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25 technologies that have changed the world

For better or worse, these techs and gadgets changed our lives in the past quarter century.

This story is part of CNET at 25, celebrating a quarter century of industry tech and our role in telling you its story.
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Apple's Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone on Jan. 9, 2007, calling it a "revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone,"

Photo courtesy of Apple

If 1995 seems a long time ago, that's because it was. The DVD player was the hot new entertainment device, mobile phones were bulky and did little besides place calls, and accessing the internet was a novel (and slow) experience confined to desktop computers. It also was the year CNET began publishing news and reviews.

Technology has changed immensely in the 25 years since then. One could argue that it's continued to improve our lives, keeping us more connected to information, entertainment and each other. You also could argue just the opposite, but either way, there are a few gadgets and technologies that have changed our lives and the world forever. Here are 25 influential advancements from the past quarter century.

Apple iPhone

Though it wasn't the first smartphone, Apple really got the ball rolling with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. Social media, messaging and the mobile internet wouldn't be nearly as powerful or universal if they hadn't been freed from the shackles of the desktop computer and optimized for the iPhone and its dozens of competitors.

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Armed with powerful features and able to run thousands of apps, they squeezed more functionality into one device than we'd ever seen before. The mobile revolution also brought the death of point-and-shoot cameras, dashboard GPS units, camcorders, PDAs and MP3 players. Now we use smartphones to shop, as a flashlight and sometimes even to call people. It's tech's version of the Swiss Army knife.

Now, 13 years after the iPhone's introduction, more than 3.5 billion people around the world use a smartphone, nearly half the Earth's population. You may even be using one to read this article.

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Wi-Fi has become essential to our personal and professional lives.

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Wi-Fi

The smartphone and the internet we use today wouldn't have been possible without wireless communication technologies such as Wi-Fi. In 1995 if you wanted to "surf" the internet at home, you had to chain yourself to a network cable like it was an extension cord. In 1997, Wi-Fi was invented and released for consumer use. With a router and a dongle for our laptop, we could unplug from the network cable and roam the house or office and remain online.

Over the years, Wi-Fi's gotten progressively faster and found its way into computers, mobile devices and even cars. Wi-Fi is so essential to our personal and professional lives today that it's almost unheard of to be in a home or public place that doesn't have it.

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The internet of things allows consumer devices to connect and share information without human interaction.

James Martin/CNET

Internet of things

Brett Pearce/CNET

Wi-Fi hasn't just allowed us to check email or escape boredom at the in-laws, it also made possible a ton of consumer devices that connect and share information without human interaction, creating a system called the internet of things. The term was coined in 1999, but the idea didn't start to take off with consumers until the past decade.

Today, there are tens of billions of internet-connected devices around the globe that allow us to perform smart home tasks such as turning on our lights, checking who's at our front door and getting an alert when we're out of milk. It also has industrial applications, such as in health care and management of municipal services.

Spending on internet of things technology is expected to hit $248 billion this year, more than twice the amount spent three years ago. In five years, the market is expected to top $1.5 trillion.

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Voice assistants tell you the weather forecast, play music and help water your lawn.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Voice assistants

For many consumers, the heart of the smart home is a voice assistant such as Amazon's Alexa, Google's Assistant and Apple's Siri. In addition to being a prerequisite for controlling devices in your home, their connected speakers will tell you the weather, read you the news and play music from various streaming services, among thousands of other "skills."

There were more than 3.25 billion voice assistant devices in use around the world in 2019, and that number is expected to more than double to 8 billion by 2023. But they also present a privacy headache, since the devices are essentially internet-connected microphones that transmit your conversations to servers at Amazon, Google or Apple. All three companies have admitted to using human contractors to listen to select conversations from the voice assistants in an effort to improve their software's accuracy.

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Bluetooth has allowed us to hold telephone conversations while keeping both hands on the wheel.

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Bluetooth

Another wireless communication technology that has proven indispensable is Bluetooth, a radio link that connects devices over short distances. Introduced to consumers in 1999, Bluetooth was built for connecting a mobile phone to a hands-free headset, allowing you to carry on conversations while keeping your hands available for other uses, such as driving a car.

Bluetooth has since expanded to link devices like earbuds, earphones, portable wireless speakers and hearing aids to audio sources like phones, PCs, stereo receivers and even cars. Fitness trackers use Bluetooth to stream data to mobile phones, and PCs can connect wirelessly to keyboards and mice.

Between 2012 and 2018, the number of Bluetooth-enabled devices in the world nearly tripped to 10 billion. Today, Bluetooth is being employed in the smart home for uses such as unlocking door locks and beaming audio to lightbulbs with built-in speakers.

