Products intended to set the world afire are launched all the time. Rarely do they live up to expectations. But on October 23, 2001, a new digital music device called the iPod changed the way we live now. It was expensive, bulky, and had that awkward scroll wheel thing, but it was a hit, laid the foundation for iTunes, the iPhone and the iTouch, brought Apple to the forefront of American companies, and was even featured in a MoMA design exhibit. Not bad for a simple little music player -- one that has sold more than 220 million units since its inception.
Movies delivered to your mailbox. It's a simple concept executed to perfection. So well in fact, that's it one of the few companies that can say it went toe-to-toe with Walmart (which tried a rival service) and beat 'em. The ubiquitous red envelopes are now sent out to 11 million subscribers, but many now stream The Karate Kid and Paul Blart Mall Cop directly to their TVs and computers -- technology that will help ensure the company's survival in a post-DVD world. As CEO Reed Hastings told Inc. in December 2005, "That's why the company is called Netflix and not DVD-by-Mail."
The BlackBerry debuted as a two-way pager in 1999, but it didn't take long for QWERTY keyboards and e-mail-equipped phones to become essential tools of 21st century business. Yes, it's obnoxious when someone is "thumbing" through a romantic dinner, but there's a reason "Crackberry" entered the lexicon. With roughly 28.5 million subscribers, it's clear there's an endless supply of hardcore BlackBerry users in need of a fix.
Sure, those Google ads can be a mild annoyance, but these two programs make up the bulk of the company's billions in revenue. So ignore the "Cheap Viagra" or "Free Cheddar Cheese" links and enjoy what they enable Google to bring us for free: Gmail, Maps, Finance, Translate and the chance to keep an eye on your childhood home with Earth.
The concept wasn't new, but sometimes technology has to wait for the government to catch up. On May 2, 2000, "selective availability," an intentional limit on satellite accuracy mandated by the military for commercial use, was discontinued. As dashboard GPS became commonplace, Garmin became the standard. Our cars will never be littered with crumpled-up old roadmaps again.
And parents around the globe rejoiced. Finally, a video game system that requires some physical activity, is easily understandable at any age, and features non-threatening Miis engaged in wholesome activities like bowling. Add in the party favorites Guitar Hero and Rock Band and video games opened up to a world beyond hyped-up adolescents (while keeping alive the legend of bands like Ratt.)
The E Ink Corporation, founded in 1997 at MIT, provides the display for all kinds of electronic portable devices. It's the Guttenberg Press of electronic ink, with its sharp black-and-white text powering both the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle. Coming soon, color. And maybe a future for the newspaper business.
Ridiculous? You bet. Is kitsch a primary part of its appeal? Absolutely. But these silly blankets with sleeves somehow turned into a runaway hit, with a reported $5 million in sales since 2008 and Snuggie pub crawls popping up across the country. During a decade when our airwaves were filled by Billy Mays and his ilk, peddling countless As Seen on TV wares, the Snuggie stands out.
Automotive technology centered on the ever-elusive solution to replacing the internal combustion engine, or at least lessening the amount of gasoline it needs. Nothing reached critical mass; it took Toyota nearly 10 years to sell a million hybrids in the United States (and that includes the Prius.) Until a true green machine takes hold, we'll take the sleek 200+ mile range, 0-60 in under 4 seconds Tesla Roadster. It's not that the six-figure Roadster is going to save the world, but it sure makes the drive on the road to what's possible a whole lot sexier.
The Text Message
UG2BK! R U Seriou s? WTF! LMAO! The fact that of most of you can decipher this proves the point. English teachers can kvetch, but communication has permanently changed. Without the text message, there wouldn't be Twitter. And without Twitter there wouldn't be… well, we're just happy there are a lot fewer cell phones going off during the movies. LOL!
Salesforce and PayPal
Web-based business services became an essential part of day-to-day business in the last decade. Two companies that came-of-age are Salesforce and PayPal. The former is a tool that allows salespeople to manage customer relations, while the latter handles e-commerce payments. Because how else would you pay for that Elvis collectible plate set you just bought on eBay?
