PC World: The 50 best tech products of all time

The following excerpt is from PC World. You can read the full article at pcworld.com.

The Beatles. Citizen Kane . Muhammad Ali. Many have laid claim to being the “best ever” in their respective fields of work, but only one can be at the top of the list. And the same is true when it comes to technology.

So what’s the best tech product to come out of the digital age? And what qualifies a product as “the best?” First, and foremost, it must be a quality product, a piece of hardware or software that has truly changed our lives and which we can’t live without (or couldn’t at the time). Beyond that, a product should have attained a certain level of popularity, had staying power, and in many cases, made some sort of breakthrough, influencing the development of later products of that ilk.

So after considering hundreds of products and engaging in many hours of painstaking debate, PC World presents the 50 Best Tech Products. Note that we’re only looking at technology to arise since the dawn of the computer, so don’t expect transistor radios and the cotton gin on the list. Instead, you’ll find gear that, in all likelihood, you used yourself at one point or another—and, in many cases, products you’re still using today.

And oh yeah, you may think our choices are ridiculous or that we’ve left out much more important products. Have at us. Smack us down righteously.

And don’t forget to vote on the product you think should be number one.

Here’s our top six.

1. Netscape Navigator (1994)

Netscape Navigator (image courtesy of University of the Third Age Introduction to the Internet)

Marc Andreesen may have known what he was getting into when he co-wrote Mosaic at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications, but it wasn’t until he graduated from college and met with some Valley types that the Web revolution really began. In 1994, Andreesen launched Netscape Communications, offering his new Navigator Web browser (based on Mosaic) to the world. Finally, users outside of the academic world got a taste of HTML, and nothing has been the same since.

Netscape was the reason people started spending hours a day on the Internet, leading to the boom (and bust) of many a Web site. It was also the reason why Microsoft got sucked into antitrust litigation, when Internet Explorer was eventually embedded into Windows. And the company’s August 9, 1995 IPO is universally considered to be the official start of the dot-com era.

Unfortunately, Netscape couldn’t keep up with the times and was surpassed by Internet Explorer in the late ’90s. Netscape still exists (under the ownership of AOL), but has fallen into utter disuse, though its influence can still be felt all over the Web. For instance, fragments of its original code live on in just about every browser still in production, from Mozilla Firefox to Internet Explorer. To reminisce about old versions of Netscape gone by, check out the Netscape Browser Archive.

2. Apple II (1977)

Apple II(image courtesy of Courtesy of John Davin’s Antique Computers)

While the original Apple I computer was really just a hobbyist’s diversion, the Apple II was a computer for Everyman. Beating the IBM PC 5150 to market by four years, the Apple II (and its cousins, the II+, IIe, and IIc) quickly became the computer for people who wanted a machine that actually did something (competitors like the Commodore 64 and TRS-80 Color Computer were mere toys by comparison).

So what was so special about the Apple II? It offered plenty of productivity tools (including being the first PC to run the VisiCalc spreadsheet), it was good at gaming, and it was quite extendable (when’s the last time you had a computer with eight expansion slots?). And the machine itself looked so much cooler than anything that preceded it, a philosophy that still lives on in the Apple computers of today. The Apple II may not have been the first personal computer, but it was the spark that ignited the personal computing industry. (Last year, to mark Apple’s 30th anniversary, Macworld placed the Apple II at No. 4 on the list of the 30 most significant products in company history.)

If you’re lucky, you might still be able to find an Apple II on Ebay, though they don’t seem to last long.

3. TiVo HDR110 (1999)

Tivo HDR110 (image courtesy of TiVo Inc.)

It’s hard to believe but it’s true. TiVo has been around for almost a decade, making it nearly geriatric in the world of tech. The premise is simple: TiVo (and its competitor ReplayTV) replaced the VHS tape with a monster hard drive, recording shows to disk instead of analog media. That meant you could pause and resume live TV, skip through commercials in an instant, and record an entire season of shows with just a few clicks of the remote control. TiVo’'s innovations (it is now up to its Series3 model ) helped it to handily beat ReplayTV in the battle for mindshare, though it struggled to reach profitability and now risks falling prey to that killer of many a promising company: commodity status. Though TiVo the brand may eventually die, “tivo” the verb will probably be with us forever.

4. Napster (1999)

Napster (image courtesy of Taxster)

No, we’re not talking about the current Napster subscription service, which pretty much has nothing to do with Shawn Fanning’s groundbreaking file-swapping software. Say what you will about how Napster facilitated copyright violation on a massive scale (it had 60 million users, at its zenith), but piracy was around well before Napster came along and continues without it.

Rather, Napster is of critical importance not only for inventing peer-to-peer technology, but also for forcing record labels to play ball and work with tech companies to legalize the digital music industry. Even P2P is finally on the verge of legitimacy, as companies like Warner Brothers and Paramount have recently signed deals to distribute content through P2P upstarts BitTorrent and TV streamer Joost.

5. Lotus 1-2-3 for DOS (1983)

Lotus 1-2-3 for DOS

Whenever the topic of killer apps comes up, mention of Lotus 1-2-3 is never far behind. 1-2-3 was the PC’s first critical application, and it was almost single-handedly responsible for giving the PC the major push it needed, past all other competing hardware platforms, to become the de facto standard for business users. Lotus 1-2-3 wasn’t the first spreadsheet app, but it was visibly superior to competitor VisiCalc, and it remained the standard until the rise of the Windows era and Microsoft Excel. Lotus chose to throw in with OS/2 instead of Microsoft, alas, ultimately sealing its fate in the market, though it lives on now as Lotus 1-2-3 Millennium Edition.

And if you could kick yourself for tossing out your old version, $20 or $30 can get you a copy of Lotus 1-2-3 on eBay.

6. The iPod

Portable music players were old hat by 2001, having been around for several years and already a staple of cheap knockoff specialists. But Apple thought it could do better, and it came to the game determined to shake things up. Mission accomplished. The iPod was an instant success, reinventing the clunky and utilitarian digital music player as a stylish—not to mention elegantly simple—way to listen to music. The market responded categorically. Apple commands a monster 73 percent share of the music player market. Its closest competitor, Sandisk, has 9 percent. Newer iPods have greatly expanded that market by adding features like video and slimmer cases—and so far this franchise freight train shows no signs of slowing down.

Other Apple products in PC World’s Top 50

  • Macintosh Plus (No. 14)
  • iTunes 4 (No. 21)
  • Mac OS X (No. 30)
  • AirPort Base Station (No. 34)
  • HyperCard (No. 41)
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