The ascent of technology

 

THE NOUGHTIES:IN THE ALWAYS hyper-fast world of technology, the noughties were all about the “i”. That’s “i” as in internet. In the past decade, we stuck it in front of products, services and new technologies with abandon. If the 1990s was the decade of the dot – as in dot.com, specifying a web address – the noughties embraced the “i” of the internet as a whole concept, a place in which we worked, played, communicated and – more than ever before thanks to more computing power and internet bandwidth – interacted, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

Indeed, most of what happened in technology over the past 10 years has revolved around the internet – if not an actual service offered over it, or content to be viewed or posted on a website, then a device that interacts with it. Perhaps no single technology (or rather, loose, unregulated, wild west conglomeration of technologies) has and continues to have as much influence on where we have come from at the start of the decade, where we are now, and where we are to go in the future.

Better bandwidth and faster computers with more storage space at cheaper prices all drove our love affair with the net. At the start of the decade, memory – as in the brains of a computing device or the storage space inside it (or, increasingly, outside it) – was still fairly costly, making high-powered computers relatively expensive, and top-end mobile phones and the brand new iPod (the music-playing phenomenon that debuted in 2000) very pricy indeed.

Thus, while normal mortals could catch glimpses of the future that might be possible were we to be able to afford such devices and get fast internet connections at home, most of us had to leave the real online fun to the east Asian cities with cheap, mega-fast home internet connections (one of the advantages of living in high-density apartment buildings) and to the so-called “early adopters” – the people who are so crazy about new technologies that they are willing to pay any price to get hold of the latest toys.

But as the century turned, so did prices for memory, and the era of cheap storage began. A sign of the times was the music-file sharing site Napster, which launched sleepily in mid-1999 and had its heyday in 2000 and 2001 before being shut down because of music industry concerns about copyright violations.

MEANWHILE, APPLE’SiPod was arriving just in time for the digital music party. Existing devices had small memories and could hold just a few dozen songs. The iPod was beautifully designed and could hold hundreds of songs on its mini hard drive. As prices came down and competitors scrambled to copy the technology, Apple found itself with one of the design icons of the decade and an insanely popular device.

In addition, the iPod would help to save then-troubled Apple itself, which over the decade would drop the word “Computer” from its corporate name and transform itself into a media, computing and electronics company. Apple successfully took on the music companies and offered the first money-making paid-for music downloading service in its iTunes Store, and topped off one heck of a decade with its launch of another iconic item, the iPhone (see, there’s that “i” again).

The iPhone and mobile handsets generally followed the decade’s tech mantra of cheaper, faster, better, with a new category of “smartphones” created for the very high-end devices that often had full qwerty keyboards or, with the iPhone, touchscreens, good web browsers and videophone capabilities (though no one ever seems to want or use this Dick Tracy feature, after years of hype). They often could also play music and of course, all had cameras and, increasingly, video capability – even on low-end phones.

In short, the keyword for handsets was “convergence”. At the start of the decade, many handsets were basically for making calls and sending texts. By 2009, almost every handset is a mini-computer, camera and digital music player rolled into one.

Over on the computing side, laptops became less like notebooks and more like paperbacks in size. At the start of the decade, the smallest, lightest laptops still were a bit of a dead weight slung over your shoulder. Now, there is a whole new category of “netbooks” – tiny laptops as glorified web browsers (the “i” thing again) – that weigh only a couple of pounds and can slide into a handbag.

People like such small devices because of another massive tech trend of the noughties: social networking. It started with blogs – weblogs – which began their steep climb in popularity at the start of the decade. People liked not just the journal-like nature of them but the ability to post comments and respond to someone else’s blog writings.

Then along came YouTube, Photobucket, Flickr – for easy sharing of videos and photos. And our profiles on social network sites such as Bebo, Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn (for the business crowd) enabled us to talk to and “poke” our “friends” (all 568 of them), colleagues, and classmates.

We also learned to adore all forms of online chatting, sometimes keeping several chat programmes open at once on our computers. Next up came Twitter, which has millions “microblogging” (basically, sending glorified text messages called “tweets”) and gaining “followers”.

We also liked leaping into virtual worlds such as Second Life with our “avatars” – little animated versions of ourselves, or often our alter egos. We could dress them in virtual clothes purchased with a virtual, but real-world linked, currency. We could attend parties, study, sight-see, and even have affairs in such virtual spaces.

And finally, after years of hyped predictions, people this year started to actually buy e-book reading devices, with Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader ahead of the pack. With one of these, if you are bored by your book on holiday, you can just download another 150.

In another trend of the decade, many of these “i” activities also have moved to our converged mobile handsets, so we can tweet, post our status to Facebook, update our blog, upload an image, chat on Instant Messenger, watch a video or download a new song from iTunes on what was once simply a device to phone home on. It can go the other way, too, with internet telephony from companies such as Skype moving phonecalls on to our computers.

The latest tech development sees all these activities and more – even many of the operations of the world’s biggest corporations – moving into what is called “the cloud”, or “cloud computing”. But don’t be fooled. Despite its trendy name, “the cloud” is basically – you guessed it – that “i” again, the internet in yet another incarnation.

SO, WHAT DIDN’Thappen in technology that we expected to happen? Well, much of the developed world still has pretty slow internet connections, with most countries – Ireland included – having progressed relatively little in speed since the start of the decade.

Because of this, most of us still cannot download and stream movies – an activity many thought would be ubiquitous by now. We also haven’t really fallen for mobile TV – maybe the tiny screens don’t cut it for most of us. Though we can do some amazing things by just touching our mobile and computer screens, we still cannot really talk to them, nor they to us.

But maybe that’s a good thing. It’s bad enough that mobile calls are going to be permitted on flights (something the decade could surely have spared us?) without having our laptops nagging us as well.

Ten For Techies: The Biggest Developments

iPod

Apple invents a non-existent mass market for digital music players in 2000.

Motion sensor accelerometers

First popped up in Apple and IBM laptops; now they are in mobiles, game consoles, cars, music players, healthcare devices and more.

Hybrid and electric cars

Toyota launches the first electric/petrol hybrid – and all-electric cars take off, too.

YouTube

Upload your own videos – but who would have thought millions would watch them?

Netbooks

Tiny computers designed mainly to surf the web.

Blogs

Online journals got their first foothold in 2000. They are now ubiquitous, and challenging mainstream media.

Twitter

The online “micro-blogging”, mass SMS-like craze.

Toy robots

Sony’s Aibo at the high end, followed by robots everywhere – even robot vacuum cleaners.

iPhone

The touchscreen keypadless phone from Apple forever changes the way we see and use mobiles.

Kindle and Sony Reader

Devices to read e-books finally take off.