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.


10 Comments for "The Most Important Innovations, Give or Take a Few"

  • Tony Kontzer March 03, 2009 8:49 pm

    Thanks, all, for reading and feeling strong enough to comment. After reviewing your contrary positions with interest, I thought I'd clarify a few things: 1) Even though CIO Insight's readership is an audience of IT leaders, I wrote this post as more of a mainstream take on things given that the list was compiled for PBS and reached far beyond technology. I was interested in opining on what innovations had impacted the average person most. That doesn't explain my inclusion of virtualization, the definition of which is a total mystery to the average person--I guess I've just written about it so much, and been pretty amazed at its impact on data centers, that it creeped into my subconscious. 2) I'd argue that the iPod is not only an innovation beyond all MP3 players that came before it, but a societal innovation, in that it achieved a connection with a mass user base beyond any device that's come before or after, with the possible exception of the iPhone. In my view, that may the best kind of innovation--a rethinking of an already existing technology that leads to widespread adoption and love. If you think about it, isn't that the kind of innovation CIOs hope for? I mean, if you invested millions in a Siebel implementation 10 years ago and no one ever used it because it was too difficult, but then you subscribed to Salesforce.com 5 years ago and suddenly everyone began contributing to your CRM system, which vendor is the innovator? I'd argue Salesforce.com, even though Siebel pretty much invented the CRM software category. For the record, I'm no iPod fan. My MP3 player is a Dell DJ, and I'm quite happy with it and have actively resisted becoming an iDrone for as long as possible. (I may soon lose that battle, however, as my fiancee has an iPod, so my getting one will simplify our efforts to share our music.) 3) My iPod logic also applies to HDTV, which, based on my admittedly small sampling, has, in a few short years, captured people's fascination more than LCD and plasma and projection screen technology had collectively over the course of a generation. (And I'd bet the television manufacturers would argue it's proven its value, at least before the economy tanked, cutting into large-screen TV purchases.) In any case, I appreciate you all keeping me on my toes. Don't stop!

  • Bruce Bonacci February 24, 2009 8:27 am

    Others have somewhat expressed this, but I am so glad that the iPod did NOT make this list. It is in fact the compression that made it possible to put your whole music collection on a computer and also on a portable device. I purchased what was probably the first real portable MP3 player YEARS before the iPod came out. It was made by some obscure company (I don't even remember the name)and Compaq (pre-HP) was somehow involved. It was the size of 2 packs of cigarettes, but it was still amazing for the time. After that one, I had a Creative Labs NOMAD which was also before the iPod. Apple makes great products, but the iPod was NOT an innovation in any way. It used an innovation. I agree that the compression should be on the list, not any device.

  • Malcolm Ryder February 23, 2009 11:41 am

    I'm going to really push this commentary, but not in a way I think others haven't already thought about. Just putting it in writing. First thought: if I'm a CIO (seems appropriate to imagine that here), I ought to be thinking about what is happening out there that determines how the next two generations of incoming workforce absorb information and perform critical thinking. Yes, you'll say that no current CIO will last anywhere near long enough to actually have to worry about that; but if you believe that CIOs are finally bred not born, then those future CIOs are being incubated today with something(s) that later proves to be decisively different. What's on that list? Second thought: the comments thread on the Knowledge At Wharton website is taking this issue of innovation even further away from gadgets and more towards people. Innovation is fundamentally conceptual; some concepts turn into gadgets (however complex and networked); the most important innovations could be coming from the arts, spiritual life, or other non-IT arenas where what is new is the way people allow themselves to think before they do. And lastly, if we made a list of "top things invented in the last 30 years" versus "top things adopted in the last 30 years", chances are pretty good that you wind up with different lists. Any number of things invented before thirty years ago were simply either ahead of their time or not mature enough for a mass userbase. But when they did hit, within the last 30 years, they changed things.

  • Mark February 23, 2009 10:58 am

    There is nothing innovative about the iPod outside of the highly successful marketing campaign. Media file compression, on the other hand, does deserve a place on this list.

  • Lynne February 23, 2009 9:40 am

    HDTV is certainly crisp and nice and makes watching hockey on TV less of a guessing game, but I quibble with its inclusion as a tech revolution. HTDV is a tech evolution, and for those of us making sure that family members will HAVE working TVs it's an annoying one at that. I'll see you with online banking and raise you one with electronic payments, which is really the step that takes us from hard cash to electrons and makes both ATMs and online banking possible.

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