The Best and the Worst Tech of the Decade

It was the best of decades, it was the worst of decades...

With only a few weeks left until we close out the ‘naughts and move into the teens, it’s almost obligatory to take a look back at the best and not-so-best of the last decade. With that in mind, I polled the O’Reilly editors, authors, Friends, and a number of industry movers and shakers to gather nominations. I then tossed them in the trash and made up my own compiled them together and looked for trends and common threads. So here then, in no particular order, are the best and the worst that the decade had to offer.

The Best

AJAX – It’s hard to remember what life was like before Asynchronous JavaScript and XML came along, so I’ll prod your memory. It was boring. Web 1.0 consisted of a lot of static web pages, where every mouse click was a round trip to the web server. If you wanted rich content, you had to embed a Java applet in the page, and pray that the client browser supported it.

Without the advent of AJAX, we wouldn’t have Web 2.0, GMail, or most of the other cloud-based web applications. Flash is still popular, but especially with HTML 5 on the way, even functionality that formerly required a RIA like Flash or Silverlight can now be accomplished with AJAX.

Twitter – When they first started, blogs were just what they said, web logs. In other words, a journal of interesting web sites that the author had encountered. These days, blogs are more like platforms for rants, opinions, essays, and anything else on the writer’s mind. Then along came Twitter. Sure, people like to find out what J-Lo had for dinner, but the real power of the 140 character dynamo is that it has brought about a resurgence of real web logging. The most useful tweets consist of a Tiny URL and a little bit of context. Combine that with the use of Twitter to send out real time notices about everything from breaking news to the current specials at the corner restaurant, and it’s easy to see why Twitter has become a dominant player.

Ubiquitous WiFi: I want you to imagine you’re on the road in the mid-90s. You get to your hotel room, and plop your laptop on the table. Then you get out your handy RJ-11 cord, and check to see if the hotel phone has a data jack (most didn’t), or if you’ll have to unplug the phone entirely. Then you’d look up the local number for your ISP, and have your laptop dial it, so you could suck down your e-mail at an anemic 56K.

Now, of course, WiFi is everywhere. You may end up having to pay for it, but fast Internet connectivity is available everywhere from your local McDonalds to your hotel room to an airport terminal. Of course, this is not without its downsides, since unsecured WiFi access points have led to all sorts of security headaches, and using an open access point is a risky proposition unless your antivirus software is up to date, but on the whole, ubiquitous WiFi has made the world a much more connected place.

Phones Get Smarter: In the late 90s, we started to see the first personal digital assistants emerge, but this has been the decade when the PDA and the cell phone got married and had a baby called the smartphone. Palm got the ball rolling with the Treos about the same time that Windows Mobile started appearing on phones, and RIM’s Blackberry put functional phones in the hands of business, but it was Apple that took the ball and ran for the touchdown with the iPhone. You can argue if the droid is better than the 3GS or the Pre, but the original iPhone was the game-changer that showed what a smartphone really could do, including the business model of the App Store,

The next convergence is likely to be with Netbooks, as more and more of the mini-laptops come with 3G service integrated in them, and VoIP services such as Skype continue to eat into both landline and cellular business.

The Maker Culture: There’s always been a DIY underground, covering everything from Ham radio to photography to model railroading. But the level of cool has taken a noticeable uptick this decade, as cheap digital technology has given DIY a kick in the pants. The Arduino lets anyone embed control capabilities into just about anything you can imagine, amateur PCB board fabrication has gone from a messy kitchen sink operation to a click-and-upload-your-design purchase, and the 3D printer is turning the Star Trek replicator into a reality.

Manufacturers cringe in fear as enterprising geeks dig out their screwdrivers. The conventional wisdom was that as electronics got more complex, the “no user serviceable parts” mentality would spell the end of consumer experimentation. But instead, the fact that everything is turning into a computer meant that you could take a device meant for one thing, and reprogram it to do something else. Don’t like your digital camera’s software? Install your own! Turn your DVR into a Linux server.

Meanwhile, shows like Mythbusters and events like Maker Faire have shown that hacking hardware can grab the public’s interest, especially if there are explosions involved.

