I’m afraid that my opinion on the greatest innovation in my field - telecommunications - is unsurprising and therefore perhaps uninteresting, but it is the internet.
However, I want to give this a little different spin. Years ago I gave a talk to the Federal Communications Commission. I can’t remember what my talk was about, but I’ll never forget something that the speaker before me said. That speaker was Mitch Kapor, the writer of Lotus One-Two-Three. Mitch said that the greatest invention of the computer industry was not the personal computer, but rather the idea of an open architecture around which third parties could innovate. You could plug things into the personal computer. Mitch followed by saying that this was exactly what the telecommunications industry lacked.
This was before the internet, and I thought Mitch’s comment was impossible. How could people at the periphery innovate and plug things into the telecommunications network?
The idea and culture of the internet changed all that. People everywhere at the vast periphery of the telecommunications network were suddenly empowered to do things. And look at what happened! It was no longer the handful of engineers in the telecommunications industry who were allowed to innovate, but the billion people unleashed at the periphery. And thus the world changed.
My parents lived in the same house for 60 years. They had a black, rotary-dial telephone that never was upgraded. When I would visit them, I sometimes asked my father why he didn’t get a new phone. ‘What for?’ he always said. ‘The new ones do the same thing.’ That was always true until the Internet.
So the greatest innovation was the open platform for communications created by the Internet architecture.
I participated in a panel convened by the National Academy of Engineering at the turn of the century to choose the greatest engineering achievements of the last century. We rank ordered 20 such achievements. In my field three were in the top ten - electronics, radio and television, and the Internet. (Top on the list was electrification, followed by the automobile). The panel’s biggest arguments were over the position of the Internet, which ended up seventh. Since the panel had those arguments, the internet has become ever more power and ubiquitous.
Bob Lucky is former corporate vice president of research at Telcordia Technologies and former executive director of the communications research division at Bell Labs. See his own website at www.boblucky.com.