A lot has changed in the world of technology during the 200 months that PC Advisor has been in existence. We take a look at some of the more significant developments, and what they mean.
The world in 1995 was a very different place, in ways both significant and banal. Most people didn’t have a robust internet connection, and no-one had heard of Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook (not so surprising, given that he was 11 at the time PC Advisor made its bow). Google, eBay, YouTube and Twitter were all well in the future, Microsoft was on a roll and Apple looked to be on its way down the plug hole. How things have changed.
The connected world of digital music, movies and photos that we enjoy now would have been inconceivable. Mobile computing was so far in the future that even laptops were the exception.
All these developments have changed not only our technological horizons, but also the way we live our lives and view the world at large. Some make our existences better but, in other areas, such progress has come at a cost.
We’ve selected what we think are 10 of the most significant changes we’ve seen, and analysed their impact. You may disagree, so feel free to let us know in the comments at the foot of this story.
Look around the majority of households in 1995 and you'd find that the TV was the undisputed king of the home-entertainment world. A big fat CRT that dominated the front room. And in 1995, in most cases that meant only analogue TV – in those days a four-channel affair, as the world was as yet mercifully unaware of the hilarious ironic in-joke that would grow up to be Channel 5.
The birth of the Premier League in 1992 massively ramped up the number of subscribers that Sky had, but it wasn't until 1998 and the launch of the Astra satellite that modern digital TV became available. Cable TV, initially from NTL and Telewest and later from the unified Virgin Media, was a localised niche product until 1996, and free-to-air digital TV was a pipe dream (or a non-pipe dream, depending on your method of receiving it). As for streaming TV from the web – what web?
In those houses that had a PC, the old beige box was unlikely to be found anywhere more prominent than the spare bedroom. A word processing, printing and occasional gaming device, functional, hidden and unloved by all but geeks.
Fast-forward to today and Sky TV alone has 10 million subscribers, each of whom is able to watch literally hundreds of channels 24 hours a day. They can view programmes on demand, remotely record to a hard-disk-based recorder, and pause live programmes, returning to watch the remainder later.
And this, reader, is the more traditional end of home entertainment.
Because now, in an increasing number of homes, the PC is at the centre of entertainment. And even if the device you're using to consume media isn't recognisably a Windows PC, I bet that beneath its branded, set-top box clothing, it's nothing but a computer, processor, RAM and all.
In my own front room I can see an old Mac hooked up to a speaker set used principally to play music. I watch Blu-ray Disc, DVDs and TV on-demand from BBC iPlayer and others via a PlayStation 3. Also a PC. The PlayStation is somewhat neglected as a gaming device since I got a Nintendo Wii.
Finally, the Sky+ box sits under the telly, which is now little more than a flat-screen display, as the Sky-branded PVR – itself nothing more than a locked-down PC – streams all the TV I want to watch, when I want to watch it.
If I want to listen to radio I stream it from my laptop, a device that nominally lives in the office upstairs, but rarely makes it back there unless it needs to be charged.
And that's before we address the way that devices more traditionally recognised as PCs now take up space in the lounge. Rare is the TV programme so gripping that I can't be found pootling about on the web using a laptop or tablet. And if all else fails I'll be fiddling with my smartphone (much to Mrs Matt's annoyance). Indeed, there are plenty of households that no longer have a dedicated TV, choosing instead to watch programmes on-demand from a laptop or PC.
The TV had a good run. But the PC is now the king of the home.
CHANGE FACTOR (OUT OF 5): 3.5
Then: Letters, phonecalls
Now: Email, SMS, IM
When was the last time you wrote a letter? Not a piece of formal communication, an annual round robin or a birthday card, but an honest to goodness, common-or-garden ‘how are you doing' letter? For me it's been at least 10 years. In fact, I can directly trace the demise of my letters correspondence to the birth of what I laughingly call my ‘career', and my introduction to ubiquitous email.
During my student days, which commenced after the birth of PC Advisor, the only way to keep up with former schoolmates was the occasionally scrawled note. Infrequent, but personal and direct to the correspondent, friendships might lose their immediacy, but longer-lasting intimacy was faithfully preserved. At the same time I was honour-bound to phone my parents at least once a week, which required a freezing trip to the phonebox (it was always cold), and a brief chat down the line, usually curtailed by the pips before my shoulder gave into the effects of trying to hold up a phone the weight of a dumbbell.
I am a man, reader, and a man of Yorkshire at that. Talking on the phone does not come naturally to me.
