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20 biggest tech innovations of my lifetime that I actually use

If you were to make a list of the biggest tech innovations that you use personally, what might it include? Here's my list. Share yours on Twitter using #MyTopTech.

Next-train arrival signs, like this one for NYC subway system, have revolutionized commutes.
Sree Sreenivasan

As the father of 9-year-old twins, I often find myself telling them about tech products and innovations that I didn't have growing up. All parents do it: trying to get their kids to understand how much tougher life was in the old days.

In my case, the old days were in the 1980s -- not that long ago. But the range of change in our lives continues to impress me and make my children roll their eyes.

Yesterday, I posted a photo on Instagram (see above and on my Sreenet account), saying the NYC subway's next-train arrival guides are among the top 20 technology innovations of my lifetime.

As you can tell, I had to post in a hurry as the next train arrived two minutes later. As I stood inside the subway, blissfully without cell service, I had a chance to think about that concept of top tech innovations and asked myself whether those guides were, indeed, worthy of a top 20 listing.

I've now taken a shot at that list. Before you read it, some ground rules I gave myself:

  • The technology had to be for personal use, something that affected me and that I use myself. So innovations in space travel, nuclear physics and enterprise computing don't count.
  • Innovations that have benefited millions of others, but I don't personally use don't count (sorry, electric car).
  • They had to be widely available only after my teen years - i.e, around 1988 - to be considered (eliminating the Walkman, the CD, the home video camera, the microwave oven).
  • Innovations so new or so rare or so expensive - or all three - that my family couldn't acquire them until many years later, do count (some of the items below might have been under your Christmas tree, but not mine).
  • Innovations that were widely adopted but then became irrelevant in their original form aren't here (example: America Online, Compuserve, etc).
  • Tech products that are mostly an evolution from something prior don't count (therefore, the DVD doesn't make the list; it's too similar to its predecessors, Betamax, VHS and laserdisc).
  • And if I saw my dad using it, it doesn't count, even if it's wonderful and I use it every day (sorry, electric razor).

Basically, it has to be stuff I didn't have when I was a kid.

What would be on your version of this list? Share it in the comments and on Twitter using #MyTopTech. Here are my top 20 (the first six are in order of importance; the rest aren't):

  1. The Internet/Web/search: No explanation needed.
  2. E-mail: Electronic messaging recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, but it wasn't a true mass product until the mid-1990s.
  3. Cell phones and smartphones: Cell phones have been around for decades, but the true revolution has only happened since the mid-1990s.
  4. Digital cameras: These cameras changed the way I capture and share memories and how I see the worlds of my friends, family, and complete strangers. While more of my friends than ever before sling fancy digital SLRs, the only digital camera I've used in the last 15 months or so is the one in my iPhone. The other day, when someone took a group portrait with a point-and-shoot digital camera, several of us in the picture commented on how long it had been since we had used an "old-fashioned" camera.
  5. Laptops and Wi-Fi: Sure, there were ridiculously expensive laptops around in the 1980s, but none had the transformative effect on my life the way the ones in the 1990s did. And the arrival of Wi-Fi freed those laptops from the suffocating Ethernet cord.
  6. GPS (with a nod to Web-based Mapquest and Google Maps): I still remember our car vacations started with my dad would going down to the AAA (Wikipedia tells me it was "known formerly as the American Automobile Association" - sort of like IBM, I guess) and get maps with our route highlighted in yellow. When I first saw Mapquest I was blown away by the potential; the arrival of Web-based Google Maps just continued the innovation and set the stage for how we all use GPS today.

