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10 most important technology changes we've seen

PC Advisor is 200: how the world has changed

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.


Then: Television

Now: PC

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
Now: Digital

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 >>

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