Tech Revolutions: Products Tell the Story

The late Steve Jobs often referred to the "post-PC" world. And whenever he did that, our entire staff would get a bit nervous. After all, the name of this site happens to be PCWorld, and Steve Jobs was often right when he declared something toast (see: floppy disks, optical drives, FireWire, brick-and-mortar music stores, phones with buttons, and netbooks).

To test Jobs's "post-PC" proclamation, we decided to try a little experiment: We compiled the past seven years' worth of our 100 Best Products of the Year lists, pulled out the top 10 products selected each year, and set them side by side for comparison. (To run the experiment yourself, check out the "PCWorld 10 Best Products of the Year: 2005-2011" chart below.)

As it turns out, Jobs had a point--up to a point. As long as people have processor- and keyboard-intensive computing tasks to perform, good ol' laptops and desktops aren't going anywhere. But after sifting through our yearly "Best of" lists, we saw unmistakably that, as "personal computing" has become more mainstream and more entertainment-oriented, the devices used for "personal computing" have strayed farther and farther away from traditional PCs.

The seismic shift from traditional PCs to other computing devices isn't the only major change we've witnessed in the world of personal tech over the past few years. Another key development is a dramatic change in the nature of software, services, and peripheral hardware, brought on by the popularity of smaller, less-powerful gadgets such as phones and tablets. As a result, your overall computing experience today relies on fundamentally different devices and technologies than it did even a few years ago.

Consider 2005, which you no doubt remember as the year Everybody Loves Raymond ended its run on CBS. In conventional terms, it doesn't seem that long ago; yet if you look at some of the top 10 products on our list that year, they seem quaint at best and archaic at worst.

You may disagree with some of the specific items we picked for our 100 Best lists from year to year, but looking at the lists as a whole provides an interesting snapshot of which products made an impact during that time. Here are the top 10 products on our "Best of" lists over the past seven years:

PCWorld 10 Best Products of the Year, 2005–2011

2005200620072008200920102011
1 Mozilla Firefox Intel Core Duo (CPU) Google Apps Premier Edition Hulu The App Store Google Android 2.2 Froyo Verizon LTE
2 Google Gmail AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core (CPU) Intel Core 2 Duo Apple iPhone Google Voice Apple iPad MacBook Air
3 Apple Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger Craigslist Nintendo Wii Facebook Intel X25-M SSD (160GB) Amazon Kindle (3rd Generation) Intel Sandy Bridge
4 Belkin Wireless Pre-N Router Apple iPod Nano Verizon FiOS Windows XP Nikon D300S Netflix Samsung Galaxy S2
5 Dell UltraSharp 2405 FPW Seagate 160GB Portable RIM BlackBerry 8800 Lenovo ThinkPad X300 Twitter Samsung Galaxy Tab Microsoft Kinect
6 Alienware Aurora 5500 Google Earth Parallels Desktop Flock Dell Latitude Z600 Sony Alpha NEX-5 Apple iPad 2
7 Seagate USB 2.0 Pocket Drive Adobe Premiere Elements 2 Pioneer Elite 1080p PRO-FHD1 Eye-Fi Microsoft Bing HP Envy 14 Beats Edition Windows Phone 7 Mango
8 Skype Canon EOS 30D Infrant Technologies ReadyNAS NV Casio Exilim Pro EX-F1 Canon PowerShot SX200 IS Samsung Epic 4G HP ePrint
9 Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT YouTube Apple Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger Harmonix Rock Band Beatles Rock Band Instapaper Sony Alpha SLT-A77
10 PalmOne Treo 650 Apple Boot Camp Adobe Premiere Elements 3 Wikipedia Samsung LN46B750U Microsoft Security Essentials Samsung Series 9

If you break those lists down by product type, they look like this:

PCWorld 10 Best Products of the Year, by Type, 2005–2011

2005200620072008200920102011
1 Web browser for PCs CPU for PCs Cloud office suite for PCs Video-streaming site Store for mobile apps Mobile operating system High-speed cellular service
2 Cloud e-mail service CPU for PCs CPU for PCs Smartphone Mobile app Tablet Ultraportable laptop
3 PC operating system Website Gaming console Social-networking site Solid-state drive E-reader CPU for PCs
4 Wi-Fi router MP3 player Fiberoptic broadband PC operating system Digital SLR camera Streaming video service Smartphone
5 Monitor Portable hard drive Smartphone Ultraportable laptop Social networking site Tablet Motion game controller
6 Desktop PC Desktop mapping software OS virtualization for PCs Browser with integrated social networking Ultraportable laptop Compact interchangeable-lens camera Tablet
7 Portable hard drive Video-editing software for PCs Plasma HDTV SD card with wireless capabilities Search engine All-purpose laptop with headphones Mobile operating system
8 IP telephony software for PCs Digital SLR camera Network-attached storage High-speed camera Pocket megazoom camera 4G smartphone Mobile cloud printing
9 Digital SLR camera Video-streaming site PC operating system Video game Video game Mobile app High-speed camera
10 PDA/phone Dual-boot OS app for PCs Video-editing software for PCs Crowd-sourced encyclopedia LCD HDTV Free antivirus suite Ultraportable laptop

