Reaching back through the PC Advisor archives, PC Advisor picks out the 10 technological leaps forward that have most affected our computing lives.

To a time traveller from 1995, the pace of change in technology over the past 200 issues is such that the current world is bewilderingly futuristic. When PC Advisor launched, the idea of handheld devices offering instant access to an exponentially bigger world of entertainment would have been the stuff of science fiction.

Gizmos the size of books now contain detailed maps of the world, your entire record collection and hundreds of, well, books. We can access everything, everywhere, all the time. And we expect to be able to contact all the people in our lives, whenever, wherever.

Each day for the past 16 years and more, PC Advisor has reported on new technologies and products. Some stay with us and some disappear. Most are mediocre updates of existing technologies. But some, like the 10 listed here, changed our computing world for ever. This list includes fantastically clever technologies, user-led trends and simple upgrades. But in each case they paved the way for further changes that made our world unrecognisable from the way things were when PC Advisor started out.

But don’t take our word for it, let us know what you think in the comments at the bottom of this story.


3G BROADBAND

Rating 3/5

3g broadbandIt had a painful birth in the UK, and no-one who’s had to rely on it for work or play will be entirely enamoured of its flaky ways, but 3G represents a breakthrough. If you don’t believe us, simply cast your mind back to WAP.

Before 3G came along, the mobile web was, frankly, nothing of the sort. It was a strange, Ceefax-like hybrid with which you could just about glean stock prices and football scores, but only with patient coaxing and an underdeveloped sense of the ridiculous. I remember attending conferences where people talked about the commercial opportunities offered by mobile web use, and thinking ‘yeah, right. Pull the other one’. No longer.

The first pre-commercial 3G network was launched by NTT DoCoMo in Japan in 2001. Although global rollout took longer than expected, by June 2007 more than 200 million 3G subscribers had been connected around the world. Some used smartphones, others mobile web dongles. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that this figure was achieved without the first-generation iPhone – launched in early 2007 and a touchstone product for so many emerging technologies, but a 2G phone and no more.

In the UK, telcos who had written off billions of pounds on 3G licences they bought in a feverish auction found that mobile dongles represented a lucrative new business. Over time, the smartphone and tablet markets have grown to such an extent that UK consumers are now getting grumpy about how long it’s taking us to get 4G connectivity outside of a few trial networks.


BLU-RAY DISC

Rating 2/5

BLU-RAY DISCIt’s more of an upgrade than a radical new technology, but Blu-ray Disc is worthy of inclusion because it succeeded when the odds were heavily stacked against it.

Blue-laser technology emerged in 2000. A putative successor to the DVD format backed by industry heavyweights including Sony, Blu-ray uses a blue laser to read information off the disc at a greater density. This allows more information to be stored than is possible with the longer-wavelength red laser used for DVDs. (Note to DVD-player makers: call them ‘Red-ray Disc’, and watch sales fly.)

After a series of false starts and stumbles, Blu-ray finally came to commercial players in June 2006 – with plenty of doubts over its long-term success.

A single-layer Blu-ray Disc can store up to 25GB of data; two-layer discs that offer up to 50GB of space are also available. In principle you can add third and fourth layers, each adding a further 25GB, but commercially 50GB is your lot. It’s enough, though. Enough to allow for HD and 3D movies and games to be sold to fans, enough to keep people upgrading their home-entertainment equipment,and more than enough to keep the makers of optical drives in business.

Which is all very well, but why would a mere storage-capacity upgrade make it into our list? Well, because unlike its principle rival, Blu-ray is still with us.

In August 2002 Toshiba and NEC decided to challenge the in-development Blu-ray with their own large-storage blue-laser optical-disc format, which eventually came into being as HD DVD. This technology made it on to shop shelves before Blu-ray, and initially had greater success, but then Sony launched the PlayStation 3 with a Blu-ray drive and the rest is history.

Simply for winning this battle, as much as for its part in the drive toward HD and 3D entertainment, Blu-ray Disc deserves its place as a technology breakthrough. It’s a born survivor.

It’s imperfect, expensive and growing increasingly tired. But because it freed us from home and business broadband connections, 3G led the way to much faster developments in mobile computing. And it lets me watch Sky Sports under the table at boring meetings.


