100 technologies that changed the world


We may curse slow-to-download phones more than a caravan on a bendy A road, but history will show that third-generation networks did for mobile broadband what ADSL did for its fixed-line equivalent. According to Cisco, the current 150% year-on-year mobile data traffic growth mirrors that of fixed-line internet traffic a decade ago, but on a much vaster scale: mobile data traffic in 2010 was three times the size of the entire internet in 2000. Without 3G, remote working would be greatly diminished; just ask the people who live outside Britain’s major towns.


Deployment over existing phone lines made Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line the starting point for the broadband revolution in Britain. Sadly, for many years it’s also been a sticking point, as anyone living or working too far from the telephone exchange still suffers low bandwidth, despite much of the industry moving to “up to” 24Mbits/sec ADSL2+. At least prices have dropped – BT charged £40 a month for a 512Kbits/sec connection (plus £150 installation) when it launched in 2000.


Invented by a company subsequently acquired by Yahoo, Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising is an example of Google transforming someone else’s great idea into a $28-billion-a-year cash cow. Traditional advertising, online or off, involves parting with cash upfront and hoping that sales from the ad campaign outweigh its cost. PPC allows firms to create ads that appear in the search results for specific keyword phrases, a system Google calls AdWords. Advertisers pay only when their ad is clicked on by a punter who visits their site. This means anyone can compete in the global marketplace by carefully choosing the right keywords and optimising their site and ads. Of course, they have to convert visitors to customers, or they could end up pouring money into the infamous AdWords Black Hole.


It may seem inconceivable that the original iPhone didn’t offer third-party apps, but it’s true

In 2008, Apple launched the iPhone App Store, to partner the iPhone 3G (it may seem inconceivable that the original iPhone didn’t offer third-party apps, but it’s true). It was the first major portal for smartphone software, and it focused on making it as simple as possible to find, buy and download apps. The store was hugely popular, with iPhone and iPod touch users downloading apps in vast numbers. Android and Windows Phone 7 have since copied the App Store model and seen similar success. It’s no exaggeration to say that the App Store has changed the way people use smartphones.

Can the miracle be replicated elsewhere? Apple launched the Mac App Store earlier this year, offering direct downloads of full-sized desktop games and applications for OS X, and Microsoft has confirmed that Windows 8 will include its own app store. It remains to be seen, however, whether the one-stop impulse-buy model will shift full-price desktop applications as effectively as it has 99p iPhone games.


Established in 1963, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange was the first standard system for encoding alphanumeric characters. ASCII made it easy to move data between systems, but, being American, it didn’t originally support accented letters, nor any currency symbols other than the dollar. International computer manufacturers had to make do with fudges until the more advanced Unicode system was established in 1991.


US engineers Joe Woodland and Bernard Silver devised the barcode in 1949 as a way of automating the checkout process at grocery stores – and the system is still going strong today. It’s estimated that Universal Product Code (UPC) symbols are scanned more than five billion times a day. The system now enables self-checkout and even live price comparison via smartphones. Quite an achievement for a collection of boring black and white lines.


Developed as a teaching language in the mid-1960s, BASIC ignited the careers of a whole generation of coders, through its implementations for the BBC Micro and ZX Spectrum. In fact, it’s one of the few programming languages to have been taught in British schools, most having neglected coding in favour of spreadsheets and word processing. Providing a version of BASIC for the Altair computer in 1974 gave Micro-Soft [sic] its big break, and Visual Basic 3 put Windows programming into the hands of the masses.


One of the few technologies that’s made the transition from sci-fi to reality, biometrics are now used to log in to laptops, scan tickets and even buy school dinners. With iris recognition planned for the next generation of passports, and research being conducted into behavioural scans to measure typing rhythm and voice inflection, this very personal technology will only become more pervasive in the years to come.


It may sound like something from the space age, but a blade server’s principal function is rather mundane: to save space. Blade servers are modular systems that house many server “blades” – essentially, much thinner equivalents of the more prevalent units housed in standard 19in-wide rackservers, known as 1U, 2U and so on. Blade servers were developed in the 1990s in response to the need of datacenters to increase performance and availability without having to expand the physical space in which servers were stored.


When does a fad become a force to be reckoned with? Maybe it was when The Huffington Post received $5 million of investment in 2006, Perez Hilton was given a TV show, or when Gizmodo’s leaked iPhone provoked the ire of the world’s biggest technology company. Blogs used to be personal, but now they’re global powerhouses that challenge traditional media as well as governments – and they’re here to stay.


Not so long ago, technical drawing was a painstaking job for a professional, and if you wanted to see how an idea would work in the real world you had to build a prototype. With computer-aided design, any type of plan can be assembled and tweaked in a jiffy. With physics simulation, engineers can even slam their ideas into virtual walls to see how they survive – safely, and without wasting a penny.



In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell wrote about a terrifying future
in which Big Brother kept watch over people’s every move. Some would say that nightmare has arrived, with millions of spy cams littering our roadsides and city centres. CCTV isn’t necessarily malign: coupled with the power of the computer it enables all sorts of services, from cheap security for small businesses, through tracking dangerous criminals using numberplate recognition, to helping drivers avoid the worst traffic snarl-ups. We may not have learned to love Big Brother, but at least he can be helpful.

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