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This Month in Tech History: January

January 2023 on a purple background.
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The history of technology in January sees a lot of disruption to the old ways of doing things. We see the birth of a new monetary system, a new way of broadcasting, a new way of distributing knowledge to the world, and even a new way of watching movies. Read all the details below.

January 3, 2009: Cryptocurrency Born

A bold coin with the Bitcoin logo on a black background
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The movement toward decentralized digital currency got its official start when the pseudonymous developer Satoshi Nakamoto mined the genesis block of the Bitcoin blockchain. Nakamoto stated that he’d been working on the Bitcoin code since 2007. On August 18, 2008, he and a college registered the domain “bitcoin.org” and published the Bitcoin white paper titled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System 12 days later.

Throughout the rest of 2008, while the world reeled from the worldwide financial crisis, interest in a decentralized currency not controlled by governments grew exponentially. The idea of the blockchain, a distributed ledger technology that no central authority controlled or could alter, was a massive breakthrough in monetary technology.

Nakamoto took advantage of the increased interest and called out worldwide governments with the embedded message on the genesis block: “Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.” This a reference to a headline in The Times from that day. The chancellor in question was Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK.

Since its launch, Bitcoin has become the world’s foremost cryptocurrency and has become a common asset to hold for investors and regular people alike. At first, Bitcoins were worth only a fraction of a cent, but in 2011 one bitcoin was worth one dollar. Now, one bitcoin can be worth tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the exchange rate of the day, which still fluctuates.

As for Nakamoto, he never revealed his true identity and stopped actively developing for Bitcoin in 2010. However, he still holds over one million of the world’s Bitcoins, making him a potential billionaire if he ever decides to convert his coins into fiat currency.

January 9, 2001: iTunes Announced

In early 2001, playing music on your computer was still a relatively new idea. When Steve Jobs announced iTunes at MacWorld, he started by stating that there was a revolution in digital music underway and explained what would become basic tech terms like “ripping” CDs onto your computer to the audience, and even spelled out what an MP3 was.

However, during the announcement, he admitted that Apple was late to the digital media player party and that the company would “leapfrog” the current MP3 players on the market. iTunes would launch not only as a CD ripper and track player but also as a playlist creator and disc burner. That’s pretty basic stuff by today’s standards. But, at the time, having all those tools in one window was revolutionary.

iTunes went on to gain a great deal more features. In October 2001, the software became the management tool for the iPod, allowing you to store all the music you wanted on a mobile device. In 2003, the iTunes Music store launched, reinventing how the world bought music. And when Apple made the software available for Windows that same year, it became one of the most popular applications in the history of software.

The program was also instrumental in the development of podcasting. In June 2005, iTunes gained podcast support, and the budding podcasting industry took off. The word “podcast” itself is a combination of “iPod” and “broadcast” since most people listen to programs on their iPods managed by iTunes.

As iTunes gained more and more functionality over the years, the program became bloated and cumbersome. In 2019, Apple officially split iTunes into three programs: Music, Podcasts, and TV. However, you can still download iTunes for Windows.

January 11, 2001: Podcasting Invented

A broadcasting microphone attached to a laptop computer.
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There are different opinions across the internet about who should receive credit for inventing podcasting. Some say it was former MTV VJ Adam Curry, while others insist that software developer Dave Winer should get sole credit for the technology. But the truth is that no single person developed the technology necessary to make podcasting work. However, both Curry and Winer made critical contributions and deserve shared credit.

Even if who did what and who should receive the title of “inventor of podcasting” will be a perennial debate, one thing is certain. The first demonstration of podcasting technology as we know it today occurred when Winer added the RSS enclosure feature and sent out a Grateful Dead song to his Scripting News blog subscribers.

Alternative technology buffs slowly adopted podcasting over the next couple of years. Dubbed “audioblogging” at the time, it gave content creators a fresh venue to express their ideas. However, it wasn’t until Curry introduced the RSS-to-iPod feature in 2003 that the service became truly and automatically mobile. Pushing episodes directly to an iPod allowed users to take the content without manually transferring it to a mobile device.

Since then, podcasting has become a mainstream way we consume media. As of June 2022, there are over 2.4 million podcasts and 66 million episodes, with over 383 million listeners worldwide.