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VPN helps employees work remotely and helps individuals avoid censorship.

Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

VPN

The virtual private network, essentially an encrypted tunnel for transferring data on the internet, has proven invaluable for both businesses and individuals. Developed in 1996, the technology initially was used almost exclusively by businesses so their remote employees could securely access the company's intranet .

VPN use has grown in popularity since then, with about a quarter of internet users using a VPN in 2018. Today, other popular uses for VPNs include hiding online activity, bypassing internet censorship in countries without a free internet and avoiding geography-based restrictions on streaming services.

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Bitcoin incorporates technology, currency, math, economics and social dynamics.

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Bitcoin

Bitcoin is the digital cryptocurrency that racked up headlines with its meteoric rise in value a few years back and then its equally breathtaking decline, and it's another technology made popular by anonymity. It cracked the $1,000 threshold for the first time on Jan. 1, 2017, topped $19,000 in December of that year and then lost about 50 percent of its value during the first part of 2018.

The decentralized currency incorporates technology, currency, math, economics and social dynamics. And it's anonymous; instead of using names, tax IDs or Social Security numbers, bitcoin connects buyers and sellers through encryption keys.

Computers running special software -- the "miners" -- inscribe transactions in a vast digital ledger. These blocks are known, collectively, as the "blockchain." But the computational process of mining for bitcoins can be arduous, with thousands of miners competing simultaneously.

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Blockchains work as a secure digital ledger.

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Blockchain

Perhaps bigger than bitcoin is blockchain, the encryption technology behind the cryptocurrency. Because blockchains work as a secure digital ledger, a bumper crop of startups hope to bring it to voting, lotteries, ID cards and identity verification, graphics rendering, welfare payments, job hunting and insurance payments.

It's potentially a very big deal. Analyst firm Gartner estimates that blockchain will provide $176 billion in value to businesses by 2025 and a whopping $3.1 trillion by 2030.

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MP3 technology made music more portable

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MP3

Entertainment has become a whole lot more portable in the past quarter century, in large part due to the introduction of the MP3 and MP4 compression technologies. Research into high-quality, low-bit-rate coding began in the 1970s. The idea was to compress audio into a digital file with little or no loss of audio quality. The MP3 standard that we know today emerged in the mid-'90s, but the first mobile MP3 player wasn't available to consumers until 1998, when South Korea's Saehan released MPMan, a flash-based player that could hold about 12 songs.

The format's popularity took off in 1999, when 19-year-old student Shawn Fanning created the software behind the pioneering file-sharing service Napster, allowing users to swap MP3 files with each other across the internet for free. That activity famously cut into the profits of the recording industry and artists, which filed lawsuits that eventually toppled Napster, but the format helped give rise to the market for streaming music services like Spotify, Apple Music and many others.

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Facial recognition helps us unlock devices but also track individuals.

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Facial recognition

Facial recognition is a blossoming field of technology that's playing an ever-growing role in our lives. It's a form of biometric authentication that uses the features of your face to verify your identity.

The tech helps us unlock devices and sort photos in digital albums, but surveillance and marketing may end up being its prime uses. Cameras linked to facial recognition databases containing millions of mugshots and driver's license photos are used to identify suspected criminals. They also could be used to recognize your face and make personalized shopping recommendations as you enter a store.

Both activities raise privacy concerns, which range from law enforcement overreach, to systems with hidden racial biases, to hackers gaining access to your secure information. And some systems aren't always very accurate.

Even so, the market isn't showing any signs of stalling. In the US alone, the facial recognition industry is expected to grow from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $7 billion by 2024.

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On the internet, artificial intelligence  is used for everything from speech recognition to spam filtering.

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Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence – simulating human intelligence in machines – used to be confined to science fiction. But in recent decades, it's broken into the real world, becoming one of the most important technologies of our time. In addition to being the brains behind facial recognition, AI is helping to solve critical problems in transportation, retail and health care (spotting breast cancer missed by human eyes, for example). On the internet, it's used for everything from speech recognition to spam filtering. Warner Bros. even plans to use AI to analyze its potential movies and choose which ones to put into development.

But there's also fear that a dystopian future is looming with the creation of autonomous weapons, including  drones, missile defense systems and sentry robots. Industry leaders have called for regulation of the technology to prevent the potential harm from tools like deepfakes, which are video forgeries that make people seem to say or do things they didn't.

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Drones have been used to shoot movie sequences, deliver packages and spray pesticides over crops to protect farms.

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Drones

Drones have really taken off in recent years. What started out as a hobbyist gadget has transformed industries, with the unmanned aircraft shooting movie sequences, delivering packages to hard-to-reach places, surveying construction sites and spraying pesticide over crops to protect farms.

