Tech in time: How the digital revolution took shape in Malaysia

21 Aug 2023 - The Star

Have you ever wondered about the remarkable evolution of technology over the years, particularly in Malaysia?

Let’s journey back to the year 2000, a time when people heaved a sigh of relief that the Y2K bug, which was predicted to disrupt computer systems all over the world, fizzled out.

The bug was expected to cause havoc as computers were programmed to handle years with only two digits, such as 99, which would cause the year to roll back to 00 or 1900 with the arrival of the year 2000, making computers malfunction.

However, the National Y2K Project team, set up to monitor the nation’s transition into the new decade and formed under the Energy, Communications and Multimedia Ministry, said there were no incidences of the bug disrupting systems locally.

Dialling it up a notch

This was also the year when people and businesses started to get on the Internet bandwagon, hitching a ride on the slow dial-up connection.

As of April 2000, it was reported that the number of Internet account holders in Malaysia stood at 750,000.

Getting online was a laborious process that required dialling the Internet service provider’s (ISP’s) number, which may be tied up – a process that most will remember as the modem made a distinctly loud noise as it attempted to establish a connection.

As users were charged based on how long they were connected, staying online for extended periods of time was a luxury for most.

Only a year later, Malaysians got to enjoy broadband Internet when TM Net, the country’s biggest ISP and a subsidiary of Telekom Malaysia, introduced Streamyx, offering unlimited access for RM88 a month with download and upload speeds of 384Kbps (kilobits per second) and 128Kbps, respectively.

In tune with the times

Apple released the iPod in 2001, a portable digital music player with a sleek design, an innovative click wheel, and large internal storage space that took the world by storm.

Users who were listening to music on CDs and cassettes could now carry thousands of songs on a device that fit into their pockets.

They could also purchase songs or organise their music collection via the iTunes software, making them embrace the convenience of digital media over physical mediums.

In Malaysia, the iPod was first showcased at the eWorld 2001 tech fair organised by The Star, but it only went on sale a year later for RM1,749 for the 5GB model.

By then, PDAs (personal digital assistants), the precursor to the smartphone, had also started to become popular, with brands like PalmPilot and Handspring becoming household names among geeks.

Though it lacked an Internet connection, it could be synced to a PC, allowing users to read email, check calendars, manage appointments, play games, read ebooks, and take notes on the go.

One distinctive feature of PDAs was the stylus, as using one’s finger to input anything was rather challenging.

Mobile legends

During the early 2000s, one mobile phone brand reigned supreme – Nokia – introducing models like the entry-level 3310 that left an indelible mark in history. In fact, this phone could even leave a lasting impression on your wall if thrown, as it has a reputation for being indestructible.

The Nokia 9210 Communicator, introduced in 2001, marked the company’s pioneering step into the Symbian OS, an early mobile operating system with a customisable interface and support for multitasking.

It was designed like a mini laptop, and unfolding it will reveal a Qwerty keyboard with an internal screen.

Another exciting innovation from Nokia was the 7650. Released in 2002, it was touted as the company’s first phone with a built-in camera. It had a sliding design that revealed a keypad and a VGA camera at the back.

This smartphone was considered a luxury at the time as it was priced at RM2,199, compared to the 3310, which cost RM899.

A year later, local mobile operators announced the availability of MMS (multimedia message service) that allowed users to send photos to take advantage of their camera phones.

When 3G connectivity became more widely available in 2005, the Nokia 6630, priced at RM2,399, became one of the first 3G phones that users could get their hands on.

However, Nokia’s dominance would soon crumble as Apple reshaped the smartphone landscape forever in 2007 with the iPhone. Sporting an innovative touchscreen design, the iPhone boldly screamed, ‘Look, ma, no keypad!’.

Apple co-founder and former CEO, the late Steve Jobs, declared the iPhone an iPod, phone, and “Internet communicator” in one device, deriding smartphones and PDAs that relied on styluses for input.

The device, which had a 3.5in screen, 8GB storage, a 2-megapixel camera, and was made of metal, was the first phone to support multi-touch technology that allowed users to, for example, zoom in and out of photos with just their fingers.

The iPhone didn’t reach our shores until 2009, when Maxis bundled its successor, the iPhone 3G, with a voice-data plan, which was then considered the first of its kind in Malaysia.

Social space

The 2000s will also be remembered for how social media platforms emerged and changed the way people interacted and communicated online.

Friendster was launched in 2002, followed by MySpace in 2003, but it was Facebook that made the biggest impact, even though initially people were just busy virtually poking one another as a way of getting attention.

It started to take off once it introduced a newsfeed that showed updates from friends, allowing everyone to keep up with each other despite being on different continents.

Meanwhile, YouTube came along in 2005, revolutionised video sharing, and spurred people to make their own content.

To pay tribute, Time magazine featured a reflective cover on its Person Of The Year issue in December 2006. It said that “You” and millions of individuals are credited for the growth and transformation of the Internet as social media platforms like YouTube thrive on user-generated content.

