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20 years of tech with Jeff: From green iMacs and DVDs to the iPhone era

When I started covering technology at USA TODAY two decades ago, I didn't own a cellphone, nor did my company deem it in its interests to buy me one. 

My tenure predates text messages, soundbars, talking speakers, QR codes, video chat, Uber, DoorDash, Zoom calls, YouTube, Wi-Fi, affordable flat-screen TVs … you get the idea. 

So many changes in such a short period of time! This is my last column for USA TODAY as your Talking Tech columnist. Let’s say goodbye by celebrating how far we’ve come through the years. 

My stint started in 2000 – I began at USA TODAY earlier, covering entertainment – when we spent a lot of time talking about the big three tech companies: AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft. AOL had just shocked the world by buying Time Warner for $165 billion. (You know how well that turned out. But I digress.)

Jefferson Graham says goodbye to USA TODAY with a vintage iMac, VCR, Flip and JVC video camera and the iPhone 12 Pro.

We did use computers, yes indeed, mostly desktops, and they were Windows machines with black-and-white monitors. We weren’t online; we went online, with a phone line attached to our computers. You know, the type we used on our landlines. Remember them? 

Apple back then had less than 3% market share. It didn’t start its evolution into the world’s most valuable $2 trillion company until 2001, when it introduced the iPod MP3 music player and helped bring digital music to the masses. This is after the short-lived Napster popularized MP3s by showing how easy it was to copy licensed music. In 2003, the iPod shifted into a mainstream product when CEO Steve Jobs (who rejoined the company in 1997) opened it up to be used on Windows computers with the iTunes music store, the first easy-to-use, legitimate avenue for buying music, back then at 99 cents a song. Streaming and the celestial jukebox was a far-off dream. 

We started Talking Tech in 2006 as a weekly, ahead-of-its-time video series, produced bicoastally on two webcams. The first episode – with my former partner, Edward C. Baig – was a review of the Flip Video camera. Remember that one, kids? 

By 2010, Flip was soon to be gone, as Apple introduced the iPhone 4, the first iPhone with a decent camera. Kodak became a memory. Canon, Nikon, Olympus and other mainstays of the camera business saw their sales tumble as people preferred the camera that was in their pocket, their phone. 

I have to admit, I never foresaw just how great the smartphone cams would become. I always loved using them, but there was a stigma to “cellphone video.” Now we can shoot 4K video that looks nearly as good as what you get from a traditional camera, mostly because of computational photography tricks. But I’m not complaining. Have you seen my iPhone sunsets

Then there’s Google and Facebook. 

Jefferson Graham meets the robot ERICA, part of the ERATO ISHIGURO Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project.

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It was in 2000 that Yahoo handed over its search keys to a scrappy startup that said it had a method for more effective online searches. From there, we got Google stepping out onto its own in 2003 by sending people to its website and popularizing the phrase “Google it.” We got Google Maps (remember life without it?), Gmail (free email without being tied to our internet provider), Google Translate, Google Photos and so many other features that I don’t think we could live without today. 

That’s the good side.

There’s also Google tracking our every move  to put personalized ads in front of us everywhere we go and saying goodbye to our privacy. Google will claim that much of the privacy invasion is “opt-in” and that we agreed to it when we signed up for services. But who remembers doing that?

Facebook took the snooping to an even greater level. But today’s column is about celebrating tech. Let’s bypass the misinformation and online rage that erupted from the social network and instead give props to a site that reconnected about 2 billion people with old friends and family. I announced my pending exit on my newsletter, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook. You know where I got the most responses? Facebook, hands down. 

Amazon. Who believed you could order anything you ever wanted with one click and have it arrive the next day? By 2001, Amazon had announced its first profit. More recently, we saw Amazon  acquire Whole Foods and launch Amazon Fresh, the supermarket with a radical cart that automatically tallies up your purchases. Amazon kicked off the smart speaker craze with Echo and Alexa and became a dominant force in streaming with Fire TV.  

But Amazon missed out on phones. Google got in early, in 2008, with the Android operating system, which it grew by giving it away for free to companies such as Samsung, LG and Huawei. That business model enabled Android to claim a whopping 85% market share, where it’s featured on so many low-cost phones. 

If I had to pick the most influential tech device of my generation, there’s no hesitation. It’s the iPhone, hands down, even bigger than the VCR or the personal computer. 

The iPhone (and other smartphone brands to follow) put the computer into our pockets, untethered and presented in an easy, intuitive way that appealed to the masses. Listen to music, answer the phone, watch TV, surf the net, all on one device. We can also monitor our daily steps, navigate and take amazing photos. (Again, those sunsets!) 

I love my laptop, but it didn’t change my life. 

What of the future? 

In 2016, I did a column quoting analysts saying the smartphone, as we know it, would cease and morph into some form of eyewear within the next few years. I didn’t believe it then, I don’t believe it now.

Having stuff flying in front of your eyes as you walk down the street is a distraction. (Take that, Google Glass.) We watched screens in the 1950s. We’re going to be looking at screens in the 2020s and 2030s. 

Some final thoughts 

I never considered what I do as a job. You meet interesting people, talk to them about what they do and tell others about it. How is that work? 

Journalism is in a tough place, but if you can swing it, I can think of no better profession. Over the years, I got to meet nearly every person I'd ever want to meet, from Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft's Bill Gates, Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page to showbiz icons (see my 2011-2015 celebrity edition of Talking Tech) such as Jimmy Kimmel, Zendaya and Ariana Grande. I got to jam musically (career highlight!) with James Taylor, Jason Mraz and Kermit, the Frog. I got to be a living witness to history and opine about it.

I only have enough space here to cover my tech years. I have a prior life covering TV and stories about pumpkin pancakes with a young comedian named Jerry Seinfeld,  playing Ms. Pac-Man with Sammy Davis Jr., visiting the sets of so many of your favorite TV shows of yesteryear, from "Cheers" to "Coach." If you'd like to go down that memory lane with me, please subscribe to my Substack newsletter, where I will have a post for you on Monday all about that era. 

Growing up, at various times, my ambition was to be a producer, director, actor, writer, radio host and guitar player. If you’ve seen any of my Talking Tech videos, you know I hit all the goals right here at USA TODAY! 

Big thanks to my first editor Ben Brown for hiring me, initial tech editor Bruce Schwartz for bringing me on board, editor Nancy Blair and colleague Ed Baig for riding the iPhone era with me and current editor Michelle Maltais for encouraging me to find the small print the tech companies hide and scream about it to the world. That was fun!

Thanks to USA TODAY for an amazing 36-year career and sending me to so many places over these decades: Would you believe 20 states and several visits to Canada? 

My favorite: How do you top Austin, Texas, and South by Southwest, with its vibrant night scene and those amazing breakfast tacos at Torchy's? Or covering the solar eclipse in 2017 in Salem, Oregon, which I livestreamed and time-lapsed at the same time?

Speaking of photography and what’s next, my 10-year Act III plan is to visit and Photowalk all the great spots, from Albuquerque to Abilene, Moab to Zurich. Post-pandemic, it’s a great world out there just waiting to be documented. 

I’ll be changing my name from "Jefferson Graham, USA TODAY" to just "Jeff," and that will be a big adjustment. As will not having my direct connection to you.  Let’s stay in touch online. Remember, that's @jeffersongraham on Twitter.  

P.S.: One more thing

Monday, after seven years and 2,500-plus episodes, the Talking Tech podcast will have two new hosts, Mike Snider and Brett Molina.  Please say hi to them and offer them a hearty greeting. They’re great and will do a fantastic job.