The Most Important Tech Innovations of the Last Twenty Years

Posted by Diana Antão

Some people think that the most successful tech is the kind that almost goes unnoticed, blending into our lives to the point where it no longer stands out. And yet – if you took this tech away – life would be much less convenient.

With this in mind, we created a list of some of the fantastic breakthroughs we’ve witnessed over the last two decades that we now take for granted. These inventions either made a big impact or opened the door to a different kind of world and inspired new creations.

GOOGLE

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Exactly twenty years ago, Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google and search soon became a way of life. There have been other search engines since – like Yahoo, Ask.com and Bing – but Google remains the number one search tool in the world and is now one of the most successful ad companies too. It’s now so engrained in how we do things that we even use the term ‘Google’ as a verb! This is the perfect example of a technology that has become ubiquitous in our life. Can you imagine going back to hunting for information in encyclopedias when you’ve got a smartphone in your pocket?

WI-FI

The first (limited) version of Wi-Fi was released in 1997, but it only started growing in popularity from 1999. Funny how things change! Chances are that you are using Wi-Fi right now to read this article. In the Western world, there are increasingly few public areas or homes that don’t have Wi-Fi available. We can even enjoy Wi-Fi on some public modes of transport and – in some cases – we have entire smart cities that are completely connected. As for connecting on the go, it was the IEEE 802.11 standard that set us free from needing to be sat at a computer to access the internet. A god-send!

MULTI-CORE PROCESSORS

It was only in the early 2000s that computers went from single-core processors to multi-core processors. This was quite a change. The multi-core system had smaller and more energy-efficient servers and allowed us to run computer programmes more smoothly.

FLASH DRIVES

Although flash memory was invented during the 1980s, the first flash drive was only commercialised in the year 2000. Flash memory provided faster access and lower power consumption in a more compact device. It’s no surprise that USBs using flash memory quickly replaced floppy disks and CDs, forever changing how we store data.

GPS

Gone are the days when we needed a big, unfoldable paper map to direct us on a road trip. Although the idea for GPS started taking shape in the 1950s, it was only in the early 2000s that the technology became significantly cheaper and accurate enough to use. This opened the door for private companies to begin developing GPS products for consumers; products like in-car navigation (Sat-Navs) and, later, Google Maps and other smartphone apps.

MP3 PLAYERS

Recorded music has been around for a while: from Gramophone to record player, from A-Trak to cassette and then on to CDs and Minidiscs. Around the time of CRITICAL Software’s formation in 1998, perhaps the biggest change was the shift from CDs to MP3 players. The process of digital encoding that made song files ten times smaller – small enough to be transferred easily over the internet and on flash drives – played a big role in making this change possible. In 1998, the first MP3 players that were released were too pricey and offered only 32MB of storage. But by the time the iPod was released in 2001, with 5GB of space, the way we bought, stored and listened to music was transformed.

STREAMING MEDIA

The significant increase in network bandwidth in the early 2000s introduced new possibilities for streaming audio and video content. With streamed content, we no longer need to download movies, games, TV shows and music in order to play it. Instead, we can now devour content at our leisure, whenever we choose. Streaming has changed how we consume content but it has also changed how producers and artists are creating content. YouTube, Spotify and Netflix are probably some of the most popular online services used today.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Before 2004, the early seeds of social media were starting to blossom, with chatrooms particularly popular. But from the mid-2000s things really kicked on, with YouTube, MySpace and Facebook all attempting to steer a course to social domination. Twitter joined the party in 2006 and more would soon follow, including niche social media networks. Together, these platforms have fundamentally changed the way we communicate with each other and consume information.

SMARTPHONES

The creators of the smartphone probably didn’t quite imagine the impact it would have on our lives and how many functionalities could eventually be crammed into one device. The first smartphone was commercialised in 1994 but the smartphone frenzy would only really begin in 2007. This was when Apple introduced the first iPhone, complete with a multi-touch capacitive touch screen. This device was truly revolutionary and just one year later, a new smartphone was released with Google’s own operating system – the Android. Soon, “there’s an app for that” became common speak and today our phones fulfil almost every need. For some people, they’ve become a little too addictive! 

