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Byte-sized history: the evolution of digital devices

Rewind with me to the disco-dazzled 1970s and ‘80s, when owning a tech gadget like a calculator made you the cool kid on the block. Back then, arcade games ruled, personal computing was taking its baby steps, and TVs were massive boxes that owned the living room landscape. 

Fast forward to the digital era, and in many ways, we’re living our sci-fi dream as high-tech advances have changed our lives. Much of what we do, from work to social activities, depends on information that floats in the cloud, accessible from pocket-sized devices right out of Star Trek. 

As someone who experienced many of these changes first-hand, I’m going to be your tour guide as we explore the journey of personal tech over the last few decades, focusing on the shifts in computer storage, on-demand TV, and smartphones. Along this journey, we’ll uncover key insights for small business owners, illustrating how embracing and adapting to tech advances is crucial for thriving in today’s digital landscape.

From floppy disks to cloud storage

Computer storage has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past fifty years. From the early days of minimal RAM and cumbersome hard drives to the contemporary era of cloud storage, the progression reflects a journey as profound as the transition from horse-drawn carriages to hyperloops.

To appreciate the change, we need to first consider personal computers in the 1970s and 1980s. The Apple II and the Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80, both launched in 1977, were among the first PCs to enter homes and schools. The TRS-80 came with a mere 4 KB of RAM, enough for about four pages of text, basic calculations, or simple games, and hard drives were unheard of. That meant all software had to be loaded each time a computer was turned on, using removable media like cassette tapes or 5 ¼ inch floppy disks that could store a whopping 360 KB.

The delicate 5 ¼ inch floppies were soon replaced by more robust 3 ½ inch versions, offering up to 2MB of storage. In 1980, the launch of a 5MB hard disk drive for $1,500 represented a major advancement, enabling software and files to remain housed within the computer. By the late 1980s, it became commonplace for hard drives to store 20-30MB of data, which was a huge step forward for the time, but laughable in today’s world of terabyte drives.To put this in perspective, a single selfie from a modern smartphone might be over 3MB, meaning those early hard drives would be full with just ten of our modern photos!

In 1995, Iomega’s Zip Drive burst onto the scene. This device was like a supercharged floppy disk, boasting an initial 100 MB of storage capacity, which eventually ballooned to 750 MB. For those of us who relied on them, Zip Drives were a revelation — until they weren’t. The infamous “click of death” became the bane of many users, prompting a mad scramble to duplicate files across multiple disks to safeguard against sudden data loss.

Enter the year 2000, and with it, Trek 2000’s groundbreaking invention: the USB memory stick, affectionately known as the flash drive or thumb drive. This little device, using solid-state technology, meant we could now carry our digital world in our pockets, immune to the wear and tear that plagued earlier storage devices. They could even survive an occasional spin in the washing machine. At the same time, their small size made them easy to lose.

The real game-changer was lurking just around the corner: cloud storage. Though its roots trace back to the 1960s, cloud storage didn’t hit the mainstream until 2006, thanks to Amazon Web Services. Suddenly, computer users had access to vast and secure data storage accessible from anywhere in the world. But with cloud storage comes a new problem that we haven’t quite solved: how to keep unauthorized users from hacking databases and other online storage systems.

The biggest lesson from the history of computer storage is that no storage media is foolproof. Here are some best practices for handling your small business data needs.

  • Adopt a hybrid storage approach: For small business owners, it’s critical to protect your data from hardware failures and hackers. Consider backup solutions that involve both physical devices (like thumb drives or portable hard drives) and cloud storage. This way, your information is secure and accessible, even without Internet access, and having offline backups helps protect your business from hacking and ransomware attacks.
  • Regularly update your backup systems: The evolution of technology, such as the obsolescence of Zip Drives, demonstrates why it’s important to keep your backup systems modern and efficient and review the backups to ensure the data is accurate and up-to-date without unnecessary duplications or unnecessary files. After all, hard drives fill up, and cloud storage can get expensive. 
  • Implement a 3-2-1 backup strategy: To protect your data, make three copies of it stored on two different types of media (hard drives, flash drives, cloud, or other media), with one copy kept off-site (e.g., cloud storage).
illustration of on-demand tv evolution

The revolution of on-demand television

Remember when catching a TV show meant being in front of the screen at the right time? That’s ancient history now, thanks to the on-demand revolution.

Up through the 1970s, every TV show was aired once on broadcast television at a specific time each week. If we missed an episode, our only hope was to catch a rerun sometime later in the season. Alternatively, we might hope for the show to be syndicated, which means it would be rerun on local TV stations, often late at night.

The TV-watching game changed forever with the introduction of the video cassette recorder (VCR), sparking a fierce battle between two formats: VHS by JVC, released in 1977, and Sony’s Betamax from 1975. The choice between the two was tricky — VHS offered affordability, while Betamax boasted higher quality. Consumers had to gamble on which format would ultimately dominate the industry. In the end, the cheaper VHS format emerged victorious and maintained its position as the prevailing format for years to come.

That would all change with the rise of the videotape recorder. Two competing formats were VHS, released in the United States in 1977 by JVC, and Betamax, released in 1975 by Sony. Both were popularly adopted by the early 1980s. One problem was that people had to choose one of the formats and commit to it since they were not compatible with each other. VHS was cheaper, but Betamax had better quality. With videotape came the rise of video rental stores like Blockbuster in 1985, where we could rent movies or TV shows and watch them whenever we wanted.

