The 5 Most Important Tech Breakthroughs of the Past 5 Years

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Can you believe that it's only been five years since the world stopped using software and switched to apps? The distinction is pretty subtle, but nonetheless important -- without a proliferation of diverse apps across mobile ecosystems, the smartphone revolution might have been turned back, or at least held in check for some time. The past five years have seen quite a bit of technological innovation, but only a few of these developments, including apps, have truly taken hold in popular culture.

The following list will take you through five of the top new technological breakthroughs that have become the biggest hits with consumers. You'll probably be familiar with them all, but the sheer speed at which they've captured the public's imagination (and its spending money) might surprise you.

5. Next-gen electric cars (2008)
The first Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) Roadsters began arriving at customer homes in the spring of 2008. It was the first in a wave of modern fully electric cars to reach the market after a number of high-profile failures in the 1990s left the segment for dead. However, it wasn't until 2011 that plug-in electric vehicles (those that run exclusively on a battery charge) began to take off. Sales of these battery-electric vehicles, as recorded by the Electric Drive Transportation Association, leapt from just 19 in 2010 to more than 10,000 in 2011, and then to nearly 53,000 in 2012. Thus far, more than 32,000 have sold through the first five months of the year, for a cumulative total of over 95,000 in three and a half years.

Source: Tesla.

Doesn't sound like much, does it? Well, from 1895 to 1905 (two years after Henry Ford started his eponymous company), automobile registrations in the United States rose from virtually nothing to 78,000. Granted, electric cars are starting with a far more developed national road infrastructure this time, but the charging and maintenance infrastructure for plug-in electrics was pretty close to nothing in 2008, too. It's also worth noting that the first hybrid car sales were recorded in 1999. Four years later, cumulative sales amounted to just 36,000 hybrids. It took more than six years for hybrids to sell in greater numbers than plug-in electrics have managed in half the time.

4. Motion-sensing control systems (2010)
Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) launched the Kinect at the end of 2010. Earlier this year, the motion-sensing peripheral passed 24 million lifetime sales, which makes it as popular as the original Xbox game system, and more popular than Nintendo's¬†GameCube. The Kinect sold so many units so quickly that it landed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It's not just Microsoft's game anymore, though. A company called Leap Motion, founded in the same year Microsoft released the Kinect, has bundled highly accurate motion-sensing controls into a device roughly the size of a memory stick. Both it and the Kinect have been modified for all sorts of uses, from facial recognition for targeted mall advertisements to the ability to control a toy boat with the wave of your hand. The controller itself should be in stores any day now, and it might show up in PCs within the next year. The trend toward wearable computing should only amplify this trend over time, as interface and control systems become a part of you, rather than an extension.

3. Tablets (2010)
"Tablets" as we know them have been around for a long time -- the Newton was released 20 years ago -- but it wasn't until Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) launched the iPad in 2010 that the computer-buying public began to catch on. Few wanted to talk about the death of the PC in 2010, and now you can't scroll through a tech blog without finding someone else driving a nail into the industry's coffin. It took only two years for Apple to sell 100 million iPads, and the market shows no sign of slowing down. More than 49 million tablets sold in the first quarter of 2013, and Apple accounted for 40% of the total.

Source: Matt Buchanan via Flickr.

Whether you believe tablets are here to stay or will only be a stepping stone on the path to a newer, nimbler computing paradigm, it's hard to argue that the new form factor has caused tremendous disruption in the once-sturdy PC industry. That disruption, however, was surely accelerated by the next breakthrough on our list.

2. Android (2008)
When Google's (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) open-source mobile operating system started showing up in smartphones until 2008, it rapidly became the only serious challenger to Apple's mobile hegemony, and eventually it became the dominant mobile platform, thanks to Google's openness to modifications and commitment to support and upgrades. The most recent numbers highlight just how fast it's taken over: Android controls 75% of the global smartphone market and nearly 60% of the tablet market. Last month, Google reported that its cumulative Android activations passed 900 million, which means we're likely to see the first billion-user mobile OS by the end of the year.

Source: Johan Carlstrom via Flickr.

