technology but the idea that everyone can have a voice and can bypass the traditional gatekeepers and media outlets. Would Facebook or Twitter have happened without blogging? I don’t think so.

wifiWireless– And by wireless I mean Wi-Fi or 802.11a,b,g, and n. Yes, wireless has been around since the 80s (remember those old Telxon wireless access points running on DOS) but it wasn’t until 2000 and 2001 that consumers and companies started deploying wireless in large numbers and started including wireless cards in laptops as part of the standard offerings. This simple technology truly has been revolutionary. Now even McDonald’s touts it’s free wireless access points and almost every company has an open wireless network for public use alongside their private secured wireless/wired network.

In 2000 when I got my first broadband connection, the provided router only had hard-wired connections and I had to add an Orinoco wireless access point in order to enable wireless in my house. I went war driving in my neighborhood two years later and found exactly 3 access points within 1/2 mile of my house and they were all unsecured. Today I can see over 30 different access points while sitting at my desk and all of them are at least nominally secured – I’ll leave the discussion of wifi security for another time . Few other technologies have so quickly changed the way people work and do business and also how and where they use their computers. The fax machine, telephone and telegraph are other technologies that have had as profound an effect on business as wifi.

iPod ClassiciPod– this little device is far more than an incremental evolution of the Sony Walkman. It has truly changed music listening for hundreds of millions of people. As a ultra-frequent business traveler I used to schlep about 25 or so CDs and a Sony Discman with me whenever I traveled. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do as it took up space and it frequently fell out of my lap while on the airplane. The first time that I traveled with my iPod was a revelation – I was suddenly able to bring over 1/3 of my music collection with me on the road. I could bring the entire Led Zeppelin discography, the essential Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall), key Rolling Stones Albums, the Dire Straits Discography, the Grateful Dead Discography, Beethoven’s symphonies (all of them), Bluegrass music, Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, Rossini, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Aaron Copeland, Charlie Haden, Sea Shanties, bad 80s music, and so on.

Whatever I am in the mood for is already on my iPod. I no longer have to make a choice. I can, and do, load up my iPod with enough music that it would play for days and days without repeating a single song. Right now I have over 7,500 songs and over 2,500 podcasts on it. Is that all of my music? No, but it is enough and it fits into my shirt pocket. Thank you Apple.

Toyota PriusToyota Prius– yes there were other electric cars (some over 100 years ago) but the Prius added key features and it also attained a small but critical volume of sales achieving a desirability and acceptability that forced other car makers to respond with competitive offerings. Now the Prius’s sales as a percentage of overall car sales is still small but it has crossed a tipping point thus beginning the ultimate shift towards fully electric vehicles sometime in the future. The Prius was the first practical electric hybrid that crossed into the mainstream and changed people’s minds – maybe not all of them but enough to change laws and create financial incentives to consider hybrids. It also helped spawn companies like Tesla motors producing super-high performance all-electric vehicles and now even the not-so-goliath GM is about to roll out the Volt – all because the Prius got the ball rolling.

Sadly GM never came close to understanding the power of electric cars because they just didn’t trust it as witnessed by their painful EV-1 experiments. And now they they are playing catch-up to Toyota.  It took Toyota to commit to doing something different and begin the shift away from solely gasoline powered cars. I don’t know how long this shift will ultimately take, but I would expect that by 2015 10% of all cars sold will fully electric or electric hybrids and by 2020 that number will be 30%, if not higher. The advances will only increase as the volume of vehicles increase and as the increasing consumer acceptance creates new possibilities. 

GPSGPS – Yes, I know that GPS was around in the 90s. In fact we “unofficially” used it on the submarine when transiting into various ports. I say unofficially because the Navy hadn’t officially authorized it for use in navigating a ship and if we’d run aground on a sandbar, heads would have rolled. So despite having a  modern, handheld $1,500 GPS unit (they cost more in 1995) that gave our position within feet, we had to navigate through dense fog banks using our 1960s era technology of radar and depth gauge while up on the sail the OOD looked at the GPS screen and critiqued the accuracy of the navigation team – of which I was a member.