2010s: Compact computers

The 2010s saw Microsoft’s various ill-fated forays into the world of smartphones, which started with Windows Phone 7, its Windows-based mobile operating system (OS), which received a local launch in October 2010.

Devices using the Windows Phone 7 OS were made in collaboration with its hardware partners, such as HTC.

The HTC HD7 had a large (for its time) 4.3 display, a five-megapixel camera capable of 720p video recording, and a kickstand.

While the OS received successors with Windows Phone 8 (2012), 8.1 (2014), and 10 Mobile (2015), the adoption rate was low, with many attributing its failure to a lack of good third-party apps, particularly Google apps like YouTube.

By 2017, under 1% of smartphones ran on the OS, causing Microsoft to discontinue development in October.

Samsung, on the other hand, was more successful in its gambit for the smartphone space, launching the first device in the company’s Galaxy S series of smartphones in Malaysia in July 2010 with the Galaxy S.

But it wasn’t until the Galaxy S II that Samsung took aim at Apple directly with its “next big thing” campaign, which allegedly made Apple concerned enough to consider changing its advertising agency, according to Samsung’s lawyer during a 2014 patent lawsuit between the companies.

Samsung then popularised the idea of phablets, a portmanteau of phone and tablet, with the Galaxy Note, which had a display measuring 5.3in, considered large for the time.

The influence of the Note series can still be seen today after it was folded into the mainline Galaxy S series with larger screens on the Ultra models.

In the same decade, the world saw continued growth in portable computing, with Apple launching the iPad in early 2010. However, Malaysians only got an official release later in November of the same year.

During a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show, Jobs defined the iPad as a novel category, positioning it between smartphones and laptops due to its improved performance in certain tasks.

It was so successful – 32.4 million units were sold by 2011, according to online reports – that it ate into laptop sales by as much as 50%.

The tablet started at RM1,549 for the WiFi version and RM1,999 for the 3G model. Unlike the modern tablets of today, the original iPad distinctly lacked cameras.

The new tablet category also gave rise to competition, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, which launched in Malaysia in July 2010 and included a selfie camera (though selfies weren’t a part of the public lexicon at the time).

Apple’s success with the iPad is one reason why Microsoft looked to include a more touch-centric user experience with its desktop OS, eventually launching the Surface line of tablets and hybrids that can switch between tablet and laptop.

At the time, Apple CEO Tim Cook bashed the form factor: “Anything can be forced to converge, but the problem is that products are about trade-offs, and you begin to make trade-offs to the point where what you have left doesn’t please anyone.

“You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user,” he said in an investor call in 2012.

The Surface series is a success today, and even the iPad has received official keyboard accessories, underscoring that Apple has changed its stance.

Filtered future

Shifting to the realm of social media, 2010 saw the launch of Instagram (later acquired by Facebook in September 2012 for US$1bil) on iOS, a social platform primarily centred around sharing photos.

It not only promoted visual storytelling but also took a mobile-first approach to capitalise on the smartphone camera, which was starting to push ahead of compact cameras.

In 2011, the world saw the launch of Snapchat (then known as Picaboo), a messaging app that allows users to send “snaps”, which introduced users to messages with video or photos that disappear after a specified amount of time.

Snapchat also popularised augmented reality (AR) filters after introducing Snapchat Lens in 2015. The feature caught on, eventually becoming a staple on other social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

Speaking of mobile apps, Tinder made an appearance in 2012, introducing the swipe-to-date interface later emulated by competitors like Bumble and Coffee Meets Bagel.

Speedy surfing

Meanwhile, on the Internet connectivity front, Malaysia saw the rise of high-speed broadband (HSBB) utilising fibre optics with the launch of Telekom Malaysia’s Unifi service in 2010.

At launch, it offered three plans: RM149 for 5Mbps (megabits per second), RM199 for 10Mbps, and RM249 for 20Mbps, a significant jump from the existing Streamyx speeds.

However, a small number of people enjoyed the speed too much and hogged the bandwidth, forcing ISPs to come up with fair-usage policies (FUPs).

They had their speeds throttled, especially if it was detected that they were torrenting, a peer-to-peer service that was popularly used for illegal downloads.

Shifting from copper also had an unexpected benefit: users no longer had to be afraid that their modems would be fried by lightning strikes.

Meanwhile, Maxis became the first telco company in Malaysia to introduce 4G LTE in 2013.

The telco introduced it in Cyberjaya, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Damansara Utama, Desa Sri Hartamas, Bandar Puchong Jaya, and Bandar Sunway.

The company’s 4G service offered speeds of up to 75Mbps (megabits per second), with an average of between 10Mbps and 30Mbps, allowing users to enjoy all sorts of services on the go with minimal restrictions.

It would take another six years before 5G kicked off with the 5G Malaysia showcase held in Putrajaya, which showed off various 5G-enabled technologies to the public.


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