For everyone, the smartphone is the stand-out invention of the century so far – but young people stress the importance of Wikipedia and YouTube
In only 15 years technology has changed beyond recognition. In 2000 the most popular phone was the Nokia 3310; in 2004 a computer processor might have 170 million transistors, while in 2013 it had 4.3 billion; and with the rise of digital the US music market is worth almost three times less than in 2004. Some downplay the rate of change ushered in by the internet – one argument is the telegraph reduced message transmission from three weeks to 30 minutes, while the internet has reduced it from 30 seconds (with fax) to two. But it's the breadth of change that's truly revolutionary: by 2020 around 70% of the world's population are forecast to have a smartphone in their pocket.
There's no doubt among British people that the smartphone is this century's best consumer invention so far – over twice as many choose it as any other. Although preceded by the Blackberry the iPhone was the first smartphone to popularise a touchscreen, and with the first truly popular tablet computer also designed by Apple – chosen as the second most significant invention – Apple is perhaps this century's greatest pioneer.
In August 2015 a billion people used Facebook on a single day, a seventh of the world's population. Facebook is seen as the third most significant consumer invention, chosen by 23%.
Facebook doesn't have the same cross-generation appeal as the smartphone or tablet, however. While every age-group place the smartphone first and all but the youngest place the tablet in their top three, Facebook is only the fifth most important invention for 40-59s and over-60s, but comes second for the younger generations.
Generational views of the 21st Century
% of each age group who choose the following (or other-brand equivalents) as the most significant consumer inventions of the 21st Century. Click the column headings to sort
Likewise Wikipedia has disproportionately revolutionised the lives of young people. In 2014 we found that fully 84% of 18-24s had used Wikipedia for professional or academic research, compared to only 49% of 40-59 year olds. It's seen as the joint-third most important invention to the youngest generation, tied with YouTube (23% each), which only 3% of over-60s see as an important invention.
In contrast the top two generations say video messaging service Skype, which has helped millions connect with their children while at university, overseas or having moved away from home for work, is the third most important invention. They also stress the importance of TomTom and other automotive navigation systems, both placing this in fourth.