10 Icons That Changed Our Lives

With the recent release of the Samsung Icon mobile phone, we thought it was time to recap some of the other icons in the consumer technology space – from the first mobile phone through to first PC.

With the recent release of the Samsung Icon mobile phone, we thought it was time to recap some of the other icons in the consumer technology space – from the first mobile phone through to first PC.

Brick-a-Brac
When something weighs almost 1kg and costs just under $US4,000, it must be special. And that’s just what the Motorola DynaTAC ‘Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage’ phone was—the world’s first truly mobile phone. It gave a whopping 30 minutes of talk time, could go eight hours between charges, was 33 x 4 x 10 cm in size, boasted eight hours of standby time, took 10 hours to recharge, featured an LED display and a memory that stored 30 phone numbers. This ‘brick phone’ was an instant sensation way back in 1983 when Motorola launched it onto an unsuspecting world and it ignited such a huge demand, that buyers had to go on waiting lists to get one. It took another four years for the mobile telephone craze to hit our shores. On February 23, 1987, Mel Ward, then MD of Telecom Australia, made the nation’s first mobile call on a Mitsubishi Electric handset from the Sydney Opera House to then Federal Communications minister Michael Duffy. Today, there are nearly 3.5 billion mobile phone users worldwide and, thankfully most phones are no longer the size of a small shoebox, weigh under 100 gms and cost about $100.

Walk the Line
Created by Sony co-founders Akio Morita, Masaru Ibuka and Kozo Ohsone, the Walkman music player was released on July 1, 1979 in a very 70s shade of blue-and-silver. It was a very popular product for Sony, selling some 50 million units in 10 years. As usual, the first buyers of this new technology were hard-core music fans in their mid 20s. However, the popularity of the Walkman spread quickly to a wider and more eclectic audience, and soon it became a practical way to enjoy music by anyone at anytime. Sony, being a Japanese company, was already designing new prototypes on the initial design as it realised what most of us already knew—that ‘take-out’ music is a great idea. Sure, there were other technologies like portable transistor radios, but their sound quality was mediocre at best. And who wanted to listen to all those ABBA songs on the radio anyway, when some of the greatest bands of our time like Queen, Led Zeppelin and The Clash could be listened to when and where we liked, thus making the Walkman the great granddaddy of today’s portable music players.

The 64-kilobyte Question
Long before we had geeks, Windows and Twitter, the world had the Commodore 64. Many may remember this beige and black oddity on the shelves of Tandy or Dick Smith Electronics, which quickly got the nickname, the ‘breadbox’. Released by Commodore International in January, 1982, with 64 kilobytes of memory at a price of $US595, sales totaled over 17 million units, making it the best-selling single personal computer model of all time. In fact, in 1982, Time Magazine’s front cover featured a generic version of the Commodore 64 as “Machine of the Year,” the one and only occasion a non-human has won the award. So what made the Commodore 64 so special? First, as it was sold in retail stores instead of electronics stores, it gave a huge amount of exposure to the machine. Second, these machines could be directly plugged into a television without any modifications. Some have compared the Commodore 64 to the Ford Model-T for bringing a new technology to middle-class households via creative mass-production. Either way you look at it, without the Commodore 64, we probably wouldn’t have laptops, computer games or even smart phones.

Colour by Numbers
Hands up who remembers watching Number 96 and Homicide in glorious black and white. Television was invented prior to World War II and launched commercially in Australia way back in 1956 – black and white television that is. Colour television on the other hand, even though invented soon after the black and white version, took many more years to gain acceptance. One reason for this was that high prices and lack of broadcast material, which greatly slowed its acceptance in the marketplace. Regardless, in 1975 two landmark events happened in Australia- the dismissal of Gough Whitlam as PM and the launch of colour TV. In fact, Australia had one of the fastest change-overs to colour television in the world – by 1978 some 64 percent of households in Sydney and Melbourne had colour television sets, making the watching of Number 96 far more pleasurable. And people may baulk at the price of today’s Plasma sets but actually in real terms they are considerably cheaper than the first colour sets. The average 1975 colour TV cost around 12 weeks of the average worker’s wages, today you can buy a decent Plasma TV with just 4 days wages.


VHS Outshines Beta

The Video Home System, or VHS as it was better known, was a video tape recording standard developed by JVC during the 1970s. During the later part of the 1970s and the early 1980s it formed one-half of the now famous VHS vs. Betamax war, which VHS would eventually win. This was because it had a longer playing time, faster rewinding and fast-forwarding, and a less complex tape transport mechanism, as well as an open standard that allowed mass production without any licensing costs. Due to this, and heavy marketing by JVC, VHS would eventually come out as the winning videotape format, surpassing all other home tape formats by the early 1990s. Some say that old formats never die. The Washington Post wrote that as of 2005, nearly 95 million Americans still owned VHS format VCRs, however in October 2008, JVC officially announced the end of production of VCRs. However, the company has noted that for those aficionados that just can’t let go of their old video recorder, it will continue to offer a few combination players, and at least plans on selling its standalone VCRs until its entire inventory fully runs out.

