Technologies that Shaped a Decade

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a few gadgets that had been transformative to me. A reader wrote in and asked if I thought there any categories of products that had changed the world over the last decade. I thought about that for a while and here my list of the some of the gadgets and services that almost overnight (from a historical perspective) changed everything and went from enthusiast to mass market.

[Image credit Ken Fager]

Ten years ago there was no...

High Definition – It was promised for a long time but, by 2007, things fell into alignment and there were enough screens and content to make the average user take notice. While HD had been around in the earlier part of the decade, it was limited to expensive TVs and there was little content to be seen except the occasional nature trailer or special event. HD has changed and re-invigorated the TV experience and it's hard to imagine viewing movies or sporting events in anything but. Of course, the challenge is that now that the market has embraced, the TV folks are looking to get people on to the next thing, 3D, but that's a story for another column.

iPod – Sure, there were MP3 players that came before the iPod. There were MP3 players that came after it. None caught the attention of the mass market like the iPod and later the iTunes music store did. If at this time, ten years ago, I'd have suggested that (then) Apple computer would become the largest music retailer, displace the Walkman as synonymous with digital audio and become a major force in consumer electronics, you might have suggested to me that I go home and lie down. iPod changed the market not only for music but for digital media as well. Today, I can't imagine how I ever flew across country, wedged into a middle seat, without having all my music and videos with me and a pair of ubiquitous white headphones to help me kill the time.

3G – Ten years ago, the very first GPRS services rolled out with barely the speed of a dial up connection. It was only enough to power a slow WAP browser on a monochrome phone but it was amazing nevertheless. It would be awhile before we saw the rollout of 2G and 3G services that would not only deliver speed but would do so ubiquitously, relatively affordably. State of the art a decade ago was getting your text emails, sans attachments for the most part on a BlackBerry. Today, it's hard to think about why we even bothered to carry devices that couldn't do full email, browse the web as well as you could on a PC and stream or download music, video and applications all in real time. The internet is now ubiquitous, in the pocket and used by everyone.

Smartphones – Once upon a time, phones were made for talking. That was pretty much it. The killer application for mobile was one thing and one thing only. Voice communication. While there were some experiments with BlackBerries that could do voice and data, practically no one used them that way as they required an earpiece. It took the Treo in late 2001 to really combine the PDA and phone together in a way that made sense for users, but it wasn't until 2007 when Apple took the smartphone to the masses along with an application store that ignited the mobile revolution that we live in today. Once a gadget solely for business users or gadget enthusiasts, the smartphone became the device for the mass market user. Today, it's not uncommon to see anyone, from any walk of life using a high-end device and taking care of the sophisticated features on it.

Xbox Live – A decade ago this fall, Microsoft defied the industry expectations and launched the Xbox. It was shortly thereafter that it launched Xbox Live, a paid service for gamers who could then play against each other. While online games had been around for a long time on the PC, this was the first time that a console became connected and social. Integrating voice chat along with multiplayer experiences in a paid model, Xbox broke new ground. With the Xbox 360, Microsoft further broke new ground by making it the first console that really needed to be connected to the Internet to get full use of the experience. Adding marketplaces for casual game downloads, music and video and Netflix support helped the Xbox Live experience go from hardcore gamer to bring the live experience to the rest of the family. Over time, Xbox became more than a game console, but rather a way to make the disconnected TV a part of the connected world.

Skype – I'm old enough to recall long distance charges if you called NJ to NY and how we were told as kids to wait until after 5pm or, better yet, after 9pm when the rates changed. Even today, international calls are one of the last places where it can be pretty expensive to make calls to friends or family overseas. Enter Skype, direct communication to other Internet users for free. Skype changed the way we communicate and has become a defacto way of connecting for many around the world. Now integrated on smarphones and capable of working over WiFi and 3G it's starting to displace to traditional carriers. Last week I stood on my deck talking on my iPhone via Skype on a three way call to friends who were in Sydney and San Francisco while I was in NJ. We spoke for over an hour, conferencing in others as needed and the net cost of the entire conversation was zero. Yep, the 21st century is a pretty cool place.

Twitter – I confess, even though I was an early Twitter user in 2006, I didn't think much ofthe service. After all, did I really need to know what Robert Scoble was eating for lunch? I ignored the service for a while but came back to it in 2007; something was happening that was clearly transformative. Twitter had gone from a status update service to a backchannel conversation that was happening in real time. Over the years, important stories broke on Twitter first (along with stories that turned out not to be true.) It's been embraced by both celebrities with millions of followers who use it engage their fans and every day users who use it keep up with each other, share their thoughts and, yes, even what they had for lunch. Another service that I can't imagine life without.

Facebook – Sure, there were other services for social networking before Mark Zuckerberg brought what was then called TheFacebook online. A few years, a dropped "the" and multi-billion dollar valuation, Facebook brought social networking not only to Harvard and other college students but to their parents, younger siblings and just about anyone else who had a PC and an Internet connection. Combined with an array of features that proved popular with the mass market, Facebook became not only a service but a platform for other social services such as Zynga games like Farmville. Brands regularly not only include a URL but a Facebook page in addition or increasingly in place of it. While other services have come and gone, it appears there's a center of gravity around Facebook that will keep it here for some time to come.

The last ten years have been a decade of innovation and change. Unlike in the past, so many of the products and technologies introduced have become a core part of the way we live, work and play. It's almost hard to imagine that we lived without some of this stuff just a short time ago. What are the emerging technologies you see today that will become the next mass market, life changing ones of tomorrow?