Software Trends of the 2010s: Part 3 of Tech That Reshaped our Lives in the Last Decade
This list is (with one exception) not about individual products but about trends and categories.
Dropbox and cloud storage and sync
For me, the first decade of the century was characterised by the USB stick. I always carried a few with me, usually around my neck. The USB drive replaced the previously ubiquitous floppy disk which was the data-transfer medium of the 1990s (even if they lost their floppiness). And while USB sticks are still extremely common and useful, they have been replaced in my life by cloud storage.
Dropbox launched in 2008 and I set up my free account in 2009. By 2012, Dropbox had 100 million users, and the worry about whether all my machines had the same version of my files slowly faded away. As did worrying too much about losing the only copy of my file with my USB stick. Over the last 10 years, the idea of having only one version of my file on one machine has become more and more preposterous. And that’s not even taking into account the powerful collaboration features which have made Dropbox so common in academic projects.
Many of Dropbox’s smaller competitors like SpiderOak or Syncplicity (both of which I also used) have moved away from serving consumers but the 2 big juggernauts in this space are Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive which more than take up the slack. I still use all three of these for different purposes and different projects but there’s not a single document I create that is not in one of these.
Google Photos, launched in 2015, completely changed what a person could do with their photo collection. People who cared about their photos always had services like Flickr or SmugMug but that was too much work for most.
Google Photos took away 2 great chores with photos: 1. Backing them up and 2. Organising them in albums.
Since by 2015, most photos were taken by mobile phones, many people had to worry about what happens to their photos when they change (or lose phones). That worry completely disappeared with Google Photos. You can now access photos from any phone or computer if you have Google Photos do an automatic sync. In 2015, I capsized my canoe and drowned my phone which I was using to take pictures earlier. By the time I got home, all my pictures until the phone took its dip were backed up.
But, sync and backup is only a marginal benefit. Apple’s iCloud, Dropbox or Microsoft’s OneDrive now do the same thing. The real revolution is the power of search and automatic organisation of my photos. I can see all the pictures I took of birds just by searching for ‘bird’. It automatically creates albums and collages for me. But the most transformative is the ‘On this day’ feature which periodically reminds me what I was doing at some point in the past. Now that I have connected my Lenovo Smart Displays, I also see these reminders as I sit in my chair and write these words.
Since it is our past that shapes us, how much more personally transformative can a technology get than this. Sure, we have had albums for as long there have been photos but looking at them was a deliberate act which was rare and took extra effort. Some might see that as a virtue, but most people say that they wish they would look at their photos more often, now they can. And thanks to the sharing and family features, it can not only bring them closer to happy moments of their own past but also closer to each other.
Cost of software and subscription pricing
As 2010 hove into view on the calendar, the rise of the app was in full swing, although the App Store only had a little over 100,000 apps. But as the numbers grew, not only did people start talking about the ‘app economy’ but also perceptions about how much software should cost were changing. Most apps cost between 1 and 5 dollars, and with tens of millions of potential buyers, this seemed like a great way to get rich quick. But as a business model, it soon proved unsustainable because people were also expecting to get free upgrades for the same price. And since many apps also included some sort of online service component, it was impossible to fund this only by getting new users to pay for the app.
Several business models emerged. In-app purchases became especially popular with “free-to-play” games as did things like ‘loot boxes’. But by far the most fundamental shift is the number of apps that charge a monthly or yearly subscription. This has the advantage of steady and predictable income for developers and guarantee of frequent updates for the customers. Of course, it is very much a double-edged sword for light users. Particularly since the big players caught wind of this trend. The biggest were Adobe and Microsoft which started offering their core software as part of a monthly subscription. First optionally and later as the only way (for Adobe).
Not all apps or software packages are available as a subscription but it is very much becoming the norm. How sustainable this will be in the long-run is an open question. There are only so many ‘affordable’ monthly payments one can commit to before it all becomes unaffordable but there still seems to be room for growth.
While people talk about Photoshop, I saw this with my favourite freemium mind mapping tool XMind. It introduced a subscription for the latest version which would be find if it was accompanied by monthly release of new features. But it wasn’t. Luckily, I still have the latest full version (which they continue to offer) which I own — I have paid for several upgrades in the past but the subscription feels like a trap. If I can’t afford to pay any more or my usage becomes lighter, I lose access to the software for ever.