DIGITAL DOWNLOADS 

Rating 4/5

DIGITAL DOWNLOADS To understand how much the digital world has changed the way we consume music, movies and games, talk to someone under the age of 20. Unless you happen to be under the age of 20. Then talk to me.

When I were a lad, we bought records on vinyl, and we watched films on the TV. And we were lucky to get either. Then, for some unfathomable reason, we migrated to tape cassettes for audio and games, and VHS video cassettes for movies. Well, I did. Those with taste and foresight stayed true to vinyl.

When audio CDs and, later, movie DVDs came along, it felt like a staggering step forward. The ability to leap direct to the song or movie chapter of your choice? Wow. Whole albums without turning over? Kerching.

Yet now it all seems archaic. Tonight, if you’re sitting on the bus and you want to hear a particular song, for a small fee you can immediately buy and listen to it on your smartphone. With an app such as Shazam, you don’t even need to know what it’s called. You can hold your entire music collection in a device a little bigger than a cigarette packet, watch movies on your phone until you get home (and then catch the rest on the big screen), and download and play the latest game without even having to stretch your legs with a stroll down to the shop.

We’ll gloss over the way in which media downloads were initially driven by criminal sharing, and put that down to media owners being slow on the uptake. The technology is the thing and, for better or worse, it’s totally changed the world of entertainment. It’s even changed the way it’s produced: no-one now buys albums, so singles, ringtones and live performances are key to musicians making a crust.

It’s not just music, though. Podcasting has allowed comedians and radio presenters to create their own markets, while TV series debut simultaneously around the globe and are immediately available to download.

NEXT PAGE: mobile email, multitouch and social networking >>

Our journey through the 10 technological leaps forward that have most affected our computing lives continues with mobile email, multitouch and social networking...

MOBILE EMAIL

Rating 4/5

MOBILE EMAILI remember sending my first email. I was a student and my alma mater had gifted me use of an email account. The address was an impossible-to-remember string of digits, and to access it I had to book a timeslot at the university’s computer centre. On balance, I decided that even a task so suited to email as keeping up with friends at other universities was much simpler when scrawling on a scrap of paper and heading down to the post office. And the post office sold sweets.

Of course, even then email was more portable than I’d realised. But it remained only a slightly easier way of sending letters, using a static PC or laptop, until push email for mobile devices became prevalent. Although push email was standard on Japanese smartphones from around the turn of the last century, it wasn’t until RIM started flogging its BlackBerry phones that it became a big deal in the UK.

The first full-featured BlackBerry phone launched as recently as 2003. Its impact in that short time has been nothing short of staggering. Now almost all white-collar workers carry at least one push-email-enabled portable device and, in plenty of cases, more than one. The age of being out of contact when out of the office is well-and-truly over, as executives email from the beach, and weekend warriors check their email in nanosecond moments of down time.

Being able to email from a mobile has – along with SMS – in turn spawned other, more immediate forms of mobile communication, from instant messaging, through Twitter and Facebook to video-calling. But mobile email remains the daddy of them all, meaning that working 9 to 5 is a distant memory, while enabling flexible working practices.

Whether this makes us more efficient and flexible, or simply more stressed, is a moot point. The way we communicate has changed to a staggering extent, and this in no small part down to mobile email.


MULTITOUCH

Rating 3.5/5

MULTITOUCHAt any point in the first 10 years of PC Advisor, you’d have been within your rights to offer only a casual shrug at the idea of multitouch technology representing a major breakthrough. The use of touchscreens to control devices has been around since the dawn of computing, but for a long time it remained unpopular. Indeed, like many of our technology breakthroughs, touch input was something that Microsoft correctly recognised as important, without immediately cashing in.

Microsoft’s table-top touch platform – Microsoft Surface – was dreamed up in 2001, but a final spec was announced with typically poor timing barely a month before the iPhone. Surface interacts with both the users’ touch and objects placed on the display, and the technology forms a huge part of Microsoft’s plans for a future wherein every surface is an input device, and every device can interact.

But it was Apple that made multitouch popular with the iPhone, launched in 2007. The iPhone’s screen tech was ultimately the product of a company called Fingerworks. Fingerworks spent the early years of this century developing various multitouch technologies. It produced several products, including a touchscreen keyboard that Apple liked so much it bought the company.

