The Most Important Inventions of the 21st Century

Advances in Technology that Changed the World

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There's no question that the technological breakthroughs of the first two decades of the 21st century have drastically revolutionized people's day-to-day lives. Television, radio, paperback novels, movie theaters, landline telephones, and letter writing have been replaced by connected devices, digital books, Netflix, and communicating via addictive apps such as Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. For these innovations, we have the following four key 21st-century inventions to thank.

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Social Media: From Friendster to Facebook

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Believe it or not, social networking did exist before the turn of the 21st century. While Facebook has made having an online profile and identity an integral part of our everyday life, its predecessors—basic and rudimentary as they now seem—paved the way for what became the world’s most ubiquitous social platform.

In 2002, Friendster launched, quickly amassing three million users within its first three months. With seamless integration of nifty, intuitive user-friendly features such as status updates, messaging, photo albums, friend lists, and more, Friendster’s network served as one of the earliest successful templates for engaging the masses under one network but its supremacy was short lived.

In 2003, when MySpace burst on the scene, it quickly outpaced Friendster to become the world’s largest social network, boasting over a billion registered users at its peak. By 2006, MySpace would go on to surpass search giant Google as the most visited website in the United States. The company was acquired by News Corporation in 2005 for $580 million.

But as with Friendster, MySpace’s reign at the top didn’t last long. In 2003, Harvard student and computer programmer Mark Zuckerberg designed and developed a website called Facemash that was similar to a popular photo rating website, Hot or Not. In 2004, Zuckerberg and his fellow schoolmates went live with a social platform called thefacebook, an online student directory based on the physical "Face Books" that were used on many college campuses throughout the United States at the time.

Initially, registration on the website was restricted to Harvard students. Within a few months, however, invitations were extended to other top colleges including Columbia, Stanford, Yale, and MIT. A year later, membership was expanded to employee networks at major companies Apple and Microsoft. By 2006, the website, which had changed its name and domain to Facebook, was open to anyone over 13 years of age with a valid email address.

With robust features and interactivity that included a live update feed, friend tagging, and the signature “like” button, Facebook’s network of users grew exponentially. In 2008, Facebook surpassed MySpace in the number of worldwide unique visitors and has since established itself as the premier online destination for more than two billion users. The company, with Zuckerberg as CEO, is one of the richest in the world, with a net worth of over $500 billion.       

Other popular social media platforms include Twitter, with an emphasis on short form (140- or 180-character "Tweets") and link sharing; Instagram, whose users share images and short videos; Snapchat, which bills itself a camera company, whose users share photos, videos, and messages that are available for only a short time before expiring; YouTube, a video-based sharing platform; and Tumblr, a micro-blogging/networking site.

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E-readers: Dynabook to Kindle

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Looking back, the 21st century may be remembered as the turning point in which digital technology started to make print materials such as photographs and paper obsolete. If so, the fairly recent introduction of electronic books or e-books will have played a large role in paving that transition.

While sleek, light e-readers are a fairly recent technological arrival, clunky and less sophisticated variations have been around for decades. In 1949, for instance, a Spanish teacher named Ángela Ruiz Robles was awarded a patent for a “mechanical encyclopedia” comprised of audio recordings along with text and images on reels.

Besides a few notable early designs such as the Dynabook and the Sony Data Discman, the concept of a mass-market portable electronic reading device didn’t really catch on until e-book formats were standardized, which coincided with the development of electronic paper displays.

The first commercial product taking advantage of this technology was the Rocket eBook, introduced in late 1998. Six years later, the Sony Librie became the first e-reader to use electronic ink. Unfortunately, didn't catch on, and both were expensive commercial flops. Sony returned with the revamped Sony Reader in 2006, only to find themselves quickly up against competitor Amazon’s formidable Kindle.  

When it was released in 2007, the original Amazon Kindle was hailed as a game changer. It packed a 6-inch grayscale E Ink display, keyboard, free 3G Internet connectivity, 250 MB of internal storage (enough for 200 book titles), a speaker and headphone jack for audio files, as well as access to the purchase of countless e-books at Amazon’s Kindle store.

Despite retailing for $399, the Amazon Kindle sold out in roughly five and a half hours. High demand kept the product out of stock for as long as five months. Barnes & Noble and Pandigital soon entered the market with their own competitive devices, and by 2010, sales for e-readers had reached nearly 13 million, with Amazon’s Kindl owning almost half the share of the market.

