I recently read Walt Mossberg’s last column in The Wall Street Journal. I always enjoyed his take on consumer technology and his belief that technology need not be so difficult to use. Since he began his stint over 2 decades ago, technology has seen incredible changes, and in many ways his call for simpler-to-use products has become a reality. When you consider the ubiquity of computing devices in our everyday lives from mobile devices to wearable tech to apps in the cloud, you cannot help but agree that we have arrived as a technology-oriented society.
Mossberg made a strong case for his list of top consumer products over his time as a columnist at the Journal. Outside of the Apple MessagePad, I, and most others I know, have used them all. It made me wonder though, what would be the most important, innovative and disruptive technologies over that time? They are not one and the same, as technology gets to the core upon which most products are built upon. When you consider products like the iPad, it would not have been possible without a myriad of technological innovations.
In the same vein as Mossberg, I am taking a stab at the 12 most important technologies to come along since 1990. All of these have had immense impact in changing the way we view the world, the way we interact with each other and the way we work. Some are visible to most, but some are behind the scenes, guiding along the advances of other products and services to become an important foundational innovation. Either way, these technologies had an undeniable influence in shaping the course of humanity now and will continue to do so well into the future.
Therefore, without further ado, here are my views on those 12 technology innovations:
The Web – The Internet had already been going for some time as people were accessing Usenet groups and were exposed to the idea through pop culture such as movies like “War Games.” But it was still a very tiny niche and not easy for the general public to grasp. That all changed with the advent of the World Wide Web and the Web browser in 1991. It would still take several years for it to become something, but I remember clicking around the early Web using Mosaic and thinking how cool this was. Little did most of us know that the Web would become one of the most powerful and disruptive mediums since the advent of the printing press and the underpinning of entirely new industries.
Email – This is where work happens. That is what it might seem like, but when I had my first email account it seemed like it was merely an easy way to leave messages for friends. Now it is pretty much the predominant messaging system with 144 billion messages sent per day used for everything from personal to business to marketing to rich Nigerian princes giving away their wealth. And while you may call it the bane of your existence (studies have said it takes up 28 percent of our work day), there is no denying that email is an integral part of our lives, as we furtively battle toward inbox zero.
Search – Ever use Archie or Gopher? I am probably dating myself here, but that was what I first used to search the Web. Then came commercial offerings by Lycos, Excite, Infoseek and AltaVista. But it was Google that eventually won the search battle by the early 2000s with its Page Rank algorithm. It was search that finally brought some level of order to the unruly and ever growing Web that the directories and portals could not. Search also spawned entire new industries as marketers realized the power of organic search and search advertising. It has been the bread and butter of Google’s business ever since, allowing the company to pursue even more ambitious ideas to become one of the great pillars of the tech innovation ecosystem.
Blogging – In the early days of the Web, there was not all that much content to speak of. You could browse around easily enough, but for what? Eventually people started to post things online, sometimes personal journals, sometimes news, sometimes essays on various subjects. By the late ‘90s, the term “blog” became a permanent part of the tech lexicon, and platforms like LiveJournal and Blogger emerged to support these intrepid writers. Now it is big business, having created careers and conferences and companies. And it has upended the world of journalism, becoming as relevant as established media in breaking and spreading news.
The MP3 – I used to have the most killer CD collection when things like that mattered. Now it seems like everyone is renting music online. None of that would have been possible though without the MP3. Really I should state lossy compression, as there are a number of formats used. But it was the MP3 that become the de facto standard and disrupted the world of music as much as the Web disrupted newspapers. The MP3 popularized file sharing, decoupled the entire music economic supply chain, gave Apple it’s first killer product in two decades and changed the way we listen and consume music forever.
eCommerce – The first iterations of Web browsers and Internet technology only accommodated the most rudimentary of websites, which meant lots of text interspersed with images. Then a few things happened. First, Netscape incorporated SSL into its first browser for secure transmissions. Then the National Science Foundation dropped its objections to commerce on the Internet. Then HTML 2.0 added GET and POST form submission in 1995, changing the level of interactivity one could enable in a website. Now, a fair criticism would be to say that eCommerce is not one technology, but many technologies such as payments and encryption. But taken together it is a technological trend that has led to over $1 trillion in transactions online and changed the nature of retail commerce forever with new models of local mobile commerce and the sharing (peer-to-peer) economy that is all the current rage.
3G Network – We all remember that scene in “Wall Street” when Gordon Gekko was talking to Bud Fox on a phone while walking on the beach. How cool was that—even if it looked like a brick! Cell phones were pretty cool and gained wide acceptance in the ‘90s. But when 3G networks came on the scene, it changed the nature of how one could use these devices. They were not just a way to communicate via voice and text from the road, but a way to get information and do other useful stuff. But that would not have been possible without the bandwidth afforded by 3G networks, which finally made data transfer possible to support email, Web browsing and more.