Drones now range from noisy quadcopters to payload-carrying mini-planes. On the US-Mexico border, Customs and Border Protection uses $16 million military-style Predator drones that can fly as high as nine miles, equipped with radar strong enough to detect footprints in the sand.

In the not-too-distant future, drones are expected to crowd the skies, acting as personal air taxis and performing lifesaving duties such as delivering medicine, helping with search and rescue, and fighting fires.

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DNA testing has been helpful in identifying previously unknown relatives as well as criminal suspects.

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DNA testing kits

With a simple swab of your cheek or a sample of your saliva, DNA testing kits have helped deepen our understanding of ancestry, introduced us to living relatives around the world, determined paternity and shed light on a predisposition to specific health issues and diseases. 

Over the past few years, the kits have become quite affordable and popular. Law enforcement agencies in particular have grown fond of the kits. Using a technique called genetic genealogy, they've cracked dozens of murder, rape and assault cases, some from decades ago.

Then investigators use traditional genealogical research to identify possible suspects, who are then tested for a DNA match to the crime scene. But the practice relies on investigators having access to a large cache of DNA profiles, and it stirs worries among privacy watchdogs.

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Quantum computing is making dramatic leaps in computing power each year.

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Quantum computing

Companies and countries are pouring billions of dollars into quantum computing research and development. They're betting it will pay off by opening up new abilities in chemistry, shipping, materials design, finance, artificial intelligence and more.

The technology is beginning to show some of the promise researchers have hyped for decades. Last year, a Google-designed quantum processor called Sycamore completed a task in 200 seconds that, by Google's estimate, would take 10,000 years on the world's fastest supercomputer.

Honeywell, which once sold massive mainframes, predicts the performance of its quantum computers will grow by a factor of 10 every year for each of the next five years -- meaning they'd be 100,000 times faster in 2025.

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Social media apps jockey for your attention.

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Social networking

The online world was a very different place two decades ago. Social networkers of a certain age may remember Friendster, the site that launched in 2002 and allowed people to fill out an online profile and connect with people they knew in real life. But two years later, Mark Zuckerberg changed everything when he launched a social-networking site for college students called Facebook. It opened to the general public in 2006 and quickly left Friendster and MySpace far behind.

Today Facebook helps people connect and stay connected, but its real business is advertising. Last year, it brought in $32 billion in ad revenue. It also helped pave the way for other social networks that help people chat, share photos and find jobs, among other activities. It now has 2.37 billion users – nearly a third of the world's population.

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A 3D printer in action.

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3D printing

3D printing --  the process of synthesizing a three-dimensional object -- is one of those technologies that edges ever closer to mainstream use every year. We've seen the concept play out on TV and in movies for years, and now with home 3D printers it's finally growing beyond a wildly exotic hobby for a small enthusiast audience.

3D printing got an early foothold as a way to design prototypes of just about anything. The technology allows manufacturers to build plastic components that are lighter than metal alternatives and with unusual shapes that can't be made by conventional injection molding methods.

The devices are used to create materials inside football helmets and Adidas running shoes, and Porsche plans to roll out a new 3D printing program that will allow customers to have their cars' seats partially 3D-printed.

Some call 3D printing the fourth industrial revolution. Spending in the field is growing at about 13% annually among large US companies, consulting firm Deloitte estimates, and will likely reach $2 billion in 2020.

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Video streaming services are quickly replacing cable and satellite subscriptions for many consumers.

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Video streaming

Twenty-five years ago, a new media storage format was taking the entertainment world by storm. DVDs had superior picture and sound quality to the VHS tape, and they took up less room on your shelves. Movie rental stores abandoned VHS for DVDs, and online rental services like Netflix popped up, offering the convenience of mailing rented discs directly to you.

Then Netflix introduced its streaming service, allowing people to watch movies and TV shows across the internet. Consumers fell in love with the convenience of on-demand programming and began the phenomenon of "cutting the cord." As more streaming services like Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and YouTube emerged, consumers started canceling cable and satellite subscriptions and rental services such as Blockbuster went belly up.

By next year, more than one-fifth of US households are expected to have cut the cord on cable and satellite services, according to eMarketer.

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Streaming represents 85% of all music consumption in the US.

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Music streaming

Vinyl will always be popular among audiophiles, but streaming is still the future of music listening. Streaming music is cheap or even free (in the case of Pandora and Spotify) and outpaces any physical format when it comes to convenience.

