This entry is part 27 of 39 in the series 40 years online

If you placed a Skype call in 2003, you might remember the joys of echo-filled connections and dropped calls. The service may not be bullet-proof today, but the improvement is remarkable. What was once a service you use in spite of the glitches is now a service you can rely on for your day-to-day work.

As a new startup back in 2003, it’s not a surprise that Skype was less than perfect. What might have come as a surprise, back then, was the idea that just 8 years later we’d have a very decent audio and video solution.

But that’s life online for you. A new web service appears, full of flaws, and we pick it apart and bitch about it and then get used to using it anyhow. And as those flaws gradually get fixed and its user experience steadily get better, we….don’t notice.

That may not be an accident. One principle of improving a site or service is to do the improvements so gradually that users aren’t thrown by sudden changes in functionality or interface. That’s a great approach if you want to avoid rocking the boat, but it means that we — the end users — may not notice the improvements you’ve made. We may neglect to send you appreciative notes applauding your hard work, or boxes of candy and software. We may forget your birthday.

That’s why it’s nice to pause and reflect on the products and services — or entire categories — that actually have improved. Here are 6 web technologies that used to suck, but now don’t really suck much at all:

  1. Skype: Sound quality is better and calls are stable. You can call people who are on regular phones. You can use your smartphone to make a Skype call. You can do video. What’s to complain about?
  2. Camera phones: Time was, you had to choose between taking really crappy pictures with your phone, or taking proper pictures with your digital camera that you could only post online once you got home. Thanks to the advent of megapixel camera phones, you can now take a quite respectable picture with your phone. You can evenĀ add even better lenses to your phone.
  3. Google Translate: I recently used Google Translate to translate a long text document, for the first time in years. Much to my astonishment, the result was actually readable. No longer can you rely on Google to produceĀ hysterically inaccurate, stilted results. I wouldn’t rely on it for business writing, but it’s an incredibly useful tool for business reading.
  4. Hotmail: I admit it: I’m prejudiced against people with Hotmail accounts. Whenever someone gives me an email address that ends in, I immediately assume they aren’t that serious about life online. But the latest iteration of Hotmail has been greeted by many as a pretty decent webmail service. If you remember old Hotmail, you know that “pretty decent” represents a serious upgrade.
  5. Porn filtering: Do you remember how every single thing you used to see online arrived with pop-up or banner ads for porn? Thanks to Google’s Safesearch, you can now have a boob-free browsing experience. Of course, the boobs are still out there if you want to find them.
  6. Mobile email: Just 8 years ago, it was a real pain to send an email if you weren’t at your desk. Wifi was hard to come by, and the early smartphones that supported email were really horrible little devices that were a misery to type on. Now you have your pick of hundreds of ways to send email on the go; better yet, you can cut down on all that typing and just tweet instead.

On a day-to-day basis, it’s much easier to notice all the ways the web still frustrates us than it is to step back and think about how far we’ve come. Appreciating the improvements that have happened in just 8 short years fills me with excitement about where we’ll be 8 years from now.

What technologies do you see as greatly improved? What still sucks? Leave your comments below.

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