Disruptive Duos: 20 Technologies That Changed the World

Often, even great new technology needs a partner to really change the world. Here are 10 marriages of technologies that have shaken the digital world over the last 25 years.

(This story, or something like it, originally appeared on PCworld.com.)

by Dan Tynan

If there’s one thing the digital revolution has taught us, it’s to not get too attached to anything. Technology has a way of taking long-held ideas and entrenched industries and turning them upside down.

But disruption is rarely the result of a single gadget or innovation. It’s typically when two or more technologies converge that the real changes start to happen.

To look at the most disruptive events we broke them down into pairs with a one, two-punch. Here are our picks for the 10 technology duos with the biggest impact.

[ more after the jump]

10. DVRs + Entertainment on Demand

Remember programming your VCR to record TV shows? Of course you don’t, because nobody did it–it was too difficult and time-consuming.

Fast forward to the late 1990s and the introduction of the TiVo and ReplayTV DVRs. Time-shifting programs and fast forwarding through commercials became as easy as pressing a couple of buttons. Suddenly we were no longer shackled to the arbitrary schedules of TV programmers and the obnoxious pandering of advertisers. Cable and satellite providers rushed out their own DVRs, and millions of people began “TiVo-ing” – even those who’d never touched an actual TiVo.

Like the best disruptive tech, DVRs returned control to users – and made us hungry for even more control over what we watched, when, and where. In 2005, the Slingbox introduced place-shifting, making it possible to watch your TV (or your TiVo) from any broadband connection. Later that year the video-enabled iPod sealed the deal: broadcast content was now permanently untethered from the tube.

Though iTunes’ video library was far from comprehensive, it proved that if you give people an easy alternative to file sharing, they will pay for what they want. Today, video-on-demand services are booming–including ad-supported ones like Hulu.com that are owned and operated by the broadcasters themselves. Thanks to things like TiVo and iTunes, we now expect our entertainment to be delivered to us wherever we are, whenever we want it, on any device that’s handy.

Disruption: The whatever/wherever/whenever model of media consumption is turning Hollywood and the consumer electronics industries upside down, and forcing advertisers to rethink how they can capture our attention.

9. YouTube + Cheap Digital Cameras and Camcorders

One word: Macaca.

When the candid video of former Senator George Allen calling someone a macaca (a monkey) got posted on YouTube, it not only cost him a Senate seat and altered the balance of power in the US Congress, it demonstrated how far viral video had come. The Web is now the first stop for many political candidates and companies trying to spread the word about themselves or their products, and YouTube accounts for more than 60 percent of all video site traffic, according to Hitwise.com.

But it wouldn’t have gotten there without cheap digital cameras, camcorders and cell phone cams. Several key developments pointed the way. For example, in 1995, Sony introduced the first digital video camcorders with a IEEE 1394 Firewire port for high-speed transfers to PCs and Macs (cost: $3000). NEC built the first cell phone cameras that could capture streaming video in 1999. In 2006 JVC introduced the first digital camcorders that record directly to hard drives.

Now, of course, palm-sized camcorders can be had for less than $200, and streaming video capture is a standard in most cameras and camera phones. In fact, the first Pocket Film Festival was held in Paris in October 2005 – with the winning entries posted on YouTube, naturally.

Disruption: Digital video made mini-Hitchcocks of us all. YouTube and its many cousins gave us a place to put our masterworks. Journalism, politics, and entertainment will never be the same.

8. Open Source + Web Tools

Wherever open source goes, massive innovation and spectacular growth soon follow. Think of the open architecture of the IBM PC and the open protocols of the Internet. Even Microsoft appears to have succumbed to the irresistible lure of open source (or so they’d like us to think).

Open source operating systems like Linux have allowed manufacturers to build simpler, cheaper machines, like the One Laptop Per Child project’s XO Machine and Asus’ Eee PC. Such thin clients will play a key role in enabling cloud computing (see #4). Desktop software like Open Office Suite, Firefox, and Thunderbird provide free (and often superior) alternatives to Microsoft’s offerings. Sun’s Java has enabled the development of rich applications for both the Web and handheld devices.

But when open source meets Web development tools the true disruption begins. Tools like MySQL, JBoss, Apache, and Ruby on Rails have made it less expensive to develop new products and services and deliver them across the Net. That means startups can afford to take longer to develop and refine their products, without the pressure and risks of filing an IPO.

“Web 2.0 is cheaper to build than Web 1.0, and part of that is due to open source,” says Keith Benjamin, managing partner for Levensohn Venture Partners. “Things that would have cost $10 million during the bubble can be done for $500,000 today.”

Meanwhile, the revolution in tools like Asynchronous Javascript and XML (AJAX) and “semantic markup” has driven a whole new way to build Web sites, says Robert Kanes, a San Francisco-based publishing consutant and former creative director for PC World Communications.