Open Source Goes Mainstream: Quick! Name 5 open source pieces of software you might have had on your computer in 1999. Don’t worry I’ll wait…

How about today? Firefox is an easy candidate, as are Open Office, Chrome, Audacity, Eclipse (if you’re a developer), Blender, VLC, and many others. Many netbooks now ship with Linux as the underlying OS. Open Source has gone from a rebel movement to part of the establishment, and when you combine increasing end user adoption with the massive amounts of FLOSS you find on the server side, it can be argued that it is the 800 pound Gorilla now.

As Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” When even Microsoft is releasing Open Source code, you know that you’re somewhere between the fight and win stages.

Bountiful Resources: 56K modems, 20MB hard drives, 640K of RAM, 2 MHz processors. You don’t have to go far back in time for all of these to represent the state of the art. Now, of course, you would have more than that in a good toaster…

Moore’s Law continues to drive technology innovation at a breakneck pace, and it seems that related technologies like storage capacity and bandwidth are trying to follow the same curve. Consider that AT&T users gripe about the iPhone’s 5GB/month bandwidth cap, a limit that would have taken 10 solid days of transferring to achieve with a dialup connection.

My iPhone has 3,200 times the storage of the first hard drive I ever owned, and the graphics card on my Mac Pro has 16,000 times the memory of my first computer. We can now do amazing things in the palm of our hands, things that would have seemed like science fiction in 1999.

The Worst

SOAP: The software industry has been trying to solve the problem of making different pieces of software talk to each other since the first time there were two programs on a network, and they still haven’t gotten it right. RPC, CORBA, EJB, and now SOAP now litter the graveyard of failed protocol stacks.

SOAP was a particularly egregious failure, because it was sold so heavily as the final solution to the interoperatibility problem. The catch, of course, was that no two vendors implemented the stack quite the same way, with the result that getting a .NET SOAP client to talk to a Java server could be a nightmare. Add in poorly spec’d out components such as web service security, and SOAP became useless in many cases. And the WSDL files that define SOAP endpoints are unreadable and impossible to generate by hand (well, not impossible, but unpleasant in the extreme.)

Is it any wonder that SOAP drove many developers into the waiting arms of more useable data exchange formats such as JSON?

Intellectual Property Wars: How much wasted energy has been spent this decade by one group of people trying to keep another group from doing something with their intellectual property, or property they claim was theirs? DMCA takedowns, Sony’s Rootkit debacle, the RIAA suing grandmothers, SCO, patent trolls, 09F911029D74E35BD84156C5635688C0, Kindles erasing books, deep packet inspection, Three Strikes laws, the list goes on and on and on…

At the end of the day, the movie industry just had their best year ever, Lady Gaga seems to be doing just fine and Miley Cyrus isn’t going hungry, and even the big players in the industry are getting fed up sufficiently with the Trolls to want patent reform. The iTunes store is selling a boatload of music, in spite of abandoning DRM, so clearly people will continue to pay for music, even if they can copy it from a friend.

Unfortunately, neither the RIAA nor the MPAA is going gently into that good night. If anything, the pressure to create onerous legislation has increased in the past year. Whether this is a last gasp or a retrenchment will only be answered in time.

The Cult of Scrum: If Agile is the teachings of Jesus, Scrum is every abuse ever perpetrated in his name. In many ways, Scrum as practiced in most companies today is the antithesis of Agile, a heavy, dogmatic methodology that blindly follows a checklist of “best practices” that some consultant convinced the management to follow.

Endless retrospectives and sprint planning sessions don’t mean squat if the stakeholders never attend them, and too many allegedly Agile projects end up looking a lot like Waterfall projects in the end. If companies won’t really buy into the idea that you can’t control all three variables at once, calling your process Agile won’t do anything but drive your engineers nuts.

The Workplace Becomes Ubiquitous: What’s the first thing you do when you get home at night? Check your work email? Or maybe you got a call before you even got home. The dark side of all that bandwidth and mobile technology we enjoy today is that you can never truly escape being available, at least until the last bar drops off your phone (or you shut the darn thing off!)