Of course, no-one is claiming that Apple invented multitouch – except Apple itself – but the iPhone was the first mobile device with a multitouch screen.

From being a niche feature, touch is now intrinsic to all manner of devices. Not all touchscreens are made equal, and by no means are all multitouch, but the success of the iPhone and the products that followed it have firmly entrenched a ‘touch first, ask questions later’ policy into the minds of most computer users. It may not be the ideal input mode for every type of product, but it’s not going away: place a child in front any tech device, and they will instinctively attempt to control it by touch. That, my friends, is intuitive.


SOCIAL NETWORKING

Rating 4/5

Social NetworkingFor almost as long as there’s been a PC Advisor, there’s been a PC Advisor forum – our own social network, and the largest of its kind in Europe. But it took the rest of the world a while to catch up.

According to Wikipedia, the first social-networking websites went live around the same time as PC Advisor thrust itself on to an unsuspecting world. But the key dates in social networking happen much later.

Consider this, as you browse the web: the term ‘weblog’ didn’t exist before 1997 and, although people published online diaries, the first dedicated blogging sites appeared even later than that. Friendster, MySpace, FriendsReunited… they’ve all risen and fallen since 2002. And even then, success and failure are relative terms, given the thousands of people who still use networks considered moribund by the watching world. Facebook debuted in 2004, Twitter in July 2006, and yet the amount of web traffic that now goes to such sites is staggering.

Facebook, the biggest of all, tells us it has more than 800 million active users – more than half of whom visit the site at least once a day and a staggering 350 million of whom access the site through mobile phones. More than 250 million photos are uploaded each day, the site is available in more than 70 languages, and there are more than 900 million pages, group events and community pages.

Facebook, Twitter and the rest have changed the way we communicate, while other sites and services have altered the way we access and consume media. There’s more content on YouTube today than has ever been broadcast on all
the TV stations in the world. Want to share an event with a loved one far away?

If photos on Flickr and live Twitter updates aren’t enough, just Skype it.

Love it or loathe it, social media has changed the lives of millions of people to the extent that it’s not the ‘social web’; for lots of people, it’s just ‘the web’.

NEXT PAGE: satnavs, USB, web searches and wireless >>

We conclude our trawl through the PC Advisor archives with satnavs, USB, web searches and wireless...

SATELLITE NAVIGATION

3.5/5

SATELLITE NAVIGATIONWho remembers maps, hey? These clumsy paper contraptions were the ‘route’ of 37 percent of all divorces between 1973 and 1988. Okay, we made up that stat, but I can’t be the only child of the 70s for whom the advent of turn-by-turn navigation banished forever nightmares based around French road systems and the M25.

Navigation by satellite has been available in some form since the 1960s, but for most of that time it was principally a military tool. It became a realistic civilian product only when the then US president Bill Clinton opened up the military’s Global Positioning System in the late 1990s. That’s right, we have the good old US of A to thank for satnavs. Before long, a device that literally told you where to go became a crucial part of every serious driver’s armoury.

Of course, despite the way we rely on them, satnavs are no panacea. Like all digital devices, when they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad they send you down a single-track country lane in a double-decker bus. As maps get older and road systems change, your satnav can be every bit as geographically challenged as a harassed spouse with an A-Z. There’s a patch of the A1 which throws my own device into paroxysms of rage as it screams at me to stop driving through a field.

But the modern satnav is often internet-enabled, allowing it to update on the fly. And such is the power of modern smartphones, and the utility of satnav software, that many people now use their mobile devices as constantly updating GPS navigators. Indeed, Android users may never need to look beyond the Google Navigation app for getting from A to B.
Something that seems almost banal now would have seemed like science fiction back in 1995, and for that reason satellite navigation on smartphones and dedicated devices is a serious technology breakthrough.


USB

Rating 3/5

USBPC Advisor is older than Universal Serial Bus (USB), version one of which was released in January 1996. Offering specified data rates of 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) and 12 Mbps for low- and full-bandwidth respectively, the first version of USB couldn’t support extension cables or pass-through monitors. Had we not seen the birth of USB 1.1 in 1998, the technology would be little more than a footnote in the history of computing.

