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[Video] The Evolution of Our Work Desks

Watch how, over the last few decades, the reassuring physical tools on our desks found themselves replace by virtual services or apps.

Rolodex. Facsimile. Diskettes. Street directories.

Ring a distant bell?

It’s unreal, but these terms will join the ranks of ‘quill’ and ‘parchment’ in terms of how archaic they’ve become. The last three decades have seen numerous technological advancements transform all the elements of a work desk into – you guessed it – an app or web-based service.

This video, produced by Best Reviews, a startup under the Harvard Innovations Labs, captures how the cluttered desk of old has migrated to the virtual desktops of a laptop or smartphone.

Cue nostalgic pangs, but we won’t miss the silverfish.

Fully interactive version at Best Reviews.

The Breakdown:

… best taken with a pinch of salt.

1983: The Macintosh Classic is replaced by the IBM Thinkpad 700C. Well, this actually happened in 1993, but you get the idea.

1985: Microsoft Excel is released, and soon becomes the industry standard for exchanging extensive numerical data and streamlining the calculation of figures. Victim: Calculator.

1990: Gone are the days of pasting clippings to make a presentation. Microsoft PowerPoint wrangles away that market.

1994: Remember when we looked at hard-copy catalogues to shop? Jeff Bezos pulls off the earliest SEO heist by rebranding into Amazon, so it would appear on top of alphabetical listings.

1998: Flipping through the dictionary: 25 seconds. Finding an entry on 3 seconds, tops.  (Now that you’re off that awful dial-up connection.)

1998: Did we mention dial-up is gone? Faster internet speeds allowed PDF documents to supersede the fax machine. Now we have to explain the word ‘facsimile’ to the children (just like ‘carbon copy’.)

1999: Why keep a private journal when you can share the memories with the world via your blog?

2005: You can now take all your geography lessons from Google Maps instead of a globe or actual world maps. (We imagine the magnifying glass took a pay cut, too.)

2005: GMail starts overtaking Yahoo, AOL and Hotmail e-mail services, raising the e-mail bar and supplanting snail mail forever.


Much tidier. But the advent of the first truly global social media platforms are about to accelerate the move to digital.

2006: The wildly successful Facebook network is opened up to the entire world. RIP book of contacts, and along with it physical photo albums and even the blogosphere.

2006-2007: Launches or exponential growth in the following services, as the smartphone took off:

  • Google Calendar, which revolutionised calendar sharing;
  • Skype, heralding the decline of land lines;
  • Youtube, antiquating the need to share videos in person;
  • Pandora, a streaming service that would knock radios off many a desk spot;
  • Yelp, which, jointly with Google Search, retired the Yellow Pages (and many a food guide);
  • LinkedIn, the death blow to the Rolodex;
  • Google News, which made the daily newspaper look like a newsletter;
  • … and of course, Wikipedia, the fount of knowledge that made the static and expensive encyclopaedia obsolete.

Well, that was fast. New battery and data storage technology meant slimmer laptops and workstations – and the game-changing smartphone.

2007 – 2015: The last few items become a blur on the video, and the rise of region-specific apps mean too many to mention. This in itself is a trend. The notable ones are:

  • Twitter, the metaphorical equivalent of passing post-its around (the world);
  • Dropbox, the death knell for file cabinets (and possibly data couriers);
  • Groupon, spelling the end of cut-out coupons;
  • PayPal (and eventually internet banking), which took a toll on the chequebook;
  • Instagram, which made smartphone cameras replace digicams as the most-used camera device;
  • Uber, the ride-sharing forerunner which makes car ownership look less attractive by the day.

The only cluttered desktop now is your virtual one, but at least those don’t collect dust. (The shades are timeless, according to the creators.)

That’s all the video touches on, but the team regularly releases new versions as a commentary of the times. What else could disappear? Could the phablet (“phone tablet” for us dinosaurs) replace both the laptop and smartphone? At the rate desk evolution has been going, that’s not too distant a reality.