Winner: The Trek Thumbdrive
In 2000, something strange happened. Overnight, we changed the way we carried data. Those of us coming up in the 1990s first used floppy disks then CDs and then Zip drives and generally the transfer of large amounts of data was a Sisyphean task. I personally still remember sending our entire university newspaper paper to the printers on a Zip disk.
That year marked the launch of the Trek ThumbDrive, the world’s first usable USB storage device. You could slip it into a computer, drag over a few files, and pop it back out. You could drop it into a bag or pocket and it was cheap enough to lose – at least in theory. Thumbdrives would max out at about 256MB in 2000, but that soon changed. Now we can carry 32GB in our pockets – more than the entire computer system running that selfsame student newspaper back in 1997.
If you’re asking why this made our gadget of the decade, think about it: the same flash technology in these drives is now ubiquitous. We have MicroSD cards the size of a fingernail. We have MP3 players as thin as a few business cards. Flash memory is so popular that’s it’s become scarce, with manufacturers buying up huge stocks prior to launching new product. It has removed delicate moving parts from the design of almost all electronics.
Few devices in our purview have changed the way we work, play, and communicate in the way flash memory and thumbdrives have. They made massive amounts of storage available and disposable. They, in a real sense, changed the world.
The Danger Sidekick
Before 2002 you either had a feature phone – essentially a phone that you could make calls and maybe play some Java games – or a smartphone – a phone that could run applications. Danger introduced the T-Mobile Sidekick on October 1, 2002 and changed all that. The phone let you send email and instant message, all in a package far more accessible – feature-wise and price-wise – than any smartphone. It was, in a sense, the first mainstream smartphone for the masses and it became a longtime fan favorite for years. Even after some high-profile problems the Sidekick is still going strong.
Free email was nothing new. Odd ways of organizing your email was nothing new. What was new was all of the storage space Google offered to the average Joe, forcing others to follow suit. Gone were the days of “premium” webmail accounts – you got 1GB. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:
2MB? What did we do before Google?
Before the Kindle, before the Nook, the Sony Reader was the only ereader in town. It didn’t do much of note nor was it particularly popular, but it paved the way for competitors and it showed Sony that they’d have to step up their game if they wanted to even be on the field. They were the first movers but they didn’t get the advantage, an parable for any and all manufacturers out there with something amazingly new.
Matt: Let’s not forget the Harmony Remote either. Before these Internet-connected remotes came along, you would have to spend hours programming a universal remote with codes printed in size 4 font. The innovative little company was eventually bought out by Logitech, but thankfully not much as changed.
Doug: I have to agree with the T-Mobile Sidekick here. I can’t remember the last time I had a bigger tech boner about a particular product. The thing that made it so unbelievable was that it wasn’t priced outrageously at the time. If memory serves, the hardware was $250 and my monthly service was $30 for voice and $20 for unlimited data. I did a lot of web development back then and I still remember the first time I used my Sidekick to add a new user to one of my client’s e-mail systems while waiting for my luggage halfway across the country. Unreal. And never, ever, ever have regular people ogled a phone as much as they did the first Sidekick. There was nothing like it — that swiveling screen, especially.
Devin: I just want to throw my weight behind Gmail and cloud apps here. I may not even use them, but I see them as being fuel for the next generation of computing. Flash memory has for sure enabled a huge amount of devices in the last decade, but cloud apps will power the next decade.
Greg: As the resident mobile nut, it’s only appropriate for me to consider something from the mobile space to be the most innovative. I could cheat and default to the iPhone purely for the sake of stoking a flamewar in the comments below, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll go with SMS – otherwise known as text messaging; while technically a product of the 80s, SMS truly came to fruition in the naughts. In the past 9 years, we’ve gone from sending less than half a billion texts a year to over 80 billion – and that’s in the US alone. It paved the way for Facebook updates, tweets, and microblogs, killed the long form letter, and has completely overhauled how we, as a populace, communicate.
Nicholas: I sincerely believe the word “innovative” has lost all meaning and should be eliminated from the English language. I have no time for it, and it seeing it instantly causes my renal glands to secrete exotic poisons. Call me when someone invents a simple water purifier that can treat water on the spot. That’d be helpful. Oh, and innovative.