17 technologies worth giving thanks for

Before all the turkey runs out and I go back to my normal cranky critic ways, I present to you 17 technologies worth giving thanks for.

Here on the ZDNet Government blog, everything is a discussion of civics. Whether we're talking about Apple, Google, or even Microsoft, there's a civics conversation buried somewhere in the content.

When it comes to Thanksgiving, the holiday created by our founding fathers* to give thanks for the existence of dark meat turkey**, we're able to learn all about the important things that bring a society together, like food, family, and computer repair.

In addition to turning you all into better citizens of the world, my job here on ZDNet is normally as something of a critic. I look at the world of tech and subject it to harsh analysis and even harsher mocking.

But sometimes, on those two or three days a year when I'm in a better mood, when I remember dark meat turkey but forget I might have to share with others in my family, I'm thankful for the technology that we have and the possibilities it all brings.

So, before all the turkey runs out and I go back to my normal cranky critic ways -- and in no particular order -- I present to you 17 technologies worth giving thanks for.

*Not really. **Also, not really.

1. Electricity

It's so obvious and universal, we in the 21st century often don't pay too much attention to it. But without power, most of our technology would cease to function. There'd be no Web sites, no iPads, no calls to tech support, no blue screens of death, no DDoS attacks, no email, no spam...

Hey, this upbeat thing is tough to sustain. But without electricity, there'd also be no lights, no refrigerators, no TVs, and no Top Gear (although the jury's definitely out on the Americanized version; some things may actually be better remaining in British hands).

The infrastructure we have that provides electricity is certainly something worth giving thanks for, even if that means you have to answer your email every morning.

2. Kinect, Wii, and (sort of) PS3 Move

The Wii helped put the geek class (or, at least, their families) back into their bodies. Motion control is one of the biggest basic paradigm shifts we've seen in computing in a very long time.

Today, much of what we see is a gimmick, and most Wii consoles are gathering dust until the inlaws come over again, but innovation is important. Even if the Kinect takes a whole airplane hanger to play in (as one of my commenters reported), it's still amazingly innovative, and forecasts some very interesting possibilities in computer input.

3. Hot, running water

To us, hot water is a given. Not so much for those in developing countries. Nonetheless, with a world full of geeks and now, people moving and playing motion games, hot water means more people taking showers -- and it's always good when geeks shower.

Plus we get clean dishes, cleaner food, less bacteria, and the like. One of the biggest reasons we humans are living longer is because we made the connection between washing and bathing and fighting disease. The mere act of washing our hands protects us tremendously, a trick our ancestors simply didn't know about.

4. iPad

I have beaten upon the iPad and Steve Jobs mercilessly, for what I consider good cause. But despite the iPad's many shortcomings, the hardware that makes it possible is a technical triumph, and is something worth being thankful for.

It's just a shame Steve polluted the thing with incredibly restrictive policies and a Fisher-Price operating system that turns everyone into child-like finger painters rather than adult technology users.

Next: Thankful reasons 5-8 »

« Previous: Thankful reasons 1-4

5. Desktop PCs, Android, Linux, and open-source

With companies like Apple doing their best to squash individual computer freedoms, it's worth being thankful for computing environments that promote freedom, rather than try to curtail it.

Desktop PCs are among the last bastions of personal electronic freedom. We can configure our PCs as we want, run them how we want, put whatever software on them we want, and use them where and when we want. While Microsoft has done its best to close the Xbox world (XBLA developers notwithstanding), the company deserves points for, thus far, not going out of its way to lock down the desktop OS.

Special thanks go to Linux and the Linux-based Android, because these environments blast through restrictions generally imposed by computer and phone vendors. With Android on your phone, you're able to break the shackles imposed by the carriers and use your phone as you wish. That's something to be very thankful for.

6. Virtualization

When virtualization first came onto the scene, it was interesting, but had more novelty value than real value. One of the first major uses of virtualization was the emulation of the 68K instruction set to provide legacy compatibility for the then-new PowerPC-based Macintoshes.