Streaming now represents 85% of all music consumption in the US, a 7.6% increase over 2018, according to BuzzAngle Music. In 2019, on-demand audio stream consumption hit a record 705 billion streams, a 32% increase over the previous year.

In 2019, total music industry revenues rose 13% to $11.1 billion, with streaming accounting for nearly 80% of that total, according to the RIAA. But at the same time, album sales fell 23% in 2019 and song sales dropped 26%. And that's after declines of 18.2% and 28.8%, respectively, the previous year.

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There are millions of apps on the market, helping perform almost any task you can imagine

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Apps

Mobile apps have changed the way we consume media and communicate, from news and streaming services to texting and social media apps. They have also changed the way we go about living our daily lives, helping us find on-demand rides, short- and long-term rentals, and have food delivered to our door, just to name a few of the countless benefits.

There are more than 2 million apps in the Apple App Store, generating about $50 billion in revenue.

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An Uber self-driving Ford Fusion.

Screenshot via Gordon Gottsegen/CNET

Autonomous vehicles

The promise of autonomous vehicles has been touted for more than a decade: Without human drivers, proponents say, cars will be safer and more comfortable, especially on long trips. Technology companies have been working on making them a reality for a long time. The driverless vehicle fleet from Waymo, the autonomous car company owned by Google parent Alphabet, has driven more than 20 million miles on public roads since its founding in 2009.

Fully self-driving cars may not arrive in dealerships for another decade, but we're already benefiting from the technology being developed for autonomous vehicles, including adaptive cruise control, automatic forward-collision braking, automatic parking, autopilot and lane-keep assist.

RFID helps many car woners unlock and start their cars without using a key.

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RFID

Retailers fell in love with radio frequency identification tracking some 20 years ago, touting the little chips as a convenient way to control inventory and reduce theft, without people having to make contact with the tagged item. Today, they have a variety of applications, including tracking cars, computer equipment and books. They're implanted into animals to help identify the owners of lost pets, farmers use them to monitor crops and livestock, and they help food companies track the source of packaged goods.

Thanks to growing demand, especially in the medical and health care industries, where the tracking technology is used to monitor patients and label medications, spending in the RFID tag industry is projected to hit $17 billion, more than twice the $8.2 billion spent in 2018.

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Virtual reality isn't just about gaming.

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Virtual reality

Companies large and small have begun using virtual reality, which transports users to a computer-generated world. Once confined to the realm of science-fiction movies like Walt Disney's Tron, virtual reality has grown into a real-world industry worth an estimated $18 billion.

While the video game industry was expected to get an economic boost from virtual reality, the broader tech industry sees other applications for the nascent technology, including education, health care, architecture and entertainment.

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A boy in the San Francisco Bay Area meets up with his preschool classmates and teachers with the Zoom videoconferencing app.

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Videoconferencing

As the coronavirus pandemic has changed the world we live in, forcing us to avoid contact with others and shelter in place, videoconferencing has exploded in popularity. A few months ago, this technology wouldn't have made our list, but now it's proving indispensable. Video telephony has been around in some form since the 1970s, but it wasn't until the web debuted that the technology took off.

Along with webcams, free internet services such as Skype and iChat popularized the tech in the 2000s, taking videoconferencing to all corners of the internet. The corporate world embraced the tool as a way to cut down on employee travel for meetings and as a marketing tool.

As companies and schools implemented policies on work and study from home, video chatting and conferencing apps grew in popularity as a way to get work done and communicate with friends and family, especially among people who had never used the tech before.

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E-cigarettes were pitched as a healthier alternative to cigarettes, but they have provoked new health concerns.

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E-cigarettes

Battery-operated e-cigarettes hit the US market about a decade ago, touted as a safer alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes. However, they didn't really gain traction until 2015, when Juul Labs debuted its discreet USB-size vaporizer and quickly became the industry leader.

In 2019, an increasing number of people who vape were winding up in hospital with symptoms that include coughing, shortness of breath and other health problems after vaping -- and at least 54 people have died.

Juul is accused in a lawsuit of illegally targeting young people online in advertising campaigns. Vaping companies have been sued on similar grounds in other courts. San Francisco banned the sale of e-cigarettes in June.

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Ransomware attacks cost more than $7 billion each year.

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Ransomware

The first ransomware attack can be traced to the late 1980s, but the malware has grown in prominence as one of the greatest cybersecurity threats since 2005. Ransomware locks down a victim's computer system until a ransom, usually in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency, is paid. Hackers often threaten to erase data. It spreads like other malware does, through email attachments or unsecured links.

Ransomware attacks skyrocketed in 2019, hitting nearly 1,000 government agencies, educational establishments and health care providers in the US, at an estimated cost of $7.5 billion.