business news in context, analysis with attitude

This commentary is available both as text and video. The two versions are similar, but not identical. Enjoy either, or both.

Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe, and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

The anniversaries of two major technological breakthroughs are being celebrated this week. One got a lot more attention than the other, mostly, I think, because it is more recent and relevant. But the other is no less important, in part because it opened our minds of possibilities that had not yet been considered.

The top-of-mind breakthrough, of course, is the iPod. It was just 10 years ago last Sunday that the iPod became available to consumers, and with it came an enormous shift in the balance of power. No longer would the music industry - retailers and manufacturers alike - be able to dictate to the listening public how and what we would listen to. We would not have to buy albums - whether on tape or vinyl or CD - that were configured the way they wanted. No, we could buy songs the way we wanted them, and create albums and playlists all our own. It was the disintermediation of traditional industry, and the placing of control firmly in the hands of the consumer. Not only that, technology has made it possible to load our iPods with songs never heard or released by the mainstream music industry - artists could go around the so-called tastemakers and go right to the ultimate listener.

When the first iPods came on the scene a decade ago, they changed the world for a lot of people. Not just the traditional music industry and consumers, but think of the competition - Sony, which until that moment was at the forefront of music listening devices with its Walkman line, in some ways has been playing catch-up ever since. And anybody buy a Zune lately?

But as great a change as the iPod created in consumer habits, it can be argued that it was another event - 150 years ago this week - that changed the world and people’s expectations to a far greater degree. It was a century and a half ago this week that the transcontinental telegraph was completed.

It was an enormous achievement, and created not just a foundation for connectivity, but also, I think, the expectation of connectivity that persists and grows to this day. Before that, if people wanted to send a letter from Missouri to California, for example, the Pony Express bragged that it could do it in less than two weeks. With the advent of a transcontinental telegraph, that suddenly seemed so...18th century. And talk about having as competitive impact - it may just be coincidence, but the Pony Express went out of business on the same day as the transcontinental telegraph went live. (It is a lesson that perhaps the US Postal Service should learn. But hasn’t.)

Sometimes we forget that the marvels of our age are built - philosophically and spiritually, at least - on the marvels of the past. To the people of 1861, I’m sure that the telegraph was every bit as fantastic as the iPhone 4S. Maybe more so, because their expectations were lower.

One other thought, if I may...

The transcontinental telegraph was completed in 1861, just months after the beginning of the US Civil War, and a time of enormous strife in this country. It connected east and west at a time when north and south were rupturing. It is good to know that it was within the American character to make progress even as the rest of the world seemed to be falling apart; we must hope that such achievement, even in hard times, still is within the American character, and that we will continue to move forward despite - or maybe because of - all the challenges we face.

That’s what is on my mind this morning. As always, I’d like to hear what is on your mind.

KC's View: