How technology has changed in 6 decades
Toby Shapshak on six tech moments we’ve happily forgotten
The silicon chip, microprocessor, the mouse, software from Windows, the relational database, cloud computing, smartphones and the mobile internet are the obvious choices for a retrospective of the tech developments in the past six decades.
Instead, I’ve chosen six things that changed our lives and blew our minds ... and which we’ve already forgotten.
The fax machine
There was a time when the fax machine epitomised work efficiency. The very first Nokia Communicators had a dedicated button for faxes but not for e-mails, which gives you a feel for the importance of faxes at the beginning of the smartphone era. When laptops began incorporating dial-up modems, you could even send a fax directly, without printing it first. Wow. Who can forget those endless rolls of heat-printed paper?
For a decade, the dial-up tone of a computer connecting over a telephone line was the sound of the internet. It was instantly recognisable and brought the promises of the information superhighway to our lives ... after at least 30 seconds of screeching high-pitched computer noises. This fragile connection to the internet over a piece of copper wire has ultimately spurred on an industry with super-fast wireless connectivity.
How many people printed their bank statements in fear that the change from 1999 to 2000 would cause the banking system to collapse?
Older computer systems (in a desperate effort to conserve expensive memory) used to omit the two-digit century number. There was a real fear that some systems might reset themselves to the wrong millennium. As fearmongering as it was, the Y2K bug turned out to be a minor gnat in history, albeit a hysteria-inducing one.
Most people don’t know that the predictive text on keypad phones used the T9 dictionary, which did a simple calculation based on the three letters assigned to each number. The word "cool" was 2665 but so too was "book" — giving rise not only to quicker typing but the first autocorrect errors that would become a cult meme in their own right. T9 saves millions of thumb clicks. It deserves a place in some tech hall of fame.
Microsoft — like all software makers — has had a few duds. None was quite as bad as Windows Vista, the early-2000s edition of the desktop software that moved away from the branding sequence of Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows Me. It was so user-unfriendly that it is still sniggered about in software circles.
Betamax is arguably the best demonstration of how a superior technology can be undone by a foolish business plan. Sony launched its video recorders with a magnetic tape in 1975, a year before JVC started selling its VHS (video home system) machines. Sony believed its superior technology would trump VHS’s lesser-quality recordings. But it turned out people wanted cheaper recorders, and by 1980 VHS had cornered 60% of the US market. It was a seminal lesson in technology.
• Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za)