There’s no shortage of products that are hailed by their creators as “revolutionary” or “totally transformative” upon launch. Sure, every company that births a new gadget into the world wants to believe that its innovative design and fancy new manufacturing process is going to profoundly change the way we experience technology in the future. But of course they think this way—it sometimes actually happens.
Here are 10 instances from the years between 2010 and 2019 when it actually did happen. These are the products that arrived with a splash and grew into a typhoon. Since they span various industries, their impacts can’t be measured on the same scale. So, it doesn’t make sense to us to rank the products from one to 10. Instead, we’re presenting them chronologically. Here are the 10 technology products that defined this decade.
The private messaging service technically launched in November of 2009, but that’s close enough—and its impact on the decade that followed was significant enough to warrant inclusion here.
In the early years co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton charged a $1 annual fee to use the service, but that didn’t stop WhatsApp from spreading, particularly in developing nations like Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa. While a lot of non-SMS-based messaging apps required you to own an iPhone, WhatsApp ran on just about any modern mobile device, where it gave people an SMS-like experience without all those SMS fees. It also globalizing end-to-end encryption by rolling out the privacy feature to its legion of users. By the time WhatsApp added voice calling and video chatting, it was the de facto standard for keeping in touch across borders.
In early 2014, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion (yes, billion with a “b”). And what a prescient acquisition that was, as WhatsApp has swelled to 1.6 billion users and has become one of the most important social networks in the world. (Though WeChat still rules in China.) As with any social platform though, WhatsApp is used as a tool for nefarious purposes as well as good intent. As WhatsApp has grown, the company has struggled to keep up with the spread of misinformation on its platform—which, in some cases, has lead to civil unrest and violence.
When Steve Jobs first showed off the iPad in early 2010, a lot of people wondered whether there was “room in the middle” for a product that was much bigger than a smartphone, but lighter than (and more limited than) a laptop. Were you supposed to make a photo call on this thing? And, that name! But the iPad was also the culmination of years of tablet starts and stops for Apple, and Jobs might have envisioned what the rest of us hadn’t imagined yet: That “mobile” products really would become the most important devices in our lives, and that the processors inside these devices would eventually outpower the chips inside your everyday laptop. Other manufacturers got the message and raced to iterate—some successfully, some not.
2013, the iPad Air redefined what “thin and light” meant, and the 2015 iPad Pro was the first Apple table to work with a stylus pen, attach to an always-charging “smart” keyboard, and run on a powerful 64-bit A9X chip. The iPad is no longer just a nice tablet for reading magazines and watching videos; it’s the computer of the future.
Uber (and Lyft)
Who would have thought a couple of tech bros having a hard time getting a cab in San Francisco would lead to one of the most transformative technologies of the decade? UberCab launched in June 2010, which let people could call a “cab” with the push of a virtual smartphone button. In the early days, the service only operated in a few cities, included a hefty surcharge, and dispatched sleek Town Cars and limos instead of Foci and Priui. The launch of the lower-cost UberX service in 2012 changed that (and also appeared to put a gajillion more hybrid vehicles on the road), while Lyft’s launch that same year gave Uber a serious competitor.
Of course, as Uber has expanded around the world, its problems have also grown. Its serious internal culture issues were exposed in a series of New York Times articles in 2017. Cofounder Travis Kalanick was eventually pushed out as CEO in a scuffle so bananas that it inspired a book and a Showtime series. The company’s relationship with drivers is fraught: It refuses to classify drivers as employees, and at the same time, has been criticized for skimping on driver background checks. And if you ever want a crash course on how the “sharing economy” has changed our world and people’s lives over the past decade, just ask the next taxi driver you meet how they feel about Uber.
In the beginning, Instagram was all about filters. Early users took surprising delight in slapping “X-Pro II” and “Gotham” filters on their square Instagr.am photos which, at the start, could only be captured by and posted from on an iPhone. But cofounders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger had a vision beyond hipster photo filters. Instagram not only solidified the camera’s status as the most important feature of your phone; it stripped away all of the other trappings of social networks, with their link feeds and status updates, and simplified the whole darn thing. It created a new kind of social network, became this generation’s version of a glossy aspirational mag, and eventually evolved into a massively important platform for brands, businesses, celebrities, and wanna-bes.
By now you know how this story goes. Instagram was acquired by Facebook, in 2012, just two years after it launched. It now has private messaging, time-limited Stories, and something called IGTV. But at its heart, it’s still what it set out to be all those years ago: the place people go on the internet to see, and to be seen.
Apple iPhone 4S
The launch of the original iPhone in 2007 was one of the most influential events of our modern era. But within this past decade, the iPhone 4S—unveiled in October 2011—was the big game-changer for Apple’s business. The freshly redesigned device included three new features that would define the way we use personal tech devices for the foreseeable future: Siri, iCloud (on iOS 5), and a camera that could capture both eight-megapixel still photos and 1080p HD videos.
