Top 15 Tech Events of the Decade

For the ten-year span that started in 2000, turbulence was the name of the game in high tech. Fortunes were made and lost, everyday users took control of the reins, and technology-watching became a spectator sport. It was a chaotic time, but it was seldom dull. Here, then, is a look at the decade that was: the highlights and lowlights, the booms and busts, the fizzles and sizzles.

1. Y2K Fizzles: 2000 started not with a bang but with a whimper. Dire predictions of computer systems going haywire, mass power outages, travel disruptions, and maybe even a run on squirrel jerky simply didn't happen, as the Year 2000 Problem turned out to be more hiccup than heartbreak. Did all the Y2K-bug-squishing task forces save us from disaster? Or was the whole affair not quite as dire as advertised? We may never know for sure. So let's raise a glass and offer a New Year's toast to one of life's eternal mysteries.

2. Dot-Bomb and the Death of the Build-It-and-They-Will-Come Business Model: In the late 1990s, the stock market--fueled by investment in high tech--was on a roll, new tech companies were launching every day, and even Alan Greenspan's talk of "irrational exuberance" couldn't dim our enthusiasm. Venture capitalists were pouring money into shaky new Websites. The sites scaled up as quickly as possible, even without a demonstrated revenue stream or business model. By mid-2000, the dot-com bubble had burst, taking the economy and many people's livelihoods with it. Boo.com, Pets.com, Webvan: It was fun while it lasted.

3. Google Wins: What started as a search engine has morphed into an all-encompassing ecosystem that touches--and in many respects dominates--the online universe. By the early years of this millennium, Google (armed with its proprietary, all-knowing algorithm) had already lapped the competition. The launch of Google AdWords (2001) and Google News (2002) set the stage for a massively successful public offering in 2004. Then the G-men really started pouring it on, with a string of cloud-based productivity boosters such as Gmail, Google Maps, Picasa, Google Apps, Desktop Search, Google Earth, and more. With the addition of YouTube in 2006, the Android platform in 2007, and Google Voice and Google Chrome OS in 2009, the company doesn't have that much territory left to conquer. For 2010, I suggest buying naming rights to the country and changing it to the United States of Google. That has a nice ring to it.

4. Social Media Surges: Remember Friendster, the social network introduced in 2002? Piles of people signed up, invited friends to join, and then spent the next year figuring out what to do there. MySpace also had its day, only to be supplanted by Facebook, which crossed the 300 million user threshold earlier this year. With all the "friending" going on out there, is it possible that Facebook et al. have made the world a friendlier place? Probably not. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, "unfriend" was 2009's word of the year.

5. Apple's Great Comeback: When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, prospects were bleak. What a difference a decade makes. With the introduction of the iPod in 2001, Macs running on Intel processors in 2006, the industry-defining iPhone in 2007, and the iPhone App Store juggernaut in 2008, Apple has become a force to be reckoned with, while Jobs has been hailed as the conquering hero in a black turtleneck.

6. The User Takes Control: When Time tabbed "You" as the Person of the Year in 2006, they were clearly on to something. Bloggers, citizen journalists, everyday experts, and anyone with a cell-phone camera put a hurt on the top-down model of information dispersal. For a while, this potent mix of user-created content, high interactivity between sites, and rich user interfaces was dubbed "Web 2.0." The term eventually lost steam; the activities it described did not. From Digg, Flickr, Wikipedia, and Yelp to protestors tweeting the political unrest in Iran, the "wisdom of crowds" was the "aha!" experience of the decade.

7. Vista Lays an Egg: Microsoft doesn't do modest well. So when the engineers in Redmond began prepping the successor to Windows XP, the sky was the limit. Five years in the making, Windows Vista sported a fresh approach to security, lots of neat innovations under the hood, and a slick new interface. The company proclaimed it "the most significant product launch in Microsoft Corp.'s history." Unfortunately, many users absolutely loathed it. A rash of incompatibilities, sluggish performance, and constant nagging from the User Account Control feature earned Vista a spot atop our list of the Biggest Tech Disappointments of 2007. Microsoft's redemption seems to have arrived about three years later, with the release of Windows 7.

8. The Wonder of Wii: Yes, you could argue that it's just a game console, and as such, a long shot to crash the "top tech events of the decade" list. But when the Nintendo Wii came out in 2006, it introduced a new and entirely intuitive way of interacting with technology. Want to play Wii golf? Grab your Wii controller, take a swing, and watch the virtual ball soar toward the green. The family-friendly Wii represents the greatest advance in input devices since the mouse. So long, carpal tunnel syndrome; hello, Wii elbow.

