As any observant lawyer or police officer will tell you, an eyewitness can get a surprising number of details wrong, even if they're giving a statement soon after the incident in question. After digging forensically through 20 years of press releases, product launches, and newspaper headlines to find the narratives that are still important today paints a picture that reinforces some notions but undermines others.
Perhaps the most interesting trend of all is the sheer degree to which we have become invested in personal technology as a culture. Your mobile phone in particular has gone from a device for taking and making calls on the go, to being a portal between you and a constantly evolving web of social interactions. And a place to look at funny pictures of cats. It's a platform of mass consumption, but that content comes increasingly from the users themselves, upending the largely one-way conversation of TV, film, and radio.
What insights do you glean from our timeline? Let us know in the comments below.
The original Pokemon is released: Hard to believe that one of the biggest mobile games of 2016 has a legacy dating back to 1996, when Pokemon Red and Pokemon Green debuted on the original Nintendo Gameboy handheld console.
Steve Jobs rejoins Apple: Younger tech enthusiasts may not be aware that the iPod, iPhone, and MacBook are only the closing chapters in the story of Steve Jobs, who cofounded Apple way back in 1976 with Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne. From 1985 to 1996, Jobs ran NeXT Computer, which he sold to Apple for $429 million and 1.5 million shares of Apple stock.
Google founded: Before becoming the search engine of your life, Google was a Stanford University research project run by students Sergey Brin and Larry Page. They are now multibillionaires, thanks in part to their invention of PageRank, an algorithm that sorts search results according to how many prominent websites link to a given URL.
Apple launches the iPod (and Mac OS X): The iPod wasn't the first MP3 player to hit the market, but it did a lot of things right, and its rise to fame got a boost from Apple's simultaneous creation of a retail store chain. The iPod raised the company's profile to unprecedented heights and paved the way for a game-changing mobile phone. You may have heard of it.
The first mobile phone with a built-in camera in North America: It seems unimaginable now, but it wasn't until 2002 that cameras started appearing on our mobile phones. The one in the Sanyo SCP-5300 was 0.3 megapixels. Compare to the Nokia Lumia 1020, released in 2013 with a 41-megapixel sensor and 1080p video recording.
Apple launches the iTunes Music Store: Apple somehow got the big music labels to release their music as files that people could not only download but also pay for. The store's success proved that people would buy music rather than pirate it, if presented with an opportunity and a compelling price tag. However, it wasn't until 2009 that iTunes offered unencrypted music files; the encrypted versions had prevented people from making copies or playing the songs on "unauthorized" devices.
Facebook founded: When Mark Zuckerberg originally wrote the code for the predecessor to Facebook (known as Facemash), he was a Harvard sophomore with a good idea, and the service was limited to active Harvard students. Facebook wouldn't be accessible to the general public until 2006. By 2008, it had registered its 100 millionth member.
Google acquires YouTube: In retrospect, $1.65 billion seems like a pretty good deal for what has become the biggest user-generated video site in the world. These days, you'd be hard-pressed to find a competitor who could provide one tenth of the viewership, thanks to the service's expansion to pretty much every device with an Internet connection. In 2015, the company added YouTube Red -- for $10 per month, you get no ads, and you can download videos and watch them offline.
Apple launches the iPhone: You could argue that Apple's history can be split into two major sections, especially if you look at its stock price: everything that happened before the iPhone, and everything that's happened since. Although iPhone competitors have caught up in many areas, the touchscreen interface was genuinely revolutionary, especially on a device that small and portable. Legend has it that Apple demoed the iPhone a whopping six months before release, because registering the device with the Federal Communications Commission was going to reveal the device's details to the world.
The first Android OS device: Google allegedly had to abandon its original plans for Android when the iPhone was unveiled in 2007. When the HTC Dream came out a year later, it had things like 256MB of internal storage (one quarter of a gigabyte) and a slide-out keyboard. It would hit the market branded as the T-Mobile G1. HTC would go on to make countless other Android phones, including the Google Pixel in 2016.
Windows 7 released to retail: In the wake of Windows Vista, it wasn't clear whether Microsoft would make another great operating system like Windows XP. But version 7 was a home run, proving so successful that Windows 10 merely paced its growth despite being given away to most users for one full year.
Facebook becomes the world's most-visited website: Did we mention that Facebook was a good idea? In 2010, literally no other website in the world was as popular -- not even Google's own search engine. And it would be two more years before the company even went public. Mark Zuckerberg, "only" a 26-year-old college dropout, surfed at the tip of this tidal wave, changing our perception of ourselves and of the seemingly unassuming nature of a gray hoodie and jeans combo.
Edward Snowden leaks PRISM details to the Washington Post: As if you didn't have enough to worry about, 2013 was the year we found out about an enormous and highly controversial government surveillance program that had been running for six years. The paper trail led back to NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who was charged with espionage and fled to an undisclosed location in Russia.
Google and Apple launch smartwatches: The idea of a watch with an Internet connection that could run apps wasn't bold by 2014. But that year marked the entry of two of the biggest names in tech, who already had an ecosystem of mobile devices and services to go with it. Companies like Samsung, Motorola, and Sony would eventually start vying for control, opening up a new market category in the wake of tablets like the iPad and the Nexus 7.
Amazon launches Echo personal digital assistant: Google, Apple, and Microsoft had Google Now, Siri, and Cortana, respectively, but it took Amazon to bring the digital assistant into the home, where it became hugely popular. The company's Alexa AI could stream music, give you weather and traffic updates, or just tell you a joke, based on your voice-activated commands. And at $180, it became an affordable way to access the service.