Interestingly, my sister attended the same university five years after me, by which time three significant things had changed. Most importantly, the scuzzy old university bar had become a ‘fun pub'. More pertinently to this feature, SMS via mobile phones and email had both become popular. This meant that, even before social media, IM and mobile email came on the scene, my younger sibling had a different social experience of higher education.
While I only vaguely kept in touch with friends from my younger days, Egan minor was able to communicate daily, if not hourly, with her childhood pals. As a consequence, the not-massive distance between our childhood home in Leeds and alma mater in Hull felt a lot bigger to me than it did her.
Fast-forward a few PC Advisor issues to today, and the world is a very different place. It's possible to keep up a constant conversation with friends and family regardless of geographical distance, using email, texts and instant messages. This gives the impression of a greater level of intimacy, but does it work like that? It's a lot easier to keep up the semblance of a correspondence when it's a simple question of typing and hitting send. It's also less private: whether or not you make it clear to your recipients, it's simple to send digital mail from one to many.
It's also the case that before everyone habitually texted each other you had to make a firm time and place to meet up, rather than heading to the same area and relying on technology to hook you up. Thus even face-to-face meetings become more casual affairs.
On the other hand, I know I'm able to maintain relationships with people I care about that I wouldn't be able to in a world without email, SMS and IM. And I'm more likely to send someone a text asking if they want to meet up than I ever would phone them.
The shift from more formal, paper and phone-based communications to digital messaging has changed the way we live.
CHANGE FACTOR: 4
Then: Film photography
Film photography still has a healthy existence, with some expert photographers refusing to use anything else. And those throwaway cardboard analogue cameras are still around, proving an especially resilient hit on the wedding circuit. Plus, of course, there are plenty of film makers who would never use anything other than 35mm film camera, believing it simply looks better.
But the move from analogue to digital in the world of still and video photography has been quick and almost total. And when you consider that the first modern digital camera widely available was the Casio QV-10 in 1995, and the first camera to use CompactFlash was the Kodak DC-25 in 1996, the speed of change becomes apparent. The concept of Jpeg didn't even exist until the late 1980s.
For the vast majority of people at the time PC Advisor first appeared, photography was strictly an analogue pursuit, and movie making the preserve of the one friend or relative who had everything. Going to the chemist to pick up your holiday snaps was as much a part of the trip as wondering what would arrive home first: you or the postcard.
You had no preview, so the chances that all 24 or 32 snaps would be good or even usable were very low. (Unlike the chance that the assistant in your local Boots was likely to take his or her own copy of your most embarrassing snap for under the counter posterity.) Changing the film on many cameras was strictly mum- or dad's preserve, as clumsy hands could easily expose a whole roll of film to natural light and ruin a week or two's hard photographic work. And even though film limited the amount of photos you could take, shooting a few shots of the wardrobe in order to finish the roll was an honourable tradition.
I remember being stupendously impressed by one of my uncles when he showed up to a family gathering with a handheld VHS camcorder. It was about as big as a small family car, took awful footage and had next to no battery life. But still. Me, on the telly.
It was like magic.
Today this seems impossibly quaint. To take photos and video you don't even need a standalone camera, as every Tom, Dick and Harryhausen carries a veritable digital studio everywhere they go in the shape of their phone. As is often the case with digital media, the sanctity of the individual shot has disappeared as it's possible to take and retake an infinite number of photos until you have that perfect shot of everyone gurning around a pint pot.
Home movies are posted online in seconds, for all the world to see (often before their subjects know the footage has been captured). And editing both photo and video is within the grasp of everyone who has access to a PC and some basic software.
There's still no substitute for photographic skill. There never will be. But the world of digital puts the ability to take decent photos in the hands of everyone, all the time. And that has to be a good thing. Try to remember that the next time an embarrassing picture of you appears on Facebook.
CHANGE FACTOR: 4.5
Then: Desktop computing
Now: Mobile computing
Take a look at the cover of our launch issue and you'll see: PCs have changed. A lot. Back in 1995, the term ‘PC' referred almost exclusively to a beige Windows box, hooked up to a CRT monitor and a keyboard. You might have a connected printer – probably a dot matrix type – and super-early adopters may even have a dialup modem, perfect for spending hours tying up the home phoneline in order to attempt to hack the Kremlin.
Up until the early 2000s, desktop PCs were more powerful, much easier to upgrade and, partly in consequence, much cheaper than laptops. But over the past decade or so that's changed. Laptops are close to becoming as powerful as desktop PCs, they start as cheap as the same spec in a desktop, and most peripherals are available in laptop-compatible USB versions, which minimise the need for internal add-on cards.
