MW 20TH Anniversary Special: The Tech Transformation
There were no smartphones. Instead, there were ICQ and chat rooms, and a single photo took five minutes to load. Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school and Nokia sold more mobile phones (or, as we called them, “brick phones”) than anyone else. But when I look back on the last 20 years, I see it as an era of remarkable transformation. What we consider everyday staple now, like Uber, Spotify, and WhatsApp, didn’t exist a decade ago. The confluence of technological breakthroughs in hardware, software, and connectivity, created completely new ways of connecting, consuming, and doing things. Here are some of the most dramatic technological transformations that I have had the privilege of watching up-close, and writing about over the last 20 years.
Can you believe that the Internet is just a few decades old? But if there is one technology that revolutionised how we work, live and play, it is wireless Internet. Every major breakthrough in the last two decades — whether it’s social media, instant photo sharing, or gig economy — relied on the power of mobile data connections. And as data transmission speeds grow globally, it is likely to be similarly transformative.
When Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched Google on Stanford University’s network back in the late 90s, they probably didn’t know how they were about to reshape the world. Since then, Google has entered the dictionary as a verb, given us the ability to organise and search the repository of human knowledge in seconds, and rewired and disrupted so many industries singlehandedly. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say it’s a Google World and we live in it. We google every day for information and it’s so ubiquitous that we almost have no choice but to use it. What would we do without Google Search, YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive, Google Maps, Google Books, and rest of Google’s offerings?
As I watch the Instagram-happy millennials smize for a selfie, it’s hard to fathom that the first cell phone with a built-in camera was manufactured by Samsung in 2000. It could take 20 photos at 0.35-megapixels, and you had to connect it to a computer to download photos. As sensor and lens technology evolved, consumers started turning to smartphones more than ever instead of picking up the traditional camera, causing a major setback to the digital camera industry
Would the iPhone come if the iPod hadn’t arrived earlier? There had been many MP3 players in the market but when iPod was released in 2001 with 5GB storage that could hold 1,000 songs and the iconic mechanical scroll wheel with four buttons, it changed the world of music forever. For the first time, consumers could carry their entire music collection with them wherever they went. Apple also introduced iTunes, one of the first legal ways of paying for music, and changed the way we interacted with music.
“We’re going to make some history together today.” Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone at the Macworld conference in January of 2007, calling it a “revolutionary product that combined a cell phone, mobile Internet, and iPod music player – all in one device.” The stunning device featured a revolutionary multitouch interface and groundbreaking software that allowed users to navigate the device with their fingers, by tapping, swiping, or pinching. Apple sold its millionth iPhone within 74 days of launch and less than a decade later, it sold its billionth iPhone. The iPhone not only became Apple’s flagship product, it changed our lives forever, inspired countless imitators, and created an ecosystem of mobile applications and businesses. Steve Jobs was right. The iPhone changed everything.
If you have watched Jesse Eisenberg’s sly portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, it would be easy to believe that social media started when Facebook was born out of a dorm room at Harvard University. However, there were a number of social media networks that captured the attention of consumers – Friendster, Orkut, and notably, MySpace. But unlike other networks, Facebook took advantage of the rising broadband availability and an increasingly diverse audience using the Internet, attracting not just young people but families and businesses. Today, Facebook connects 1.69 billion globally and provides business of all sizes and technical sophistication, a sizeable opportunity to speak directly to their customers. And with its acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook is leading a new era of hyper-connectedness and sharing.
The biggest technology developments of the 2000s – mobile data and smartphones paved the way for a large, interconnected global audience of people with assets to spare or share. Shared economy, best known for crowd-based marketplaces such as Airbnb and Uber, allowed people to gain income by providing access to idle assets such as hotel rooms and car rides. The world’s largest taxi firm, Uber, doesn’t own cars and the world’s largest accommodation provider, Airbnb, does not own any property. Shared economy changed the way people consume and provide services, leading to disruption of many industries.
Which company do you think has disrupted more industries than anyone else? Jeff Bezos has built a company that, on launch, disrupted publishers and booksellers around the world and continues to be a disruptive force in online shopping. It has set gold standards for what online shopping should be like. It is constantly expanding what you could possibly buy and bring to you faster than ever before. Bezos succinctly describes Amazon’s success, “If there’s one reason we have done better than of our peers in the Internet space, it is because we have focused like a laser on customer experience, and that’s what really matters.” We agree.
SMART VOICE ASSISTANTS
Captain Kirk speaking to the “computer” in an early episode of Star Trek moved from fiction to reality when Amazon launched its smart voice assistant, Echo, that could understand conversational speech and do things for you. All you needed to do is say “Alexa”, and Echo lights up, indicating it’s ready to follow instructions. Google and Apple followed suit and now Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri have become our reliable assistants, kicking into action at our spoken commands to play music, set alarms, add groceries to our shopping cart and track our to-dos. And as more and more Internet-connected gadgets like thermostats, lights, locks and other appliances become available, the smarthome assistants will become even more useful. You are really not far from finding the droid you are looking for.
“Radha wants to play a game with you in Words With Friends!” While any self-respecting gamer will dismiss Angry Birds, Word with Friends and Candy Crush as non-events, it’s almost unbelievable to think that at in the past, playing games with friends meant crowding around an Atari for your turn. Now you can play against people located anywhere in the world, any time you want. From World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy to Minecraft and Pokémon Go, game downloads hit record levels as democratisation of the Internet saw a widened gaming demographics. Online gaming is on track to become a $5 billion market in the coming years. Mobile gaming is already bigger than music and movies combined, and is growing at a faster growth rate than both.