Google Docs, autosave and live collaboration
“Save your work” used to be a mantra of all IT teachers and friendly neighbourhood IT helpers. Who hasn’t come across an unfortunate soul who lost hours of work simply because the computer crashed and they ‘forgot to save their document’. It may still happen but thanks to the change introduced by Google Docs and now also in Word, it is much rarer. Because now, your document is saved not just every few minutes (if you remembered to set up autosave) but it is saved as you type letter by letter.
That change came along with the feature of live collaboration where not only can people edit the same document wiki-style, they can also collaborate on it live. I’ve been part of a session where 70 people were editing the same document. And these features have slowly migrated to Microsoft’s office suite with Office 365.
I wrote this entire document in Google Docs over 4 different machines: my laptop, my Chromebox, my desktop and combined with some light proofreading on my phone. At no point was I worried about making sure that all my versions are synchronised. And I could publish the draft for anyone to see and, if they so desired, to comment on it.
This change has not completely (much to my chagrin) eliminated email attachments — some habits die hard — but we are now on the way towards that happy day when the first instinct of somebody wanting me to comment on a document will be to share it rather than email it.
ChromeOS and software as a service (SaaS)
Speaking of Google Docs, let’s not forget about another change that has reshaped our lives. How do you install Google Docs? You don’t! It lives “in the cloud”. It is a service provided by Google — for free no less. Software as a service (or SaaS) was not invented in the 2010s. In fact, “the network is the computer” was the aspirational slogan of the now-departed Sun Microsystems in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, networks were slow and unreliable and we couldn’t get away from them fast enough with the personal computer revolution. The more computing I could do on my own PC, the safer I would feel.
Well, not any more. Global networks are now fast and reliable enough that software that does not have to be installed and can run in the browser is now the default consideration for any new corporate purchase. Even home users often do away with an email client or even a word processor in favour of web-based services. Google has even introduced ChromeOS an entire operating system where the browser is the way all applications are accessed. When ChromeOS and Chromebooks were first released in 2011, everybody was scratching their heads. I can have a browser on any computer. Why would I want to buy a computer that only has the browser and nothing else? But Google was proved right and now Chromebooks dominate US schools who love computers that are always automatically up to date and can be used by any user who always sees all their files when they login.
We are still not (and may not be for a while) in a situation where anywhere we are, we can access a high-speed, low-latency connection, so ChromeOS has slowly added features that enable offline work and it is now even possible to install Android Apps locally. But Chromebooks still ship with very small hard drives and almost all the files a user will access are cloud-based.
ChromeOS has taken the SaaS idea to an extreme but it is clear that our expectations of what a software is and how to get it have been transformed over the course of the 2010s.
Automatic software updates
Speaking of crazy things Google did under the heading of Chrome… In 2008, when it released the Chrome browser, it came with a feature that was unheard of — automatic updates. Chrome would not require you to go and search for the latest version, it would update automatically without even letting the users know. One day you would launch Chrome and the latest version would be available. The idea had obvious appeal. Imagine not having to worry about which version of the browser a user has. They always have the latest one. Imagine always having the latest, most secure version of your software.
But it also seemed crazy. All software has bugs and upgrading software versions was a process fraught with dangers. What are the chances of the world one day waking up to all its browsers having been broken by a faulty update? In 2008, they seemed very high. But Google managed to pull it off despite a few hiccups, auto-updating software is now the default on mobile platforms and becoming commonplace on desktop computers. From the operating system to the office applications. For some, Microsoft has taken this to the extreme with regular updates to Office 365 but adding useful features one by one over time is probably better than releasing a big version every 2–3 years.
Open Source and Open Data
Another change that has roots much earlier than 2010 is the rise of Open Source software. The Free Software Foundation was founded in 1985 and its poster-child Linux was first released in 1991. The 2000s saw a huge growth of Open Source software and associated business models. When Sun acquired the Open Source database company MySQL in 2008 for $1 billion, it was clear that Open Source was a force to be reckoned with. Wordpress, Drupal and Joomla dominated and continue to dominate the website content management system (CMS) market despite being entirely Open Source. Linux powers the majority of servers on the internet.