Given a straight choice, what benefits do desktops offer, apart from a marginally easier upgrade process? And if I can change the hard drive in a laptop (and I can) it can't be that difficult. Laptops on the other hand – even hulking great desktop-replacements – are more convenient. Even if you don't want to take one on the train, the biggest laptop is still simple to shift from one room to another. And if it's that keyboard-and-screen desktop experience for which you hanker? You can have it using your laptop and peripherals, and still have the benefit of portability.
All of which means that it was no surprise when, in the second half of 2008, laptops outsold desktops for the first time. The desktop isn't going to disappear any time soon, but the trend toward portability is headed in only one direction. Not least because it suits manufacturers: laptops are easier to ship, they can be built and stored in vast numbers, and they are sold as a consumer commodity rather than a confusing amalgamation of parts.
But that's not the end of the story.
Far from it – we've done nearly 40 issues since laptops overtook desktop computers. And in that time the trend has been for an ever increasing array of personal computers in ever decreasing sizes. Consider the things for which you use your home computer: email, word processing, web surfing, gaming, photo and video editing, social networking. Each of those tasks can be accomplished on a smartphone or tablet, with a greater or lesser degree of comfort.
As computing platforms and form-factors continue to evolve and diverge, the choice of personal-computing device increasingly becomes a case of horses for courses: smartphone, laptop, netbook or tablet – and which is best for the task in hand, in your current circumstances.
There are still plenty of occasions where a desktop system best fulfils that criteria, but they tend to be workstation-based, editing large media files, crunching numbers and the like, often in an office situation. The days of a household having only one computing device, and it being a desktop PC, are numbered if not gone.
CHANGE FACTOR: 4
Then: Tape, disc, Zip
Now: The cloud
One result of all the extra digital photos and videos we are now capturing is that we all need more storage space. Music, movies, books, files... all were once analogue ‘things' for which we had to find shelf space – a self-limiting process. We've investigated the changing price of storage in our story: 1995-2012: Price crash, but it's fair to say that the exponential rate of increase in the amount of digital media we all generate, own and share means we are increasingly unable to store everything on physical storage media in our homes.
Enter the cloud.
Let's get one thing straight. True cloud computing is the delivery of computing functionality as a service rather than a physical product. It is a means of sharing resources, software and information between multiple devices, as a utility, over a network, which almost always means the internet.
So if you use an online word processor or video editor from a web-based interface, you are cloud computing. But, these days, ‘the cloud' tends to refer to any service that utilises web connectivity to share and stream information and media. It's a term appended to products and services good, bad, complex and simple in an attempt to add an element of mystique to what is a very simple process: if you have neither the storage space or the computational power to do something from your desktop, you can throw it up into the cloud.
It's an idea that was unheard of in 1995, but something we are all doing today – to a greater or lesser extent. Even if you don't know it as cloud computing.
Use webmail? That's storage in the cloud. Share your images over Facebook, Picasa or Flickr? Cloud. Perhaps in your working life you share and edit documents using a service such as Google Docs or Huddle? That, my friend, is cloud computing. And all of that information is being stored remotely, whereas once you'd have had a physical copy.
More prosaically, increasing numbers of businesses choose to back up their data to offsite cloud storage services. It's a sensible idea. Even if you slavishly back up every file and folder you have in your business, if the tape drive is in the same building as the office and it burns down then you've lost the originals and backup in one fell swoop.
The same principle applies to individuals in the home. All reputable online storage services use servers across multiple sites, mirroring content so you're covered in the case of natural disaster. One of the weirder hangovers from the rapid switch from analogue to digital is that we all consider hard copies of photos, music and so on to be more robust than ephemeral digital files. It's a completely wrong-headed principal: digital files are simply a set of digits. Saved across multiple servers they will last unharmed as long as those servers remain live. An optical disc or paper copy will eventually degrade, no matter how carefully it is stored.
Sixteen years ago if you owned a record or a photo, you had to store a physical device. Now we all have multiple copies stored on servers all over the world.
NEXT PAGE: social media, broadband, cashless payments, internet shopping and privacy >>
Our trawl through the most significant changes in the world of technology that PC Advisor has seen continues, taking us to social media, broadband and beyond...
CHANGE FACTOR: 3.5
Then: Face to face
Now: Social media
Meeting people in the flesh is so hard.
