1999-2009: The tech decade in perspective

Everyone has differing views on the big technology events of the past decade, so ZDNet UK offers its pick of the key moments
Written by Toby Wolpe, Contributor

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.

www screen
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...

2004: Key IT events

Worm virus
Five years on from the chaos caused by Melissa and Chernobyl, the MyDoom worm struck early in 2004. Eclipsing SoBig's dubious achievements of the previous year, the MyDoom email worm achieved notoriety for the speed in which it spread.

Security firm MessageLabs said that at its peak, MyDoom infected one in every 12 of the messages the company intercepted, compared with a peak rate of one in 17 for SoBig.F.

The second big attack of 2004 started on 30 April, with disruption caused by the virulent Sasser worm, which targeted vulnerable Windows 2000 and XP systems and spread without user intervention.

Five years after the official launch of the Google search engine, the company floated almost 20 million shares at $85 each in October 2004. Just over three years later Google's share price peaked at almost $715, and stands at about $600 today.

Two other major milestones of 2004 deserve a mention: first, the 4 February appearance of social-networking site Facebook, initially named 'thefacebook' by its then 19-year-old creator, student Mark Zuckerberg. From its origins on the Harvard campus, the site now has more than 300 million active users and is reckoned to be the world's largest social network.

Second, the launch of the open-source Mozilla Firefox 1.0 search engine in November. Firefox 1.0 clocked up more than 5.6 million downloads in its first two weeks, according to the Mozilla Foundation, and now accounts for 25 percent of global browser usage.

3G datacard test 2004
Having paid £22.5bn in 2000 for the privilege of providing 3G services in the UK, the service providers started to produce cards and services in 2004. In November ZDNet UK tested 3G products from O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone — with disappointing results.

But our upbeat assessment concluded: "Things should improve over the next few years as 3G network rollouts continue. But all 3G data services have something of the first generation about them."

Bill Gates
Bill Gates was awarded an honorary knighthood in the 2004 New Year's honours, apparently for transforming business practices. In March 2004 the European Commission took a rather different view of Microsoft's business practices, which it had already described as those of an abusive monopolist.

This time the Commission ruled that Microsoft would have to offer a version of Windows without Windows Media Player built in, open up its server APIs and protocols to rivals within 120 days, and pay a €497m fine.

The year started with 2.6.1, the first update to the new Linux kernel — containing many of the improvements for use with servers that had been omitted from 2.6.0 — and ended with Oracle completing its protracted hostile takeover battle for PeopleSoft.

Another notable first in 2004 was the appearance of the Ubuntu distribution, the latest release of which ZDNet UK recently described as "the best desktop Linux yet".

2009: Key IT events...

2009: Key IT events

An obvious candidate for 'malware of the year' must be the Conficker worm, which had infected millions of Windows machines by the end of the spring. The worm sometimes uses a rootkit, which emerged in the previous five years as a means of cloaking malware, to hide itself.

But perhaps a less obvious, though potentially more damaging contender would be the data-theft Trojans, which continue to be delivered via the web at an alarming rate.

A little more distance would help pick out the 2009 events that will have enduring consequences. But micro-blogging site Twitter has undoubtedly made its mark on the year and became more mainstream, with its user numbers increasing from six million in 2008 to 47 million this year.

From Twitter's role during the disputed Iranian elections in June, to its power in neutralising a gagging order on The Guardian, the social network repeatedly demonstrated its influence and flexibility in 2009.

A pivotal moment in this field occurred in October, when Acer showed off netbooks and smartphones running the Google Android operating system.

It demonstrates how the same open-source operating system is not only taking off in a variety of handsets and now netbooks, but is offering equal if not better functionality than Apple's iPhone, and enjoying the backing of a large number of manufacturers.

Also highly significant is Wave, Google's convergence initiative designed to bring together email, instant messaging, social networking and collaboration into a single web application.

If we believe the vendors, 2009 must have been the year of the cloud. Not that the use of cloud computing is necessarily widespread yet, but it has taken up more coverage than almost any other subject.

But surely just as important in its implications for the software landscape is July's announcement of Google's Chrome OS, a clear declaration of the search giant's intent to take on Microsoft and the Windows desktop.

Speaking of which, Windows 7, the long-awaited remedy to the bad taste left by Windows Vista, arrived in October to favourable reviews.

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