We’re aware of the incremental improvement in technology: processors get faster, phones get lighter, batteries last longer. But the major shifts in how we use tech to work and play often come about because a company decides to make a bigger and bolder move, challenging existing assumptions and introducing new ways to approach problems. Here are five examples that spring to mind.
Picture by sakocreative
Google uses PageRank
Google’s use of PageRank — a measure of how many other sites link to a given page — to assess the usefulness of search results was a big change from its late 1990s search rivals, who generally concentrated purely on the text of a page. Using that metric gave the site a leadership position it hasn’t yet ceded despite fierce competition. These days, Google has to constantly remind people that its ranking systems for pages are very complex, and assess much more than just the PageRank data. But the principle that PageRank embodied — searching intelligently, not just by basic data analysis — remains very much in play.
Apple dumps the floppy drive
I can still remember the howls of protest when Apple decided not to include a floppy drive on the iMac back in 1998. How, everyone wondered, will we share files? Right now, we’d all probably answer “in the cloud”, but the more significant answer at the time was “via USB”. USB was good news for Apple — no more PC-only accessories! — but the iMac promoting it was also an important step forward. Whether people used USB sticks or just connected a USB floppy drive, it helped get them used to the idea. Picture by Wikimedia Commons
Nintendo launches the Wii
In 2006, the console wars seemed to be about specifications: the Xbox 360 was going up against the PS3 in terms of raw processing power, on-board storage and ability to service all your entertainment needs. So what did Nintendo do? It released a console which was considerably less powerful than either, and which didn’t pretend to be a media player. What it did do was let you jump around the room waving your controller like a madman. The result? A console that everyone enjoyed, as sales of 95 million units — more than either of its supposed rivals — handily demonstrates.
Microsoft bundles IE in Windows
OK, making Internet Explorer the default for browsers was terrible news for web designers, especially for all those users stuck on Internet Explorer 6. It wasn’t great news for Microsoft either, since it faced antitrust lawsuits in the US and Europe as a result of the decision. But it’s hard to deny its effectiveness as a strategy. IE took a dominant position in browsing which is only just now looking like it might be under pressure from Firefox and Chrome.
Sean Parker sets up Napster
Again, Napster itself is now a dead-in-the-water brand, but it was the service that made millions of people aware that file sharing could be a way of easily and cheaply gaining access to entertainment. And co-founder Sean Parker presumably isn’t unhappy about the way his career has evolved since then, with his personal worth now estimated at above $2 billion. Picture by /Getty Images
What other moments in tech history would you add to this list? Share them in the comments.