Android benefits enormously from Google's dedicated support, which includes integrated support for maps, voice commands, email and chat functions, and other optimized features. However, users don't have to use these default features if they don't want to, because the biggest breakthrough of the past five years offers them a wealth of other choices -- which brings us to the final item on our list.

1. The app economy (2008)
Apple didn't release the App Store until the iPhone had already been on the market for a year. First-year iPhone sales weren't bad at all, but once users were free to choose from thousands of different independently developed mobile-optimized programs, sales exploded. Apple sold 3.3 million iPhones in 2007. It sold 11.4 million iPhones in 2008, including 4.1 million in the fourth quarter alone. Sales doubled in 2009, and the phone just kept going from there, even with massive competition from a variety of Android devices.

Source: Cristiano Betta via Flickr.

Five years later, Apple devices have downloaded nearly 50 billion apps, resulting in more than $9 billion in payments to app developers. Those 900 million Android devices will outpace Apple any day now, with 48 billion cumulative app downloads that are increasing at a rate of 2.5 billion downloads per month. The diversity and depth of app development is as robust as anything ever seen on PCs, and the "app economy" is credited with creating more than 460,000 high-paying jobs. You can consider Facebook (NASDAQ: FB  ) a leading proponent of the app economy as well, since 20 million apps are installed on Facebook profiles every day, leading to the sale of at least $1.7 billion in virtual goods every year.

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Read/Post Comments (38) | Recommend This Article (91)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2013, at 3:54 PM, constructive wrote:

    Fair list.

    Also Intel's trigate transistors, and bitcoin.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2013, at 4:33 PM, Desktopguy wrote:

    If that is the best tech out there than we are in trouble for sure.Heck a warp engine would be nice.!!!!!

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2013, at 4:40 PM, jamesdan567 wrote:

    Are you kidding?

    Stopped using software?

    Just what do you think makes an app?

    Peanut butter and jelly?

    You think "apps" run the Tesla or the tablets?

    Have you heard of operating systems?

    What do you think runs the CPU? water?

    From what I am hearing, graphene is about the biggest thing since apple pie, but no-one is even close yet to commercializing anything with it

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2013, at 4:42 PM, XMFBiggles wrote:

    @ jamesdan567 -

    It's a tongue-in-cheek comment. An app is software, of course. It's a semantic distinction between PCs and mobile, really.

    - Alex

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2013, at 5:04 PM, xconx wrote:

    Stupid list.

    Any idea what "app" is short for? Yes, none of use use software anymore.

    Electric cars will never succeed because they take too long to charge and aren't really an alternative to petrol.

    Tablets are nothing more than large smartphones. They'll be gone within the next three years, much like the notebook.

    No 3D printing on the list? This may be the most important technological innovation of the past few years, with implications in manufacturing and even agriculture.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2013, at 6:07 PM, tompanderson1 wrote:

    Number 1 is easy. iPhone.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2013, at 6:12 PM, constructive wrote:

    But the iPhone is over 5 years old.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2013, at 6:34 PM, XMFBiggles wrote:

    @ xconx -

    3D printing was developed about two decades ago, so it's too old for this list.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2013, at 10:52 PM, bugmenot wrote:

    The demise of the mainstream news media was omitted from this article. Biased news journalists no longer have an impact and really are considered criminals by the population. They support the corruption of the Obama Administration! MSNBC has really been destroyed by supporting political corruption.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2013, at 2:26 AM, toddhartman1000 wrote:

    I was holding off to buy the next Nexus 7 but started looking at the mini iPad and the 8-inch screen really makes quite a bit of difference and has about 65% more screen space to play with, which is much easier to work with than the traditional 7-inch size, yet is still quite compact and easy to carry... so I considered the upcoming Acer 8-inch but found a similar 8-Inch model that overall offers better features and performance... the Pipo U8 which launched this week is a fairly impressive tablet that sells for $169 at a site called Tablet Sprint - I've had mine for 2 days and it has a sleek look, has a more powerful battery (4650 mAh) than the Acer's 3250 mAh battery, as well as twice the Memory and 2GB DRAM... and the main specs include a Quad Core processor, Bluetooth 3.0, WiFi, MicroSD memory, Front and Back Cameras, Android 4.2.2 and Google Play; and it's also one of the first Android tablets to feature Miracast HD Wireless capability, similar to Apple's AirPlay, which basically turns an HDTV into a multimedia computer console. Pipo has launched four impressive new models this month and the Pipo U8 is one of them. Overall, it offers a solid build and performance, and graphics-intense Gaming is also very good. Tablet Sprint also features a Promotion with Bonus Apps, including an Office Suite with Word, Excel & Powerpoint, and Shadowgun, one of the most popular 3D Games on Android.

