Computing tech that defined the decade

29th Dec 2009 | 08:00

Computing tech that defined the decade

From USB to multi-core, multi-touch and more

Computing tech landmarks of the noughties

Bill Gates anticipated great things from the so-called "noughties" when he described it as the "Digital Decade" back in 2001.

"The innovations of this decade will be more than just a handful of new features," he wrote. "They'll transform the way the PC fits into our lives, and the way we think about computing."

Was he right? It's been ten years of rapid technological change; ten years of smaller, faster and cheaper.

The PDA died; you could cook an egg on the heat generated by a 3.8GHz Pentium 4 PC; small laptops spawned recession-friendly netbooks; and social networking exploded with MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

Intel pentium 4

PENTIUM 4:The Intel Pentium 4 was planned to scale up to 10GHz, but never made it past a 3.8GHz chip

At the beginning of the decade, Gates prophecised that we'd all be carrying Tablet PCs, accessing our information on the move, and that our shiny Windows XP-powered computers would be the entertainment and communication hubs of our digital homes.

Needless to say, not all of this has come true. But here are some selected highlights extracted from the TechRadar hive-mind – you can add your own in the comments section below. First up...

The rise of the super-laptop

Rewind to the year 2000 and laptops were chunky, sombre grey biz-machines with 14-inch displays, Intel Mobile Pentium III processors and (if you were lucky) a 20GB hard disk. But laptop manufacturers started to experiment.

On the one hand, they shoehorned full-fat Pentium 4's into hulking 'desktop replacement' systems with 17-inch LCDs, rewritable CD/DVD combo drives and a battery life of less than an hour. On the other, we saw machines like the TR1MP, a dinky, mist-silvered Sony VAIO no bigger than a hardback book. It blazed a trail for countless netbooks to come.

In 2003, Intel's Centrino platform not only introduced the efficient Pentium M processor, but gave the fledgeling Wi-Fi standard a much-needed boost by including 802.11b as standard.

As the years rolled by, manufacturers also started sneaking in other features: 802.11g and 802.11n, Bluetooth, TV tuners, built-in webcams, widescreen displays, LED-backlit displays, bigger hard disks, faster GPUs, novelty fingerprint recognition systems and more RAM.

More recently, single-core processors have quietly bowed out in favour of new multi-core architectures. Modern laptops are now thinner, lighter, cheaper, faster, longer-lasting and far more colourful than their predecessors.

The dawn of the netbook

If you ignore the pioneering PDA/laptop mashup that was the Psion 7 (2000), then the Asus Eee (launched in 2007) is widely considered as the first true 'netbook'. Small and lightweight, the Eee stripped the traditional laptop down to its undies, jettisoning expensive technology like the hard disk, large LCD and Windows in favour of flash memory, a 7-inch display and Linux.

Less isn't more in this case. It's actually less. Nevertheless, netbooks remain in vogue. MSI, Acer, Dell, Sony and Advent have all jumped onto the bandwagon to ride it into 2010.

Format wars continue to rage

We love a good format war and the past ten years have been rife with technology showdowns – Mac vs PC; OS X vs XP/Vista/Windows 7; Blu-ray vs HD DVD; Intel vs AMD; Nvidia vs ATI (later AMD); EU vs Microsoft; IE vs Firefox (Firefox forced IE usage below 90 percent for the first time in 2004); Google vs Microsoft; Xbox 360 vs PlayStation 3.


FIREFOX: The browser's popularity with users saw the market share of Internet Explorer dip below 90% in 2004

Mac vs. PC (again)

While Microsoft is now happily bathing in the glow of good Windows 7 reviews, the decade arguably belongs to a simpler operating system – Windows XP. Launched in 2001, XP replaced Windows 2000 and the forgettable Windows Me. It's a testament to XP's usability, flexibility and Service Pack-fuelled staying power that users stuck with it even when Microsoft rolled out the 'wow starts now' Windows Vista in 2007.

The noughties also saw the release of Apple's OS X operating system. The public beta of OS X (codenamed Kodiak) was released in early 2000 and has grown impressively through incremental big cat upgrades – Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Leopard and Snow Leopard.

OS X continues to be flexible, stable and easy on the eye. The versatility of the code also saw chunks of it used in the software for the iPod touch, iPhone and Apple TV.

And while we're talking operating systems, a quick word about Linux... Ubuntu saw its first release in 2004 (aka Warty Warthog), with updates every six months that included the likes of Hoary Hedgehog, Breezy Badger and Feisty Fawn


UBUNTU:The OS did much to strip away the geeky image associated with Linux. Heck, even my mum now uses it

Based on the Debian Linux distro, Ubuntu has arguably done more to make Linux acceptable to mainstream computer users than any other version of the open source OS. In short, Ubuntu has made Linux look cool.

USB 2.0, Wi-Fi, multi-core and more

Where would we be without USB?

The USB 2.0 specification was introduced in 2000 and it's now had ten years to permeate through all aspects of computing and technology.


OVER TO 3.0: After ten years of Hi-Speed USB 2.0, the stage is set for the arrival of SuperSpeed USB 3.0

Hi-Speed USB has let us plug in all manner of peripherals including: external hard disk drives, flash drives, novelty USB desktop fans, digital cameras and camcorders, MP3 players, mobile phones, printers and scanners, keyboards and wireless dongles. Here's to USB 3.0, the next generation of plug-and-play connectivity. The less said about Wireless USB the better.

