What technology has surprised the most?

Fortune asked leading technology thinkers which technology has taken the most unexpected turn. Some of the answers may themselves surprise you.

By the Fortune staff

SAN FRANCISCO (Fortune) -- In preparation for the iMeme: The Thinkers of Tech conference, Fortune asked dozens of technology gurus the following question: For you personally, what technology has taken the most unexpected turn in your lifetime? Click on the names to read how Esther Dyson, Bill Joy, Jonathan Schwartz, among others, answered, or simply scroll down.

Richard Barton, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Zillow.com The early PC was revolutionary. It put unfathomable computing power in the hands of the little guy. It radically enhanced people's productivity and creativity, and changed the way they were entertained. It was a revolution. Then this device took a radical turn when it became connected to networks of others and it became the most important communication device in millions, now billions, of lives. To me, the implications of PC moving from a productivity and entertainment device to being a communication and distribution platform were unexpected or perhaps un-appreciated. I am responding with my PC to an email that you sent me right now. This email will be sent to you and then turned into the content of an article or a blog post that gets distributed over the network to potentially millions of people. I now spend the majority of my working life "doing email." When I started my business career, there was no email. Email is a revolution in and of itself and it is just one of the many emerging uses of the PC as a communications device for digital "society."

Marc Benioff Founder, Chairman, and CEO salesforce.com, Inc. (Charts) When we started talking about "the end of software" back in 1999, I did not think that I would see my chief rival implode just six years later. Client-server has been circling the drain a lot sooner than I thought. If you had told me at our founding that just seven years later Bill Gates would start saying that Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500) had to be more like salesforce.com, I would not have believed you. The turn has been abrupt.

Eva Chen, Co-founder and CEO, Trend Micro, Inc. (USA) Computerized video games. I never imagined that the computerized game could become something for my mom's generation, and could link with health and exercise ... but the Wii phenomenon really surprised me. When my mother's doctor prescribed a Wii console at home for my mom to exercise every day to cure her back pain and occasional depression, it turned out that she really liked it! What an unexpected technology turn in my lifetime -- from the invention of Pong for bored boys, through to the Wii for active grandmothers!

John Clippinger, Senior Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet and Society Harvard Law School For someone of my generation, who was raised to believe in the power of the combustible engine -- the power of carbon-based power systems -- as well as the promise of nuclear energy too cheap to monitor, the rapidity and totality of the ecological adverse effects of these technologies on the survival of the planet was not only unexpected, but profoundly altered my belief in humankind's ability to secure its own survival. As a species, we are capable of collectively acting in ways that could very easily lead to our extinction. As the complexity and scope of technologies increase, it seems less and less likely that Homo sapiens (what a misnomer) as we now know it is very likely to survive. There very likely will be some form of a technology singularity, perhaps not on the scale or time frame predicted by Ray Kurtzweil, but something of sufficient magnitude to aggressively select for a successor species.

Esther Dyson, Editor, Release 1.0 and founder of EDventure Holdings Most of the interesting developments have been a combination of business and technology, such as the commercialization of the Internet or the nascent commercialization of space travel.

Steve Fambro, Chief Executive Officer, Aptera Motors Well, I would have to say the ever-increasing ubiquity of powerful computers. Besides being connected and allowing people to exchange messages, data and to use the Internet, it's done something else. It's increased the technical/scientific/engineering capability of single engineers by orders of magnitudes. Properly used, and I stress "properly," computers are not just abstract boxes on desktops for email and surfing the net, they are powerful "force multipliers." For example, at our company we're heavily leveraged in CFD, computational fluid dynamics. Every single part of our vehicle that touches the air has been through countless revisions to lower the drag. Fifteen years ago, even ten years ago, our only alternative would have been to use a wind tunnel, an expensive and lengthy affair. It's unlikely we could have afforded anything other than a small 1/4 scale tunnel, and at $10,000 per day, which is a typical rate, we wouldn't have got very far. But, NASA and Boeing and other big giants have these tools, too. However, what's remarkable now is that small companies like Aptera can afford the same tools that these giants have. A small company, armed with these tools, but without a bureaucracy, can turn around key engineering decisions in days or hours, not months or years. The proliferation of these tools is a great equalizer with the bigger companies. What took 100 engineers to do in the 1940's can be done by several engineers, or maybe even one lone engineer, depending on the task.

