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10 biggest tech breakthroughs

PC Advisor is 200: 10 large steps for tech kind

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

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