THE BLOG

What Do Milk Cartons and iPhones Have in Common?

01/10/2012 05:24 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2012

In the global technology world, cell phones, and now iPhones, have made the landline an afterthought. People in developing countries, where they require costly and complex networks, leapfrogged straight to cell and smart phones for the immediacy they provide. And in the West, our home phones go unused as we forsake them for our mobile phones -- precisely for their biggest benefit, namely mobility.

January 11th is Milk Day in the United States, which marks the first time milk was delivered to Americans in bottles 134 years ago. But the true innovation to celebrate today is the very distant relative of the bottle -- the shelf stable aseptic milk carton that predominates in the rest of the world. This is surprising to most Americans, since most of the milk sold here requires cold storage distribution and in-home refrigeration. But the aseptic carton doesn't require refrigeration, and is mobile. It, too, has leapfrogged the old-fashioned bottle, and also made the refrigerated carton an afterthought in the rest of the world. It can go anywhere, anytime, for sustenance and snacking.

In the developing world, where almost a billion people haven't enough to eat, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, this is critical.

So on Milk Day it is important to note that one of the simplest yet most seminal inventions of the 20th century is the safe, economical and highly mobile aseptic milk carton, which was pioneered by my own company, Tetra Pak, in the 1960s.

It's easy to compare this process to other examples of seismic change, such as the modern computer, which was room-sized in the mid-20th century; started shrinking and speeding up thanks to integrated circuit technology and microprocessors in the 1970s; and became ubiquitous in business and our homes as we started to use them to trawl the Internet and communicate with friends in the 1980s. By the 1990s, the innovations that made personal computers possible also led to trimmer, more feature-rich cell phones and PDAs, and eventually Smartphones that combine the functions of both these devices. Analysts predicted that Smartphone sales would eclipse the PC market by 2012, but in fact that happened at the end of 2010, according to statistics from International Data Corporation.

Now, everything is going mobile, and getting smaller and lighter in the process. Tablets are making inroads into PC sales and will likely surpass them, but are not predicted to eclipse the eminently transportable mobile phone -- precisely because the latter is so 'pocketable,' for lack of a better word. What else does so much and fits in the palm of your hand?

This little lesson in breakneck development -- known as 'Moore's Law' in the computer industry for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who noted that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years -- has been loosely applied to all rapid technological change in the last few decades. For example, Apple's first personal computer, the Lisa released in 1983, had a 5 MHz chip, but by 2001 the Powerbook had a 500 MHz chip. By 2002, the iMac had an 800 MHz chip, and the 2004 model had a 1.8 MHz chip. Technological developments starts slow, and speeds up exponentially.

The same is true of the milk bottle, which also spurred a series of life-altering inventions that started slowly, but eventually led to rapid innovation and change, beginning with pasteurization processes for milk in the 1890s that allowed it to be sterilized and stored in bottles safely for longer periods of time.

Tetra Pak founder, Ruben Rausing, a young packaging executive from Sweden who won a scholarship to study in the United States, took particular note of the paper carton during his brief year in New York, where he earned a Master of Science degree at Columbia University in 1920. He was so taken with the invention that he hoped to make them back in Sweden. It took him until 1951, and much trial and error, to bring the strong, light, hygienic milk carton he envisioned to market and until 1961 to apply aseptic technology to the process, allowing the milk to remain wholesome for up to six months without refrigeration and preservatives. With no more need for a cold distribution chain, the reach of the milk was expanded significantly and the production and shipping costs dropped even more dramatically, changing the way milk was distributed and consumed worldwide, especially in developing countries. This, in turn, improved the health and welfare of millions of men, women and children.

So think of Milk Day as a celebration of what the simple bottle inspired: higher standards of living, better nutrition and perhaps the greatest advance of the industrial revolution across all industries -- namely mobility.