Game Changers: 12 Technologies That Changed Everything

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Motorola DynaTAC 8000X
Motorola DynaTAC 8000X (1983)

More than a foot long, weighing more than 2 pounds, and with a price tag just shy of $4000, the DynaTAC 8000X would be unrecognizable as a cell phone to any of today's iPhone-slinging hipsters.

Yet the shoebox-sized unit--approved by the FCC in 1983 and immortalized by Michael Douglas in 1987's Wall Street--was the first commercially available cell phone that could operate untethered from an external power source.

It wasn't until Motorola introduced the StarTAC in 1996 that cell phones began to adopt sleek form factors, and it took the Motorola Razr (2004) for phones to make a fashion statement. But neither would have existed without their older sibling. The DynaTAC helped change the nature of how and where we communicate.

6. IBM ThinkPad 700C (1992)

IBM ThinkPad 700C (1992)
Though the first portable PCs appeared in the early 1980s (if you consider the 24-pound Osborne 1 "portable"), laptops didn't really become corporate status symbols until IBM came out with its ThinkPad line in 1992.

Pretty soon you couldn't show up in the executive lounge unless there was a bright red TrackPoint sprouting from the middle of your keyboard.

"In the large financial services organization I worked for, we had huge demand from the executives for the new IBM laptops," recalls Brenda Kerton, principal consultant for Capability Insights Consulting. "To be seen as anyone in the business exec world, you just had to have one. They may not have had a clue how to manage e-mail or office software before the laptop, but they learned. And it snowballed from there. Laptops changed the conversations between IT and business executives."

With the ThinkPad, technology suddenly went from being strictly for low-level geeks to something that was simply cool. And the business world has never been the same.

7. Broadband (1995)

The Internet, the World Wide Web, Amazon, Google, YouTube--all of them were game changers in their own way. But their impact wasn't really felt until the bits flowed fast enough to let us access these things without losing our friggin' minds.

Though U.S. businesses had been able to lease costly high-speed voice and data lines since the late 1960s, it wasn't until 1995, when Canada's Rogers Communications launched the first cable Internet service in North America, that consumers could enjoy the Web at speeds greater than 56 kbps (on a good day).

That was followed by the introduction of DSL in 1999. Now more than 80 million Americans access the Net at speeds averaging just under 4 megabits per second (according to Akamai), though we continue to trail many developed nations on both broadband penetration and speed.

The game really changed when we leapt to 1.5 megabits and beyond. Now 3G and 4G wireless broadband will change the game again.

8. The Slammer Worm (2003)

Though it's hard to isolate a single culprit for the rise of malware, the Slammer/Sapphire Worm is an excellent candidate. In January 2003, this worm on steroids took down everything from network servers to bank ATMs to 911 response centers, causing more than $1 billion worth of damage in roughly 10 minutes. It marked the beginning of a new era in cyber security; after Slammer, the number and sophistication of malware attacks spiked.

In 2005, for example, German antivirus software test lab AV-Test received an average of 360 unique samples of malware each day, according to security researchers Maik Morgenstern and Hendrik Pilz [PDF]. In 2010, that number had grown to 50,000 a day--or nearly 20 million new viruses each year.

"I think the increasing number of new malware samples is one of the biggest 'game changers'," notes AV-Test cofounder Andreas Marx. "The malware is optimized for nondetection by certain AV products, and as soon as a signature is in place the malware will be replaced again."

The other big change since Slammer: Malware is now the preferred tool of professional cyber criminals, not just random Net vandals.

Next: Music software appears, blogs take over, phones get touchscreens, and we all move to the cloud.

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