In real time, the pace of change in the technology world often feels glacial: “How do we still not have AR glasses and days-long battery life on our smartphones yet?” But step back and look at things over a five-year span, and some stark differences quickly emerge. Pull out to a full decade, and the changes are even more dramatic.
That’s why a look back at 2010 technology is so interesting. We had things like smartphones, Facebook and streaming video services then, but none of them were near the mainstream ubiquity that they are today. Meanwhile, other brands that are gone altogether — Blockbuster Video, BlackBerry, Nokia and Palm, to name a few — were still at the top of their game.
So before you fire up Fortnite, scroll through your TikTok feed or download a new show on Disney Plus, take a look back at what the state of consumer technology was like back in 2010. Let’s remember how we got here — and realize that many of your apps, services and products you’re using today may well be a fuzzy memory come 2030.
iPad and the tablet revolution (that wasn’t)
The 2010 tech scene started with a boom called iPad. Apple’s encore to the iPhone was widely rumored to be a tablet, and CES 2010 was all about rival manufacturers trying to prove they could beat Apple to the punch with prototypes of anything that wasn’t a traditional laptop, whether they were called slates or even “smartbooks.” (Microsoft, let’s remember, had been pushing Windows-based “tablet computers” with stylus input since about 2005.) But later in January, Apple CEO Steve Jobs showed off the real thing on stage, and the iPad was born.
Ironically, much of the tech press wasn’t terribly excited once the iPad was revealed — “Meh, this is just a big iPhone,” they said. And yes, the name was originally ridiculed. But once the $499 product hit in April, the public was in love — “Hey, this is basically a big iPhone!” The tablet market went on to explode with a raft of iPad wannabes, with everything from the Amazon Kindle Fire, Google Nexus 7 and Microsoft Surface popping up in subsequent two years after the iPad’s debut. In fact, the big Windows 8 overhaul — later codified by Windows Vista — was effectively Microsoft trying to go all-in on a touch-first operating system. Neither were beloved by users, to say the least.
Despite the fact that the iPad went on to outsell the Mac for several quarters, however, neither Apple’s tablet nor those of its rivals managed to kill off the laptop. Instead, laptops ended up incorporating many of the iPad’s features. At least that’s the case in the PC realm, where Windows laptops have since embraced the touchscreen with far more innovative designs, including detachable keyboards and flip-around screens. But until you can leave the laptop at home and only take an iPad on your next work trip — still an impossibility for all but the most die-hard iPad fan — the iPad will still feel like it hasn’t quite reached its full potential.
iPhone 4: Retina screen, Gizmodo leak and Antennagate
If you think phone releases have become boring and predictable, then you don’t remember the iPhone 4. Only three years old in 2010, the iPhone was the smartphone trendsetter that all others were trying to beat. When the fourth model arrived in June (back when iPhones were still introduced at that month’s WWDC
show), the big new features were the selfie camera and the Retina screen — so high-resolution you couldn’t really see the pixels. But, oh, was that screen tiny — just 3.5 inches diagonally, the size of a credit card (the iPhone 8, the oldest version Apple still sells, has a 4.7-inch display).
The iPhone 4 was the last iPhone to be introduced as an AT&T exclusive (the Verizon-compatible iPhone 4 landed in February 2011). And it was first the iPhone with a big design overhaul, eschewing the soft, rounded corners of earlier iterations for a flat sided, all-metal rim that doubled as the antenna. Of course, that big design change wasn’t a surprise, because Gizmodo had leaked the iPhone design weeks in advance. (The gadget site had purchased the phone for $5,000 after a prototype had been left in a bar in Redwood City by an Apple engineer.)
While the antenna rim of the iPhone 4 may have been a unique design, it contributed to the biggest iPhone scandal of them all: “Antennagate.” Within weeks of the release, complaints that reception was adversely affected by how users gripped the phone — effectively “blocking” the edge antenna — were rampant enough that Consumer Reports could not recommend the phone. Eventually, Jobs cut short his summer vacation to hold a press conference, during which he grudgingly offered consumers a free bumper case, which largely ameliorated the issue. (This was days after he suggested to an iPhone owner via email that he should “just avoid holding it that way.”)
Android really arrives
The iPhone was the handset to beat in 2010, but Android was coming on strong in the two years since its debut model, the T-Mobile G1/HTC Dream, was first released. Google‘s operating system tripled its share of smartphone shipments, jumping from 10% in May to 33% by year’s end.
