Walt Mossberg

Dialing Up 20 Years of Gadget Reviews

I began writing these Personal Technology columns 20 years ago, in October 1991, with the aim of reviewing computers and other digital products for average, mainstream users. The first line of my first column was: “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault.”

Consumer technology has come a long way since that day. Digital gadgets—then too often designed by techies for techies—have become essential to our lives, and much easier to use, even if we still need the Geek Squad and the Genius Bar more than we should. And the pace of change has been mind-boggling.

In 1991, most consumer computers didn’t have built-in audio beyond just the ability to beep. Most lacked any way to communicate with the outside world—even via a slow, dial-up modem. The Internet wasn’t available to most people. Search engines and social networks didn’t exist.

Mobile phones were huge bricks. Digital cameras for consumers cost a fortune and took monochrome pictures. Digital music players and video recorders, e-readers and tablets were nowhere to be found.

So, this week, I decided to take a look back at some of the game-changing products that appeared in this column over the past two decades and propelled us from that primitive landscape to today’s interconnected digital world. This list of milestones is just a sampling; yours might differ. Also, since I write for average consumers, the list is weighted toward consumer products, not gadgets for geeks or corporate use.

I’ll also write about what is yet to come—areas that could use big gains.

The pocket-size phone: In January of 1992, I declared Motorola’s MicroTac Lite to be the first mobile phone you could carry easily in a pocket. It was the first to weigh under half a pound and was “only” an inch thick—about triple the thickness of a slim smartphone today. It cost between $1,500 and $2,500.

Getting America Online: In May of 1992, I rated an obscure online service, America Online, as the best. It was much smaller than its chief rivals at the time, CompuServe and Prodigy, but its use of a standard-looking graphical interface made it more attractive.

Faster modems: Though it would be hardly recognized today, the external dial-up modem was a crucial device in connecting computers around the world. In June 1993, I recommended a popular $200 model, the Sportster, from a company called U.S. Robotics, that had gotten to the amazing speed of 14,400 bits per second. Comparing it with a broadband connection now is like comparing a bicycle to a locomotive.

Color digital camera: In 1994, the Apple QuickTake 100 could store up to 32 shots for a mere $700.

Mossberg on ‘What’s Next?’

So where do the opportunities lie for the biggest technology gains? Here are possibilities:

Better batteries. The entire digital universe would be revolutionized by batteries that could last more than a day in heavy use.

The ‘natural user interface.’ The graphical user interface is being replaced by the multitouch interface. Microsoft’s Kinect device for controlling its Xbox game console shows there is a future in controlling all devices via smart cameras that recognize faces and gestures.

Easier, integrated TVs. Many people watch videos from the Internet on their TVs, but the process is clumsy. Somebody needs to make the process unified and simple.

Flexible displays. These have been promised for years, but never made practical. Imagine being able to unfold, or roll out a large display screen.

Whatever is in store for consumer digital technology, I look forward to covering it.

Polished Windows: Apple’s Macintosh had popularized the graphical user interface starting in 1984. A year later came a crude version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system. But, in 1995, Microsoft caught up via Windows 95, cementing the victory of the graphical interface.

The Web browser: The Internet had been around a long time, but in 1993 I noted it was still hard for average consumers to access. That changed with the spread of the World Wide Web and Web browser. In January 1996, I hailed Netscape as the champion browser over Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

Power in your hand: In March of 1996, I called the new Palm Pilot the first hand-held computer “I can imagine incorporating into my daily life.” Where the Apple Newton and others had failed, little Palm created the device that would make Personal Digital Assistants popular and pave the way for the smartphone.

The slim laptop: In 1998, Sony set the standard for usable, thin and light laptops with its Vaio 505, a $2,000 wonder that came with a decent keyboard. It inspired many others over the years.

The simple computer: Also in 1998, beleaguered Apple shook up the PC market with the iMac, a colorful, speedy, one-piece desktop computer that set up in a matter of minutes and was ready to surf the Internet. I called it “the coolest looking desktop personal computer I’ve ever used.”

DVR: The next year, I reviewed two digital video recorders, including TiVo, which went on to become a verb, and to revolutionize TV viewing.

Google: In 2001, I recommended Google as not only the best search engine on the Web, but “the most useful site.”

The iPod: Later that same year, Apple changed the music industry, and its own fortunes, with the $400 iPod, which held 1,000 songs in a device the size of a deck of cards. It blew away all competitors.

The prototype smartphone: Also in 2001, Handspring, a company run by the founders of Palm, rolled out the Treo 180, which I declared the first decent hybrid of a PDA and phone. Later Treos sold by Palm, competed against the BlackBerry, which got its own phone functionality, but was mainly a corporate tool.

Legal music: In 2003, Apple introduced the iTunes music store, which gave consumers an easy, reasonably priced path to buying music, and again changed the industry.

The iPhone: In June of 2007, Apple upended the cellphone business with the iPhone, which put a powerful hand-held computer in your palm, and used innovative “multitouch” finger gestures as its interface.

The e-book: There had been many failed attempts at an e-reader, but in late 2007, Amazon offered the Kindle, which finally made books digital.

Android: In October 2008, T-Mobile and Google released the G1, the first smartphone to use the Android operating system—the principal competitor to the iPhone.

The iPad: Many companies had tried and failed to create a popular tablet computer, but in April 2010, Apple succeeded with the iPad, which has spawned a host of apps, a gaggle of competitors and a new category of digital device.

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