Louise Guay, President and Founder, My Virtual Model, Inc. In 1986, I discovered that a computer was not only a calculator but also an integrator. I was able to create a Pocket Museum, which became my Ph.D. The user - a child - could create a portrait of identity, selecting a character, a monument, a landscape and an object. The child was able to integrate his own image with a video camera, blend the four images with the video and send it through a videoconferencing satellite link to a virtual friend across the Atlantic. It was a project between France and Quebec. Several national museums were involved and I realized that museums and stores have a lot in common, as Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus pointed out several years ago. My second museum was a digital museum of architecture commissioned by the Canadian Center of Architecture (CCA) founded by Phyllis Lambert, the heir of the Seagram family in Montreal. Existing museums of architecture have always been very abstract for the public. A digital museum allowed visitors to browse famous architects' libraries of plans and pictures of the construction sites. I started to realize how interactive, visual applications were democratizing the most abstract realities. Architecture is the realm of corporations, institutions, governments and very wealthy people. It is great to make it real for people when they will play a part in it and use it for multiple public purposes. My third museum was a museum of writing. This work was a multimedia biography of Glenn Gould. Being an interpreter, he wrote music by composing radio programs in which he orchestrated voices and music, editing everything by himself in his own recording studio. The Pocket Museum was an anticipation of My Virtual Model. J.F. St-Arnaud and I created My Virtual Model in 2001. Our vision and mission are to create the standard for the virtual identity. The users follow their own model, they create 3D model of themselves, they can shop by bringing their models with them on the Web and on their cell, and they can send it to their blogs with their closets, socializing with their friends about their fashion sense and the expression of their personality. Users are mobile with their virtual models, they can go from one website to another MVM-enabled site, and they are recognized. This is the mobility of the virtual identity. Many brands and retailers use it right now. We are launching a new version, totally user-oriented, to be installed on major publishers' sites. The users can mix and match brands and develop their lifestyle with these creative technologies. We envision that people will use all kinds of avatars. They will have many types of avatars and will need garments for them in their wardrobe.

Bill Joy, Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers For the positive, the Internet and UNIX. I was working to get these technologies to be reliable and perform well 30 years ago, and now I'm sitting here using them both, on a Mac running UNIX with wireless broadband Internet, as was envisioned 30 years ago. What is unexpected to me is how widespread this idea has become. We talked about it back then, but didn't totally believe it. I hope I am similarly surprised by the uptake of the green technology ideas I am focusing on today.

Mark Lewis, Executive Vice President and Chief Development Officer, EMC Corporation Air travel. With so many scientific and engineering breakthroughs made in medicine, genetics, robotics, the Internet and software, aviation is a surprising laggard, especially when it comes to commercial airline travel. We are basically no better off today than in 1959, when Pan-Am put into service some of the first Boeing 707-321 turbojet-powered airliners. Sure, the new Airbus A380 sports multiple decks and carries nearly 500 passengers. But aside from its breakthrough size and creature comforts, it's still just a big airplane. What ever happened to supersonic speeds? Whatever happened to a sustainable business model for such a vital global industry? Unfortunately, the technology innovations in air travel seem to be hampered not by engineering limits, but rather by economic feasibility. So instead of breakthrough technology in commercial aviation, we've got a broken business model that is practically stifling the technological innovation and advances that could otherwise be possible. Looks like my dreams of a three-hour Boston to San Francisco flight are woefully far off. Contrast this with the huge technological advances that are happening almost daily on the Internet -- it's affected the world forever, and continues to do so. What started out as a three terminal network has become a global information resource and commerce hub of unimaginable proportions. For a time you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the Internet had peaked, especially if you look back on the dot-com bust of the nineties, but that's when another wave of Internet-related innovation started to appear. We saw the emergence of disruptive technologies like voice over IP and instant messaging. We also saw the evolution of alternative business models like ASP's and the birth of open source. I wish we could say the same for air travel -- a global industry in dire need of some disruptive innovation.

Yusuf Mehdi, Senior Vice President and Chief Advertising Strategist,Microsoft Corporation (Charts, Fortune 500) Despite the time I have spent working on Microsoft's browser and related set of technologies, the Internet continues to take the most unexpected turns in terms of its impact on people, business, and software applications. The very basic capability of providing worldwide access to information as a corporation or as an individual publisher has been something that I knew would happen someday, but never at the speed and with the impact that it has had in terms of how information is created, shared, and consumed.

