Best of the Decade: Innovations

Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post columnist
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; 12:00 PM

It's hard to believe iPods, Facebook and consumer GPS devices didn't exist in the 1990s. So many of the gadgets and web sites we use every day were introduced during what has arguably been the most innovative decade to date.

Washington Post Fast Forward columnist Rob Pegoraro was online Wednesday, Dec. 16 at Noon ET to discuss his picks for the best innovations of the decade.

A transcript follows.

Make sure to weigh in in our discussion group and cast your vote in our poll!


Rob Pegoraro: Good afternoon, and welcome to this week's bonus chat about the top tech developments of this decade. As you can see in the poll widget attached to that blog post, this is a bit of an emotional issue--you all cast several thousand votes through that thing. So let's spend some time discussing my choices, your rankings and what would have been on your own top-ten list.


Boston: You put Windows XP on the top ten but not Mac OS X? As an innovation, the whole Windows platform is a rip-off of the Mac OS (which is, in turn, ripped off Xerox). Still, what gives?

Rob Pegoraro: I was sure I'd get a question like this! Yes, I did think seriously about including OS X (for one thing, if Apple didn't ship it you wouldn't have the iPhone in the first place). But in terms of its overall effect on the market, Windows XP made much more of a difference, though not necessarily a positive one. Remember, I treated this list the way Time says it chooses its Person of the Year: It's not who did the most good, but who made the most difference.


Arlington Gay: Surprised to see the iPhone at #1 when there are so many other options. And I wonder if Gmail would be higher if folks knew it's possible to use the Gmail interface, but with their own domain name. Gmail has fantastic spam filtering; I've been running my domain thru it for about 2 years and wouldn't want to go back to a separate e-mail program.

Rob Pegoraro: It's quite possible that we had some ballot-box stuffing going on (seriously, this poll got so many more votes than a lot of the other best-of-the-decade polls we ran... somebody must have been sending more traffic than usual my way). But I can see the logic for ranking the iPhone high on the list too: Many of those "other options" arrived after the iPhone and might have had a much harder time had Apple not shaken up the industry.

(I'll reveal my own 1-to-10 ranking at the end of this chat, in case anybody's curious.)


Reston, Va.: DVR doesn't make the top 10? More than VCRs did in the past, DVR (and streaming media) is altering the face of broadcast television as we know it.

Rob Pegoraro: I tried to limit the list to technologies that either debuted or changed significantly in this decade--but the basic feature set of DVRs was set in the late 1990s when the first ReplayTV and TiVo models arrived.


Laurel, Md.: As a proud "late adopter" my favorites aren't really new technology from this decade, but significant price drops of good-enough innovations from last decade:

Mozilla Firefox is free (Netscape cost $ in the 90s)

Pre-paid cellphones are the greatest thing for 50-minute/month users

DSL is price-competitive with dial-up

Linux is no longer just for college students with zero money but infinite time and computer knowledge

My own favorite, though, is flash memory. Even toward the end of the 90s, storing large amounts of data required several floppy disks or an expensive CD burner. Flash memory made the digital camera practical and the MP3 player and netbook possible.

Since the 1800s, sound recording and photography have wrestled with the problem of "How do we store the information on a medium that takes up less bulk?" Flash memory finally solved the problem by enabling MP3 and digital photography.

Rob Pegoraro: Yup. One of my favorite examples of declining flash memory costs is how, year after year, PR agencies use larger-capacity flash drives to distribute press kits. A few years ago, having the PR handout come on a 512 MB drive was unusual. Then they moved to 1 GB drives, to 2 GB drives and now 4 GB drives are pretty common.


Dallas, Tex.: Firefox? GMail? These may be innovations for someone who spends a lot of time on the internet, but really, there were browsers and email before 2000. What about solar film? SpaceShipOne? The Snuggie? There has been some really cool stuff invented outside of cyberspace in the last 10 years!!!

Rob Pegoraro: I would have gladly put SpaceShipOne on the list if I'd been able to get a ride in the thing!


mp3 software: When was this developed? We'd all still be carrying around Walkmans without the software.

Rob Pegoraro: That code dates to the 1980s:


Chantilly, Va.: Hands down for me, the two biggest innovations adopted by the masses over the past 10 years would have to be the DVR and caller ID.

I hardly ever watch TV live anymore, I always have a buffer going. (Even Obama's recent speech at West Point was time delayed!) I record sporting events and start watching them halfway through. I'm typically caught up by the time the game's over.