What the 2010s brought was the normalisation of the idea that Open Source is the way to go. More and more companies release their software under Open Source licenses and more and more institutions are comfortable using Open Source products. Even Microsoft, whose former CEO Steve Balmer once called Linux “a cancer” is now releasing Open Source tools. What the 2010s have shown is that Open and Closed source systems can co-exist and benefit from each others’ strengths and weaknesses.
Many of the applications on this list are Open Source or rely on Open Source components and infrastructure. Chrome, ChromeOS, Android are built on Open Source software. Google Docs, Google Photos or even Facebook rely on infrastructure that is powered by Open Source and what’s more important, they contribute back to it. Two of the four main LMS/VLE systems are also open source as is one system that powers a major MOOC provider..
The one area where Open Source completely dominates is the so-called “Artificial Intelligence”. Almost all the key software used for working in the AI field is open source. All the major companies leading the AI field, Google, Microsoft and to a lesser degree Apple and Amazon, either release Open Source versions of their tools, models and even many data sets. And all the main breakthroughs in the field have been published as open academic papers. It is very much openness that drives AI and machine learning forward. If someone tries to sell you a super-secret proprietary machine learning system, it’s almost certainly snake oil.
Speech recognition and image classification with neural networks
In the previous section, I introduced AI as “so-called” because it’s really a grab bag of quite distinct approaches to processing large amounts of data. AI is not some general-purpose procedure that can be applied to problems, it is an approach/philosophy, a collection of possible tools and heuristics relying on similar assumptions about statistical properties of data. All this is by way of explaining why I don’t have AI as the trend but rather some specific applications of it.
By the early 2010s advances in speech recognition (ASR) have virtually plateaued and the idea of recognising objects in an image was just a pipe dream. The MIT were even considering dropping neural nets from their intro to AI course. But all that changed in 2012 with the release of a paper that showed that using GPUs to reimplement convolutional neural networks first proposed in the 1980s (based on ideas going back to 1950s) could lead to remarkable results when it comes to labelling images. It took a few years before this approach made its way into commercial products but by 2015, Google Photos was able to be released with some remarkable image recognition facilities.
Using a collection of different approaches to implementing neural nets, Google and Amazon were able to implement speech recognition tools with levels of accuracy unimaginable in 2010. Not only can you now give short commands to your Amazon Echo or Google Home, you can dictate your documents via voice typing to Google Docs in 70 languages. If you tried automatic captions on YouTube videos in 2015, the results would have been comical. Today, they get almost everything right.
It is important to remember that neither speech recognition nor image labeling are fully solved problems. We sometimes hear that certain algorithms produce better results than human benchmarks but that is misleading. Humans make errors because they are tired or lose focus. Machine learning algorithms make errors because they don’t really know what it is that they’re dealing with.
Nevertheless, the 2010s have completely changed what we can expect from computers when it comes to interacting with us. Some people worry that the progress we saw in the last 5 years will stall, but what we have today is so much more useful than what was there in 2010 that our expectations have been forever reshaped.
Other areas where things have progressed using similar approaches are synthetic speech and machine translation.
Whatsapp and other group messaging solutions
Whatsapp and other messaging platforms changed many people’s lives in quite profound ways. Messaging platforms were nothing new in 2009 when Whatsapp was released. Texting had already become commonplace and Instant Messaging had its roots in the 1980s and got a huge boost with ICQ and all its competitors in the mid-1990s. But when combined with mobile phones, ubiquitous data, group chatting features and photo sharing, their utility went through the roof.
Perhaps the poster child for the success of instant messaging is is WeChat which holds sway in China and allows for much more than just chatting. Although all the messaging platforms are global, they do have regional preferences. In some countries, people seem to prefer Viber or Facebook Messenger over Whatsapp. We should also not forget the rise of Snapchat and Instagram as a chat platform for many young people.
These platforms have changed people’s expectations about how to connect with each other, where to go online to discuss things and what to use their phones for.