A decade of Wi-Fi

Can you remember what your life was like without wireless internet access? This decade has seen a boom in wireless networking technology, from the early adopters who played around with 802.11b and 802.11g (and the 802.11g+, Turbo and Super-G modifications) to the 802.11g MIMO-based technologies that would pave the way for today's 802.11n hardware. This decade also saw WiMAX (designated 802.16) promise a sci-fi landscape of city-wide wireless nodes. We're still waiting.

The impact of iTunes

Gadget of the decade? Undoubtedly the iPod (and its many revisions and spin-offs, including the iPhone). But the iPod couldn't have changed the music landscape without Apple's iTunes software.

Apple itunes

APPLE ITUNES:The Store continues to set the pace for digital downloads

Launched in 2001, the original version was a mere music manager for Apple's iconic digital music player. But come version 4 in 2003, the addition of an online iTunes Store sounded the first death knell for the traditional record shop. Fast forward to version 9 and iTunes is now a versatile (if clunky) gateway to downloadable music, videos, podcasts, movies, TV shows, Apps and audio books.

From single-core to multi-core

Up until 2004, processor technology was a straight speed race. The Pentium 4 kicked off the decade in 2000, incorporating Intel's 7th generation NetBurst microarchitecture. Clocked at 1.3GHz and 2GHz, the Pentium 4 was quickly scaled up to 3.8GHz in 2004 and incorporated HyperThreading, which acted as an extra (albeit virtual) processor core.


MULTI-CORE: Abandoning single-core processors in 2004, both AMD and Intel are now pursuing multi-core designs

But all this speed came at a cost – Pentium 4 chips ran hotter than any previous Intel chip with TDPs in excess of 100W. With the cancellation of the 4GHz Pentium 4 in 2004, Intel switched its attention to low-power processors (the Pentium M and Intel Atom) plus dual- and quad-core architectures. AMD beat Intel to the punch with both 64-bit processors and dual-core chips. Its dual-core Athlon 64 X2 processor was launched in 2005.

The age of 'touchy feely'

Anyone expecting the traditional QWERTY keyboard and mouse to have disappeared by 2010 will be sorely disappointed – they're still the most effective way to interact with a computer. Other gizmos have come and gone – the Maltron Single Handed Ergonomic Keyboard, Microsoft's Tablet PCs, Dragon Naturally Speaking and OCZ's brain-activated Neural Impulse Actuator to name only four.

Microsoft surface

MULTI-TOUCH: Microsoft's Surface prototype was unveiled in 2007 showcasing table-top multi-touch computing

Then there's 'multi-touch'... Touchscreens themselves have been around since the 1980s, but could only handle one contact point at a time. The Multi-touch concept gatecrashed the mainstream with the launch of the iPod touch and the iPhone in 2007. Microsoft also unveiled its Surface prototype in the same year.

From your desk to the Cloud

We already do a lot of our day-to-day computing in the so-called 'cloud'. We bank online, we shop online. We catch up with TV shows using the BBC iPlayer, store photos on Flickr and own virtual albums piped directly from iTunes or Amazon.

BBC iplayer

IPLAYER REVOLUTION: The BBC iPlayer (and rival services) have brought the PVR online, changing the way we watch television forever

Using a webmail service like Gmail or Yahoo! Mail we have access to our messages, regardless of whether we're using a Mac, a Windows PC, a Linux-powered netbook or a smartphone. This sort of device-independent, go-anywhere access to our important digital 'stuff' is arguably the future of personal computing.

You, me, Facebook and YouTube

If this digital decade is remembered for anything, it will be the rise (and rise) of social networking sites and Web 2.0 playthings. From Friendster to Myspace, Facebook and Bebo to Twitter and Posterous, there are now countless ways to update/spam/bore your friends with the minutiae of your daily life.

Similarly, this outgoing decade saw the launch of Web 2.0 giants like Wikipedia, Skype, Digg, YouTube, eHow, Gmail, Google Docs and Delicious. While online gaming will thank the noughties for a little title called World of Warcraft.

Goodbye to the noughties

It's not just computing technology that's changed during the past ten years. How we use our computers has also changed. We now Skype, Facebook and Twitter. We buy, sell, blog, make podcasts and upload home-made videos to YouTube. We work online, navigate, research and translate.

The computer hasn't quite made into into the living room with the TV, but it is starting to replace it. Catch-up TV services like the BBC iPlayer enable us to watch our favourite TV whenever and wherever we want to. While traditional Hi-Fi gear has been outmoded by digital playlists, MP3 players and wireless streaming.

Gates was right about a 'Digital Decade', but wrong about how strongly Microsoft would be involved in it.

As for the next decade of computing? We're bracing ourselves for faster, thinner laptops; more processor cores; USB 3.0; touchscreen interfaces; new Tablets and MIDs; faster internet access; wider mobile internet coverage; and maybe a new social network that will see the cool crowd abandon Facebook. Whatever happens, it's going to be exciting.


Liked this? Then check out Gaming smackdown: Windows XP vs Windows Vista vs Windows 7

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