“Without semantic markup, there would be no XML, XHTML or RSS,” Kanes says. “That means no higher-level Google algorithms, Flickr, or iTunes. Basically, there was a revolution, and it changed the nature of referencing content from what it looked like or was contained in, to describing what it actually was. Now we can slice and dice to our heart’s content.”

Disruption: A new boom in Web 2.0 companies which are more stable and more interesting than their dot-com-era predecessors. And with phones using Google’s Linux-based Android operating system slated to appear this year, open source could disrupt the wireless market as well.

7. MP3 + Napster

The audio engineers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits weren’t really trying to bring down an entire industry when they invented the MPEG-1 Layer 3 codec, better known as MP3. They were simply building on decades of research in audio compression, which started in the 1970s as an effort to deliver high-quality music over the phone.

But MP3 files’ small size–roughly one-tenth the size of similar quality WAV files distributed on CDs–was tailor-made to the broadband explosion of the late 1990s. The emergence of Winamp in 1997 made it easy to rip CD tunes into MP3s, and the first portable players (the MPman F10 and the Diamond Rio PMP300) gave us a way to listen to them without a computer. In 1999, Napster arrived, giving users an easy way to find new MP3s and share them with friends–much to the chagrin of the Recording Industry Association of America.

Even if Napster didn’t kill the record industry (my vote goes to its own greed and stupidity) it changed the business irrevocably. Though the original incarnation of Napster was brought down by legal battles, it paved the way the way for peer-to-peer networking as a legitimate distribution medium. If not for Napster, there might be no Bit Torrent. Ironically, when Nine Inch Nails recently released its Ghosts I-IV album, it used Bit Torrent to help distribute the first nine tracks free for the asking.

Disruption: The idea that media should be portable is disruptive. The notion that it should be free–and some artists can survive or even thrive despite a lack of sales revenue—is even more so.

6. Blogs + Google Ads

Not long ago, if you wanted to be a publisher you had to either be born into a rich family or become an HTML geek. Now, thanks to simple tools like Blogger, WordPress, and Typepad, anyone can be a publisher or producer–no technical expertise (or talent) required. The word “explosive” doesn’t even begin to cover the growth of blogs, which surged from about 100,000 in 2002 to more than 70 million last year, according to Technorati.

The problem? Blogging wouldn’t pay your bandwidth bills, let alone the rent. Enter Google Adsense in 2002, which made it a snap to add pay-per-click ads to any site. Meanwhile, Googles’ search engine offers a self-perpetuating marketing vehicle. The more sites linking to your blog, the higher it rises in Google search results, leading to more traffic, more clicks, more links, and so on. The top 50,000 blogs pulled in $500 million in ad revenue in 2006 [pdf], according to a study by University of Texas and blog ad firm Chitika. Spread across all the sites in the survey that’s hardly a vast fortune, but it’s a promising start. (So don’t quit your day job–yet.) Overall, Google shared more than $5 billion in ad revenues to its partner sites in 2007, including traditional Web publishers and blogs.

Unfortunately with disruption comes downsides. Roughly one out of four blogs are bot-created spam blogs (or “splogs”), according to WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg. Click fraud generates bogus income for scammers, spyware infects users PCs in order to drive them toward splogs, and search engine optimization consultants try to manipulate Google’s PageRank algorithm to their own ends, skewing the results.

Disruption: Blogs give everyone a public voice, Google gives bloggers a way to fund and market themselves–and the 21st century economy is born.

5. Cheap Storage + Portable Memory

When IBM invented the RAMAC hard drive in 1956, it stored 5 megabytes of data and cost $50,000. We’ve come a long way, baby.

In 2005, Toshiba introduced the first 1.8-inch 40GB drive using perpendicular magnetic recording, which stacks magnetic charges on the disc’s surface vertically instead of horizontally. Since then, density rates for hard drive platters have increased 40 percent annually. Last October, Western Digital introduced a perpendicular drive capable of storing 520 gigabytes per square inch, enabling multi-platter hard drives 3 terabytes in size.

As densities have risen, the costs have dropped to between 30 and 40 cents per gigabyte – cheap enough that companies like Google and Yahoo can give storage away, enabling free Webmail, online photo and video sharing, and other cloud computing services.

At the same time, improvements in flash memory allow us to carry vast amounts of music and video on our iPods and cell phones, freeing us from the bonds of our TVs and stereos, and gradually turning wireless telecoms into broadband entertainment providers.

Meanwhile, a promising new nanotechnology called programmable metalization cell (PMC) could produce drives that are a thousand times more efficient than flash at a tenth of the cost, says Michael Kozicki, director of Arizona Statue University’s Center for Applied Nanoionics, where the technology was created.

“A thumb drive using our memory could store a terabyte of information,” Kozicki told Wired News. “All the current limitations in portable electronic storage could go away. You could record video of every event in your life and store it.”

