The Top 100 Gadgets of All Time

10. TIVO SERIES1, 1999
Like FedEx, Velcro, and Google, TiVo has joined that rare echelon of companies with names that have become synonymous with their industry. Today, we “tivo” instead of “tape,” and 2 million TiVo enthusiasts have forgotten what TV commercials look like. Early TiVo units — manufactured by Philips, Sony, and others — were exorbitantly expensive (10 hours of recording cost $500), but competition with fellow upstart ReplayTV has steadily driven prices down. Now imagine what the world might be like had the product gone with its original name: “Teleworld.”

9. ATARI 2600, 1977
We’ve got two words to describe the majesty of this device: Yar’s Revenge.

It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was just 1998 when Diamond Multimedia released the first portable flash MP3 player, prompting a lawsuit from the record industry claiming that any MP3 player facilitated piracy. It might have sported a paltry 32MB of memory, but the Rio 300 was the first shot in the digital music revolution.

7. U.S. ROBOTICS PILOT 1000, 1996
A string of companies tried to create handheld, pen-centric computers throughout the early 1990s, mostly to no avail. (Remember Zoomer? Neither does anyone else.) The Pilot 1000 was the first one to hit the sweet spot, and in so doing, it showed how successful simplicity and reliability could be. Despite successive name changes, many people still call their handhelds “Pilots” — a testament to the power a single product had to create an entire industry.

Milestones in the digital camera world are astonishingly difficult to nail down. In the early 1990s, major camera manufacturers began tinkering with digital for the professional market. The first amateur digicams were notoriously bad, and it wasn’t until Casio’s QV-10 that consumers really thought they could give this digital business a go. The QV-10 could store up to 96 images with a resolution of up to 76,800 pixels on its 2MB of flash RAM, and offered a wacky newfangled LCD screen so that you could preview your pictures, which you could output to either your 486 or TV. All this for just $995! Pricey, but the QV-10 looked cool, worked reasonably well, and didn’t have to be sent back to Casio for servicing that often. Digicams would be plagued with bugs and high prices for years to come, but the QV-10 really opened the door for digital cameras as a whole.

Though the mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart in 1965, it took a good five years for the idea to catch on. Computer Displays made the mouse marketable with its three-button Mechanical Mouse 4-101.

Before the StarTAC, cell phones had become fashionable with teenagers and the belt-clip set, but it wasn’t until this 3.1-ounce flip phone that people started to see the promise of a handset that could genuinely fit into your pocket. Far smaller than any phone that preceded it, the StarTAC was the ultimate status symbol of the late ’90s and perhaps the best example of “geek chic” ever to exist. But most important, the StarTAC ushered in the wave of miniaturized phones, one that’s still rolling today.

We’re not saying the iPod isn’t one of the coolest devices ever made, but Apple’s little music monster would never have been possible without Sony’s groundbreaking Walkman. The brainchild of Sony cofounders Masaru Ibuka, Akio Morita, and Norio Ohga, this portable cassette tape player made the dream of a mobile music collection a generation-changing reality and put Sony in the technological catbird seat.

Remember having to get up off the couch to change the channel on the TV by hand? Of course you don’t, thanks to Robert Adler’s stunning breakthrough, the wireless remote control. Zenith had been meddling with remotes since 1950; its Lazy Bones remote (no, seriously, that’s what it was called) simply ran to the TV with a wire. The first wireless remote came in 1955: The Flash-matic was basically a flashlight you shined at one of the TV’s four corners, depending on whether you wanted to change the channel up or down. The problem: On sunny days, the TV would change channels by itself. In 1956, Adler had a better idea: Use ultrasonic sound to control the TV. His Space Command remote had four buttons that, when pressed, struck an aluminum rod located inside the unit. A receiver in the TV detected the sound, and depending on the pitch, changed channels or muted the volume. No batteries required. Various forms of ultrasonic technology were the standard all the way until the 1980s, when infrared took over.

1. APPLE POWERBOOK 100, 1991
Never mind the Apple versus PC debate: Until Apple unveiled this 5.1-pound machine, most “portable” computers were curiosities for technophiles with superior upper-body strength. But the PowerBook 100’s greatest and most lasting innovation was to move the keyboard toward the screen, leaving natural wrist rests up front, as well as providing an obvious place for a trackball. It seems like the natural layout now, but that’s because the entire industry aped Apple within months. The first PowerBooks captured an astounding 40 percent of the market, but more important, they turned notebook computers into mainstream products and ushered in the era of mobile computing that we’re still living in today.

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~ by cefe on March 16, 2005.

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