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How Google became Microsoft: A decade of hits, misses and gaffes

The Noughties weren't always nice

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Mixed blessing of the decade: free

It came in many forms - free code, free information, free money. Free empowered a generation of startups during The Noughties. The streets were paved with gold. You just had to figure out how to make money from "free".

Value-added services were touted as one answer - especially when it came to free code. As the decade progressed, though, it became clear that customers were making the bits and bytes work for themselves and only reluctantly paying open-source companies for their technical support or enhancements.

Free code birthed plenty of startups that were successful in terms of customer numbers and downloads, but many struggled to make the conversion into paying customers. Exhausted executives began looking for buyout as their way out or started doing new things, especially as venture capital lifelines ran dry and the early dreams of VC patrons like Ray Lane and companies like SpikeSource never materialized.

In the Web 2.0 world, consumer startups and websites proliferated on a mission to build whole businesses based on the elixir of Google ad revenue and "traffic". Meanwhile, blogs proliferated thanks to new tools and RSS, with authors offering free opinions on news freely available in the "traditional" media.

Social networks gave away free space online to post video and to chat and communicate with your friends, but none nailed a successful business model. The likes of Facebook hoped somehow to pay for that using ads. Now they are caught between attracting ever-growing numbers of users posting more video, photos and chat while managing their growing costs as traffic increases server and bandwidth costs with no clear or sustainable way of paying for it.

As in open source, it turned out there's no easy way to build a successful business, and as The Noughties progressed, it became clear that just one company was really making any cash from Google ads: Google. The giant made $5.94bn in revenue in its most recent quarter, up seven per cent, while profits climbed to $1.64bn, a 27 per cent year-on-year leap. All that during a traditionally slow quarter for ad spending, and during a recession.

Technology with the most utility of the decade: USB

Before the 2000s, PCs and devices such as scanners and printers plugged and played with each other via serial and parallel ports. Problem was, there were different ports for different devices, and different ports from different vendors with different devices, which made things pretty complicated and - worse - expensive for the industry. They also set limits on PC-peripheral interoperability.

IBM, Microsoft, Intel and others decided to end this, and in 1996 began work on a standard data-transfer interface that became the Universal Serial Bus; a version 1.0 spec passed that year. It was USB 2.0 in 2000, though, that really changed things with faster 480 Mbit/s throughput compared to USB 1.0's 12 Mbit/s.

Suddenly, PCs, scanners and keyboards weren't the only ones plugging and playing nicely. USB's compact size, speed and openness meant hubs, videos, microphones, cameras, cell phones, chargers and increasingly smaller, high-capacity devices were also starting to plug and play.

Then USB took an evolutionary step. It became a device in and of itself: from thumbnail storage that started at 256Mb and grew quickly to gigabytes, to wireless adapters from Orange and Verizon that killed the clunky, vendor-specific PCMCIA cards and made portable computing more lightweight and affordable.

No wonder Intel chose to boast about the fact that USB co-inventor Ajay Bhatt is one of its employees during a campaign celebrating how far the industry has come using the chip giant's technologies and its brains.

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