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10 biggest tech breakthroughs

PC Advisor is 200: 10 large steps for tech kind

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 >>

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