Within a short time, these delightfully capable cameras in our pockets started to decimate the compact digital camera market, or in some cases, killed competitors outright (remember the Flip?). iCloud, formerly MobileMe, became the connective software tissue that would sync our apps and data across multiple App products. And Siri … well, Siri is still trying to find its way. At the very least, it showed us how helpful virtual assistants could be in tightly controlled, polished product demos.
Tesla Model S
It was not the first all-electric car to hit the mass market, but you’d think the Tesla Model S was the first simply because of the way it captured the imagination of car lovers. Tesla shifted its focus from the smaller Roadster to the luxurious, five-door Model S and officially launched the coveted EV in June of 2012. Early reviewers noted it was “light years beyond” the Roadster, a technological marvel that drove like a “silky smooth rocket ship.” In 2013, MotorTrend named it the car of the year. The star power of Elon Musk only added to the allure of the vehicle.
Eventually, Tesla would roll out features like a “Bioweapon Defense Mode,” a “Ludicrous” driving setting, and an autopilot feature that has become the subject of much scrutiny, following several fatal accidents where the driver was reportedly relying on the feature to do too much of the actual work of operating the car. Questions about gradations of self-driving car technology, and its impact on human drivers, are likely ones we’ll be asking for years to come. In the meantime, Tesla has spurred serious innovation in the EV market, despite electric vehicles still only comprising a sliver of the entire auto industry.
Maybe VR will fizzle eventually. But its potential—most clearly visualized in William Gibson’s 1984 sci-fi touchstone, Neuromancer—has always been there, and Oculus was the first to truly fulfill it. At the first Oculus Rift demos at CES 2013, a string of tech reporters emerged from the company’s Las Vegas hotel suite grinning like they had just gotten laid for the first time. The original Kickstarter campaign for Oculus Rift set a goal of $250,000; its creators raised $2.5 million. It took a long while for Oculus to ship the Rift headset, and at $600, it was fairly expensive. But Oculus would eventually sell an all-in-one (look, Ma, no wires!), “6DOF” headset called the Quest for $400
Of course, the tech press and VR lovers weren’t the only ones blown away by Oculus. In early 2014, before Oculus Rift had even made it to the mass market, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was spotted trying out the Oculus Rift in Stanford University’s Human Computer Interaction Lab. A few months later, he bought the company for a cool $2.3 billion. Just when you thought you’ve escaped Facebook … you’re quite literally immersed in it.
The Echo simply appeared on Amazon’s website one morning back in November 2014, its unceremonious reveal giving little indication of just how influential this product would be in the latter half of this decade. It wasn’t just the Echo that was launched that day; it was Alexa, the virtual assistant that was more intuitive at birth than Apple’s Siri was in toddlerhood. With Alexa, we could use our voices to turn off our lights, control our streaming music, and—you knew there’d be a shopping angle—add garbage bags or dog food to our Amazon carts.
Whether or not we wanted voice-control smart speakers or displays in our lives (most of us are still on the fence about those), Amazon went ahead and thrust it in front of us anyway, and almost every major tech maker has followed suit. Now, the question for the next decade is: Will tech companies be able to train the AI used in these “smart” devices without employing other humans to listen to our voice queries?
For the eight years leading up to the Pixel smartphone’s launch, Google stood and watched as its roster of hardware partners (HTC, Moto, LG) plugged its Android mobile operating system into a string of devices that were … pretty good. But none of those phones ever hit the very high bar for mobile excellence set by the iPhone. Frustratingly for Google, iOS devices held the key advantage in mobile handset performance because Apple owned the whole stack—Cupertino was able to exert full control over both the hardware and the software to ensure every iPhone worked exactly as it should. If Google was going to compete, it would have to stop relying on its partners to deliver the goods and instead take its hardware business in-house.
The first Pixel phone was a revelation for the Android world. A sleek design, premium components, and a goddamn fantastic camera, all powered by a version of Google’s mobile OS unspoiled by hardware manufacturer’s ugly skins or wireless carrier’s crufty apps. The Pixel didn’t capture a huge slice of the Android market (and three years on, it still hasn’t) but the concept it put forward—look at how awesome an Android phone can be—hit the industry hard. The camera technology in particular, enhanced by Google’s software smarts, pushed device-makers to leap forward with their sensor and lens designs. Even as some buyers remain put off by Google’s privacy record (Android phones still collect more data about you than you’d likely care to know) the Pixel is the platform where Android shines brightest.
SpaceX Falcon Heavy
This truly was the “product launch” to top all launches. In early February 2018, seven years after first announcing the project, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully blasted a three-core rocket with 27 engines called the Falcon Heavy into space. Capable of lifting 140,000 pounds of cargo into lower orbit, it’s the most powerful launch vehicle in the world, and it was built at a fraction of the cost of NASA’s newest rocket. The successful test flight even included a nod to Elon Musk’s other company: The payload included a cherry-red Tesla Roadster, with a mannequin (“Starman”) at the wheel.
Power aside, some of the greatest innovation to come from SpaceX has been its reusable rocket boosters. On that day in February 2018, two recycled side-boosters returned to Cape Canaveral, but the central core ended up crashing. Just over a year later, during a commercial launch of the rocket April 2019, all three boosters from the Falcon Heavy found their way home.