I hardly ever answer the phone blind. I check to see who's calling and give it to the appropriate person to answer. My wife's mom calling? My wife answers. My mom calling? I answer. Unknown/blocked number? Answering machine.

I'm surprised that you left either of these off you list. (While both of these were available in the 90s, it wasn't until this decade that they became mainstream.)

For an innovation that came to life in this decade, I'd have to say it's Netflix's instant streaming capability. I -LOVE- having a catalog of movies at my fingertips to watch when I feel like it without ever having to leave my house. (Sure, the catalog isn't as in-depth as their DVD catalog, but it is growing.)

What's your take on these?

Rob Pegoraro: Caller ID was mainstream well before this decade, wasn't it?

About movie streaming--I think the technology is great, but Hollywood is stunting its appeal by illogically restricting the availability of movies through that medium.


Dallas: I could definitely see counting the iphone, itunes and ipod, but I would count them as one, and I would say that they were a marketing revolution, as the technologies used were not new, but the all in one solution that Apple put together was a model for this decade.

Rob Pegoraro: I ruled out the iPod in part because it was overlapped by the iPhone and the iTunes Store, and in part because it didn't represent any one technological breakthrough in its own right. As you note, Apple's genius there was to take ideas that other people had shipped and combine then in a much more elegant, easy-to-use form.


Ottawa, ON, CA: For your best innovations what about:

-MAC/Apple OS X



-EDGE and 3G etc.

-CDs and DVDs (on laptops) and Blu-Ray too

-MP3 players (including iPods and iPhone)

To me they all made a far greater impact than Facebook, Gmail or Win XP. You should add them.

Nice to see iPhone and GPS near the top!

Rob Pegoraro: I wrote about OS X in an earlier post. Of the items on your list, WiFi and 3G broadband are the strongest contenders--by a wide margin. I'm not sure at all that I should have left them off the list.

Bluetooth, on the other hand--look, I like the technology and what it can do, but it's vastly underperformed expectations and in most cases has been further held back by limited or buggy implementations.


Add to the list:: Rob:

I would respectfully add for consideration to your list HDTV, satellite radio, smaller/cheaper computer file storage, and affordable consumer digital imaging (cameras). Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: Digital TV and HDTV both predate the decade--those cakes were baked in the late '90s. Satellite radio... that seems likely to be the first launched-in-this-decade technology to expire, considering the cost and variety advantages of Web radio as heard on smartphones.


Prediction: The top tech innovation of the 2010's will be the ability to create ethanol out of the non-edible parts of corn. This will be the biggest revolution in geopolitics since the end of most monarchies.

And the first decade in a long time that the most important tech development wasn't an electrical product.

Rob Pegoraro: I don't cover the energy business, but I have a hunch that my colleague Steve Mufson, who does, would disagree with you on this point.


Sterling, Va.: The iPhone is fantastic, agreed. However, it may be hard to remember that cell phones in general hadn't really hit a stride 10 years ago. I entered college in 2000, and everyone used the landline phones in their dorm room. A couple people had cell phones, but it was not even close to being a standard thing. Just one year later, cell phone usage had skyrocketed and most people I knew had one; by the time I graduated in 2004 they were ubiquitous. I think widespread cell phone service and usage is a bigger thing over the past decade than any one particular phone, even the iPhone.

Rob Pegoraro: If I'd mentioned cell phones as a generic category in the list, I would have focused on wireless broadband in particular. I've shared these numbers before but I still find them amazing: AT&T told me earlier this year that nationwide, they see three data sessions for every voice call--but in the D.C.-area market, the ratio is 12 to 1.


Otterburg, Germany: The Slingbox is the greatest invention of the 21st century.

Rob Pegoraro: That seems kind of unfair to the next 90 years' worth of invention, don't you think?


Raleigh, NC: LED lights would be on my list. I am a cyclist, and I am amazed at how powerful LED lights are, plus they run much longer on batteries due to low energy demand. The also have become very inexpensive. I am able to achieve lighting power almost equivalent to a motorcycle headlight with an LED light that costs less than $100.

Rob Pegoraro: Hmm... we just retired our old incandescent Christmas-tree lights in favor of LEDs, but it took some shopping around to find a set that didn't shine in a pale blue and didn't flicker. (The GE C-5 lights I found at a nearby Sears seem to do the trick... and they draw only a couple of watts per strand.)