January 15, 2001: Wikipedia Comes Online

The story of one of the world’s most popular websites starts as a side project for another site. Site founder, Jimmy Wales, was running another online encyclopedia site, Nupedia, to rival Encyclopedia Britannica in the online knowledge space. His goal was to see that everyone in the world had access to a free encyclopedia. Or, as he put it, “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”

However, Nupedia’s model was drastically different from that of its successor. All the articles were written by experts in their fields, preferably with PhDs, and had to go through a rigorous approval process before they could be published on the site. In 2000, the first year of its existence, Nupedia only published 21 articles. Wales turned to developer Larry Sanger to help build a feeder website that anyone could contribute to augment the content posted on Nupedia.

The pair decided on a wiki model and chose the name Wikipedia, a portmanteau of “wiki” and “encyclopedia,” for the endeavor. Wikipedia.com and Wikipedia.org were registered on January 12 and January 13, 2001, respectively. The service launched on January 15 and eclipsed Nupedia almost immediately. The “anyone can edit” model proved to be an unexpected success as opposed to the experts-only failure of Nupedia. The sites co-existed for about two years, but in 2003, Nupedia closed down, and its text was incorporated into Wikipedia.

January 16, 2007: Netflix Kicks of the Streaming Age

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People who love Netflix these days may not remember that the company wasn’t always a streaming service. It actually started out as a competitor to video rental stores like Blockbuster Video in the 1990s. But it didn’t follow the traditional model of physical retail stores then. Instead, you would go online, order the movies you wanted to rent, and Netflix would mail you the DVDs. And when you were done, you simply sent them back in the prepaid envelope.

The strategy proved to be a disruptive influence on the established video-rental industry because Netflix didn’t charge any late return fees as Blockbuster and other companies did. It was a massive success that ultimately contributed to the decline and eventual extinction of the retail video rental industry. Ironically, during the bad times of the dot-com bubble burst, Netflix founders Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings offered to sell the company to Blockbuster for fifty million dollars. The offer was rejected by Blockbuster head John Antioco, who regarded it as a joke.

But Netflix wasn’t done changing the nature of home entertainment. In 2007, the Netflix website began offering movies streamed over the internet, with about 1,000 titles at launch. But it soon proved to be more popular than the mail service because it allowed users to watch unlimited movies at the $5.99 subscription plan. In 2010 Reed told investors “Three years ago we were a DVD by-mail company that offered some streaming. We are now a streaming company which also offers DVD by mail.”

Netflix’s success in the streaming space quickly inspired competitors. Hulu, a joint venture between Disney and Comcast, launched in October 2007. And Amazon rebranded its video-on-demand service, Amazon Unobx, as Amazon Prime Video in September 2008 to compete with Netflix. But Netflix’s dominance in the streaming market wouldn’t be seriously challenged until the late 2010s when various media companies launched multiple streaming services to take advantage of the market Netflix proved was there.

January 22, 1984: Macintosh Commercial Premieres at Super Bowl

It’s rare for a commercial advertising a product to be almost as remembered as the product itself. But Apple managed to do it in 1984 when it premiered its famous Super Bowl commercial introducing the Macintosh computer to the general public.

Appropriately titled “1984,” the commercial draws heavily on the themes of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It depicts a dystopian future with a projected image of Big Brother giving a speech of conformity and sameness to a room full of factory workers. A female athlete breaks in and smashes the image of big brother with a brass sledgehammer.

The commercial was directed by Ridley Scott, whose film Blade Runner was a massive box-office success two years earlier. And even though the commercial didn’t feature any imagery of the Macintosh nor tout its abilities, it generated immense interest in the machine.

When the product launched two days later, it went on to become Apple’s most significant success to date. Macintosh was the first successful all-in-one desktop computer with a graphical user interface. Apple sold the computer in various iterations until 1997. And the company still uses the “Mac” moniker for its computer lines.

Although Macintosh’s success cannot be entirely attributed to “1984,” the advertisement is considered a watershed moment by advertising professionals. It’s also believed to be a turning point for Super Bowl commercials, kicking off the era of highly produced, expensive, and cinematic advertising spots.

Danny Chadwick Danny Chadwick
Danny has been a technology journalist since 2008. He served as senior writer, as well as multimedia and home improvement editor at Top Ten Reviews until 2019. Since then, he has been a freelance contributor to Lifewire and ghostwriter for Fit Small Business. His work has also appeared on Laptop Mag, Tom’s Guide, and business.com. Read Full Bio »