1999-2009: The tech decade in perspective

Summary:Everyone has differing views on the big technology events of the past decade, so ZDNet UK offers its pick of the key moments

As the curtain falls on the noughties, ZDNet UK looks back at its coverage of the past 10 years and offers its take on some of the key technology events of the millennium's opening decade.

People are bound to disagree about the significance of some of the more peripheral developments. Yet surely anyone who tries to make sense of our recent past will highlight the same two big themes.

The first must be the growth of the internet. For a decade that kicked off to the sound of popping champagne corks and bursting dot-com bubbles, things started fairly inauspiciously. Nevertheless, history will surely say this period belongs to the emergence of the internet. It has become a mainstream force that has changed everything it touched — and it has touched everything.

In 1999 there were about 12 million sites across all domains, according to Netcraft's Web Server Survey. In November 2009, there were about 234 million.

The other major theme must lie in the rise of personal comms and the smartphone. Of course, some of the things people and organisations do today with mobile telephony were already possible in the late 1990s. But the ubiquity and growing sophistication of the smartphone surely make it one of the technological landmarks of this first decade.

Rather than survey the whole period, ZDNet UK has taken a series of snapshots of the publication's coverage. We've gone back 10 years to 1999 and the eve of the new millennium, and then five years to 2004, finishing off with a look at 2009.

1999: Key IT events

In late March 1999 internet mail servers around the world started to shut down under the weight of infected messages spawned by the Melissa virus. The Microsoft Word-based macro virus was the creation of David Smith, who was tracked down and arrested in a combined operation by the FBI and New Jersey police barely a week after the first reports of the email-based malware.

Smith received a 20-month prison sentence and a $5,000 (£3,000) fine for his handiwork. The virus is reckoned to have caused millions of pounds of damage and formed the model for later attacks such as Kournikova and The Love Bug.

But Melissa was not the end of the story. 1999 has the dubious distinction of marking the appearance of another milestone malware attack. Melissa first struck on 26 March, 1999. Exactly a month later on 26 April, 'Chernobyl', aka CIH and Spacefiller, delivered an unpleasant payload that could corrupt BIOS and overwrite data. Its name derives from its 26 April activation date, which it shares with the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster of 1986.

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In 1999 the dot-com phenomenon was booming, with the internet industry still blithely unaware of the disaster to come in early 2000. Fuelled by low interest rates and an unquestioning belief in any stock with an 'e-' prefix, investors backed companies with no business model beyond an online presence.

But the year remains noteworthy for two developments that are still making themselves felt a decade later. First, in June 1999 a 19-year-old programmer called Shawn Fanning launched the Napster file-sharing site. Although Napster was sued almost immediately and shut down two years later, the site became a model for the peer-to-peer distribution of files.

The second significant event took place in September 1999 when a search engine called Google, which had just secured $25m (£15.6m) in venture capital, officially went live after months of beta testing.

In the 10th century, King Harald Bluetooth brought various restive Scandinavian tribes into a single kingdom. In 1998 his name was borrowed for a new short-range wireless protocol that could link disparate fixed and mobile devices. This open standard's familiar blue logo consists of a runic H and B.

The first Bluetooth devices were shown at the CeBIT exhibition in March 1999, although they only started to appear commercially later that year. Bluetooth demonstrated for the first time that the IT and consumer industries could work together to create a new category of products that continue to be important today.

What were the software landmarks of 1999? The release candidates of Windows 2000, perhaps? Or OS 9, the final major release of Apple's classic Macintosh operating system in October 1999?

No, the software story that hogged headlines throughout 1999 was the year 2000 problem or millennium bug. It was discussed so often that 'Y2K' became the shorthand for the whole complex issue.

In the event, fears that software which used two-digit year dates would irrevocably break just after the stroke of midnight in the new millennium turned out to be unjustified.

Yet there is no doubt that the investment in new software, development and hardware upgrades, designed to ward off potential disaster, had a huge impact on the IT industry, amplified by the dot-com boom.

2004: Key IT events...

Topics: Tech & Work


Toby Wolpe is a senior reporter at ZDNet in London. He started in technology journalism when the Apple II was state of the art.

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