All that eye contact, hugging and shaking hands. Do you bump cheeks, actually kiss or maintain an awkward distance? Who starts up the conversation? When do you leave? Much better to sit in a darkened room and communicate with the outside world via a social-media website...
Or not. In 10 technology breakthroughs we've talked about the fantastic speed of growth that social media has enjoyed, but not so much about the way it's changed how we communicate. It's easy to sneer at the banality of much of the content shared on social sites such as Twitter and Facebook, but consider the benefits.
Back in 1995, the only way you could talk with others about a shared interest was to join a group that allowed you to subscribe to a newsletter, or – if you were really lucky – attend events set up by like-minded people. To communicate with a group you had to be geographically close. It almost certainly cost money. Today, that's very far from the case.
An interesting case study is PC Advisor's own social media network: the PCA Forum (head to pcadvisor.co.uk/forums). Where else could you get together with 315,000 people interested in technology, in order to shoot the breeze about the latest hardware and software, solve problems and support PC projects? The answer is nowhere. And nowhere else could you ask a technical support question, and have your PC problems solved within hours, for free, by another user somewhere else in the country.
This kind of thing simply didn't happen in 1995, and it's all over the internet now.
On Facebook alone there are special interest groups representing subjects as diverse as knitting and support for sports teams, there are virtual book groups and fan clubs, and discussions on everything from the Leveson inquiry to Justin Bieber.
When world events happen, eye witnesses can share news and opinion, in real time, with the rest of the globe. If you want to find out what's happening on the ground of a country with no external international media, just search Twitter. Of course, this isn't without problems. Personal opinion is often reported as fact, flame wars can quickly descend to unpleasantness, and hate mobs can brew up frighteningly quickly. Famous people are regularly incorrectly reported as dead, too.
Perhaps more importantly, social-media websites can produce a genuine sense of community. There has been at least one marriage born from ‘meeting' on our Forum, and many more occasions where people who have felt desperate and lonely have been able to reach out and receive support from virtual friends. And that's without even considering the very successful results of dating websites: most people under a certain age know someone who met a significant partner via such a means.
Despite my facetious comments at the beginning of this chapter, it's clear that there's no substitute for human contact. But social-media websites offer us a lot now that we didn't have then.
Follow me at Twitter.com/MattJEgan.
CHANGE FACTOR: 3.5
Originally ‘broadband' had an actual, proper technical meaning. But it has long been used as a marketing term for any high-speed, always-on internet access. Let's define it for these purposes as an always-on connection that can at least nominally reach download speeds of 2 megabits per second (Mbps). You almost certainly have it now – but if you were lucky enough to have an internet connection in 1995, it was dialup.
Ah, dialup. It really is impossible to get misty eyed about dialup internet. In retrospect, and at the time, it was a dog. For most households with a single phoneline, dialup meant precious time wasted hooking up a modem and waiting for it to ‘dial' the relevant number several times before it finally caught on. Then you had to wait for even the most simple sites to load, knowing all the time that (a) your phoneline was tied up (and this at a time when most people didn't have a mobile) and (b) every second you were online you were pouring money into your ISP's pocket. And that's before we talk about the vast volume of Tiscali and AOL CDs that clogged up shop counters.
Dialup internet was slow and expensive, and decidedly unreliable. Not surprisingly this affected how we used the internet, which in turn shaped the kind of content posted up on to the web. There wouldn't have been much point in BBC iPlayer existing in 1995, because no-one would have been able to see it. In fact web video felt ludicrously futuristic. There were no MMORPGs or photo-sharing sites. Web 1.0 consisted almost entirely of static text content. And it was aimed at a much more tech-savvy audience than is today's more equalitarian net.
People rationed the amount of time they spent online. Sending an email was more like writing a letter, infrequent and long form, as you wrote things offline and popped online to hit send.
Nowadays it's unusual to find a household without at least a nominal 2Mbps connection. This means that people can habitually browse the web, communicating, enjoying music and video, messaging friends. It also means that people rely on the web as a medium of entertainment and business much more than they did.
CHANGE FACTOR: 5
Then: Cheques, cash
Now: Cards, credit
It used to be that the only person who didn't carry cash was Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. But now in the UK debit- and credit cards are accepted everywhere for any amount. Cheques, not so much. Pull out a wad of cash in certain upmarket stores and you're certain to get odd glances. PayPal and other payment services hold cash for you to make purchases online. Passengers on public transport systems pay for their journeys via a smart card, and mobile users and gamers habitually make purchases using micro-payment services for which they need only a password and username.
