The Most Important Innovations, Give or Take a Few


By Tony Kontzer

PBS' Nightly Business Report this week unveiled its list of the 30 most important innovations of the last 30 years, based on the judgment of a panel of faculty from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

While the list featured a lot of great technologies--who can argue with the inclusion of "the Internet"?--I can't help but wonder how several items were left off. The only conclusion I can draw is that the judges didn't let themselves have enough fun with the exercise. What follows is a quick look at some things I'd have included, along with what they should have replaced.

Made list: Media file compression Should have made list: the iPod Let's face it: 50 years from now, when someone asks what technology signaled the true launch of an age of digital media consumption, the answer won't be media file compression. It will be the ubiquitous white MP3 players that have spawned a generation of detached, disaffected music drones.

Quite frankly, the omission of the iPod brings the whole list into question. From the vast wasteland that once was Apple's future, Steve Jobs revolutionized our relationship with music, resuscitated his company, rescued the music industry from decades of file-sharing lawsuits, and created a legion of zombie-like followers. Which explains why a recent episode of The Simpsons depicted a future in which man has been imprisoned by giant iPods that take pleasure in whipping us with their earbuds. Something tells me Homer wouldn't have any idea what the heck media file compression is.

Made list: LCDs Should have made list: High-definition television Yeah, LCD technology was a nice development for fans of alarm clocks and people who wanted their computer monitors to take up less desk space. But let's get real--this is all about television. And the problem with putting LCDs on the list is that nobody really cares about the technology behind their TV screens--they care about what they SEE on their TV screens. LCDs have long been embroiled in a competition with plasma screens, but they've failed to capture the imagination because of that horrible pixilation that occurs whenever a field of black appears in the picture. But put a football game on a really good HDTV, and watch the crowd form. Put a game on a great LCD TV without HD, and then on an adjacent one with HD, and see what happens. Heck, when I got my first HDTV, I remember being mesmerized that first night by a documentary called "Ground Water." Need I say more?

Made list: The Microprocessor Should have made list: Virtualization Server virtualization may not be the sexiest, most exciting innovation one can dream up, but someone needs to remind those Wharton folks that the microprocessor surfaced about a decade too early for inclusion on this list. Over the past several years, the advent of server virtualization--which enables a server to function like multiple servers--has spearheaded a revolution that has enabled companies to tap unused server capacity, make more efficient use of data center space, and cut the cost of cooling and powering those data centers. Now, if only I could virtualize myself so I could actually do my job, be a good dad, make time for romance, exercise, clean the house, prepare nourishing meals and get enough sleep, all within the confines of a day, THEN we'd really be on to something.

Made list: Graphical User Interface Should have made list: The Mouse Even the PBS folks acknowledge that the GUI first appeared in 1968, but it was added to the list because of the major advances of the late '70s and early '80s. I'd argue that the GUI was a lost cause before the development of the mouse. Something about that easily manipulated little device made the computer seem more accessible to the average user. Without the mouse, many such users would still be fumbling in front of their keyboards, trying to figure out how to move the cursor and afraid to touch those little directional arrow keys. Plus, the mouse made throwing an object at an uncooperative screen so much more satisfying. Made list: ATMs Should have made list: Online banking Yeah, I know, online banking probably can be lumped under "The Internet" or "E-Commerce" on PBS' list. But this is about so much more than the technology. To some, ATMs might be considered the WORST innovation of the past 30 years, thanks to their acceleration of Americans' propensity for living beyond their means. In fact, ATMs may be a big contributor to the economic woes we're experiencing today. Gee, think there'd be a bit less debt in the world if we couldn't pull money out of our bank accounts from nearly every corner? Online banking, conversely, has enabled us to manage our funds from the comfort of our living rooms, keeping cars off the road, shortening the lines at your local bank branch, and, hopefully, making us more aware of how we use our money. Then again, it also makes it a lot easier to move those 401(k) funds into our checking account so we can buy that cool Barack Obama bobblehead on eBay, so maybe I'll have to rethink this position.