With those definitions in mind, here's a brief overview of IT innovation through the ages:
- Programmability: This, the first IT innovation, is the basis of everything that followed. It is what makes a computer a computer. Depending on your preferences, this either started with ENIAC or the Jacquard Loom.
- Storage and management of structured data: This is another fundamental of information technology and is the reason why it is called information technology. This shift began with the earliest commercial mainframe computers. The current state of the art is the result of a series of innovations that started with flat files, progressed to indexed systems like VSAM, and from there led to hierarchical, codicil, and relational database management systems (and, perhaps, "post-relational" database management systems, although the jury is still out on these). When the subject is records, fields, forms, reports, or any of the synonyms now in vogue, we're talking about managing structured data.
- Electronic publishing: Replacing Linotype machines that arranged lead type with electronic systems was a big deal even when the result was film used to create printing plates for offset presses.
- Word processing: The storage and management of unstructured data got its start with dedicated word processing systems. They changed the outcome of typing from immediately producing words on paper to presenting those words on a screen while storing them for later editing and printing.
- Electronic spreadsheets: While there were some intellectual forebears, Dan Bricklin's VisiCalc just might have been the most innovative concept in the history of information technology -- truly like nothing that had existed before.
- Visual programming: There was a time when the battle cry was, "If it has syntax, it isn't user-friendly." While visual programming has lost some of its momentum, its heritage still lets us do in minutes and hours what used to take days and weeks.
- Personal empowerment: While a few truly innovative ideas were first implemented on personal computers -- the electronic spreadsheet is a prime example -- the PC revolution mostly amounted to taking ideas that already existed and porting them to an inexpensive, independent environment that let individual end-users take advantage of them without waiting for IT support.
- Personal information management: The notion that computers could and should be used to help individual human beings keep track of the small stuff was brand-new when Borland introduced Sidekick.
- Electronic mail: Combine the PC and the Internet and what was the first and biggest game changer? The ability to send messages directly from one user to another without all the annoying intermediate steps like addressing and stamping an envelope -- and without all the waiting associated with them.
- Electronic communities of interest: Sparked by electronic bulletin board systems and newsgroups, for the first time technology allowed people interested in the same subject to interact with each other as individuals, unbounded by geography and time zone differences.
- The WIMP interface: Standing for Windows, Icons, Mice, and Pointers -- and more charitably called the GUI -- the notion that ease-of-use and visual appeal have independent value was new when Xerox's PARC Labs invented it. (Also new, but not such a good idea, was the idea of inventing something important and then letting everyone except yourself make money from it.)
- E-commerce: In the realm of business, e-commerce globalized supply chains while pretty much destroying what had been a growing movement within the world of business sourcing of placing a premium on quality and trusted relationships, replacing it with near-pure focus on price.
I'm sure there are a dozen ways to pick apart this list of a dozen innovations. Feel free to replace it with your own (and post the result as a comment below).