But it was in this decade that everybody and their brother, and sister, and mom and dad finally got a GPS unit. Now even my cellphone has a GPS unit built-in. It may not be a good GPS but it was a free add-in and it wasn’t why I bought the phone. Now GPSs have surpassed car radios as the most stolen object from cars, with iPods a close second. GPSs mean that now when people get lost they don’t have to stop and ask for directions. GPS isn’t going anywhere

Camera SensorDigital Cameras– yes I know that digital cameras have been around since the 1980s – remember the Sony Mavica – but it wasn’t until this decade that the average consumer largely abandoned film for digital as prices for cameras plummeted, as the computers increasingly could handle processing those images and as the software got easier to use. The digital camera has mutated so much that every cell phone now has a digital camera and increasingly people solely rely on the cell phone for all of their picture taking needs. At the beginning of the decade Kodak still had a thriving film-based business generating significant revenue – 10 years later film has become a niche as Kodak has discontinued lauded films like Kodachrome. Before this decade people primarily looked a pictures by opening scrapbooks now most people look at pictures on screens – sometimes even on the back of the digital camera itself.

Treo 600Smartphones– Yes smartphones existed in some form prior to 2000 but it wasn’t until after the Palm Treo was released and then followed up by RIM’s Blackberry Phones and even various Windows Mobile Phones that the masses adopted smartphone fucntionality. The First smartphones were clumsy and didn’t really do anything very well. They weren’t good organizers, they were lousy web browsers, lousy email devices, heavy and battery challenged. But suddenly you could have your phone and your organizer on one device ad they were good enough. You didn’t have to have your Blackberry and your cell phone and chargers for each device, you could simply travel with your phone, your computer and a USB cable. Functionality rapidly improved but the designs weren’t elegant until Apple changed the game in 2007.

 The Apple iPhone immediately polarized the technosphere -with half of them salivating and proclaiming it the greatest invention since the wheel and the other half bloviating that the iPhone would be another Newton ushering in Apple’s downfall. But when the iPhone was introduced no one really paid much attention to Apple’s App store. Now that over 2 billion apps have been downloaded, RIM and Google are starting to pay attention to the power that an application ecosystem can bring to a smartphone platform. My smartphone is a Windows Mobile phone (I’ll get an iPhone once Verizon starts offering iPhones) and for me going without mobile access to Google Maps, Twikini (a Twitter app), SMS, Email, Calendaring and Web access is simply a non-starter. You can quote me on this, in another 5 years 92% or more of all phones sold will be smartphones. 

Trophy CupAnd the winner is– while the iPod might be my personal favorite, the hands-down winner of the 1st Thom Mitchell Decennial Technology of the Decade is – USB.  Simple but powerful. Ubiquitous. USB won’t be going anywhere in the near future and it will be in use 10 and probably 20 years from now. With the exception of the Mac Airbook – most laptops now have at least 3 USB ports, if not 4 or 5. When was the last time you saw and used a parallel port? When was the last time you used your 56k Modem? Now the question isn’t how many times today have you used a USB port, but rather how many hours today have you used a USB port?

So do you agree with my nominations? Which technologies did I miss? Which technology should have won? Let me know -t

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  1. #1 by John on 2009/12/20 - 11:44

    It looks like you missed virtualization, i.e. Server, Storage, Desktop, and Network – specifically, VMWare. Virtualization is possibly the most postively disruptive technology since the microprocessor.

  2. #2 by Thom on 2009/12/20 - 23:28

    John, you are right, Virtualization is incredibly important, but if you notice all the technologies listed are used by a wide variety of people, not just IT staffs. And yes virtualization is “used” by hundreds of millions of people, but most of them don’t know they are using it. Once you leave the IT world most people really don’t know or understand virtualization. If I had limited this disdussion to a list of IT technologies you can bet Virtualization would be one of the top technologies. I should have done a better job listing my criteria – thanks for pointing out that oversight.

  3. #3 by Bob Rauck on 2009/12/28 - 15:44

    Thom,

    For my money, the winner is widely available high-speed internet access. Accessing a fat data pipe at home has had the most dramatic impact on my life, and my commute.

    Runner up – peer to peer file sharing; especially, bit torrent.

    Bob

  4. #4 by Bob Rauck on 2009/12/28 - 16:08

    And don’t forget TIVO.

    Bob

  5. #5 by Thom on 2009/12/28 - 16:15

    Bob, you are right. I should have included high-speed internet access. I guess I missed it because it has become so ubiquitous. Thanks for the catch.

    I’m a big fan of Bit Torrent – Bram Cohen really came up with a great idea – but I don’t think Bit Torrent and P2P crosses the mindshare threshhold with non-IT people or non tech-savvy people. It’s cool and a great improvement over standard hub/spoke delivery systems but Aunt Millie or Uncle Billie wouldn’t know a bit torrent from a data storm.
    Thanks for taking a look and providing the feedback. -t

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