Come In Spinner
The Compact Disc (CD) was developed jointly by Sony and Philips, and from the outset, the CD was planned to be the successor of the vinyl record for playing music, rather than as a data storage medium. Ironically, the vinyl record did not disappear off the face of the planet that quickly, as it still survives today—it was, however, the audio cassette tape that proved to be the first casualty of the CD along with the computer floppy disc. With the ability to hold up to 30 songs, the CD was an instant hit. Furthermore, unlike the vinyl record, the CD tended to be a lot more robust—it was harder to scratch, cheaper to produce and easier to transport. Once you decided that you no longer wanted to listen to the music on the CD, you could always recycle it as a coffee cup coaster, a wind chime or even as a fashion accessory on a dress.

iMusic On The Go
By 2000, most music players were either big and clunky or small and totally useless with really terrible user interfaces. Apple saw the opportunity and released the iPod, its first portable music player on October 23, 2001. So what’s so special about the iPod? For a start, it comes in different colours- a radical idea at a time when various shades of beige seemed to be just about the only hue available. You can also record, store and move songs, pictures and even videos on an iPod—something that was not possible even on other high-end portable media players. And of course, by combining the iTunes store with the iPod, Apple has found a way to reinvent the wheel—giving us a novel way to buy and listen to music and allowing users to share their music with friends. To call the iPod a success would be an understatement– as of September 9, 2009, more than 220 million iPods have been sold globally, making it the best-selling digital audio player in history, and making Apple once again a household name.

Big Mac Without the Fries
On January 24, 1984, Apple released the Macintosh to the world. And the computer world has never been the same. A year earlier, Apple had unveiled the $US10,000 ‘Lisa’, the first business computer with a graphical user interface and a mouse. Sadly, the ‘Lisa’ never caught on, but the Mac was here to stay. So what was it about the first Mac, also known as the Apple II, that made it such an icon? Well, it was the designed as the first computer to be used by the normal “person in the street” – and not by experts alone. The Mac was also the first computer to have a ‘copy and paste’ function-spelling the death of the typewriter. Not only was it useful for simple text display, the Apple II also included graphics, sound, and eventually colour. Perhaps Italian writer Umberto Ecco put it best when he wrote, “I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that IBM is Protestant. It’s cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed”.


Happy Snapper

The first officially recorded attempt at building a digital camera was in 1975 by Steven Sasson, an engineer at Eastman Kodak. However, it took another 16 years for the first commercially available digital camera to hit the stores. In 1991, Kodak brought to market the DCS-100, the beginning of a long line of cameras. It used a 1.3 megapixel sensor and was priced at a whopping $13,000. Since then, the digital camera has become smaller, faster, better at taking pictures and best of all, cheaper, with some models in Australia retailing for under $80. So it was, that within another 17 years, the digital camera had killed off its film-based rival. The irony being that Eastman Kodak, had made its money by manufacturing cameras and film, closed its film camera-making business in 2004 and on June 22, 2009, closed its last film manufacturing plant in the US. Most other camera makers like Nikon have also followed suit. Such has been the rise of the digital camera, that as of 2008, some 100 million digital cameras were sold worldwide—15 times more than film cameras. With the 88 billion pages of pictures that have so far been printed off digital cameras globally, the 1-hour photo lab too has become a footnote in tech history.


Are We There Yet?

Where would we be without our GPS units? Lost probably, or maybe parked somewhere on the side of the road, carefully studying a paper-based map or pulling into a service station to ask for directions. First developed in the early 1970s by the US Department of Defence, the reason why it is now available to everyone is due to a Cold War tragedy 26 years ago. In 1983, after Soviet aircraft shot down a South Korean airliner that strayed into prohibited airspace due to navigational errors, killing all 269 people on board, U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced that the GPS would be made available for civilian uses once the research and development was completed. And so, in 2000 the US government finally allowed civilian users to receive a non-degraded signal globally, thereby opening up the GPS for use by anyone who could afford to buy a unit. Australian consumers now spend some $900 million annually on GPS units, up from less than $50 million eight years ago, which is of little surprise living in a country the size of a continent and where the motorcar rules supreme. Many industry experts say that it wont be long until all cars are made with an on-board GPS unit, putting this once luxury item in the same category as air-bags and CD players as a standard feature in all new vehicles.

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