Today, virtualization is a major hope for datacenters, allowing loads to flow based on demand, allowing a single chip to provide the same power as a rack used to, and putting the computing power of an entire data center onto a single rack.

Virtualization is also a powerful tool for developers and testers, and -- with Windows 8 -- may become a new way for users to use their desktops. In terms of usefulness, economy, and ecological benefit, virtualization is certainly a technology to be thankful for.

7. Cloud computing

Almost going hand-in-hand with virtualization, cloud computing may be the next great hope of IT departments and individual users worldwide.

Today, when most users think of email, they think of cloud-based email providers, not running their own servers or local email clients.

While cloud computing does have some huge risks -- in particular putting too much power in the hands of too few cloud providers -- it also has tremendous benefits, ranging from the ability to smoothly scale, to anywhere access, to reduced maintenance hassle, to increased security.

Like any great and powerful thing, cloud computing could turn on us and we need to watch and hold our vendors accountable, but the practical promise of cloud computing is definitely something to be thankful for.

8. Broadband

It's hard to believe anyone still uses dial-up. Among active Internet users in the U.S., more than 4-in-5 use broadband. Of course, your mileage (or, in reality, your speed) may vary. Some users have very high-performance broadband, while others generally limp along.

Even so, without broadband, Web video like YouTube and even photo sites like Flickr would have been impractical. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft would have had far too much latency to be enjoyable, and most of our modern, AJAX-based Web applications would have been unusable, not to mention that cloud computing would have been completely impractical.

While the world still has a long way to go to provide broadband to everyone, it's beginning to be seen as universally important as electric power and running water. Finland has even declared broadband access to be a right of every citizen.

So let's give thanks to broadband. And while we're at it, let's give thanks to Finland, too. After all, who doesn't like a good wood tar-flavored candy like the yummy Terva Leijona?

Next: Thankful reasons 9-12 »

« Previous: Thankful reasons 5-8

9. Internet TV

While we're giving a shout-out to broadband, we have to give a nod to Internet TV. We recently found out that Netflix' on-demand service is consuming nearly 20% of America's bandwidth during prime-time viewing hours.

Between Netflix' ongoing attempts to bring down the Internet due to their overwhelming popularity (and complete lack of a sense of humor*), new devices like the coulda-been-a-contender Boxee Box and the what-were-they-thinking Google TV, and incredibly useful programs like XBMC, along with podcasts and YouTube, Internet TV is pushing our broadband infrastructure to its limits.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. We have access to far more entertainment than we ever did, these services are mostly making their providers money, and if that creates an impetus to build out even more and better broadband infrastructure, that's something else to be thankful for.

*Private joke. Someone at Netflix knows exactly what I'm talking about.

10. GigE and fast WiFi

What does it take to watch all the old episodes of SeaQuest DSV live, over the Internet? Well, it takes a service like Netflix to license and provide the content, it takes a broadband infrastructure to deliver the IP connectivity into the home, and then it takes in-house networking to get it to your PC, game console, or TV.

Over the past year or so, we've seen the price of wired gigabit Ethernet come down to the point where it's easily affordable. We've also seen WiFi routers get faster and more reliable. These are both things to be quite thankful for.

11. Cheap, massive hard drives

Since we're talking home entertainment, let's take a moment to thank those materials engineers who managed to fit more data onto our hard drive platters and then those manufacturing engineers who managed to cost-reduce the things to the point where they're ridiculously affordable.

With 2 terabyte drives running as inexpensive as $99 each, it's now possible and affordable to build a home video server that really can house all your videos. That's something big to be thankful for.

12. NAT (Network Address Translation)

Here on ZDNet, we've written extensively about the end of the Internet as we know it due to our impending consumption of all the IPv4 Internet addresses.

While I don't doubt that we'll add so many IP devices that the IPv4 address space becomes saturated, the proliferation of routers providing NAT (network address translation) will likely keep the crisis at bay for at least some time, and -- most likely -- average consumers won't feel the change.