More competition arrived later in the form of tablet computers like the iPad and color screen devices running on Android’s operating system. Amazon also debuted its own Fire tablet computer designed to run on a modified Android system called FireOS.

While Sony, Barnes & Noble and other leading manufacturers have stopped selling e-readers, Amazon has expanded its offerings with models that include higher resolution displays, LED backlighting, touchscreens, and other features.

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Streaming Media: From Realplayer to Netflix

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The ability to stream video has been around at least as long as the Internet—but it was only after the turn of the 21st century that data transfer speeds and buffering technology made quality real-time streaming a truly seamless experience.

So what was media streaming like in the days before YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix? Well, in a nutshell, quite frustrating. The first attempt to stream live video took place just three years after Internet pioneer Sir Tim Berners Lee created the first web server, browser, and web page in 1990. The event was a concert performance by the rock band Severe Tire Damage. At the time, the live broadcast was screened as a 152 x 76-pixel video and the sound quality was comparable to what you might hear with a bad telephone connection.  

In 1995, RealNetworks became an early media streaming pioneer when it introduced a freeware program called Realplayer, a popular media player capable of streaming content. That same year, the company live streamed a Major League baseball game between the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees. Soon enough, other major industry players such as Microsoft and Apple got into the game with the release of their own media players (Windows Media Player and Quicktime, respectively) which featured streaming capability.

While consumer interest grew, streaming content was often beset with disruptive glitches, skips, and pauses. Much of inefficiency, though, had to do with broader technological limitations such as lack of CPU (central processing unit) power and bus bandwidth. To compensate, users generally found it more practical to simply download and save entire media files in order to play them directly from their computers.  

All that changed in 2002 with the widespread adoption of Adobe Flash, a plug-in technology that enabled the smooth streaming experience we know today. In 2005, three veterans of the PayPal startup launched YouTube, the first popular video streaming website powered by Adobe Flash technology. The platform, which allowed users to upload their own video clips as well as view, rate, share, and comment on videos uploaded by others, was acquired by Google the following year. By that time, the website had an impressive community of users, racking up 100 million views a day.  

In 2010, YouTube began making the transition from Flash to HTML, which allowed for high quality streaming with less drain on a computer’s resources. Later advancements in bandwidth and transfer rates opened the door to successful subscriber-based streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.       

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Smartphones, tablets, and even Smartwatches, and wearables are all game changers, however, there's one underlying technological advance without which these devices could not have succeeded. Their ease of use and popularity is largely due to advances in touchscreen technology achieved in the 21st century.

Scientists and researchers have dabbled in touchscreen-based interfaces since the 1960s, developing systems for flight-crew navigation and high-end cars. Work on multi-touch technology began in the 1980s, but it wasn't until the 2000s that attempts to integrate touchscreens into commercial systems finally began taking off.  

Microsoft was one of the first out of the gate with a consumer touchscreen product designed for potential mass appeal. In 2002, then Microsoft CEO Bill Gates introduced the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, one of the first tablet devices to feature a mature operating system with touchscreen functionality. While it’s hard to say why the product never caught on, the tablet was fairly clunky and a stylus was required to access the touchscreen functions.

In 2005 Apple acquired FingerWorks, a little-known company that had developed some of the first gesture-based multi-touch devices on the market. This technology would eventually be used to develop the iPhone. With its intuitive and remarkably responsive gesture-based touch technology, Apple’s innovative handheld computer is often credited for ushering in the era of smartphones, as well as a whole host of touchscreen capable products such as tablets, laptops, LCD displays, terminals, dashboards, and appliances.

A Connected, Data-driven Century

Breakthroughs in modern technology have enabled people around the globe to interact with one another instantaneously in unprecedented ways. While it's difficult to imagine what will come next, one thing is sure: technology will continue to thrill, captivate, and enthrall us, and have a far-reaching impact on almost every facet of our lives.

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Nguyen, Tuan C. "The Most Important Inventions of the 21st Century." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, Nguyen, Tuan C. (2021, September 1). The Most Important Inventions of the 21st Century. Retrieved from Nguyen, Tuan C. "The Most Important Inventions of the 21st Century." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).