    My friend Arik Hesseldahl (@AHess247) of AllThingsD once explained to me, for another story, how cool technology by itself isn't likely to change the landscape. Luck and government decisions play a role, too:
    GPS existed [prior to 1997], but was deliberately made inaccurate for non-military users under a federal directive known as "selective availability" that was eliminated in 2000 by order of President Clinton; prior to this, consumer GPS was good enough for hiking, but nowhere near good enough for in-car navigation, let alone geocaching.
  7. MetroCard: Prior to the arrival of these yellow electronic payment cards for the subway, New Yorkers had to be obsessed with having enough tokens on hand to enter the system. The MetroCard literally changed my life.
  8. Next-train arrival signs: Londoners and Londonphiles love to tell me how they've had these forever in the Underground, but these arrived in NYC only three years ago. Until these real-time signs showed up, you had no idea if your train was coming in two minutes or 20. Just last week, a handy next step: MTA Subway Time, an iPhone app that gives you the same real-time arrival data. It was officially released only for iOS, but, in a sign of the times, someone made an Android version within 24 hours, thanks to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's API offerings (more on APIs below). Yes, it's only for a few subway lines, but 90 percent of my trains are covered and this is my list, after all.
  9. Wii and Kinect: When I was growing up, Atari, Intellivision, and Commodore were major players in the home console market. The systems that came after that were much more powerful and more popular, but were basically improvements on what came before (sorry, Sega, Nintendo 64, PlayStation, Xbox). But the Wii, which I first tested at a family gathering on Thanksgiving 2006, was a breakthrough worthy of this list. I saw something I'd never seen before: grandparents, parents, and kids all gathered around the big-screen TV, playing digital bowling, golf, and tennis.

    Some of that may have happened on occasion in the Atari days, but now, the players were all standing, not sitting on a couch, thanks to the wireless remotes. I predicted on my local TV segment the following week that the Wii would be unlike any other video game product and outsell the competition. At the time and in the years to follow, gamer-snobs felt the Wii wasn't any good in comparison to consoles with fancier graphics, better sound and more complex -- and more gruesome -- titles. The Wii went onto to outsell the other so-called "seventh generation" consoles, including PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

    A logical next step in gaming has to be on my list. The Microsoft Kinect sensor, which works on Xbox, does away with the wireless remote and uses a player's arms and entire body to control the games -- everything from sports to dance-offs. As I wrote in January 2011 about "Five Things I Learned from Two Weeks With Kinect," this is only the beginning. "The Kinect shows that there's still lots of room for innovation in a field that seemed pretty saturated. I expect to see more developments in this area as the sensors gets smarter, the cameras gets sharper and the game play gets more sophisticated."
  10. Social media, including blogging: Here I'm including various platforms -- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogging -- that have changed the way a billion-plus people spend their time, express themselves, and engage with each other. For better and worse.
  11. Wikipedia: While it's easy to complain about some of the problems of Wikipedia, the fact is that it has completely changed the way I do everyday research. It's my first stop, not my last. And I sometimes spend as much time on the footnotes and where they lead as I do on the main text. Even hoaxes like the one uncovered last week don't deter me (see Bicholim Conflict on this list of the biggest hoaxes in Wikipedia history). If you want to truly understand Wikipedia's impact, potential and pitfalls, you have to read the definitive book about it, "The Wikipedia Revolution: How A Bunch of Nobodies Created The World's Greatest Encyclopedia" by my friend Andrew Lih (@fuzheado).
  12. YouTube: I had considered not including YouTube because it is, in many ways, just an evolution in online video. But in recent years, YouTube has become its own community with 4 billion hours of video watched every month; an important tool for all kinds of marketing, promotion and propaganda; and a source of entertainment and information for 800 million people every month -- a stat I found in this compelling Peter Kafka (@pkafka) post that makes that case that Al Jazeera English should have gone with a Web-only platform, rather than buying Current TV as announced this week.
  13. Zipcar: This car-sharing service changed my family's life, allowing us to access a car in more convenient ways than traditional rental cars (we don't own a car, in part, because parking in our Manhattan building is $500 a month). This week's purchase of Zipcar by Avis for $500 million is causing consternation. Here's an article saying this is good for consumers; here's one that argues the opposite.
  14. Credit cards in NYC taxis: Until they came along, I had to always check my wallet for cash before grabbing a taxi. Since credit card readers in cabs became widely available in 2007, I've not had to hesitate before hailing a cab. And unlike some folks who complain about drivers unhappy to take cards, I've never faced an issue with that.