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2013, at 6:30 PM, hateids wrote:

    Agree with previous post, I noted that 3-d printing was left off this list, frankly more important than either android or tablets.

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2013, at 11:14 PM, enginear wrote:

    Interesting article.These are 5 interesting developments in the onward march of humankind, and I find it curious that 4 are digital phenomena (I guess you could exclude motion sensing control from that), with one 'old analog' device.

    The App is, I agree with the author, a kind of unique thing... a very limited piece of software that's easy to produce due to its small scope. There are 'full figured' Apps out there, I guess, but generally they do one (fairly simple) thing. Not many apps along the lines of MS office... fully integrated environments. All that may be changing though, as portable hardware beefs up, and we expect more.


    next gen electric cars? That's great marketing (well done, Mr. Musk), and that is innovative, but not in a technical sense.

    When did the Wii come out? They deserve at least an honorable mention in the motion sensing control systems. DARPA (defense advanced research project agency) might have a beef with the 5 year limit too.

    If the Newton preceded the iPad by 20 years, then 3D printing deserves a spot (for that matter, electric cars are over 100 years old!).

    Android is good, and well supported, but come on... the OS is pretty old dull stuff. They make a good one, but I have a hard time calling it a breakthrough.

    The App economy? That's just a result of a marketplace supplying what people demand. Its been happening for a long, LONG time.

  • Report this Comment On June 18, 2013, at 5:16 PM, ET114 wrote:

    Yep, as all the posts have stated... apps = software; app being the new age term for sofware on a stupid-phone... Got a Droid4 cause I need a keypad in Dec 2012, end-of-life April 2013, literally threw it away... last straw after the constant Google messages for apps, services, upgrades, new software, etc... Message that made the toss... "The high volume on your radio may cause hearing problems"... Hello Google, shove it... Went back to a "plan" phone for talking and texting, works fine...

  • Report this Comment On June 18, 2013, at 5:36 PM, colleran wrote:

    The popularity of Android is eerily like what happened to Apple computers when Microsoft came out with Windows. Just like Windows, Android runs on devices from many manufacturers.

    One difference is that competing devices are not significantly cheaper than Apple devices. Still, I wonder whether a similar change is happening again.

  • Report this Comment On June 18, 2013, at 7:04 PM, hbofbyu wrote:

    What about Prenatal DNA sequencing and Memory Implants?

  • Report this Comment On June 18, 2013, at 8:43 PM, XMFBiggles wrote:

    @ hbofbyu -

    Neither of those have exactly gone mass-market yet.

  • Report this Comment On June 18, 2013, at 8:57 PM, jojopuppyfish wrote:

    How about Gorilla Glass from Corning?

    Because of Steve Jobs, it went from zilch to over 1 billion in sales in a short amount of time.

    COrning is looking into putting it on Automobiles next

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2013, at 1:33 AM, matthewluke wrote:


    Gorilla Glass came out more than 5 years ago. But yeah, it (and the iterations since) are pretty impressive.

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2013, at 7:51 AM, TMFMarlowe wrote:

    Cool article, Alex.

    Here's my two cents on the one subject I actually know anything about: The current generation of electric cars was enabled by mass-produced, (somewhat) affordable lithium-ion batteries. That's the real innovation, but it's more than 5 years old. (It was also enabled by favorable market conditions, meaning high gas prices and rising environmental concerns, but that's not innovation.)