It seems the only advancements commercial airlines made in the last few years were charging for bags, eliminating lunch, and allowing passengers time to enjoy a view of the tarmac. Since 2001, however, JetBlue has provided a low-cost, high-service alternative. The airline has had its ups-and-downs, but it has never wavered from putting passengers first. Direct routes, per-trip pricing, free TV, wireless Internet, and tasty snacks offer a welcome alternative to the major carrier cattle cars. JetBlue has sparked other entrants like Virgin America, and hopefully (doubtfully) the big fellas are paying attention to the grounded idea of making the skies friendly once again.
Exergen Temporal Thermometer and LifeStraw Water Purifier
Two simple devices that make a world of difference in the lives of children. The non-invasive Exergen temporal thermometer simply requires a soft rub of the forehead to record body temperature. The LifeStraw has even greater benefits. Roughly 1 billion people on the planet do not have access to clean drinking water, which leads to the deaths of thousands of children every day. The lightweight, portable, point-of-use purifier is a lifesaver, and along with the thermometer, an example of how inexpensive medical technologies can pay huge dividends.
Netbooks, Flip Video Camcorder, and One Laptop Per Child
Life without modern technology would be rough. But that doesn't mean everyone on the planet needs -- or can afford -- tech toys with every proverbial bell and whistle. That's why the past decade has seen a rise in back-to-basics, low-cost electronics like the netbook and the Flip Video Camcorder. For under $400, the next teenage tech guru can have more computing power than a young Bill Gates ever dreamed of, and for $200, the next Spike Lee can start shooting an indie HD opus. Perhaps the best example of this is the One Laptop per Child program, which aims to have kids all over the developing world logging on and bringing us all closer together.
Military Medical Advancements
Sadly, this decade has been largely defined by war and terrorism. But one thing we can all be grateful for is the incredible medical advancements on the battlefield, and back at home, that have aided American troops. Take the bionic Power Knee. Developed by the Icelandic company Ossur, the Power Knee uses sensors and artificial intelligence to allow an amputee to walk on prosthetic legs naturally. The first recipient was Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, who lost both legs as a victim of a roadside bomb in Baghdad. At a demonstration at Walter Reed, he said they were the closest to the feeling of normal legs. Keep your magic legs, Lt. Dan, Lt. Gadson's got something better.
Car of Tomorrow
In the wake of Dale Earnhardt's death at the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR made a number of changes to improve safety, including the development of a safer car, spending millions of dollars creating the "Car of Tomorrow." In 2007, the "CoT" made its Sprint Cup debut. The car was raised and widened, the seat was moved toward the center of the cockpit and the roll cage was moved back allowing for larger crumple zones, and the exhaust was shifted to move heat away from the driver. Critics complain that uniformity has taken away driver skill, but no driver has died since old #3.
We'll let the television geeks battle over whether David Brent or Michael Scott is the epitome of managerial malfeasance. We'll simply say, The Office is the best look at the daily grind of middling white-collar employment on television. The beauty of the show? It isn't entirely a soul-crushing existence, it's just… work. Some days are good, some are bad, and sometimes co-workers fall in love.
Throwback Jerseys and Sneakers
After 30 years, hip-hop grew out of its infancy and started looking back. Old-school rappers found 21st-century fans, as the originators of the craft appeared in retrospectives and on reality shows. Fashion-wise jerseys from companies like Mitchell & Ness harkened back to the sports stars of the '70s, '80s and '90s, while Nike brought back retro (and often high-priced, limited edition) versions of old favorites like the Air Force 1 and Air Jordan.
Zappos Free Two-Way Shipping
Eliminating all the expense of operating retail stores means savings for consumers in other ways. Zappos became a favorite of cyber shoppers (not to mention Amazon, which shelled out more than $900 million for it) with top-notch service and selection, but its free shipping and free return shipping took the guess work out of point-and-click purchases. Now, if we only had more room in our closet.
Believe the Skype. In the third quarter of 2009, users made 28 billion minutes of Skype-to-Skype calls, providing a low-cost lifeline for high-powered executives and beaming grandparents alike, the world over.
And unto the world was born Friendster, which begat MySpace, the current king of the hill, Facebook, and then Twitter. These social networking sites (and the countless lesser versions) provide a valuable resource for staying connected in an increasingly disconnected world. We think. Hey, half a billion users couldn't possibly be wrong.