The line between the workplace and the rest of your life is rapidly disappearing. When you add in overseas outsourcing, you may find yourself responding to an email at 11 at night from your team in Bangalore. Work and leisure is blurring together into a gray mélange of existence. “Do you live to work, or work to live,” is becoming a meaningless question, because there’s no difference.

So what do you think? Anything we missed? Hate our choices? With us 100 percent? Let us know in the comments section below.

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  • Sam J

    I would have thought censorship technologies such as those employed by countries like China, Iran (and soon Australia) would have been right up there.

    Sam

  • Mark Gardner

    Technical pedantry: It’s Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, not Java. And you embed applets into web pages, not servlets.

  • Pablo

    Couldn´t agree more about “The Workplace Becomes Ubiquitous” … it’s a nightmare and companies expect this to be the norm. Not sure how this will “evolve” to something better.

  • James Turner

    Thanks Mark, I actually knew both of those, but old age, yah know?

    James

  • Mike

    I think that “The Workplace Becomes Ubiquitous” belongs on the Best list. I really appreciate the full connectivity. I can check something at home during the evening, and think more carefully about it during my ‘off’ time. I can then better plan my course of action/s. The Workplace Becomes Ubiquitous also allows me the ability to work whenever I need to, and does not force me to be a 9-5 slave in some office. This is particularly useful in the Northeast during the winter months. I’d put The Workplace Becomes Ubiquitous in Best list, not worst.

  • Gilbert Pilz

    The comments on SOAP interoperability are only accurate if you rewind time to 2002 or so. These days “basic” SOAP interop is a no-brainer.

  • James Turner

    Gilbert,

    I was on a team last year, trying to get the latest and greatest ASP.NET suite to talk to several Java SOAP stacks (both Axis and CXF), and working with several very smart and experienced people, we were never able to get the datatype impedences to match. And adding in WS-Security broke everything.

    Maybe you’ve been lucky, and never run into the issues that I do, but I know a lot of people who are fed up with SOAP.

    James

  • Peter Edstrom

    I’d change: “Ubiquitous WiFi” -> Ubiquitous Internet.

    WiFi is nice, but honestly I am without it more often than with it and the hotel-style, gated access, puts me off of trying to use it most of the time. I think the big deal is 2G/3G: Reasonable internet access, from anywhere.

    Also, “The Maker Culture” … not sure that it is as big as you think. It’s cool, and I like it, but I just don’t see it around me that frequently.

  • Adam Gross

    Great retrospective. I’d add YouTube to the Best list, because it has fundamentally and historically altered the entertainment industry and our media consumption habits. I know it’s really a result of other factors such as bandwidth, but we wouldn’t be discussing cutting our cable in lieu of Hulu and NetFlix, for example, without YouTube taking advantage of those factors and bringing it to market so well.

  • barbara

    I love pedantry.

  • villas bali

    I have tried a couple of new netbooks,theres windows 7 but for me the clear winnner is Ubuntu.For the first time I am running it full time and love it. The freedom from virus scans and the shear speed of an os that actually works better than windows or os x in my mind. Simple install loads of free apps, many of which I had to pay for in windows. AND FREE.I even give it an edge over os x because it works on any computer I own and the numerous free apps.
    villas bali

  • rayc

    Scrum is neither a technology nor “best-practice”. Your criticism of this approach to project work is unfair. Scrum works. Simple as that.

  • Eric Meyer

    For a variety of reasons (only a few of them self-centered) I think you really should’ve included “HTML and CSS”. The real difficulty is deciding which list most deserves them.

  • Mike

    Twitter? What were you smoking? Just another recent source of noise and spam. I bet it won’t exist in any meaningful sense 2 years from now.

  • Laurent

    Regarding SOAP, I just finished a project where we used SOAP with WS-Security (X-509 certs, SAML V2 assertions, signatures) and WS-Trust. Our services providers and clients are as various as : .Net apps, Websphere, Weblogic, CXF, AXIS SOAP stacks, SAP and others ERPs and we used Sun OpenSSO as the security token provider.
    Guess what? … no interop issues.