HTC and Motorola were the top brands in the nascent Android world, with models like the Evo 4G and Droid X, respectively. But in a sign of things to come, newcomer Samsung first embraced the Android platform in 2010, releasing the first Galaxy S phone. Actually, it was the first four Galaxy S phones, because this was still the bad old days of carrier exclusives. One of those models, Sprint’s Galaxy Epic 4G, had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and was compatible with Sprint’s 4G WiMax network — an LTE rival that never caught on, and helped doom Sprint to its perennial fourth place among US wireless carriers.
Of course, it would take a few years for Samsung to begin dominating the smartphone market — its first Galaxy Note “phablet” phone was still a year away. But Google would acquire Moto in 2012 for $12.5 billion dollars — only to flip the bulk of it over to Lenovo less than two years later for under a quarter of that amount. But the brand lives on with solid budget models and even an impressive new foldable Razr that resurrects the classic brand. HTC, meanwhile, has turned its focus on virtual reality, opting to sell a chunk of its phone engineering expertise to Google.
Microsoft reinvents with Windows Phone
As Android was on the rise in 2010, Microsoft was struggling uphill with its Windows Phone operating system. Redmond was trying to recapture the glory days of Windows Mobile, which had actually been a major player in the previous decade on devices like the Motorola Q and Samsung Blackjack before getting crowded out by iPhone, BlackBerry and Nokia’s Symbian.
Debuting in February, Windows Phone 7 was the beginning of a journey that would eventually take Microsoft to its “live tiles” system, a different take on mobile interaction that didn’t just ape the grid of icons found on iPhones and Android phones. Microsoft would eventually pull the plug on Windows Phone in 2017, but it’s returning to the phone market in 2020 with the foldable — and Android-powered! — Surface Duo.
A still ripe BlackBerry
Indeed, the big dogs of the phone world of 2010 were still BlackBerry and Nokia. BlackBerry’s hard QWERTY keyboards were still the industry standard for “work” phones with models like the BlackBerry Bold, while the company was fighting the iPhone in the consumer space with models like the Pearl 3G and the touchscreen Storm. Unfortunately for the Canadian giant, its market share would only head southward as the decade progressed. It lives on as a zombie “in name only” licensed brand of Chinese manufacturer TCL.
Nokia and Palm nod off
Nokia, meanwhile, was still a major player in phone sales, with nearly 40% of the global market. But the company never developed a successor to its Symbian operating system — something we wouldn’t even call a smartphone now. By the time Microsoft bought the Finnish handset maker in 2013, its share of the market had plunged below 5%. It, too, has since been resurrected by HMD Global.
Palm, another stalwart of the previous decade, ended up being swallowed up by HP after its 2009 iPhone killer, the Palm Pre, failed to take off — despite the WebOS-powered phone introducing a host of revolutionary features like wireless charging, a mini trackpad and multitasking, many of which the iPhone and Android wouldn’t incorporate until years later.
3D TV goes nowhere
Selling HDTVs in the first decade of the 21st century was easy: Just put a giant flat panel with a widescreen high-def picture next to a square-ish old tube TV, and customers begged retailers to take their money. Nearly everything since then — curved screens and even 4K resolution — has been a tougher sell.
Never was the upsell harder than with 3D TV. Need to reinvest in new content? Check. Pricey glasses for every viewer? Check. Creeping headache 45 minutes into the movie? Check, again. But it didn’t matter: This was, after all, the year Avatar became the biggest box office smash ever (until Avengers Endgame dethroned it earlier this year), so electronics manufacturers went all-in on bringing that experience to the home viewer.
Products like Panasonic’s VT25 plasma TV were among the first sets to bring the technology to market in 2010. The industry doubled-down in the following two years, but consumers never took the bait: The pullback started as early as 2013, and by 2017, the final holdouts finally gave up the ghost, just as higher frame rates and theater-style passive glasses were actually making home 3D experience a winner.
Of course, the term “Panasonic TV” will seem alien to today’s consumers, too. Back in 2010, plasma technology was still the image quality king, and Panasonic was the plasma leader (though Samsung gave it a run for its money). The company threw in the towel in 2013 as LG’s OLED technology took the picture quality crown, and cheaper LED backlit LCD TVs from everyone else flooded the market.
