The Decade’s Top 10 Trends
Perhaps no other ten-year period in history has seen so much innovations in the field
Few decades, if any, can compare with first 10 years of the 21st century for such extraordinary technological leaps in the field of consumer electronics. Even more remarkable is how blithely most people integrate new technologies into their daily behaviors—and then wonder how they ever got along before they had the latest widget.
Just think about how stunned consumers a decade ago would have been at giant flat HDTVs; at how anyone can download an entire record album, TV show, or movie from the Internet and be listening or watching in less than a minute; at being able to tote around a lightweight computer as powerful as the one on a desk at home; at the ability of a cell phone to take better pictures than a Kodak Instamatic and then to let the user transmit those snaps to the world; at how a thumb-sized device could store and play back a thousand times more music than an audiocassette; at how a cable set-top box can pause live TV and also record and store dozens of hours of TV shows on a single hard drive; at how easy it is to keep in minute-by-minute touch—through words, pictures, and video—with far-flung family and friends via the Web.
Witnessing such evolution and slowly assimilating these powers into our everyday activities over the last few years have stripped them of their once sci-fi wonder. Before flipping through the following pages and read about the top 10 trends of the last decade in consumer electronics, it’s important to acknowledge the five underlying fundamental technologies that have enabled them in the first place: broadband Internet, digital television, wireless connectivity, digital cable connectivity, and flash memory.
Imagine going to sleep the night after the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, then waking up the next morning to the sonic boom of the Concord. That analogy is just as appropriate when applied to the change from phone line analog to coaxial digital broadband modems.
When the first DOCSIS (Data over Cable Service Interface Specification) cable modems began to operate in 1999, measuring throughput—data upload and download speeds—went from thousands to millions of bits per second. Suddenly Web pages that had taken agonizing minutes or more to load snapped onto screens in seconds. Broadband Internet made iTunes and all subsequent music and video downloading and multimegabyte-sized file and photo sharing possible.
Digital Television Transition
Football games and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation sure look better in HD, but better television was only one goal of creating high-definition television. The development of the digital television standards by the so-called grand alliance of competing TV companies between May 1993 and Christmas 1996 wrought two major fundamental technological advances: video compression and spectrum recovery.
Digital television was not possible without the parallel development of video compression technology, both MPEG-2 and MPEG-4, now used in all video devices and technologies: cable and satellite TV, DVD, camcorders, digital cameras and cell phones with video recording, videogame players, and Web-based video.
And the digital cell phone spectrum is carved out of local analog television broadcast frequencies, with the coming 4G networks operating entirely on spectrum just recovered and sold by the government for billions of deficit-reducing dollars from the recent turnoff of analog TV.
In 10 years many Americans have gone from slow home-tethered desktop PC access to the Internet to zip-zip-zip near-anywhere wireless connectivity by means of a plethora of portable gadgets via either 3G cellular or WiFi, aka IEEE 802.11.
All the major cellular carriers are working flat out to prepare the so-called 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks, which will more than triple the speed and efficiency of today’s 3G connections—an amazing fourth major upgrade in cellular network speed this decade, following the advance to 2.5G networks (CDMA’s 1xRTT and GSM’s EDGE) at the start of the decade, then to 3G EV-DO (CDMA) and HSPA (GSM) by mid-decade.
Few nonphones include built-in 3G connectivity, but it’s getting harder to find a device that does not have WiFi capabilities—or places in North America where one cannot wirelessly connect via WiFi. Once WiFi standards were agreed to in 1999, wireless hotspots multiplied rapidly—there are now an estimated 70,000 in the United States.
Digital Cable Connectivity
As digital devices became smaller and more efficient, more efficient interconnectivity became necessary. First, bulky multipin parallel and serial ports and cables had to go, replaced by the Universal Serial Bus, or USB. Standardized in 1996, USB communications didn’t take off until the release of the faster v2.0 in 2001. All devices requiring connectivity to a personal computer now include full-sized, mini-, or micro-USB jacks—an estimated 2 billion USB devices are now sold each year.
Similarly, using multicable analog audio/video components, composite and S-video connectors became akin to using waxed string to connect children’s play telephones a century ago. In 2003 the first HDTVs and DVD players appeared with a one-cable solution: HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface), the first all-digital audio and video connector. By the end of 2010 there will be nearly a billion HDMI-equipped devices, including HDTVs, camcorders, and digital cameras.
Fujio Masuoka, a Toshiba engineer, invented solid-state, or flash, memory in early 1980s. But it took 20 years to make it affordable enough for consumer use. In the meantime, the capacities of mechanical hard disk drives zoomed as prices sank. The first iPod, for instance, included a 5 GB microdrive and cost $400. Today’s 120 GB iPod Classic is just $249. No matter how small they got, however, hard-disk drives were too unwieldy to be used as removable memory. Enter flash memory. But even the matchbook-sized Compact Flash cards, introduced by SanDisk in 1994, were too bulky for compact point-and-shoot digital cameras or cell phones. In 2000 Panasonic, SanDisk, and Toshiba developed the postage stamp–sized Secure Digital (SD) card format, which was widely adopted because of its quickly expanding capacities and precipitously dropping price.
Back in 2002, for instance, 2 GB SD cards listed at around $100; the same card today, in either full- or pinky-nail-sized microSD versions, can be bought for less than $10. Nearly every device with memory now contains an SD card slot.
These five fundamental technologies have made possible the 10 top consumer electronics trends discussed on the following pages. But if technology history is any guide, it is likely that these foundations will be shaken by newer, more efficient, less physical, and less expensive alternatives as we move into the second decade of the 21st century.