The Cloud – This one could be a stretch given how much abuse this term has taken in the hands of overzealous marketers. The cloud, in many ways, has always existed from the earliest days of computer networking. And like eCommerce, there are many component technologies such as virtualization that make the cloud possible. It was in the 90’s though that the concept started to come into the common tech vernacular to cover various hosted services and the earliest SaaS providers. But it was Amazon that changed the game by turning the cloud into a true utility with the release of AWS in 2002 (and EC2 in 2006), allowing anyone to cheaply host anything, including Web and mobile apps. AWS now powers a huge percentage of the Web 2.0 economy and has been instrumental in the recent explosive growth in tech startups.
SaaS – Hand in hand with the cloud would be Software-as-a-Service. Before this, the cloud was generally considered to be nothing more than a hosting relationship usually in a VPN configuration for companies. The idea that software could be “shared” like one shared a server seemed antithetical to most companies in the late ‘90s, but Salesforce.com made it the core of their entire strategy. The real brilliance was not merely creating a multi-tenant environment to share software in the cloud, but “renting” it to customers on a subscription basis. Now, they are one of the largest software companies in the world, having made SaaS business as usual as Excel spreadsheets, and forever changed the way businesses buy and deploy software.
Social Networking – By far the biggest trend in technology over the past several years, other than mobile, has been social networking. By 2005, there were quite a few popular social networking sites, and the Internet was clearly happening. However the Internet was just not essential for most people. Facebook altered that forever by putting social networking at the forefront, connecting humanity together with digital connections without regard to location or relationship. And with connectivity came frictionless sharing of content and media, changing the nature of how we perceive privacy and trust as well as how we interact with news and information and each other.
Open APIs – Social networking would arguably not have been as disruptive if it had not been for the advent and popularization of open APIs (application programming interfaces). There is nothing new when it comes to the concept of APIs, which have existed in various forms since the days of the mainframe. What did change was who could access those APIs and what information could be exchanged and how easy it was to build these integrations. Companies like Facebook and Twitter made their APIs a core growth strategy, creating an ecosystem that encouraged developers to connect their own apps into these major networks and in turn creating other large companies like Zygna. Now, open API’s are even causing governments and private companies to open up their own troves of data to the public, fueling the burgeoning big data movement. And how big is big data exactly? It is now a $15 billion a year industry and growing rapidly.
Mobile Computing – While the increased bandwidth of 3G was critical for the adoption of data services, it was new devices themselves that unleashed the full potential of computing on the go and all the time. We may laugh at Blackberry now, but they were largely responsible for popularizing smart phones with stellar email and messaging apps. Then Apple and Google got into the mix with full-fledged, handheld supercomputers that could do anything one could do on a laptop, fueled by vast digital media collections and app stores. Along with open APIs, mobile devices have accelerated the pace of social networks and SaaS, driving even more need for cloud resources. Just as powerful as email has become in changing the nature of how we work, so will mobile computing change how we work, but this time for the better.
Bonus – these are nascent innovations that are still evolving but important to mention:
Bitcoin – Maybe it would be better to state this more generically as cryptocurrency, but Bitcoin has all the mindshare and attention and capital at this juncture. However, we are still very early, given Bitcoin came into being in 2009 and is still a niche idea talked about heavily by a niche group of enthusiasts, investors and entrepreneurs. This is the next big bet in technology, but it is still too early to state that this is a game changing technology. One thing is for sure though, if it does succeed, it could disrupt the very core of the international banking system, global payment systems and government controlled fiat currencies. What does that portend? The greatest exchange of capital and wealth and power we have seen since the dawn of the industrial age.
3D Printing – Like Bitcoin, we are still in the very early days of this market. I would call this current era the first generation of the technology where there are plenty of hobbyists and growing commercial usage, but it is still the tiniest sliver of total manufacturing output. However, the potential for 3D printing cannot be understated in reinvigorating the manufacturing industry. We are slowly moving from mass production supported by massive transportation and logistics infrastructures (with all its pollution) to just-in-time, mass customization using local resources within local communities. We are not there yet, but that train is leaving the station.
It has been quite a whirlwind of change in just 24 years. Back then, we thought computers were “big boxy things” on which you used spreadsheets and word documents. Now we cannot escape the pull of technology and computers anywhere we go, as the first digital native generation starts entering into the workforce knowing nothing different. What will come to pass in the next couple of decades I could only guess, but it may very well be as strange and exciting and surprising as the past couple of decades. Here’s to the future!
This article was originally published on Strong Opinions, a blog by Birch Ventures for the NYC tech startup community.
Image credit: CC by Timothy Wells