During the past 45 years we have experienced a continuous revolution of new vs. old, manual work vs. automation, digital vs. analog. In that time, thousands of sophisticated IT products fueled a series of information revolutions that transformed the business and consumer worlds.
The best innovations changed the way we live our lives and run our businesses; they revolutionized the way we think about information, action and even what it means to be "present" in the real and virtual worlds.
Here's a look at the most important technological breakthroughs.
Not PCs. Not mainframes. Not even mechanical computers like Charles Babbage's Difference Engine (1849) or Konrad Zuse's electromechanical Z3 (1941). The most groundbreaking computer was the ENIAC, in 1946, and the other "automatic" computers that followed it. Before that, the most common computer was the human variety -- yes, actual humans doing calculations on paper or with the help of adding machines handled the grunt work of, say, calculating the trajectories of artillery shells for ballistic tables.
Another human job title eliminated by computers. The otherwise-unsuccessful Wang 1200 (1971) broke new ground between typewriters and mainframes; WordStar for the TRS-80 (1979) put word processing onto personal computers, forever shifting responsibility for expressing oneself from a scribe or secretary to one's very own fingers.
This seemingly simple innovation drastically changed our perception of what a mistake actually meant. It also reduced the need for WhiteOut, erasers, OS reboots and apologies.
Until the invention of Unix in 1969 the only way to run a computer program was to convert it to punchcards and give them to MIS, which fed them to a mainframe. Unix allowed anyone with a few IT skills to write software for any reason at all -- giving rise to line-of-business applications and large-scale ERP, CRM and SCP systems before everything eventually moved to the cloud and morphed into Salesforce.com, Facebook and World of Warcraft.
Local Area Network
Even before PCs, people wanted to share files, printers, and WAN (Internet) connections. They also wanted to trade jokes directly instead of having to call MIS first. DataPoint's ARCnet provided the first commercial LAN in 1977, inadvertently spreading the seeds of the consumerization of IT, the BYOD movement and rogue IT decades earlier than most in IT realize.
Deservedly included on PC World's "Ugliest Products in Tech History" list, the external acoustic-coupler modem (1965) turned luggable computers into network interfaces using ordinary telephones, at a blazing 300bps.
Commercial cell networks debuted in 1983, for huge phones that were confined to vehicles. Now mobile phones fit in our pockets, serve more than a billion subscribers worldwide and apparently prevent everyone around you from talking in a normal tone of voice or ever shutting up for even a second.
Creating a personal connection to the Internet, let alone finding anything you were looking for, was a challenge until 1989, when proto-ISP owner Steve Case founded America Online to make the Net a little less off-putting to his own customers. AOL begat CompuServe, which begat the Web, which begat social networks like Facebook.
The first personal digital assistant (or PDA), the Newton was pathetically unsuccessful. But when it debuted in 1992, it changed our expectation of how convenient computer automation should be and introduced the idea that all of our critical information should be available wherever we are, no matter what we're doing.
Wi-Fi Home Router
Before Italian ISP Fastweb added Wi-Fi in 2001 and turned cable modems into wireless Internet gateways, building networks was too complicated and expensive for most consumers. Round-the-clock wireless Internet access is now considered as essential in most homes and businesses as electricity, heat, water and gadget-envy.
When, in an effort to make it easier to connect to documents across the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee invented HTTP, HTML and the URL, and published it in 1991. Life as we knew it stopped to wait for users to return from "browsing" for interesting things online. As far as we know, no one has returned so far.
Fogarty writes about enterprise IT. You can follow him on Twitter (@KevinFogarty).