Bowie, Md.: It's probably not an innovation specifically this decade, but do you remember in the 90s that the price of memory was the sticking point about desktop development? There was a market for a couple of years about the product called "RAM doublers" that didn't work. Was there any single breakthrough that enabled us to measure our memory in GIG today?

Rob Pegoraro: I used to run Connectix's RAM Doubler on a Mac I owned at the time--as I recall, it sort of worked.

There was no breakthrough moment to drop the price of memory; it just got cheaperandcheaperandcheaper, and that rate accelerated over time. The same thing happened to hard drive space, and now flash memory gets to benefit from the same change.


Yarmouth, Maine: How could you forget "cloud computing"? Could be #1!

Second recommendation: the practice of/use of "virtual" software. EG, my new HP business desktop came with virtual Firefox!

Rob Pegoraro: Gmail was my way of acknowledging cloud computing--though I should have spelled that link out a little more explicitly in my explanation by noting the unprecedented amount of storage Google offered. (Until then, Yahoo and Microsoft had been basically competing to see who could be stingier with their Web-mail storage quotas.)


Perspective: Rob, in 2099 documentaries about technological development in the 21st century are going to begin with shots of Florida election officials holding paper ballots up to the light to see if they'd been punched through completely.

This was the state of American technology as it relates to the first national crisis of the 21st century.

Rob Pegoraro: I really hope they won't, but you could be right there.


No love for the...: Segway? They've got to be the funniest single invention of the 2000s.

Rob Pegoraro: I could have written a much different list if comedic value--intentional or otherwise--were the key factor.


Arlington DC: The list is a failure with no Mp3 player on it. The Iphone is NOT an Mp3 player- and I would bet my life savings that if there was never a player- that the Iphone would not have existed. I think a general "MP3 players" as an item would be #1. Think of how many people you see on a daily basis with them- Iphones are dwarfed by them.

Rob Pegoraro: But the iPhone also belongs on the PDA family tree; with this device, Apple was trying to overcome the faults of earlier attempts, including its own Newton. The iPhone's interface in particular owed nothing to the iPod's controls.


Hybrid vehicle technology?: Seems pretty important...

Rob Pegoraro: We've got a Prius in the driveway, so I hear you--but $25,000 to $30,000 cars are a little outside of consumer technology as I've defined it. (I should also note that my old neighbor's diesel VW Bug got mileage that wasn't much worse than ours, as did some gasoline cars in the early '80s.)


Washington, DC: For me, it's clearly GPS. What other technology on the list has such a "how did I survive before it" impact? Before the iPhone we still had blackberries and other great cell phones. Before XP we millennial? Ha! But you get my drift.

Rob Pegoraro: True enough. But I also thought about leaving GPS off the list--if it weren't for the government ending "selective availability" in 2000, it would have flunked my "must have debuted or changed significantly in this decade" test.


Hyattsville, Md.: Hi, Rob,

Can I ask a non-best-tech-of-the-decade question?

I'm a total non-techhie and my husband and I just bought our first ever video recorder - the Flip Ultra. We loved how ridiculously simple it was to use. The problem came when I tried to make a DVD out of the videos. I have Windows Vista on my computer (I know, I know, it sucks). I had no problem using Windows DVD Maker until it came time to actually burn the DVD. I got a message along the lines of "encoding/decoding issue. Install encoding/decoding software." Not to be deterred, I tried using my friend's fancy pants Mac and iDVD. The exact same message came up. A quick Google search of DVD encoding/decoding software gave me thousands of very confusing websites. Is there a site you recommend where I can download the software needed to make Windows DVD Maker work with my Flip Videos?

And yes, the grandparents will be sadly disappointed if they don't get DVDs of their new grandbaby for Christmas....

Rob Pegoraro: You sure can... but I don't know that I have an answer for you, since I don't remember having this issue when I tried the Flip. One option for you to try: Download Microsoft's free Windows Live Movie Maker, which can import your Flip's footage and burn a DVD from that. Here's my review of that app:

On a Mac, you might need to download an update to iMovie--for a while, that app couldn't import Flip video files.


YouTube: Where else would we laugh at the futility of cats? Except I can has cheezburger, of course.

Rob Pegoraro: Good idea... that, more than the Netflix streaming somebody mentioned, has to rank as one of the biggest changes in Web content and media distribution over this decade.


Gaithersburg: The selections reflect the demographics of this chat.

My mother had cataract surgery last month, and drove home from it without wearing glasses for the first time in her life.

Rob Pegoraro: Very glad to hear the news...