    The original Tesla Roadsters used lots and lots of small li-ion battery cells like those that have been used in laptops for years now. Purpose-built EV batteries like the Panasonic cells used in the Tesla Model S and Ford's plug-in hybrids are more recent and represent an advance, but they're not really groundbreaking technology.

    The rest of the BEV thing is just intent and, in Tesla's case, great packaging and software.

    John Rosevear

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2013, at 12:42 PM, CluckChicken wrote:

    I think this list is just mislabeled. If it were called Technology movements it would make more sense.

    The breakthrough isn't the Next Gen Electric Car it is the battery because if you take away the batteries the S has no breakthrough tech that appeared in the last 5 years.

    Apps are not a breakthrough heck they are closer to a leap backwards then any forward movement. Saying that Apps are a breakthrough is basically like saying that Note Pad is the new and great word processing software.

    Tablets are not a breakthrough as we have gone from the PDAs to the Windows Tablet (around 2001) to now the iOS/Android/Win8 tablets. Again here the breakthrough is more the battery (though less so then the car sized one) and the processors (though here we have greatly sacrificed power for better energy consumption, Intel's latest may be the real breakthrough).

    Android isn't a breakthrough as open source operating systems have been around for 35+ years. I would say that Android is the great movement that people thought Linux was going to be.

  • Report this Comment On June 19, 2013, at 8:11 PM, zlot wrote:

    I'm 63 years old, and, despite many of my best efforts, managed to make it to the future.

    I still am looking for a good, low-mileage air car.

    I remain disappointed.

    Also, I never did read a good reason as to why we don't have a good, old-fashioned, Arthur C. Clarke doughut-style space station, although I may still see the space elevator before I die, assuming nothing too radical happens to me, and they get down carbon nanofibers. Might even see a man on Mars, although I'd much rather see a permanent presence on the moon.

    Who knows? Hope springs eternal!

  • Report this Comment On June 21, 2013, at 12:58 PM, FrankFerrara wrote:

    Not sure I understand the significance of electric automobiles. They don't increase living standards by introducing a new product that will impact the growth of the economy. It's simply another way to make a transportation device that is well established. Perhaps a battery breakthrough will be applicable throughout the tech world. That would be significant as batteries remain the soft underbelly weakness of the technology world.

  • Report this Comment On June 21, 2013, at 1:14 PM, RLeB wrote:

    Don't confuse tablets with PCs. Tablets provide a more convenient way to do a lot of things that people have used PCs for, and I'll grant that this reduces the market for PCs.

    But I'll never get rid of my powerful desktop, or even my powerful laptop because they do things no tablet can do, and for me, these things are more important than what a tablet can do. I use an Android smart phone for the really portable needs I have. Even though a tablet might do these things a bit more nicely, the phone is good enough and a lot easier to carry around.

    I see a lot of silly remarks about the death of PCs due to tablets. It isn't going to happen. A lot of tablet-oriented people predicting this seem to have no insight into the many heavy duty functions of PCs used in businesses, all the way from process control to major accounting and database applications and much more.

  • Report this Comment On June 21, 2013, at 3:23 PM, rwk2008 wrote:

    Just a few thoughts. The technology behind all these recommendations is fairly highly developed and not particularly new. The real breakthroughs that will fuel the tech market are still in the lab or on the engineering bench.

    All these technologies are commercial mass market projects. So what's being promoted is not really technology, it's sales and marketing capability. Many of these stocks are already fairly highly priced with respect to their market share and potential. Buyer beware!

    Not every highly promoted technology becomes a huge market success, but a few do. Just try to avoid the next 8-track tape bubble as well as the next CB.

    What would really be interesting would be a peek at the NEW technologies that are under development.

  • Report this Comment On June 21, 2013, at 4:22 PM, travelpm wrote:

    New technologies - I believe storing digital data on the DNA of living cells will blow away everything that has happened so far in technology. But it is still in the very early stages of development. The possibilities of where that could go seem unlimited.