    There's another reason to use credit cards in cabs, as I wrote in 5 Lessons From a Lost iPhone: "I'll always pay for my NYC cabs with credit cards. Turns out the taxi medallion number (the unique number displayed on top of all yellow cabs in Manhattan) is recorded with every credit card purchase, meaning you have way of tracking down cabs you've taken." The taxi industry in the city is the process of a much bigger disruption: figuring out new apps that are changing the decades-old system of hailing cabs.
  15. DVR: The arrival of TiVo, and, later, the generic digital video recorder provided by the cable company, introduced us all to time-shifting TV in ways the complicated VHS system and its blink "12:00" clock never could.
  16. Netflix: I'm including Netflix here as a representative of a whole new class of video watching, a big leap from the DVR. Whether Netflix will be the eventual winner in this space or not (Amazon, Hulu and others are attacking it), the concept of getting movies anytime from anywhere has changed how my family accesses entertainment.

    But I don't understand how anyone uses Netflix without also accessing Instawatcher.com, which provides a much better, searchable listing of the on-demand movies on Netflix, including my favorite feature, "Expiring soon."

    If you don't want to spring for Netflix, but are an HBO subscriber, you have to check out the free HBO Go app or Web site, which provides access to dozens of movies and entire seasons of HBO shows that are no longer available on the HBO On Demand service on your cable box. For instance, I saw and enjoyed "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency," a quirky, charming show I never saw when it first ran on the network.
  17. iPod and iTunes: These changed the music world forever, letting us carry thousands of songs at a time and getting millions of us to pay for digital music for the first time.

    My friend Hari Sreenivasan (@Hari; no relation), now an anchor on PBS Newshour, was the first to outline to me the power of iPod beyond music. One day in late 2001 (soon after iPod was launched), he predicted that the iPod would be a great way to introduce the Apple brand to PC users skeptical of the Mac. He saw it as a way to get people comfortable using an Apple product and getting them hooked and ready to try others. Even though he didn't call it that, the iPod became a gateway drug that changed the company's fortunes and set it on the path to the iPhone, iPad, and beyond. If you are curious, the price of Apple stock on October 1, 2001 was $15.49. On October 1, 2012, it was $671.16 (it's down since then).
  18. Tablets and apps: In some ways, tablets feel like cousins of laptops and not worthy of this list. But in many other ways, they are, indeed, new. The key here are the apps we use in smartphones, too. As millions of users have discovered, tablets can be used in ways that are different from laptops and we see them being used as cash registers, restaurant menus, medical devices and much more. And all this is just getting started.

    I didn't include e-readers such as the Kindle on this list because while they were innovative, they are not going to stick around much longer. Thanks to tablets that let you read Kindle content without a Kindle, e-readers are dying much faster than anyone could have predicted. See this chart to understand the whole picture.
  19. APIs: I am not an engineer, but I play one on TV, thanks to my CNET tech segments on WCBS-TV. Since I don't program, it's not obvious why I'd include APIs -- or application programming interfaces -- on this list.

    But these Web APIs, which allow live data and content from one Web service to be posted and used on another have changed how we access information. Everything from mash-ups of real-estate listings and Google maps, to embedding videos, to the subway-arrival app I mentioned in No. 7 above, APIs are now a critical part of our digital lives. Here's a list of the most popular APIs.
  20. Cordless irons: I know some of you will claim to have had cordless electric irons for decades now, but the day I saw one of these, I had to have one when the prices became reasonable. They aren't as good as corded ones (the heat dissipates too quickly), but they changed my ironing life.

Those are my 20. Am sure I am missing some others and that you will disagree with many of my choices (especially if you are in a different age bracket). That's what makes this list so much fun to put together. It has no right or wrong answers, and it's all about you.

Hope you'll take a stab at creating a similar list of 5 to 20 tech innovations. You can post it in the comments below and/or tweet it via #MyTopTech.