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 (TSLA -0.34%) 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.
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 (MSFT 1.24%) 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.
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 (AAPL 1.21%) 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.
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 (GOOGL -1.30%) 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.
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.
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 (META 1.23%) 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.