Of course, for our readers, the top IT guys on the planet -- you'll have to deal with IPv6 at work. Just be thankful you're sporting a NAT at home, at least for now.

Next: The remaining thankful reasons »

« Previous: Thankful reasons 9-12

13. Ebooks and ebook readers

Every so often, when I think about ebook readers like the Kindle, I wonder what society has come to. After all, we've been able to read perfectly good books for centuries now. The books turn on instantly, are readable in almost all types of light, can save your place with a mere scrap of paper, and never, ever need to be charged.

So why do we need ebook readers?

I'll tell you why. 19,480 pounds. That's how much weight we loaded onto a semi-truck when we moved from New Jersey to Florida. Much of that was due to the boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes of books we've lugged from home to home to home.

Books are heavy, they can get dusty or moldy, and they take a lot of space. As we move to ebook readers, we're going to be able to replace all that tonnage with one, lightweight reader. Nice.

There are, of course, trade-offs. You can't easily give an ebook you liked to a friend, you can't donate it to a library, and you're often stuck fighting with vendors over continuously idiotic DRM issues. Even so, it's probably worth giving thanks to ebook readers for lightening our load and, quite possibly, saving some trees.

14. Social networking

I generally find social networking through services like Facebook to be more effort than they're worth. But while I don't really need a computer-based social structure of imaginary friends I think are real because I know what they ate for breakfast, I do recognize the value of these services for providing the illusion of closeness, and a way for people to stay in touch without actually having the burden of trying to find something to say to friends too old to still have anything in common with.

I'm also thankful for run-on sentences.

Also, there's an interesting side-trend for which we can be quite thankful -- and that's worth watching. That's the trend of private, special-purpose social networks. My wife loves to knit and crochet, and she's a member of a private social network called Ravelry.

Here, members post projects they're working on, join groups, share in tips, "friend" each other over the types of yarn they use, and gather together around a shared pastime. While the site isn't the prettiest you'll ever see, it's one of the best designed and useful.

While Facebook tries to be all things to all people (and succeeds admirably well), we can be thankful that social networking is a concept that lives and thrives beyond the Facebook juggernaut.

15. Google's robot car

Last month, we all got wind of Google's latest wonderful toy, the self-driving car. I've driven the highways of the Bay Area, and let me tell you, machine vision or not, a self-driving Google car has to be a better driver than some of those commuters -- especially first thing in the morning when coffee hasn't set in.

Like with the Kinect, we need to celebrate and be thankful for amazing technology. Google's car is a possible harbinger for a completely different transportation future. While there are a great many technical and regulatory hurdles before we can all sit in our cars and play World of Warcraft while a Googlebot drives us to work, there is enormous potential for safety, and even the possibility of giving a freedom of mobility to those previously unable to control their own modes of transportation.

16. Flying mounts in Kalimdor

While we're talking World of Warcraft, I have four words that truly reflect my thanks to the people at Blizzard: flying mounts in Kalimdor.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, go get yourself a copy of World of Warcraft and start playing. You'll be thankful you did.

17. Remote helpware software

There are a number of workable remote helpware software packages, ranging from the relatively mediocre system built into Windows to the free and functional TeamViewer to the powerful, but surprisingly pricey GoToAssist.

These tools become amazingly valuable at Thanksgiving, because as we've all come to know, Thanksgiving is, to our non-geek family members, nothing but a free, command performance, all-day tech support call we're forced to make.

But with tools like these remote helpware applications, we can tell our parents, friends, and family members that we can always connect in from home and we'll be glad -- on a non-holiday day -- to check in and fix whatever's ailing their computers.

Finally -- finally -- you're able to eat your turkey at the table with the rest of the family, and not sitting on the floor under your mom's computer desk, wondering just what harm your dad did to the PC, this time.

Now, that's something to be thankful for!

What technologies are you thankful for? TalkBack below.

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