Top 50 Tech Visionaries

Jeff Hawkins (#27) to Karlheinz Brandenburg and James D. Johnston (#34)

27. Jeff Hawkins

Jeff Hawkins
Photograph: Courtesy of Ed Schipul
Portable computing was shaped in large part by Jeff Hawkins, who invented the acclaimed PalmPilot, and then followed that up by spearheading development of the Treo six years later. Both Palm and Treo became household names, though Palm as a company has suffered numerous setbacks in recent years. Hawkins is now working on a startup called Numenta with his longtime partner Donna Dubinsky, focusing on the subjects of machine learning and neuroscience, which Hawkins has long had a deep interest in.

28. Fujio Masuoka

Fujio Masuoka
Photograph: Courtesy of Unisantis Electronics
If anything is positioned to challenge the dominance of Al Shugart's hard drive (see #33 below), it's Flash memory--an invention of Fujio Masuoka. Masuoka developed solid-state storage during his tenure at Toshiba (Masuoka says that the company initially tried to demote him after he came up with the technology). The technology is now seen as a possible way around the fragility of hard drives, as capacity ramps up and prices fall. For smaller gadgets, Flash has become essential...or would you prefer to be saving your digital pictures on floppy disks still?

29. Jonathan Ive

Jonathan Ive
Photograph: Courtesy of Apple
Aside from its showman/CEO Steve Jobs, Apple tends to keep its employees out of the limelight, but Apple VP and design guru Jonathan Ive has broken that mold. That's appropriate, since he broke another mold too, killing off the beige boxes and bricklike pocket gizmos that had become standard-issue in the tech industry. Ive's designs for the original iMac and for the iPod got people thinking about tech products as fashion accessories and decorative items instead of as impersonal and purely utilitarian objects.

30. Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos
Photograph: Courtesy of Amazon.com
Long scorned by Wall Street, Amazon.com--the creation of Jeff Bezos--is today the one Internet service that many people can't live without. But Bezos hasn't stopped at hawking Harry Potter on the Web. His company has also become one of the leading providers of Web services, online storage, and by-the-hour CPU rentals, as Bezos pushes Amazon toward becoming a platform that anyone can use to sell anything that Amazon itself doesn't.

31. Meg Whitman

Meg Whitman
Photograph: Courtesy of eBay
A longtime Hasbro marketing executive, Meg Whitman went from the child's toy box to the grown-up's as CEO of eBay. Whitman joined the online auction site in its infancy and over the course of a ten-year run shepherded it into one of the most successful businesses on the Web. (She retired in March of this year.) Aside from squabbles over policy changes and the baffling purchase of Skype, eBay's run has encountered few speed bumps. That success, some say, might lead her to run for governor of California in 2010, but Whitman denies harboring any such ambitions.

32. Bill Joy

Bill Joy
Photograph: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A legend in tech circles, Bill Joy was chief scientist for Sun Microsystems for over 20 years, where he oversaw numerous critical technology advances, the most important of which was the development of Java--the first major programming language designed for use on the Web. Still, Joy's greatest achievement is probably an academic project he worked on at Berkeley: The development of Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD), a major flavor of Unix; even Mac OS X uses BSD as its basis. Today Joy spends his days worrying about the evils of technology, such as bad robots and Grey Goo (a scenario where renegade nanomachines run amok and destroy the world).

33. Al Shugart

Al Shugart
Photograph: Courtesy of Computerworld
You're probably using a product conceived by Al Shugart right now without even knowing it. Shugart's company, Shugart Technology, switched to the more exotic-sounding name Seagate Technology soon after opening for business. At Seagate, Shugart developed technology that he had tinkered with during a stint at IBM (where he led the team that invented the floppy disk) into the hard drive for the mass market. The colorful Shugart ran Seagate for nearly 20 years before redefining himself as a sort of venture capitalist/promoter, a role that made him a staple at big tech shows like Comdex. Shugart died in 2006.

34. Karlheinz Brandenburg and James D. Johnston

James D. Johnston (left) and Dr. Karlheinz Brandenburg
Who says grad school is all impractical theory? At Friedrich-Alexander University, Karlheinz Brandenburg used his dissertation to work out a way of compressing digital audio files to radically smaller size without greatly deminishing their quality. We know the result now as MP3 coding. At AT&T Labs, American engineer James D. Johnston (left) improved on Brandenburg's work by introducing "perceptual coding," which strips out inaudible parts of an audio signal to compress the file further. Johnston's contribution, too, has become a standard feature of most audio compression schemes.

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