    2 things to remind on SOAP IMHO:
    1. SOAP has been presented as the golden hammer solution by journalists and some unethical behavior of the industry during years (BTW, the same ones that now claim ‘SOA is dead’). Not surprising that a blind and systematic use of SOAP has lead to inanities
    2. compared to the previous RPC technologies, it enabled a significant breakthrough

    SOAP is like any other technology: whatever you may hear about it, you shouldn’t stop using your brain. And sooner or later it will be replaced by something newer and more fashionable, causing everybody to say “Drop out this old stuff, it was a total failure”

  • Winslow Theramin

    AJAX the acronym may have been invented this decade, but the technology was in use prior to the 2000. For example, “Pushlets”, etc. Prior to AJAX this was just referred to as a Hanging-GET.

  • Dave

    Scrum sucks!

    Hey guys, lets have another useless meeting so we can feel important.

    “What did you do yesterday, PIG?”
    “Wasted my time in this stupid Scrum meeting.”

  • Ian Brown

    The “Best” list is pretty good, and hard to argue with . . . but the “Worst” list is a little uneven . . . SOAP? Scrum? Seems a bit arbitrary and subjective. (Ok, it’s all subjective, I know, but maybe some more data on why SOAP and Scrum are so toxic? I can understand why they may not be your personal faves, but do the respective failings of those technologies really merit being called out as the “worst” tech of the last 10 years? Seems like there are larger issues out there on the same scale as “Intellectual Property Wars” and “The Workplace Becomes Ubiquitous” that could be championed instead.)

  • Algis Neblett

    Liked all the article but speical Thumbs up for “The Workplace Becomes Ubiquitous”.

  • The Shonko Kid

    Now, I don’t want to seem like a Scrum zealot, but your criticism is hardly fair. What you seem to be bemoaning is companies that just don’t get agile at all, and simply pretend to be doing it, whilst sticking with the tried and failed waterfall approach. Scrum does work, but to do so requires effort and commitment from all involved, something that is rare in cubeland, where Pointy Haired Bosses rule, with their instantly incorrect gantt charts and misunderstood customer requirements.

  • FrankNorman

    A few things one might add – you decide which category:

    The Y2K scare
    The “Dot Com” Bubble
    Spam
    Skype
    Google – a search engine so popular that telling someone to look something up on the Web has become “google it”
    Wikipedia

  • Nadya

    It seems to me that James isn’t down on Scrum, he’s down on half-assed implementations of it. It reminds me of people who say they’re agile because they don’t write any documentation but they also don’t refactor or unit test. They’re missing the point and risk making things worse, not better. Scrum doesn’t work if you you’re not really doing it, just using some of the vocabulary. Scrum works great when you grok it.

  • staff

    “How much wasted energy has been spent this decade by one group of people trying to keep another group from doing something with their intellectual property, or property they claim was theirs? DMCA takedowns, Sony’s Rootkit debacle, the RIAA suing grandmothers, SCO, patent trolls…”

    Oh, you are so right. Property rights are so yesterday. By the way, tell me where you live. My place sorely needs new paint, etc. I’ll move into your place next weekend and you can find somewhere else. Happy hunting.

    For the truth about trolls, please see http://truereform.piausa.org.

  • Devdas Bhagat

    Mike, Twitter is just IRC. Only over HTTP. Done half-assed, like every bit of the Unix reimplementation.

  • Rob S.

    I understand the spirit of the SOAP and Scrum mentions although in many instances, both of these are successfully used.

    The entire SOAP 1.1 specification is the length of the SOAP 1.2 primer. That in and of itself is I think indicative of the criticisms SOAP has received. Clients and servers implementing very basic SOAP communication (e.g. Flex w/SOAP 1.1) are a breeze to work with. Once you move into some of the technologies mentioned (e.g. WS-Security) then good grief – you’re in for some pain ;) Does that mean all of SOAP is a failure? I’m not so sure…

    There are many implementations of Scrum, just as there are many implementations of painful, ad hoc processes that drive developers insane. With Scrum we have a process framework that adopts to the way we work instead of vice versa. At the very least, that gives us something to point to and improve instead of placing the burden of process construction on to every engineering organization, whose time is better spent executing instead of constructing processes which inevitably cause process churn as people attempt to solve problems that Scrum and other Agile processes have long since solved.

