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5 Singapore tech inventions that rocked our world
The Sound Blaster, Razer mouse, USB flash drive, Match.com -- all household names that have their roots in the littlest island state
So we're the nanny state, that country that banned chewing gum, the fine city that lets everyone know exactly what they can't do and how much they'll be fined if they do. But stop to think and you'll realize that Singapore is also a breeding ground for some outstanding IT inventions and tech gadgets. We round up five of the best.
Creative Soundblaster sound card
There wasn't always sound on all PC computers. In the Dark Ages Of No PC Audio, a small but enterprising start-up company called Creative, led by a then-young Sim Wong Hoo, created and started mass-marketing the original Sound Blaster expansion card in 1989. Lo and behold, suddenly gamers had sound coming from their machines rather than the tinny pops and pings generated by the computer. The Sound Blaster may not have been the first audio expansion card and it did have a lot of limitations, but in less than a year it became the top-selling expansion card for the PC. Every geek and kid with a computer had to have one, or risk being seen as less than cool.
The Sound Blaster family of sound cards became the de facto standard for consumer audio on the IBM PC compatible system platform, until a pesky software company called Microsoft came up with Windows 95, which together with improvements in PC design, led to audio functions being integrated with the motherboard (which means you didn't need an extra sound card to have audio, for those who don't speak geek). But till today, Creative is still the leading company for PC audio, coming up with bigger and better devices for sound -- the early Creative Nomad Jukebox was one of the earliest hard drive-based digital music players before Apple came along with the iPod. All hail Sim Wong Hoo, Singapore's favorite (tech) son.
Trek Technology Thumb Drive
You may not have heard of Singapore-based Trek Technology, but you probably have at least one of their products in your bag already. It's called the Thumb Drive, aka. flash drive, aka. USB memory stick, aka. memory key, aka. that little thing on your keychain that stores like a gazillion digital files. The USB flash drive (as it's more commonly known now) is so ubiquitous, it almost single-handedly did away with the floppy drives and disks of yore -- think about it, when's the last time you saw a floppy drive on a laptop or desktop?
But the road to universal acceptance wasn't easy. Trek Technology partnered with 'Big Blue' IBM to sell the first USB flash drives commercially at the end of 2000 -- the original Thumb Drive had a storage capacity of 8 MB, more than five times the capacity of the then-common floppy disks, which is laughable now, but at that time was mind-boggling in its scale. Countless manufacturers saw its potential and started rolling out their own versions. It was only with a series of patent lawsuits that the bigger ones backed off and started paying royalties. But even today, there are still cheap knock-offs around -- chances are good that the cheap no-brand flash drive you bought doesn't follow Trek's patent rights. But still, can you imagine modern life today without the USB flash drive?
You've heard of it, that online dating company which reportedly has more than 20 million members (of which 1.35 million are subscribers), websites serving 37 countries in more than 12 different languages, and made nearly US$350 million in revenue in 2008. It's not really that big in this corner of the world and wasn't built or designed here, but what you may not know is that a Singapore 'technopreneur' by the name of Peng Tsin Ong played an instrumental role in creating the massively popular dating site in 1993.
Back then, Gary Kremen started working on Match.com with Peng as a proof-of-concept project for Electric Classifieds, a company which Peng Tsin Ong co-founded. Peng also helped architect the initial system for Match.com with Kremen, building up the Internet portal until it went live in 1995. The rest, as they say, is matchmaking history. He went on to create Interwoven, Inc., which makes software to control the development, management, and deployment of business-critical content. More recently, Peng served as one of the twenty members of Singapore's high-level Economic Review Committee to review the economic plans for the future of Singapore. He now splits his time between Asia and the United States to help nurture technology startups and to foster collaborative business opportunities between the two regions. Now, if that's not a Singapore rainmaker and tech legend, we don't know who is.
MTech FeverScan S3000
Near the height of the SARS breakout in 2002-2003, a Singapore company which specialized in military-grade scanners and imaging systems called MTech Imaging dropped what it was doing to quickly put together one of the most important pieces of equipment in combating the outbreak. The invention was called the MTech FeverScan S3000 and it's used to detect passengers running a fever (one of the first signs of SARS infection) with the use of precise thermal imaging.
While the fever scanning machine wasn't particularly sexy-looking or earth-shaking, it was a great example of local ingenuity rising to the challenge and turning death-dealing technology into potential life-saving devices. The FeverScan S3000 was quickly deployed at Changi Airport and distributed to government and airports all around the world as a way of controlling the spread of SARS and other epidemics, and it's still in use today. How's that for saving the world quietly?
X-Mini capsule speakers
Audio speakers used to be big boxy things that weren't really portable. Laptop users had to pick between good sound quality and size, and there just wasn't really anything compact that could deliver great bass and volume. And unless you're using an oversized desktop replacement type laptop, built-in speakers just don't cut it at all. Then along came a little Singapore setup called XMI Pte Ltd who were determined to change all that. They created a pocket-sized ball speaker with a patented "pop-up" vacuum design that acted like a mini sub-woofer, and produces a level of bass and volume that is mind (and ear) blowing considering its itsy-bitsy size.
Numerous awards later, including winning the prestigious Red Dot Design Awards (Germany) and the Infocomm Singapore Award, the X-mini Capsule Speaker is now in its second generation and is being shamelessly ripped off by OEM manufacturers all over -- it's a sure sign that something's really good is when the OEM pirates start rolling out their third-party versions. We're hardly without one in our laptop bags these days and they're great for presentations or just setting up an impromptu disco hall, but more importantly, we don't need to carry an extra bag just for the speakers.
And there you go, the tech innovations that changed our world. We don't think we covered the list exhaustively -- there's still Hyflux's water filtration technology and Razer, the company that produces some of the best gaming mice around (did you know it was started and co-founded by a Singaporean?) -- but that's the beauty of technology. You don't need to be some giant corporation to change the world.
Know of other Singapore inventions that changed your world? Share with us here.