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10 biggest tech breakthroughs

PC Advisor is 200: 10 large steps for tech kind

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 >>

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