    I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater on either of these. “Scrumbut” and “SOAP 1.2 insanity” sure, out with them! ;)

  • Russ

    How about peer-2-peer (torrent, skype) and social networking (facebook, myspace) – both have exploded over the last few years. It up to you to decide if they belong in the best or the worst! :)

  • Tim O'Reilly

    From @neverstopzigzag on twitter:

    @timoreilly The worst of Tech of the Decade should be the GFW in China. It keep 20% of world’s population out from the Web 2.0.

  • Vic Kley

    I’m with you on the Best only pausing to add Graphene, and SuperLubricity and what just slips into this decade (but is most likely to be counted in the next) LIFE (ICF fusion – commercial fusion reactors). The latter are all Hardware in that they are basic physics, surface chemistries or new basic inventions. All of the latter are likely to completely change our lives over the next 10 to 20 years, while commercial fusion will transform mankind and eliminate power and transportation related CO2 for the rest of human history.

    Having had to deal with RPC issues over the last 15 years I appreciate your worst list and understand that for some areas and for those willing to participate Open Source make sense. When a position is taken with respect to IP that wants to through all IP into a pile and diminish or eliminate the ownership rights inventors enjoy today then I must object- DO NOT TAKE AWAY THE LIVELIHOOD OF SMALL INVENTORS when you mean to affect the actions of large companies or specific issues within the Software Community. Software and Genetics both have special needs and requirements and should be separated out from the general world for discussion purposes and perhaps for special treatment. Let me make clear though that there have been and will continue to be breakthrough code structures which truly rise to the level of inventions and for which their inventors deserve a measure of compensation for the short time such compensation is allowed under an issued patent.

  • James Turner

    Just because I think there are problems with the current intellectual property system doesn’t mean I think it should be abolished entirely. This is akin to say that since I find the medical practices of Joseph Mengele abhorrent, I must wish the entire medical profession banned (no attempt to invoke Godwin’s Law here intended…)

    I personally have written two books and am currently creating a video series for O’Reilly (Great Java Web Programming, plug plug) I have no desire to have my IP rights to these works removed.

    However… You can swing too far the other way as well. When the USPTO lets someone patent swinging on a rope swing, when companies install what are essentially viruses on my computer to try and prevent piracy, when the DMCA is used by unscrupulous parties to silence criticism of their actions, then things are seriously broken and need reform.

    James

  • davea0511

    Missed a huge one: cloud computing. You got close with AJAX but failed to realize the revolution was not AJAX itself, but the end goal: cloud computing. It took more than AJAX to make it happen – it took ubiquitous high speed internet and whatever technologies necessary to fill in the gaps which just so happened to be AJAX type technologies … and even then much of it is done without AJAX (as you said Flash and other technologies). Another thing that’s made it happen is Google and a few others, but mainly Google. You will see more companies migrating to their Google Apps over the next decade … huge companies … most companies. Software as service is the defining characteristic and clients will become mainly that … clients … note, they’ll be very amazing clients (anything but thin), but everything is running on the cloud and soon everyone will be running on it because the best will float to the top.

  • dduggan

    What about the only part of the Cloud that is not marketing hype: MapReduce and Hadoop.

  • Joe Shelby

    Re Gilbert: I just ran into the SOAP nightmare just last week, with an IIS server (that is a closed product I can not modify) producing a WSDL file that is unusable in any Java stack I have (built-in Java6, or the Apache stack compiled by JBoss), and even with faking the WSDL to be loaded locally from a modified cache, the service is still producing web security requests that the Java has no idea how to interpret, so there’s no way to have the Java send back the right WS tag.

    We gave up. If the only way a windows program will correctly respond to a request is using a windows library, then there’s no point in calling it interoperable.

  • esteban

    Twitter? I think it is in the wrong list. Twitter is what is wrong with society as a whole. Vapid, superficial and a source for originating copious amount of spam. Its inclusion in your list of best tech undermines the credibility of everything you have ever printed. Really.