  • Report this Comment On June 21, 2013, at 6:17 PM, Bobbythecat wrote:

    Hate to rain on the parade, but our digital society, and many of these touted devices, are vulnerable to collapse. First, the open architecture purposefully designed into the internet for corporate advertising and law-enforcement reasons, is increasingly being penetrated by criminal hackers. Hackers seem increasingly capable of keylogging passwords, highjacking computers, and emptying bank accounts, among other things. Second, our entire transistorized communications and computing systems--and that covers just about everything--is vulnerable to electrometric pulse disruption. One high altitude nuclear airburst could fry every electronic device in the continental U.S., or 1/2 of it, at least. Unusually energetic solar activity might also cause considerable disruption.

  • Report this Comment On June 21, 2013, at 7:51 PM, Daveoffv wrote:

    Are you kidding? The market goes crazy and this is your nr 1 story?

  • Report this Comment On June 21, 2013, at 11:47 PM, Rialta wrote:

    The rise of 3-D printing is a stunning omission from this list. 3-D printing may be older than 5 years, but it's only really come into it's own in that time frame.

  • Report this Comment On June 22, 2013, at 10:44 AM, Rick1635 wrote:

    Graphene is being used in the next generation of digital camera sensors and supposedly allow a user to get a fantastic picture in extremely low light.

    Now we need an article using a crystal ball and pull it back out in ten years...just for the fun of it...

    How about that predictive article written ten years ago...

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 2:25 PM, Thinkerbus wrote:

    What about developments in energy technologies and sources, such as fracking and the application of natural gas to replace coal and diesel (cheaper, cleaner and huge supplies) and to a lesser degree CNG replacing gasoline. These are tech. developments that are extremely important to our society, climate and economy. What good is a phone or computing device if we lack viable energy for transportation and quality of life.? Biofuels and other petroleum alternatives are all gradually being integrated into our lives. These and other transition fuels will allow us to sustain our lifestyles and a cleaner environment over time.

  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 10:12 AM, Sam026 wrote:

    Wow! Best use of a Thesaurus in a Fool article ever:

    "two years after Henry Ford started his eponymous company"


  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2013, at 10:19 AM, XMFBiggles wrote:

    @ Rick1635 -

    Here's a predictive article for what might happen 12 years from now:

    Hope that works for you! (All predictions are, of course, subject to error.)

    - Alex

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2013, at 8:38 AM, Mreiher wrote:

    Silly the iPhone was left off the list... that product was pivotal in changing the phone market and set the stage for the App market, Android OS and tablets. An obvious omission.

  • Report this Comment On June 29, 2013, at 9:37 PM, XMFBiggles wrote:

    @ Mreiher -

    The iPhone came out in 2007, six years ago. Just missed the cutoff, or it would've been on this list.

    - Alex

  • Report this Comment On July 02, 2013, at 9:11 PM, snowcage wrote:

    They left out HD streaming porn

  • Report this Comment On July 05, 2013, at 12:32 PM, Efoollen wrote:

    And that's a bad thing?

  • Report this Comment On July 07, 2013, at 7:42 PM, Mayvau wrote:

    zlot. I too agree that not having a doughnut shaped space station by now is disheartening at best. I do believe that 3D printing might actually make that more a reality in the foreseeable future however. They can now just transport the basic materials to space and "print" the needed components in space.

    Thinkerbox. I witnessed/worked on my first natural gas well fracking in 1978 in northwest Colorado. I believe it is more the horizontal drilling and deeper wells that are to account for the boom in gas production today. On a side note the fracked well, owned by Mobil Oil at the time, produced such outstanding results executives from Texas and elsewhere flew in by helicopter for the following month or so, almost on a daily basis, just to get out of the helicopter, look at the meter, smile, get back in their helicopter and fly home. Someone told me the well was producing so much gas that it paid for itself in 19 days. I knew then that fracking was a game changer.

  • Report this Comment On July 14, 2013, at 7:16 PM, goliath480 wrote:

    @Efoollen - Yes, it's at least a travesty of epic proportions, one of the greatest since 9/11.

    But in all seriousness, the h.264 video standard and the implementation of it should've been on the list, IMO. Yes yes, Youtube was already delivering streaming video before five years ago. That's not what I'm talking about - the ability to slap in a Roku and have access to practically unlimited HD content? It's an amazing advacement in content delivery.

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