The Top 10 Innovations of the Decade

From smart phones to social networking, a look at the past 10 years.

November 30, 2009, 7:44 AM

Dec. 1, 2009 — -- Can you even recall a time when you didn't "Google?" When you didn't know what it meant to "unfriend" someone? Or when you couldn't surf the Web, send an e-mail and take a picture from a palm-sized device that fits in your pocket?

The past 10 years have given us countless innovations that improve – and confuse – our daily lives. From Internet technology to finance to genetics and beyond, advances in science and technology have changed the way we communicate, relate to one another and think about what it means to be a modern human being.

Here are just 10 of those top innovations.

If you want to find directions to a location or track your employees, child or even spouse, a bevy of accurate, affordable GPS-enabled devices can make that possible. But that wasn't always the case.

Until May 2, 2000, the United States intentionally degraded GPS signals available to the public for national security reasons.

Originally developed by the Department of Defense to aid the military, the satellite-based system provides location and time data to users. In announcing the discontinuation of the feature that deliberately degraded the signal, the White House said in a statement that civilian users of GPS would be able to pinpoint locations up to 10 times more accurately than before.

Removing that obstacle helped speed the proliferation of GPS-enabled consumer products that live as stand-alone units and, increasingly, as add-on features in cell phones and smart phones.

Now, turn-by-turn directions and information about the nearest gas station and other points of interest are available on car dashboards, iPhones and more.

What would environmentalists be without the more fuel-efficient hybrid cars? The hybrid movement started in July 2000, when Toyota Motor Corporation introduced the hybrid Prius to the United States.

In 2003, Scientific America named Toyota "Business Leader of the Year" for commercializing the affordable hybrid car.

Now, Ford, Mercury, Lexus, Nissan and others have hybrid cars on the market. But the Prius is still the best-selling car in its class.

In March 2009, the hybrid community witnessed two milestones: Toyota said it sold its one millionth hybrid car in the U.S. and Ford said it produced its 100,000th.

October 2000 -- AT&T Introduces Text Messaging to the U.S.

It had already taken Europe by storm when AT&T introduced the U.S. to "texting."

In October 2000, AT&T became the first U.S. cellular company to offer instant text messaging for mobile phones.

The service, which is now said to be the most widely used data application in the world, lets subscribers send and receive short text messages from their cell phones and smart phones.

Messages can also be sent to e-mail address and, many users now send and receive pictures messages too.

In June 2000, cellular carriers reported that users sent 12.2 million text messages monthly, according to industry group CTIA -- The Wireless Association. In June 2009, that figure had jumped to 135.2 billion messages per month.

For parents, the service has led to gripes galore, as growing numbers of teenagers engage in "sexting," or the act of sharing nude or partially nude photos via text message.

It has also led to outrageously high cell phone bills for parents of particularly prolific teens who send possibly hundreds of messages a day.

But others are putting text messaging to good use, using the service to help people quit smoking, lose weight and encourage healthy habits.

In January 2001, Wikipedia, the free user-generated online encyclopedia, came online and quickly became the reference site of choice for Internet users.

But that was just the beginning of a new era of user-generated content.

In February 2005, the video-sharing Web site YouTube launched and rapidly became a pop culture mainstay, turning virtual nobodies, such as British singer Susan Boyle, lonelygirl15 and Obama Girl, into viral sensations.

YouTube and other social media sites also gave the average person unprecedented influence over the media. With just a cheap, handheld video camera, anyone in the world could record and broadcast political embarrassments, protests, conflicts and more.

International bloggers started telling stories swept under the rug by authoritarian regimes.

Even mainstream news outlets wanted in. Countless news sites (including this one) let readers comment on and critique the stories they read online and some even solicit stories, photos and video from breaking news events.

The user-generated movement reached such pitch that in 2006 Time magazine named "You" its Person of the Year.

"It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace," wrote Time's Lev Grossman in explaining the magazine's decision. " It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes. "

July 2001 -- Napster's Demise Leads to Dawning of File-Sharing

In July 2001, song-swapping service Napster shut down after record companies in the U.S. successfully sued it for copyright infringement.

But the music-sharing site that let users swap music for free set the stage for a new age of file-sharing.

According to The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Webby Awards, Napster's collapse "opened the file-sharing floodgates. Its demise sparked a wave of innovations that forever changed how we obtain and experience music and video."

Now, instead of trekking to the record shop to buy CDs or stopping by Blockbuster to rent a video, we download and share music and video online -- from home computers or even on the go, via iPhones, BlackBerries and other smart phones.

From Hulu to iTunes, Napster led to myriad new ways to get music and video.

Status updates, following, friending… unfriending. None of that meant anything to anyone 10 years ago.

But thanks to Friendster, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the many other social networks in the ever-expanding social media universe, these are words many of us now use daily.

When Friendster launched in March 2003 it was pretty much the only game in town. In 2004, Time named it one of the 50 coolest Web sites of the year. But its reign was not to be long-lasting.

In 2004, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, a social networking site intended for college students.

But in 2006 Facebook opened its doors to anyone over 13 with a valid e-mail address. Now, with about 300 million members worldwide, it's bigger than many countries.

Twitter, the social networking site that lets users broadcast 140-character messages, also experienced a turning point that fall when its founders reacquired the struggling site from investors.

Millions of people all over the world use social networking sites like LinkedIn, Bebo and Orkut, to communicate with friends of family, play games, mobilize for civic action and more.

In April 2003, scientists announced that they had sequenced the entire human genome two years ahead of schedule.

The 13-year international project set out to identify the 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA. When the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium announced that they had finished sequencing the human blueprint, they said the task had been likened to splitting the atom or going to the moon.

The project has helped shed light on human migration, common diseases, new energy sources and many other scientific fields.

August 2004 -- Google Goes Public, Makes Search a Way of Life

Larry Page and Sergey Brin incorporated Google in 1998, and in 2004 the company sold shares to the public for the first time, solidifying search as a way of life.

Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN, and now Bing also help users search the Web, but Google still owns about 65 percent of the search market.

And it isn't just a noun. To search for information about potential dates, future employees and even themselves, users commonly "Google" to obtain all kinds of information from the Web.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in 2002 about one-third of all Internet users used search engines daily. In 2008, the number rose to just under one-half of all users.

When Nintendo launched the Wii and Wii Sports in 2006, it changed the way video games were played.

Instead of sitting on the couch with a remote control in their hands, players were pulled into the action, using a wireless controller to simulate actions such as playing tennis and boxing.

The Wii has been touted as more than a game. The system has been used to teach school children music and help people lose weight.

It was the most anticipated tech events of the year.

On June 29, 2007, thousands of people waited in seemingly-endless lines to buy Apple's highly-hyped iPhone. In 74 days, Apple sold 1 million of its smart phones.

More than 40 million users access the Internet from iPhone and iPod touch models. Millions of others go online with BlackBerries and other mobile devices.

Mobile phones used to do one thing only: make phone calls. But now consumers use their handhelds to access the Web, send and receive e-mails, play games, take pictures and watch video.

And with the growth in mobile applications, like those in Apple's App Store and the Android Marketplace, the list only continues to grow.

Apple's App Store alone holds more than 100,000 applications that let users doing everything from play games and track stocks to run background checks and find public rest rooms.

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