  • Bert Grantges

    Anyone else see a fundamental flaw here? The title of this article should be “The Best and Worst of Web Technologies of the Decade”.

    I’m thinking there are other technologies that should have easily have made this list other than internet or software related.

  • Mark Harrison

    @FrankNorman: The “Y2K Scare” was only a scare if you weren’t there to fix it. It was real enough. It was overblown in some ways in the press. I’m not sure about planes falling out of the sky but I can tell you for a fact there were a lot of financial systems that were going to have big problems unless they were fixed or replaced.

    I’m used to having to correct the record on Y2K to the rest of the world, but on a tech blog?

  • kiramatali shah

    Everyone has their favorite way of using the internet. Many of us search to find what we want, click in to a specific website, read what’s available and click out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it’s efficient. We learn to tune out things we don’t need and go straight for what’s essential.

    http://www.onlineuniversalwork

  • Debra McKnight

    Thanks for the very good article. I would suggest that you missed one that fits into both “the best” and “the worst” catagory at the same time: User Generated Content. Reading the average series of comments posted makes you have hope in mankind and run for the hills all at the same time.

  • linusr

    where is SOA?

  • Tim Moore

    What about desktop and server virtualization? They could fall into both catagories depending on the vendor you are using or have used.

    BTW, good article.

  • Joe Cotter

    What ever happened to re-factoring? Firstly there was encouragement to write code that is just good enough but on top of that there was the mistaken belief that anybody would fund the re-writing of poorly designed code. As ofr SCRUM – all my teams prefer line-outs.

  • Robert Young

    In due time, but not quite yet, smarter heads will prevail, and it will be understood that xml in all of its incarnations and uses (save Mark Up of documents) was a re-creation of 1960’s methods and thinking; and just an incredibly wasteful dead end.

  • james peckham

    LOL @ Scrum. The framework, because it has so simple of rules, does open itself up to a wider audience. Just like christianity there are a lot of people who think they get it and follow the ‘book’ blindly without understanding the meaning. I will say though… companies who are doing scrum correctly enjoy a better ROI and better team health. I know this because the whole point of a scrum master is to ensure the product owner is driving by value and that the team is healthy. Therefore if that is not happening then it’s not scrum.

  • Churlish

    Regarding Mike’s resounding “hurrah” for the ubiquitous workplace, all I can conclude is that he is fortunate to have an employer that does not expect a 9-5 (or 8-6, or 7-7) day IN ADDITION to 24/7 remote work.

    I’ve seen too many instances of employers wanting it both ways: managers stroke their control urges by forcing employees to sit under their gaze at a desk in the office for 40+ hours a week, but then also require those employees to be available via phone or email during nights, weekends, holidays, vacations, and (presumably) one’s own funeral.

    It is this intrusion into employees’ personal lives that rightfully places the ubiquitous workplace squarely on the “Worst” list, for the 2000s or any other decade.

  • Mike

    Good article, except for the fact that we’re still in the same decade now, so you still have a year to go before you can close out the claims for the decade…

    There is no year 0, so any decade/century/millennium ENDS (not begins) in a year divisible by 10.

  • Özmen Adıbelli

    Work to live , live to work ? Good question for this decade’s business workers.

  • 0x4a6f4672

    There is some truth in what you say. But how can you compare Ajax, Twitter and Scrum? The first is a technology, the second a company, and the third a methodology.

  • Bachan Anand

    I hope this is just your point of view of the decade . I would say Agile and Scrum is one of the best things that happened to me this decade.It is no just because of Agile or Scrum, I took time to understand it , practice it and use it for being successful

  • http://myhairisemo.blogspot.com/ Janny

    “The Workplace Becomes Ubiquitous” is the complete worst! I sometimes get calls from work when I am off sick, I mean seriously!

    But I think the best list really makes up for the worst! I love all the little niches on the net that have a world of their own with complete communities.

  • electronic voting systems

    Thank you for the advice.

  • weight loss programs mn

    I’ve found your first point to be most effective.

  • Audience Response System

    The beauty of the topic kept me reading till it ended.