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The Decade in Technology

Some people say the first decade of the 21st century ends this week. Others say it extends until the end of 2010. Either way, the past 10 years were a momentous period for technology.

Not only was there no iPhone a decade ago, there was hardly anything that could be considered a smartphone. The BlackBerry was introduced in 1999, when the well-heeled techno-savvy were carrying around flip phones.

That year, 1999, was the height of the dot-com boom. But when you look back at it, the online world was nothing like it is today. There was no Facebook (founded in 2004) or Twitter (2007). Even MySpace wasn't founded until 2003. The term Web 2.0 hadn't been coined and most people who were online used the Web mostly to consume information. Those with the skills and resources to post to the Web were called "Webmasters." Today, everyone with a Facebook account is a master of his or her own Web.

Ten years ago AOL was the most popular Internet service provider and was so successful that it was able to purchase media giant Time Warner in January 2000 for $182 billion in stock. But the marriage didn't make it through the decade. The two companies formally split up this month, with AOL, once again, being traded on the New York Stock Exchange as a separate company. AOL thrived in the '90s because people were using the service to go online via phone. Today most American homes have broadband.

In 1999, most television sets sold still had cathode ray tubes. The first nationwide HDTV broadcast took place in 1998 when the cheapest high-definition sets were selling for more than $6,000.

During much of the past decade, forces behind Blu-ray and HD-DVD were battling to be the successor to the popular DVD format for in-home movies. The war came to an end in 2008 when the HD-DVD camp folded.

Yet, despite enormous industry hype and plenty of movie titles, sales of stand-alone Blu-ray players are still relatively low and movies on Blu-ray discs, according to The Wall Street Journal, represented only 11.5 percent of studios' in-home video revenue as of September. Blu-ray players are now available for under $130 but they may be entering the mainstream just in time to be irrelevant.

Increasingly, consumers are streaming their movies and TV shows via the Internet and avoiding the need for physical media. Indeed, Netflix - the DVD's best friend - is a strong proponent of streaming video, offering unlimited access to thousands of titles that can be streamed to computers or TV sets equipped with devices such as the Roku, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and some compatible TiVo models.

When the decade started, the most up-to-date Windows operating system was Windows 98. Windows XP came out in 2001. Microsoft launched Windows Vista in January 2007 but consumers never took to it. It wasn't until October of this year that Microsoft finally came up with what promises to be a winner with the release of Windows 7.

At the start of this decade Mac users were on Mac OS 9. The first desktop version of the current Mac operating system, OS X was launched in 2001.
Downloadable music is ubiquitous today but the iTunes music store wasn't launched until 2003. By 2008 it surpassed Wal-Mart as the No. 1 music retailer in the U.S.

Napster was the most popular source of music downloads in 1999, but it was a short ride for the company, which was forced to close its doors in 2001 after being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America. Napster's assets, including its name, were bought for $5 million in 2002 by Roxio. But in 2008 retailer Best Buy acquired it for $121 million.

In 2000, federal Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson officially ruled that Microsoft was a monopoly and for a while it looked as if the Justice Department would seek to have the company split in two. But in November 2001, Microsoft and the Justice Department reached a settlement. One concern at the time was whether Microsoft would use its immense power to dominate the Internet. Few people then put much stock in the prospects of a small startup called Google that was run by a couple of Stanford graduate students. Now Google is being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for its own alleged antitrust behavior.

I spent New Year's Day morning 2000 at Hewlett-Packard watching CEO Carly Fiorina declare that the turn of the century came and went without a major technology meltdown. Leading up to the new century, some doomsayers worried that the "millennium bug" or "Y2K" would wreak havoc on the world's computers at the stroke of midnight because computer clocks would think it was 1900. It turned out to be a non-event though it did force a lot of companies to revise their software in time to avoid problems.

One of the most notable inventions of the decade was the Segway. When the gyroscopically controlled scooter was unveiled by inventor Dean Kamen on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America" in December 2001, it was hailed as a major revolution in transportation. The Segway never really took off as a mass-market device, though I have spotted a few businesses around the world using them to take tourists around cities, and have noticed an occasional mall cop using them as an alternative to walking a beat.

I'm not even going to try to predict what the next 10 years will look like, other than to assume that the pace of change is likely to increase.

This column first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

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