9. Mobile Mayhem: This may be hard to believe, but back in 2000, not everyone had a mobile phone. And people who did have them used them to make phone calls! How quaint. The BlackBerry--an e-mail device that was a terrible phone--was a business breakthrough in the first years of the century. Category-expanding consumer devices like the Sidekick and smartphones such as the Palm Treo followed. And now, with the iPhone 3GS and the Droid, we've graduated to carrying around full-scale computers in our pockets.

10. Entertainment Everywhere: Television, movie theaters, CDs, DVDs, and books are so 20th century. Now we want our fun and we want it now, wherever we happen to be. Think Hulu, iTunes, streaming video, Tivo, and YouTube on iPods, Kindles, Slingboxes, smartphones, and more. Even high-flying Netflix--which walloped the competition by offering unlimited DVD rentals by mail--had to tinker with its business model and add a streaming option. The music industry may have managed to shut down peer-to-peer file-swapping site Napster early on and sue a bunch of college students and grandmas over illegal music downloads. But ultimately it failed to stop the bleeding, and by 2008 the RIAA had discontinued its highly unpopular lawsuits. Instant gratification isn't just a wish anymore--it's a consumer mandate.

11. Skype Talks the Talk: Back in the day, telecommunications was an expensive proposition, a serious line item in any company's budget. Now, the cost of long-distance communication is fast approaching zero, thanks to VoIP, which routes calls over IP networks. On the business side, VoIP has been around for some time, ultimately leading to game changers like call-center outsourcing. Consumers, though, had to wait until 2003, when the beta of Skype was released, allowing folks to make free phone calls, via Internet, to anywhere on the planet. Thank you, Skype, for setting the table. Now Google is going to eat your lunch.

12. Cybercrime Meets Organized Crime: It's inevitable--once there's real money for the taking, the amateurs get pushed out and the pros move in. In the 2000s, organized criminals--real bad guys as opposed to boastful hackers looking to impress their friends--came up with brilliant online schemes to steal your cash. According to several sources, by the end of the decade, most of the major corporate data breaches were directly attributable to organized crime. Web development used to be just for smart folks; now it's for wiseguys.

13. Into the Cloud: As Web-based applications began to behave more and more like honest-to-desktop programs (thanks to clever software development technologies like Ajax), classic boxed software began to feel old hat. In the middle of the decade, all the talk was about "software as a service" (SaaS), in which a third party would host a business application on a server that subscribers could access, on demand, over the Internet. In 2008 or so, the sexier-sounding term "cloud computing"--the infrastructure that allows software to be delivered to businesses and consumers from servers residing on the Internet--came along and kicked the old acronym to the curb. For consumers, Google Apps are probably the best known cloud-based offerings. But Amazon is a big player in cloud services, and Microsoft has a cloud-based version of Office on tap for 2010. So what's the future of software? In a word, cloudy.

14. Netbooks Take Off: Initially dismissed as dumbed-down laptops, over the last two years small-form-factor netbooks have taken the computing world by storm. Asus kicked off the trend with its alphabetically challenged Eee PC in 2008. A slew of models from Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and others followed. So did consumers, who showed a willingness to plunk down a few hundred dollars even as the economy tanked. The netbook trend may be short-lived, though: Conventional laptops keep getting smaller and cheaper, meaning that today's "netbook" will probably be tomorrow's plain old "laptop."

15. Megamerger Mania: It's the way of the world--big fish eat small fish. Starting in mid-decade, though, things really started to resemble an all-you-can-eat buffet, as HP, Oracle, and other hungry tech gourmands gobbled up everything in sight. Notable items on the menu: Compaq (by HP, 2001), JD Edwards (PeopleSoft, 2003), VMWare (EMC, 2003), Peoplesoft (Oracle, 2004), Siebel (Oracle, 2005), RSA (EMC, 2006), YouTube (Google, 2006), DoubleClick (Google, 2007), Hyperion (Oracle, 2007), WebEx (Cisco, 2007), BEA (Oracle, 2008), Cognos (IBM, 2008), EDS (HP, 2008), MySQL (Sun, 2008), and 3Com (HP, 2009). And as we close out this year, Sun is positioning itself as a featured entrée, about to be scarfed up by Oracle. Bon appétit!

This story, "Top 15 Tech Events of the Decade" was originally published by PCWorld.

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