When my father was a kid, his family had the first television on the block. Neighbors would come by just to watch the transmission signal. I was reminded of this family lore by Sony exec Steve Haber's comments about e-books in the Fast Talk section (which begins here): "Every time I give a Reader to someone, I never get it back. It's just like when digital cameras came out. At first, people didn't know they needed it. Now they can't live without it."
What a terrific definition of innovation. Whether it's TV, the iPod, or the automobile, breakthroughs can create demand out of thin air. For some people, Facebook and Twitter fall into that category: suddenly a must-have. In this uneasy spring, when economic peril and unemployment dominate our national dialogue, it is understandable that we sometimes overlook pockets of renewal. But the seeds of our recovery — however far off it may turn out to be — lie in newfangled, even bizarre inventions that will unexpectedly become indispensable.
One such craze is captured in "App Mania", writer Farhad Manjoo's analysis of the booming ecosystem that has grown up overnight around the iPhone and Apple's App Store. From such entrepreneurs as Ethan Nicholas, who projects his tank game will make him a millionaire this year, to big brands such as Kraft, which see the app world as a ripe marketing realm, to device makers, such as Research in Motion and Nokia — all are salivating to exploit our new passion for mobile tools.
Another emerging transformation lies at the heart of "The Doctor of the Future". Senior writer Chuck Salter avoids the swamp of congressional hearings, lobbyists' arguments, and think-tank reports about health-care reform. Instead, we visit with on-the-job doctors who are already deploying the kinds of cutting-edge technology that could make medical treatment cheaper, better, and more convenient — and reassert our global leadership in this critical area. "This is a $2.4 trillion industry run on handwritten notes," says one physician who has helped build a doctor- and patient-friendly software platform that borrows from Facebook and Zipcar. An Atlanta specialist in robotic cardiac surgery has set up an Internet-based college to teach his high-tech procedure to other surgeons. Salter also reports on a "sophisticated online crowd-sourcing tool that demonstrates the potential of the Web to transform the way all kinds of diseases are diagnosed," and a robot that allows experts to treat patients hundreds of miles away. As he puts it, "This is the vision of the medical system of tomorrow. And it's emerging today."
My father's TV looks different today too. It's color, for one thing. And digital. He recently turned 75, but no one came over to check out his transmission signal. I did send a text message to his cell phone, though.
I sometimes ask him about the range of changes he's seen in his lifetime. He can be nostalgic about his younger days. But he says he wouldn't want to turn back the clock. When he encounters something new‚ he can still get as giddy as a child. Thank goodness we all can.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.