Alex., Va.: iTunes?

Really, with all that DRM and restrictions? Yuck.

I'm much happier with WinAmp and doing what I want with my legally acquired MP3s.

Rob Pegoraro: But iTunes doesn't have anymore DRM for music--and Apple led the way in making that change, just as it dragged the labels kicking and screaming into selling their music as digital downloads, albeit DRMed, a few years earlier.


Wilmington, N.C.: What happened to twitter THE most incredible modern innovation imaginable? I'm at a loss for words but I think it deserves a place on you list. Thank you.

Rob Pegoraro: Too soon to say for Twitter.


Rhode Island: Why the Wii? Just curious. Plus it's fun to say.

Rob Pegoraro: One reason why I decided to include the Wii was the early reaction to it--people LOLed at the name and made fun of it. A lot of people were sure Nintendo was doomed for shipping a non-HD console.


Houston, Tex.: A lot of the 90's technology is forgotten. What do you think will emerge/survive by the end of 2019?

Rob Pegoraro: I sure hope that we'll be done with XP by then! I'm also sure the Wii will have an honored place in museums of technology by then, and it's also possible that Facebook will have been eclipsed.

But I'm pretty confident we'll be using a recognizable descendant of the iPhone, Firefox will be around in recognizable form, we'll watch TV on LCDs and locate ourselves with GPS, and we'll store data with flash (I think the odds are pretty good for flash replacing hard drives entirely in most consumer devices.)


Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.: My votes ... In no particular order: Kindle DX, IPOD, Iphone,,,, Dragon Naturally Speaking, Google, OneNote, SharePoint,, (and all the other inet storage sites), Wiki,, Technorati, LinkedIn, Delicious, Digg,, oh, and we must not forget

Rob Pegoraro: E-books and e-book devices like the Kindle fell off the draft version of the list pretty soon. They haven't made a huge dent in the universe yet; it seems that we're still waiting for the breakthrough that turns them into a mandatory purchase. Maybe that will take the form of a screen you can roll up to take with you; maybe it will come with the end of DRM on book purchases. Hard to say what's coming next there.


Demographics: "The selections reflect the demographics of this chat."

Oh, I don't know about that. My 70-something father likes to drive with his GPS, iPod, and XM radio, and my 60-something mom just uploaded digital photos from a recent trip onto her Facebook page (and regularly texts me from her smartphone).

Rob Pegoraro: My mom has yet to get a digital camera. It's amazing to think that she has to *wait* to see what photos looked like--the last time I picked up her camera, I looked stupidly at its back for a few moments, searching desperately for a screen.


Suggestion: Perhaps not an innovation but best new business model: Red Box.

A store the size of a grocery has been replaced by something the size of a Coke machine.

Rob Pegoraro: I'd rank Netflix a lot higher myself--for its inventory alone.

_______________________ Make sure to weigh in with your top Internet memes of the decade in Monica Hesse's chat starting now!


Columbia: For perspective, can you think of what you might have named a top new tech of the 90s (when there were many) that in retrospect was a bust or irrelevancy?

Rob Pegoraro: Good question. Two tech busts come to mind right away:

* Tablet PCs

* Music-rental services like Napster


Miami: My nominations for top three:

1) iPhone

2) DVR technology

3) Automotive GPS

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks!


Philly, Pa.: The most useful gadget for me, a contractor, was a bit of software I have used every day for years. Time Logger, a time, project, activity and billing bit of software that has paid for itself a hundred times over. It makes it easy to accurately allot time spent on projects and produce bills and time logs accurate to the minute, a minute worth 1 to 2 dollars. As far as support, you deal directly with the developer, real time, upgrades are free. Win-win.

For my hobby, cooking and recipe collecting, Living Cookbook is amazing and inexpensive. Another bit of refined and flexible software that is supported by the developer. Never underestimate the value of good support.

My favorite toys are my collection of 6 netbooks that I dedicate to one or two main applications each. My cellphone is simple and pre-paid. I never saw the need to go further than a clam shell. My wireless card with Verizon has never let me down.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks - I could probably have some fun drawing up a list of the apps I've found most valuable over this decade. (But I doubt I have time to do that...)


Rob Pegoraro: I said I'd post my own rankings, and here they are:

1. iPhone

2. Mozilla Firefox

3. Gmail

Flash memory

5. iTunes Store



8. Windows XP

9. Wii

10. Facebook

Thanks for your votes, your comments and your posts here.


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