The streaming revolution is born
Streaming TV and cord-cutting are upending what “TV” means as 2020 dawns, and the early seeds for that revolution were being sown in 2010. Indeed, shiny silver DVDs still ruled the roost for home video — Blu-ray was still a new and growing way to watch high-def at home, having recently vanquished archrival HD DVD. And Netflix’s discs by mail business — with no late fees! — was still tightening its noose around Blockbuster. But the company’s visionary streaming strategy was already in its third year. It started in 2008 with a mere 8,000 titles available online on just three devices, including the Xbox 360 and original Roku box. By the beginning of 2010, that number had expanded to about 12,000 titles available on even more boxes, including a growing assortment of Blu-ray players.
Netflix wasn’t alone: In 2009, Vudu began the process of transitioning from a dedicated hardware box to an app available on a larger array of smart TVs, and Amazon Prime’s streaming video service started popping up on more hardware devices. It was the beginnings of a streaming revolution that has achieved critical mass, with Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus just launching at the decade’s close, and AT&T/Warner’s HBO Max and Comcast’s Peacock service soon to follow in 2020. Streaming all of these services — in pristine 4K HDR quality, too — is something few of us could have imagined in 2010, when we still felt lucky if our favorite TV show or live sporting event was even available in high-def.
Kinect and PlayStation Move tried to take down Nintendo Wii
2010 was firmly in the middle of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 release cycle. Released in 2005 and 2006, respectively, both consoles found themselves flatfooted at the surprise success of the Nintendo Wii (introduced in 2006), which was was far less sophisticated (cartoony graphics and no HD support), but a lot more fun to play. Not to be outdone, Microsoft and Sony spent the intervening years developing their own motion controllers.
The Kinect was a camera add-on to the Xbox that “watched” players and converted their gesticulations and running-in-place movements into game actions. It was, honestly, rather silly, and there never seemed to be the sort of Wii Sports killer app that Nintendo had. But somehow, Microsoft went on to sell 35 million units over the next seven years, all with very little blowback to the fact that you were putting a live camera and microphone in your living room. (Yes, those were simpler times.)
Sony went with a much more direct copycat of the Wii with its PlayStation Move, which consisted of two motion control wands and an accompanying motion sensor camera. It was far less successful than Microsoft’s Kinect, but the components have actually lived on as controllers for the PS4’s PlayStation VR system, a virtual reality add-on to Sony’s current-generation gaming system.
Social media on the smartphone — with society-changing results
The next time you’re scrolling through your Facebook feed on your phone or tweeting a selfie, consider this: That was either impossible or incredibly difficult in 2010. Those nascent social platforms were still largely experiences designed for your PC. As noted above, the universe of iPhone and Android owners was comparatively tiny in 2010, and the mobile experience for Facebook and Twitter was barebones, ham-fisted or both. That’s probably why you were more concerned with being the Foursquare “mayor” of your local bar that year.
Yes, Facebook had an iPhone app right out of the gate in 2008, but it took years of evolution to get to a reasonable state of usability. Facebook Messenger, for instance, was still buried inside Facebook’s main app until finally being split off in 2011. Oh, and that Facebook app for your mobile devices was likely sucking down your battery, too.
For the non-iPhone world, if your fancy new smartphone was cool enough to have a working web browser, you probably went to Facebook’s mobile site (remember m-dot sites?) and praying to your deity of choice for a usable experience — because you were likely running 3G wireless.
Twitter wasn’t much better. That service, you’ll remember, started with a “send a text message to the entire world” elevator pitch — meaning you actually could send tweets with any old dumbphone. But it also meant Twitter was behind the eight ball of the smartphone world, which is why the company bought third-party client Tweetie in 2010 and basically morphed it into the official Twitter app. But native photos for Twitter were still a year away. Back in 2010, Twitter users were still uploading their images to a third-party site called Twitpic, and embedding the resulting URL in their tweets. (Yes, really.)
The biggest social debut of 2010 was Instagram: The photocentric messaging app and its filters instantly became a sensation, and it remained an iPhone-only app for two years. In fact, Facebook would go on to buy the service for a cool $1 billion just days after the Android version hit in 2012.
Of course, anyone who watched David Fincher’s 2010 movie The Social Network could see that Facebook was well on its way to having a major impact on society. But back then, even a screenwriter as talented as Aaron Sorkin would’ve struggled to write a narrative that included Gamergate, electioneering, “fake news,” privacy scandals and cable news cycles that revolve on that day’s presidential tweetstorms — all real-world social networking stories that unfolded in the decade since.