In examining those annual lists side-by-side, you can see the evolution of personal computing happening right in front of you. A few notable trends pop out.

1. 2008 changed a lot of things: That's the year the iPhone roared onto our 100 Best Products list. Before 2008, the items that reached the top 10 each year were for the most part PC-based hardware, components, software, and peripherals. After 2008, mobile apps, mobile operating systems, and Web services that could be run on any device became far more prominent. Even traditional laptops are becoming more like smartphones and tablets, with an emphasis on ultraslim designs, lightweight apps instead of beefy software packages, and touch-based input from either the trackpad or the screen itself.

2. The cloud is replacing both hardware and software: The cloud-based Google Apps office suite topped our list in 2007, an early signal of the huge shift that was about to occur. Since then, we've seen computing devices become less dedicated to delivering sheer processing power and more focused on providing mobile, browser- or app-based access to important applications and data. This has revolutionized the approach to tasks historically associated not just with desktop software, but also with components and peripherals. They've all been outsourced to the cloud in one way or another, at least for casual users.

Years ago, you needed a massive hard drive to store your music and video files; now you can stream everything or store/sync it online. Instead of installing office suites, email clients, and media-editing tools on your system, you can do a lot of that work with Web-based services. You may still need a printer, but now you can print documents directly from a mobile device. Ah, but what about the widespread popularity of "installed" mobile apps? In some ways, mobile apps actually reinforce the argument that computing is migrating online: Many apps that need to be "installed" on your phone or tablet are simply fancy front-ends for Web-based services, tailored for touchscreens and mobile users. A lot of "apps" are, in fact, unnecessary; you can do a lot of the same things in a browser.

3. Data speeds are the new processor speeds, and 4G is the new Wi-Fi: In 2006, the latest dual-core processors from Intel and AMD were numbers 1 and 2 on our Best Products list. This year, a CPU finishes near the top of our list, but Verizon's 4G LTE service rules the roost. As the popularity of cloud-based services and streaming media continues to rise, having a speedy, robust wireless connection is arguably more important than having a powerful processor. Because much of the heavy data processing takes place on the server side of the equation, delivery of data at the fastest speeds possible is what makes the difference for many mobile users. And since high-speed cellular networks aren't tied to locational access points as Wi-Fi is, they're bound to become even more popular in the future.

4. Keyboard-and-mouse input may be on the way out: Over the past seven years, a number of "alternative" input technologies have popped up in our annual top 10s--starting with the touchscreen-and-stylus-equipped PalmOne Treo 650 in 2005. In 2007, Nintendo's motion-controlled Wii made the list; and in 2008, Apple's iPhone brought a multitouch, stylus-free interface to the masses (along with Wii-like accelerometers). Let's not forget the innovative faux-instrument controllers at the heart of Harmonix's Rock Band and Beatles Rock Band in 2008 and 2009, respectively. And this year, Microsoft's controller-free Kinect system made the list, along with a growing number of touchscreen devices. It will be interesting to see whether Apple's voice-driven "intelligent assistant" Siri catches on with the masses in the coming year.

5. Apple has undergone a remarkable evolution: Though Apple has consistently made a strong showing in our top 10 lists in recent years, it has done so on the backs of radically different innovations. No company's products have showcased the sea change from home computing to mobility better. In 2005, when Mac OS X Tiger cracked the top 3, the MacBook line didn't exist, nor did the iPhone. Since 2008, the company's strategy has shifted to mobile, "non-PC" devices, influencing the market significantly. First, the iPhone changed the nature of phones. Next, the App Store, which topped our chart in 2009, redefined what everyone expected of mobile software. In 2010, the first-generation iPad provided the first significant alternative to casual laptop computing. This year, both the iPad 2 and the thin-but-powerful MacBook Air made our list, as they both set the bar for a new wave of tablets and ultraportable laptops.

Want to see PCWorld's Best Products of the Year lists for 2005 through 2011 in their entirety and do your own analysis? Here they are:

Happy data mining!

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