These are all fantastically simple, time-saving and straightforward ways of making purchases. But the very convenience creates an enormous risk. If you get someone's details, you are able to convert them quickly to cash. But in the past 16 years we've collectively chosen convenience over security, in much the same way that credit won out over prudence.
Which is not to say that the banks and credit-card companies accept the risk. We always advise making large purchases using a credit card, as the bank is buying the product on your behalf – if the purchase goes wrong, they have to recover the cash. That's not the case with smart cards and payment services.
Banks in the UK have now converted all debit cards in circulation to chip and PIN to increase transaction security; but PINs aren't required for internet transactions, and they exist principally to pass on the transactional risk to customers.
If a shop fails to spot a spoofed signature you can't be blamed. If you give away your PIN code, you can. It's the logic behind the PIN-generating machines most banks hand out to online banking customers, too. Your account is more secure, but you are responsible for that security.
The move toward a digital payment economy isn't going to slip into reverse any time soon. Contactless payments are starting to spring up, phone apps are replacing paper tickets for travel, and smartphone payment systems are only a matter of time away. The price we pay is additional exposure to risk, albeit managed risk.
CHANGE FACTOR: 3
Then: High street
Now: The web
Staying with the theme of splashing your cash, take a close look at your local high street. Ask yourself how you did your Christmas shopping this year, and how you did it in 1995. I'm pretty certain I did mine in a single branch of Halfords back then, but I'm a bad son with a lazy streak. The point is that in the mid-90s, we none of us went shopping on the web. That's very far from the case now.
A recent PC Advisor poll makes for interesting reading. When asked where they'd do their Christmas shopping, 23 percent said they would do all their shopping online, and only 3 percent said they'd shop on the high street only, as online shopping ‘isn't yet reliable enough'. A more understandable 31 percent said they'll probably do a bit of both, while 25 percent said they'd shop wherever they could find the best deals. So only a fraction of those people who are doing Christmas shopping wouldn't be doing at least a part of it online. (Incidentally, the outstanding 18 percent have somewhat damaged our previous point about the PC Advisor Forum making people warm and fuzzy inside, saying ‘Christmas? Bah, humbug. I don't do presents'.)
That categorically wouldn't have been the case in 1995, when online shopping barely existed. Amazon, Play, Dabs, eBuyer, More Computers, CCL... we could fill up this chapter with a list only of online stores, without even talking about auction sites such as eBay, itself a marketplace bigger than any city in the world.
Meanwhile, our high streets are looking ever more moribund. Dixons, PC World, Comet, Maplin and their independent brethren battle manfully to keep the bricks-and-mortar technology store alive in a world where almost anyone can set up an online tech store, without holding stock. Simply by backing into the networks set up by distributors, and cutting the profits earned to a bare minimum, anyone with a web connection can undercut the high-street stores.
Voucher schemes from services such as Groupon further erode the ability to compete on price of stores with hefty rent to pay. And innovative social selling schemes such as MoreFrom.me allow the customer to set the price and make a little cash as they sell.
But there is hope, despite the rapid rise and fall of Best Buy's UK operation.
The phenomenal success of Apple's high-street stores shows that there's a market for shops that offer expertise and advice (and know how to take your cash before you have time to think twice). And supermarkets are increasingly turning a healthy profit from technology as the personal computer becomes a commodity and people want to do all of their shopping in one place for convenience.
CHANGE FACTOR: 3.5
Then: Private, secure
Now: Public, insecure
Almost all the changes we've outlined above represent a move from a world where our security and privacy was established by physical locks and barriers, to a more fluid, infinitely more convenient, but lots more dangerous world.
The way our personal-computing devices have increased in power and scope, the increased connectivity, the casual way with which we communicate with a wider world... all these things made life easier and more interesting, but leave us more open to loss of data and privacy. The very portability of laptops, smartphones and tablets makes them easier to steal, and the data they access gives up our identities.
Shopping and banking online requires trust. Our always-on web connections offer great connectivity in, but a portal for thieves to take data out. The social networks we so love to use are fertile data-mining territory for criminal gangs. Without digital messaging there'd be no phishing, placing our data in the cloud allows third-party access to our information, and even the humble digital photo contains information about where we go and what we do.
Is it worth it? In my view it most certainly is. We live infinitely richer and more varied lives than we did just 16 short years ago, able to communicate with a greater number of like-minded people, and stay closer to loved ones despite greater geographical distance.