3D PRINTERS

The foundation for 3D printers was established in the 1980s but only in the mid-2000s did ‘3D printing’ become a buzz word. These devices were once super expensive and designed for the manufacturing industry. Now, any DIY hobbyist can have one at home. This changed three main reasons: machines became smaller and more user-friendly, prices decreased significantly, and the printers became more accurate. Now, if an item breaks and a new part is needed, anyone with a 3D printer can easily design a 3D model using free software programmes and then simply print it.

LARGE HADRON COLLIDER

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In 2008, the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator and the most complex experimental facility ever built, opened for scientific business. It took thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians decades to plan and build, and it continues to push the frontiers of scientific knowledge. The collider allows scientists to study some of the most fundamental theories in physics and it has already helped to identify the Higgs boson (an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics).

DRIVERLESS AND ELECTRIC CARS

Back in 2008, Google launched its self-driving car project. Ten years later, these cars have travelled over 2 million miles, including driving on the streets of major US cities. Other companies like Uber have since joined the race to release driverless cars. This will bring major changes not only for the automotive sector, but for cities and society at large.

Another big change for the automotive sector relates to what fuels vehicles. As with much of the tech on this list, the first steps for electric vehicles were taken a long time ago. It was in the early 2000s that the interest in electricity as an alternative fuel increased enough for further developments to be made. People were concerned with the damage hydrocarbon-fueled vehicles were having on the environment. Although there were several attempts beforehand, the big success of electric cars came with Tesla Motors’ development of the Roadster. The Roadster was the first all-electric car to travel more than 320km per charge, thanks to its lithium-ion battery cells.

BIOMECHANICAL HAND

In 2009, scientists developed technology that allowed an amputee to control a biomechanical hand by thought alone. The patient, an Italian man, was the first person to wiggle his biomechanical fingers and grab objects, controlling the hand attached to nerves in his arm. The experiment was an important step forward in melding the human nervous system with a prosthetic limb and will likely be the basis for many future human-machine partnership innovations.

iPADS AND TABLETS

Some may say that iPads and tablets aren’t revolutionary in that they’re just bigger smartphones or otherwise laptops without keyboards. However, we’ve included them in this list because they have had a huge impact on consumer electronics. They were close to being called laptop ‘killers’ at one point, as people felt they might replace more traditional laptops entirely! When Apple's iPad came out in 2010, it changed the way we interacted with content and now tablets are used as restaurant menus, cash registers, medical devices and much more…

THE MARS ROVER

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During the last 20 years, humans have often had their imaginations inspired by the planet Mars. In 2011, Curiosity, the most technologically-advanced rover ever built, landed on the Red Planet. It was designed to look for signs that would prove the possibility of Mars’ habitability. In 2014, a breakthrough came when the Rover found water under the surface of the planet. Who knows what else we might find there? The next Rover to land on Mars will likely be a shared project between the European and the Russian Space agencies.

REUSABLE ROCKETS

Normally when a rocket is sent into space, its useful life has finished and it’s discarded as debris. This one-time use policy is wasteful and very costly. The ability to reuse a rocket could cut the cost of a launch significantly (as well as reduce a significant amount of future space litter). So far, Blue Origin and SpaceX have successfully landed rockets back on Earth that could be reused. Space X is already testing this with ever larger weights (you may remember that Elon Musk went into space on a giant rocket recently!). This is an important step to reduce the cost of space travel.

HOT SOLAR CELLS

Solar panels have been around for a long time, but have somehow remained expensive, too big and inefficient. After their invention, their evolution saw them arrive at solar shingles. The first models came out in 2005 but, in 2015, Tesla took the technology to the next level. With their Solar Roof Project, Tesla created shingles that look like normal roof tiles made from highly-efficiency solar cells. Hidden, efficient and, eventually, less expensive. 


And that piece of clever, environmentally-friendly tech brings us to the end of our little list! 

We hope you enjoyed reading about some of the great tech that has evolved over the same time that CRITICAL Software has. If you have any other tech in mind that should be on this list, let us know: we would love to add to it.