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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 cameras for consumers cost a fortune and took monochrome pictures.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 Micro Tac 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. 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, Compu Serve 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. 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.
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. In 1991, most consumer computers didn’t have built-in audio beyond just the ability to beep. Digital music players and video recorders, e-readers and tablets were nowhere to be found.
Most lacked any way to communicate with the outside world—even via a slow, dial-up modem. 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.