Behold: this August will be the 30th anniversary of the first IBM PC. That humble box changed our world. No, IBM wasn’t the first PC maker, but back then the company revolutionized our industry. It created an entire ecosystem of partners and suppliers, and prompted development of desktop applications such as Lotus 1-2-3.
Looking back on the past 30 years, I came up with a similar dozen steps forward that could be called the greatest innovations of technology. It is, admittedly, very idiosyncratic, and colored by what we use today. Still, these apps/products/solutions have been leading beacons of change.
Do you have suggestions? Please add them to the Comments box below.
1. Apple App Store (mobile applications marketplace)
Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch and now iPad all make use of a common App Store where developers can sell or give away apps for these mobile devices. And while there are legitimate arguments about Apple’s heavy-handedness in accepting particular apps and not others, no one can argue that the App Store hasn’t been a resounding success.
With hundreds of thousands of apps posted, the Apple ecosystem is like no other: it dwarfs the other mobile phone app stores, and some (such as Palm) have already thrown in the towel. There are apps for just about everything, it seems, and more coming each day.
While you do need Apple’s iTunes to download and install the apps on your device, it’s remarkably easy to navigate. The hardest challenge is searching through those hundreds of apps with the sole function of producing rude bodily noises.
The Apple App Store
2. Blackberry (mobile email)
Also on this list but for a different reason is RIM’s Blackberry. RIM is trying to compete with Apple’s iPad with its own tablet, just recently available. But its true innovation was being able to send and receive emails from a mobile device, without the need for any Wi-fi or wired connection.
Since the early 1990s there have been a succession of different RIM devices, and now most of the mobile phone makers will give you a free Blackberry with a two-year account contract. Blackberries can be found in many corporate environments and even the White House. For the ultimate in wireless security, they are still unbeatable – which has gotten the attention of numerous governments that have threatened to terminate service.
3. Google Gmail (Web-based email)
Google’s Gmail web-based email service has been the butt of many jokes for being in “beta” for years on end, but when the company first made it available in 2004, it was unique in offering nearly limitless storage and features from within a Web browser.
While Yahoo and Hotmail had offered Web email services for many years, they were neither as full-featured or as easy to use as Gmail. Since then, Google now offers its Apps package of hosted documents and emails for domains, and continues to innovate (with the exception of its poorly conceived Buzz) in this field.
Gmail Web mail
4. VMware ESX (virtualization software)
While virtual machines have been around since the 1960s on IBM mainframes, it took VMware to bring it to the desktop PC marketplace back in 1999. The company released its ESX server version in 2001.
Since then, they have created a wide variety of virtualization management tools that have taken the modern data center by storm. The use of virtual machines makes PC servers much more productive, enabling the use of more of their internal memory and processing power and distributing loads across a wider hardware base.
Now most IT shops have virtualized parts of their servers. And while Citrix and Microsoft are players in this market, VMware (now owned by EMC) is still a leader, moving into open source cloud computing with a series of announcements and new products.
ESX virtualization software
5. Amazon Web Services (cloud computing services)
Amazon may be the world’s largest bookstore, but in the past nine years it has quietly built up a series of more than a dozen cloud-based computing services as part of its Amazon Web Services (AWS) product offerings.
Some of the services are older and better known, such as renting online storage using Simple Storage Service (S3) or setting up virtual supercomputers to work on knotty CPU-intensive computations using the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). But there are others that are newer that serve important niches, such as
• The ability to stream videos using CloudFront.
• Tie Amazon’s resources with your own data center with its Virtual Private Cloud service.
• Bring up database servers with SimpleDB and Relational Database Services.
• Automatically add or subtract computing resources as needed with its Auto Scale and Elastic Load Balancer features.
There are now more than a dozen different Amazon services and the company continues to innovate and be a leader in cloud computing. As an example, Ubuntu has its Electronic Cloud that can make use of AWS programming interfaces.
Amazon Web Services
6. WordPress (blogging software and hosting)
Blogs have been around since 1999, but they really took off in 2003 when WordPress began its operations. Now there are millions of blogs hosted with the software. Certainly there are alternatives, including Blogger (later purchased by Google) Typepad.com and several aborted Microsoft efforts. But WordPress continues to be the go-to spot for bloggers due to its use of open source software, a free price tag and a potent plug-in developer community. WordPress remains one of the easiest tools for building web sites from scratch, and contains to grow.
7. Camtasia Studio (video screen capture software)
One of the most powerful software tools that I use regularly is Camtasia Studio, which allows me to record audio and capture video screen motions and edit them into digital videos. This is a great tool for demos and explaining how to navigate a particular web site or make use of a software product without having to go through the trouble of downloading and installing it.
Camtasia is one of numerous tools in this market, but it’s easy to use and has the right combination of features. The latest version, 7.1, offers support for new video and audio formats (including the iPad), and better captioning support, which makes them searchable. It costs $300.
8. Audacity (Audio editing software)
Audacity is a free open source digital audio editor that is available on Macs, Windows and Linux operating systems and was created by two college students in 1999. It makes creating digital audio as easy as creating word processing documents, with the same visual drag and drop editing.
While there are numerous audio editors, including some with more features, Audacity continues to strike a nice balance between ease of use and functionality for the casual podcaster.
Audacity audio software
9. HP/Compaq blade servers (PC hardware)
The biggest innovation in PC hardware since the original IBM two-floppy drive 4 MHz PC is the blade server, which enables you to place an entire computer on a board inside a chassis.
Compaq, back before HP acquired them, was the first to make this affordable and popular, and now IBM and Dell have a variety of blades available for their data center customers. The chassis have modular parts for disk drives and power supplies to make them ultra-reliable. This technology allows for dense racks of computers to deliver a lot of horsepower in a small amount of space.
The latest innovation on blades comes from Facebook, which has designed its own server hardware for their data centers, which they call the Open Compute Project.
Blade server technology
10. NoSQL and other large data tools (database software)
The term noSQL is all the rage right now. A number of notable examples include how Facebook and Twitter use data stores to how people are building the next generation of Web applications.
The notion behind the concept is more than just a database that is non-relational. It also can be massively scalable and based on open sourced projects such as Terracotta, MongoDB and Cassandra. The idea is to not automatically collect data in tabular form but organize it differently. It enables huge databases to be more efficient, since many traditional SQL databases have large areas with mostly blank fields.
Large data handling tools
11. Wikipedia (Web encyclopedia)
Wikipedia has been around since 2001 and is now the standard reference work in more than a two hundred different languages on millions of different topics.
In its first year, more than 20,000 entries were created and it hasn’t looked back since then. While some of the content isn’t accurate – amusingly, its own historical entryis somewhat outdated – most of what is posted is surprisingly detailed with numerous links to original source material, just as you might expect in any high-quality printed encyclopedia.
Occasionally, its pages are subject to various pranks, such as premature death announcements posted on Representative Giffords, the actors Sinbad and Miley Cyrus and Senator Ted Kennedy. Yet these are (usually) quickly corrected by its legions of volunteer editors.
12. Bit.ly (URL shortener and tracking services)
As Twitter and other microblogging services have become popular, the need for a service to shorten lengthy URLs to conserve on character counts has arisen. And the best service is from bit.ly.
What distinguishes this from the dozens – if not hundreds – of its competitors is the ability to provide analytics on who has clicked on your shortened link and from where they have originated. You can also append a plus sign (+) to any shortened URL to view the analytics and how that link has been share on social networks.
Bit.ly URL shortening and tracking