That iteration of the connectivity technology achieved popularity, while USB 2.0 was launched in 2000 and blasted its way to ubiquity. Promising a higher maximum bandwidth of 480Mbps, USB 2.0 was also known as ‘Hi-Speed’. It also offered the flexibility of MiniUSB, but it’s the technology’s plug-and-play simplicity that makes it such a winner.

Look around your home or work computing setup, and count the number of USB connections. You may or may not run your mouse and keyboard by USB, but we bet you have external storage devices and USB thumb drives to extend your PC’s storage and move files around. And while smartphone and MP3-player makers may infuriate all but themselves by making the device end of their charge and synch cables proprietary, the bit you plug in to the PC? That’s USB.

Desktop printers and scanners, laptop stands with cooling fans, lights, cup holders, hubs for more USB connectivity… all are powered by the one hardware port to rule them all. ‘What about wireless connectivity?’ I hear you say. A fair point. But don’t forget that USB is used in dongles that connect everything from Bluetooth peripherals to wireless networks.

USB has a battle on its hands to stay ahead of such rivals as Thunderbolt. But with USB 3.0 already on stream, who’s to say that it won’t remain the king of all connectors for the foreseeable future?


WEB SEARCH

Rating 4.5/5

WEB SEARCHSearch has been around since the early days of the web, but finding useful content was for a long time a complex and unsatisfying business. Domain names and URLs were hugely important, and you never really knew what you were getting until you landed on a page, with often negative results.

Although Google’s ground-breaking PageRank algorithm was the internet’s great leap forward, search really kicked into gear in 1996. Netscape held a competition to find a search engine for its then market-dominant web browser. The competition was so stiff it ended up choosing five search partners, each paying $5m for the pleasure of appearing one fifth of the times that Netscape’s search page was called up. Yet the successes of Yahoo, Magellan, Lycos, Infoseek and Excite fell with the dotcom boom and the inexorable rise of Google.

Google Search rose to dominance around the turn of the century, with its use of inbound links to ascertain popularity and uncluttered user interface blowing away the competition. In time, Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo have come together to provide a viable alternative to Google, and other search engines provide more specialist services, meaning that most web-browsing sessions start with a search.

Search engines are the most important newsstands for website owners.

They dominate the web-advertising industry, and in some ways rival the sites and services they promote. Optimising sites so that they rank higher in search-engine results has become a full-time profession. At the same time, search engines have become much savvier at understanding what web users actually rate on the internet, and grown increasingly sophisticated at picking out the best of the net.

Count on search to play a crucial part in the way the web develops, as the distinction between on- and offline continues to blur. Good, bad or indifferent, the internet as we know it exists the way it is now only because of search.


WIRELESS INTERNET

Rating 4.5/5

WIRELESS INTERNETAlthough the origins of Wi-Fi are much older than PC Advisor, a quick glance through our launch issue confirms that wireless connectivity was nothing more than a pipe dream in 1995. The first commercial products to be marketed under the term ‘Wi-Fi’ appeared in 1999, and we were still banging on about the advantages of wireless well into the noughties, as takeup proved stubbornly slow.

There are plenty of reasons for this. A robust broadband infrastructure helps to make wireless in the home useful and desirable, and there are plenty of places in the UK where that remains out of reach to this day. And until Microsoft and the mainstream ISPs worked out that consumers need serious hand-holding, configuring a wireless network in Windows was fiendishly difficult.

But once setting up a network became a relatively simple task, Wi-Fi became ubiquitous. The PC is liberated from the study, and sofa surfing with a laptop is possible. Smartphones, tablets, printers, games consoles, set-top boxes and audio systems… all can access your home network, pulling down media and pushing out information. And each is more useful for its wireless connection to the web.

Step out on to the streets and it’s staggering how often you’ll now find yourself in range of a wireless network. As time goes by this will only increase, with city-wide Wi-Fi planned for many major conurbations.

Of course, Wi-Fi has its down sides. It’s a major security risk, for a start, and its very usefulness means that if your router fails you lose a lot. If you’re lucky enough to live in a house with sturdy walls or multiple floors, you’ll find that even the best connection struggles to reach every corner, and it’s easy to use a lot of power, and even more of your data allowance, with an always-on connection.

But walk around your house, go on a journey, and try to imagine life without 802.11 connectivity. Things would be a lot more constrained, and a lot less fun. J