Disruption: Where would we be today without cheap, capacious, portable storage? No iPods. No YouTube. No Gmail. No cloud computing.

4. Cloud Computing + Always-on Devices

There’s a cloud brewing on the Net horizon, bringing a storm of new applications. The profusion of cheap storage, software that can run a single massive application across thousands of low cost servers, and near-ubiquitous Net access have created a virtual supercomputer accessible from your pocket. That’s why companies like Amazon, Google, IBM, and Microsoft are jostling to offer cloud computing — applications that run on vast server farms instead of local network or desktop PCs, delivered across a Net connection to corporate America and consumers. If you’ve ever used Yahoo Mail, Google Docs, Zoho Writer, or Salesforce.com, you’ve experienced cloud computing.

The revolution in Net-based computing in turn will change the way devices are designed, as well as what we do with them, says Jonathan Yarmis, VP Advanced, Emerging and Disruptive Technologies for AMR Research. When most of the heavy lifting is done by machines across the Net, we can use devices that are smaller, cheaper, and more portable than laptops or desktops, without sacrificing computing power. Early examples of such devices include Apple’s iPhone and Amazon’s Kindle.

“What I find interesting about Amazon’s Kindle is that by bundling in Sprint’s high-speed Internet access, it’s not so much a book reader as it is the front end to a store,” says Yarmis. “Access to content is a fundamental part of its design.”

Disruption: For enterprises, cloud computing offers the benefits of a data center without the cost and hassle of maintaining one. For consumers, it offers the promise of cheaper, simpler devices that let them access both their data and their applications from anywhere.

3. Broadband + Wireless Networks

Remember 1998? It was the middle of the dot-com boom, yet most of us were still waiting… waiting… waiting for our Web pages to load. Less than 1 percent of US households [pdf] enjoyed a broadband connection, according to AT&T. The sluggishness of our connections was matched only by the leisurely pace by which telecom and cable companies went about creating broadband infrastructure.

Fast forward 10 years. Some 55 percent of US households boast a broadband connection, according to Parks Associates, allowing for rich media, video and audio to dominate the Net.

But a $40 to $60 broadband connection really became economically feasible when we could spread the cost of one connection across multiple home computers using Wi-Fi. Later this year, a raft of products using the final super fast 802.11n spec will make Wi-Fi viable for sharing video and audio around the home as well. ABI Research predicts that nearly 250 million Wi-Fi enable devices will be shipped annually by 2011.

Disruption: Broadband has created an explosion of video and music Web sites and VoIP services; WiFi is bringing the Net to everyday household appliances such as stereos, TVs, home control systems, and more. Together, they are making the connected home a reality.

2. The Web + The Graphical Browser

In a word, duh. The fact you’re reading this online right now may be proof enough of how disruptive the Web has been. But before 1993, the Internet as we think of it today was a loose collection of protocols, networks, and tools built by university geeks. The introduction of the World Wide Web in 1991 gave us a way to connect information online, but still just another, albeit critical, piece in the puzzle.

But it was the graphical browser, invented in 1993 by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina at the University of Illinois at Champagne Urbana, that gave the Web wings, ultimately turning it into a delivery vehicle for just about everything.

“[The graphical browser] has changed virtually every aspect of the economy and created an entirely new class of major global corporations that did not exist prior to then,” says Richard Landry, a new media consultant and former editor in chief of PC World.

According to a recent poll by We Media and Zogby Interactive, nearly half of Americans now get their news from the Net. The writing is on the wall–or rather, the Web.

Disruption: Media firms, publishing companies, and advertisers now think Web first, and broadcast or print second.

1. Cell phones + Wireless Internet Access

Cell phones have changed the way we communicate, blurring the lines between work, play, and the commute between. Wireless e-mail, messaging, and Web access will change it even more.

It’s data, not voice, that’s driving this disruption. The biggest news from Apple’s recent announcement about its iPhone software development kit was the addition of an Exchange mail applet that lets business users access work e-mail from their Apple handsets.

“New Internet-friendly cell phones such as the iPhone and G-Phone [phones built on Google’s upcoming Android operating system] will lower the entry barrier for mobile Internet services, improve mobile Internet experiences, and introduce new business models,” says Kurt Scherf, vice president and principal analyst for Parks Associates. “We’ll begin to see mass market adoption and form factors diversify to include embedded portable devices such as portable media players and game consoles.”

Mobile Internet-capable phones are likely to become a major advertising platform as well. “The mobile phone is likely to trump the Internet as the most versatile media platform,” Scherf adds. “The potential of mobile advertising to become an explosively new ad platform is real and colossal.”

Disruption: The ability to be reachable 24/7 is morphing into the ability to surf the Net from any location. And it’s forcing monopolistic wireless companies to open up their networks to new devices and services.

When PC World Contributing Editor Dan Tynan feels too disruptive, he takes a nap.

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