2000-2010: How things have changed

The year was 2000.

The dotcom bubble was close to its peak and those of us who were fortunate enough to be part of it felt as it we were on top of the world. A new millennium was on its way and, though many of us felt cautiously optimistic, any sense of reason seemed to have disappeared as our fortunes hit stratospheric highs.

We didn’t know then that the stock market would crash. We didn’t know then that most dotcom companies would crash. We didn’t know then that the towers would crash.

Maybe we were too young, too innocent to really comprehend what would come next. Back then, President Clinton was presiding over a country that had seen an almost unprecedented economic expansion built on the innovation of countless members of my generation, who had worked day and night to turn dreams of a new future into an industry that had come to dominate much of the country’s mindshare.

We didn’t know then that, in the ensuing year, the presidential election would end up with a country deeply divided over its legitimacy. This divide would reign for most of the decade (some would argue it still largely exists today) and force many of us to grow up politically.

We didn’t know about the bruising economic crash that would end up wounding us psychologically, forcing us to realize some of our own failures as promising dotcoms after promising dotcoms were forced to shutter their doors, along with many not so promising ones, because they had the unfortunate mark of being on the internet.

And we didn’t know that the scent of failure that had come with many of those closures would only be erased by something worse, something deeper, and probably even more scaring, as we were faced, for the first time, with the concept of large-scale mortality. For those of us living in New York that tragic day in September, the world did end on that day, only to be rebuilt in a different by every one of us. Some escaped, leaving the city entirely; others escaped, living everything, from job to innocence, they had known previously; few went on and tried to adapt; all were forced to grow up, in some way.

We didn’t know that, against a backdrop of war and destruction, ingenious people were working on a newer set of web technologies that would help realize many of the dreams we had dared to dream in the previous decade. RSS was still the domain of a few geeks, and podcasting (let alone the iPod) didn’t exist. Watching movies on the net was something we hoped for but didn’t get. There were a few pockets of sites where watching videos was possible but this was not a mainstream activity.

Apple was known as an also-ran, having been vanquished by Microsoft, the giant from Redmond, which seemed to be undefeatable, having essentially managed to route Netscape, the single largest threat to its business. We thought that the company with the best chance to beat Microsoft might be the company that had figured out how to give internet access to most of America: AOL. AOL was so big that people were wondering which traditional company it would acquire. Early in January 2000, the response came as it acquired (the polite news intelligentsia said merged with) Time-Warner, leading to one of the most disastrous merger in history (disastrous, that is, for Time-Warner. AOL itself might not be around today, had it not pulled off that feat.), a deal that, in a sense defined the decade in its timing. It was the last hurrah of the dotcom era and, in December 2009, AOL spun back out of Time-Warner, going back to NASDAQ after having sucked a lot of blood out of Time-Warner.

MP3 players were for geeks but they were seen as increasingly cool because of an application called Napster, which allowed people to share their music over the internet, something that was sitting in a very gray area from a legal standpoint (the music industry would call it illegal and win in court; consumers called it sharing and grew embittered with the music industry). Since there were no stores to buy music online, most people felt that it was going to be the route Napster would eventually take. But Steve Jobs, who didn’t like being considered an also-ran, had a different idea and, with his team, was putting the finishing touches on a device that would change the music industry: the iPod.

In an amusing turn, the iPod, over several generations, grew to get a near monopoly on the entertainment device market and Microsoft, itself accustomed to monopolies, didn’t make a dent in its market. The iPod begat the iPhone, which itself was not just a phone but provided enough power (that is, roughly the power of a PC circa 2000) to be a full-fledged portable computer. Along the way, Apple extracted some concession from its telephone company partner, opening up the market for a whole series of changes in the telco world. I would venture that, at this point, Apple, with the iPhone, is just about where Microsoft was with Windows circa 1995.

Back then, social networks were largely physical, and it was sometimes difficult to locate an old acquaintance. Friendster dominated that space at the beginning of the decade, to be replaced by MySpace and later Facebook. Few people kept touch with as many friends and it was actually possible to loose someone’s contact information.

Back then, we believed in erasing things from a hard drive, in order to make up space as it was possible to actually fill one’s hard drive.

Back then, “the cloud” was only used to talk about the white stuff in the sky and only birds “tweeted;” “Real-time” was a term generally reserved for stock information, and “live feed” was something only TV technicians worried about.

So as we enter a new decade (I know some might quibble that the decade really only starts in 2011), let’s look forward to a joyful and interesting decade, one filled with the accomplishments of many and the dreams of most.

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