Harriet Pearson, VP Regulatory Policy & Chief Privacy Officer, IBM Corporation (Charts, Fortune 500) I have been most surprised recently by the interest in virtual worlds and related subjects. A year ago at this time I thought it was just games, and just this June IBM and MIT hosted an extremely well-attended conference in Cambridge, exploring how businesses and others are engaging with virtual worlds and the 3D Internet. The momentum and interest are amazing.

Tomaso Poggio, Eugene McDermott Professor, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; Co-director, Center for Biological and Computational Learning Massachusetts Institute of Technology I would say that personally I am very impressed by something which is outside the normal scientific publication network: it is the incredible performance achieved in predicting financial markets by a very small number of "quant" hedge funds. The best example is Renaissance, led by Jim Simon, a well-known mathematician. Medallion -- the flagship fund of Renaissance -- has an incredible track record since '89, with a god-like Sharpe ratio of 7 in the last couple of years.

Geordie Rose, Founder and CTO, D-Wave Systems Inc. The one that's had the most impact on me personally is quantum computation. Leading the process of turning the foundational formative ideas into real computing machines has led to a cascade of surprising and unpredictable turns.

Jonathan Schwartz, CEO and President, Sun Microsystems, Inc. (Charts, Fortune 500) The telephone. I remember when they used to be attached to walls. I remember pay phones, too. Now mobile phones are literally everywhere. There are billions of them around the world, and they've become the dominant device through which people experience the Internet. Via SMS, social networks, maps, bank accounts, music or news -- even camera phones dwarf the number of stand-alone cameras. People fight hard to communicate with one another; now they don't have to fight quite so hard. Mobile devices, and the services delivered through them, will only become more interesting and valuable.

Sol Trujillo, Chief Executive Officer, Telstra Corp. Ltd. Technology and turn in life -- for me it is two things, the internet and wireless. They rule how I conduct business and most of my personal interactions, whether it be communicating, being informed or being entertained -- just like some of us talked about in the '90s. Interestingly, we now see this everywhere in a very indiscriminate fashion.

Padmasree Warrior ,Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Motorola, Inc. (Charts, Fortune 500) For me personally, the technology that has taken the most unexpected turn in my lifetime is what I refer to as "the device formerly known as the cell phone." I still remember many predictions that by 2000 there would only be about a million cell phone users. Boy, were they ever wrong! Today there are about 2.9 billion mobile device users, i.e., roughly half the planet uses this technology for so much more than a phone call. Today people call people, not places! Today a new language called text speak is practiced across the globe with the characters "<3" meaning "love" the world over. This new speech crosses language and cultural boundaries, bringing us closer. Today's mobile phone retailing at less than $40 has more processing power than the spaceship that first put man on the moon; and the 13-year-old using it may well know more than the 1969 Apollo engineers! The mobile device of the future will be your persona. It will carry your mail and keep your calendar, it will be your wallet and the jewel you wear, it will be your camera and television, it will remind you when you forget, it will entertain you with music and games, it will help you get there from here, it will show things that you may miss, it will understand and talk to you, it will allow you to share your experiences and your worlds -- and all this as easy as a simple phone call.

Lee Thorn, Chair, Jhai Foundation I think it is the growth and utility of the Internet. In 1998 I asked Pam Hardt-English, the founder of Resource One, where I met people like Lee Felsenstein in the early 70s, why I should help bring computers to rural villages in Lao PDR. "Why is it worth the expense?" I asked. She thought a long time, then said, "Education and business. Through the Internet, most people will begin to imagine for the first time how wide and varied our world is. This wondering will lead to deeper education. And everyone will be using computers and the internet for business. If you cannot, you will be left behind." My father worked with computers in the '50s. I had a small vision of how computers could be useful. But the Internet was unimaginable.

Bruno Wu Chairman The Sun Media Investment Holding Group of Companies I never thought search technology would turn itself into the bridge to all content, connecting all passion and interest and securing such a scalable business model, and it has become the darling of the investment community. When I was at Sina, we already had search, but we failed to capture this opportunity. Top of page