When they were released in 1997, DVDs added to the complexity of video rental and purchase, as they were easier to use because they didn’t have magnetic tape to rewind or wear out, could hold more data, and soon, could be played on a computer as well as in a DVD player connected to the television. In the same year, Netflix launched a DVD-by-mail service.

Hot on the heels of DVDs came digital video recorders, with TiVo launching in 1999, letting people record shows automatically without the need for external media like videotape. Then in 2007, the Netflix streaming revolution began, beginning our current era of on-demand television. This development transformed our habits entirely, making video stores a relic. Now, with devices like the Roku, Chromecast, and smart TVs, as well as a huge selection of standalone streaming apps and sites like YouTube, we have nearly complete control over our entertainment schedules (though at the cost of having to pay for many different apps and not always being able to find the show we want to watch). 

How can you, as a small business owner, learn from the history of TV? Here are a few things to consider. 

  • Embrace video: Video content is a powerful tool for small businesses to grow and connect with their audience on platforms like YouTube and TikTok. It offers a way to creatively showcase products and tell your story, providing education, entertainment, and engagement. This not only boosts brand visibility but also fosters a deeper connection with your audience.
  • Know your audience’s preferences: Understanding your customer’s content preferences is crucial for effective video marketing. Tailor content and the platforms you use to share it — be it YouTube, social media, or apps — to match your audience’s habits. This strategy enhances engagement and drives better conversion rates.
  • Use AI to elevate video content: AI tools are transforming video production, making high-quality content creation accessible for small businesses. These tools can help with editing, creating captions, and even voiceovers, broadening your content’s appeal. Incorporating AI allows for innovation in content creation, helping your business stand out and capture your audience’s attention.
illustration of development of smartphones

The smartphone saga

Embarking on a trip from the days of clunky car phones to sleek smartphones is perhaps the best example of how high tech revolutionized our daily lives and work, but the path to the iPhone and other smartphones was anything but straightforward . 

The story arguably begins in 1993 with the Apple Newton MessagePad, one of the first Personal Data Assistants (PDAs) to hit the market. It offered functions like calendar management, note-taking, and even handwriting recognition. Despite its innovative features, the Newton struggled to find its place in the market and would be overshadowed by the more popular Palm Pilot released in 1996. The Palm Pilot’s success was due to its user-friendly design, affordability, and effective synchronization with PCs, making it the first widely adopted handheld computer.

Parallel to the development of PDAs, the personal music player underwent its own digital transformation. Moving beyond transistor radios and boomboxes, the Sony Walkman TPS-L2, introduced in 1979, transformed music listening with its portable cassette player design and miniature foam headsets. This concept of personal, portable music evolved with the advent of digital audio players, starting with the MPMan F10 in 1997, the world’s first MP3 player. However, it was Apple’s iPod in 2001 that truly dominated the market, allowing users to store and play thousands of songs from a compact, user-friendly device.

The cellular phone’s evolution also significantly contributed to the rise of smartphones. Early car phones in the 1940s and 1950s laid the groundwork, but it was Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X, introduced in 1983, that brought portable cellular phones to the public. This “brick” phone paved the way for the compact, multifunctional devices to come.

The convergence of these technologies — the PDA’s organizational tools, the MP3 player’s entertainment capabilities, and the cell phone’s communication functions — culminated in the creation of the smartphone. Apple’s iPhone, released in 2007, perfectly illustrated this fusion by offering a touchscreen interface, internet connectivity, and a vast ecosystem of apps. The iPhone wasn’t just a phone; it was a portable computer, with a camera and a media player, setting a new standard for what mobile devices could be.

Living in the age of the smartphone offers a number of opportunities for small business owners. Here are a few ways to maximize your company’s success in this digital age:

  • Streamline customer experiences: Incorporating smartphone technology into your business can improve customer experience. Depending on your business, consider including features like mobile checkouts, in-app reservations, QR codes for faster payments, or customer service chatbots for instant customer service within your mobile app or website. You can also use tablets for interactive menus in a restaurant, digital comment or feedback forms, or even for inventory management.
  • Optimize your website for mobile: With the vast majority of consumers accessing the Internet via smartphones, it’s critical that your digital presence is optimized for mobile use. This means fast-loading pages, responsive design that adapts to different screen sizes, and navigation that’s touch-friendly. Mobile optimization not only enhances the user experience but also boosts SEO, making your business more discoverable to potential customers searching on their devices.
  • Create your own mobile apps: Apps offer a direct line to your customer base, providing a platform for personalized communication, loyalty reward programs, and exclusive offers that can boost customer retention and increase sales. You can include things such as mobile ordering, appointment bookings, or access to a virtual try-on feature.

Embracing the digital shift

As we continue to navigate the digital age, let these byte-sized histories remind us of how far we’ve come and inspire us to embrace the opportunities ahead. 

For small businesses, this evolution also should serve as a reminder that it’s critical that you remain tech savvy, keeping an eye on emerging technologies so you can understand their potential impact on your business. At the same time, don’t be too quick to jump on the latest craze. Whatever technology you adopt, the goal should always be to enhance the customer experience.

Here’s to the next chapter in our digital saga — may it be as exciting and transformative as the last!

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Undercover Geek

I’m your secret guide on the inside, bringing you the inside track on the latest pro insights, trends, and breakthroughs in the digital business world — helping you make more online, for less. More articles written by Undercover.

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