Walter Mossberg concluded his 22-year career with the Wall Street Journal today with farewell column that commemorates a career that enabled him to review personal technology products that spanned the launch of the Internet, online search, smartphones, and tablets.
His next step is to launch his own venture, Revere Digital, where he and cohort Kara Swisher will continue to wield influence over public opinion as technology marches on. Mossberg’s provocative final column lists the 12 personal technology products that he reviewed that were the “most influential.” It’s notable that not all of them were hits. That’s a reminder that it’s not enough to envision the right product, you also must deliver it at the right time, when consumers, technology, the infrastructure, and other factors are lined up just so. (That’s the logic behind Javelin’s Customer-Driven Architecture reports in 2009 and 2012, for example.) Mossberg listed his top 12 in chronological order, starting with the Newton MessagePad in 1993 and ending with the iPad in 2010. It spurred me to rank them based on societal impact rather than on a timeline.
Drawing from Mossberg’s list, here’s my top 5 of the products that rewired our brains and raised new consumer expectations for what technology should be able to do:
- Netscape Navigator (1994): Netscape’s browser unlocked the potential of the Internet to the public, opening the door to disruptive technology that has changed the way we read, shop, bank, socialize, and virtually everything in between. (I also have fond memories as a reporter of visiting Netscape executives and employees hours after the company went public in 1995, minting millionaires by the score as its stock jumped to $75 from an opening price of $28.)
- Google Search (1998): Google was one of many search engines, but it was so effective, so magnetic, so fast, and so useful that it became a verb. Its real impact, though, is that it created the mindset that anything we want to know should be at our fingertips in nanoseconds.
- The iPhone (2007): I give the iPhone the nod over Apple’s other enormous breakthroughs because it created an everything-in-one-device tool. It made everyone want to have one. It created the groundswell of everything mobile today. It marries mobility and practicality.
- The iPod (2001): I rank the iPod behind the iPhone because it was limited to music and arguably shares honors with the Sony Walkman. Still, the ability to tote around your music collection in a device the size of a deck of cards was liberating and opened our minds to a powerful question: Why can’t everything else in my life be this mobile and this simple?
- Facebook (2004): Facebook wasn’t the first social network, but it quickly made MySpace irrelevant. More important, it entranced consumers of all ages, not just young tech-savvy first adopters. That’s crucial because giving mainstream consumers a comfortable virtual place to gab built trust and confidence in online and mobile activities. (Facebook was slow to figure out that mobile thing, though.) That leaves seven influential products off my list: Windows 95 (1995), the Palm Pilot (1997, Twitter (2006), Android (2008), the MacBook Air (2008), and the iPad (2010). What my five products have in common is a message for bankers and the financial services industry at large. These products were not just big-sellers. These were products that changed the way consumers think, that made them demand to be able to do more in digital channels here and now, and to judge a good digital experience by the Apple benchmark of usefulness plus simplicity. They were game-changers. And like it or not – ready or not – you must be able to play by the new rules.