CNBC25: Rebels, Icons and Leaders

Forget Jobs and Gates—here are the tech names you should know

Technology has arguably had the biggest impact of any industry in the past 25 years but which leaders had the most impact? You might be surprised at what some of the pros say.

As CNBC celebrates its 25th anniversary, we're trying to come up with a list of the 25 most influential leaders of the past quarter century. We started with a list of 200 and asked readers to narrow it down to 25.

Tim Berners-Lee
Philippe Desmazes | AFP | Getty Images

Technology leaders actually take half of the top 10 spots in the current poll results, which MIT professor and futurist Erik Brynjolfsson said is right on the money.

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"In terms of transforming society, the big, big story is technology. That's the big story of our generation. You want the list to reflect it," he said in a phone interview. Although bankers make a lot of money, Brynjolfsson said they didn't have as much of a transformative impact on the world as technological innovators. "I would be comfortable with as many as a dozen or 15 people (from technology) on the list," he said.

Apple founder Steve Jobs tops CNBC's poll, followed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The next tech name on the list is Amazon's Jeff Bezos, followed by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and the Google guys—Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.

Brynjolfsson said he doesn't think Gates should be on the list.

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Gates "did most of his work before 1989," Brynjolfsson said.

One of the candidates many CNBC readers said should make the top 25 is Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, who currently ranks 90th on the poll.

"Qualcomm enabled mobility and carriers to reach much greater levels, and helped drive that market forward in a particular way," said ABI Research's John Devlin.

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Another leader who has stirred up a lot of support in the reader comments section but hasn't cracked the top 25 is Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and current CEO of HP. She ranks 26th on the current poll, behind Michael Dell and Larry Ellison, CEO of the database company Oracle.

Brynjolfsson isn't among those cheering for Whitman—he said he thinks her work isn't as revolutionary as, say, Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay.

Inevitably, with a limit of 200 contenders across the board, some names didn't make the list. So who did CNBC leave out?

An overwhelming favorite is Tim Berners-Lee, who, with apologies to Al Gore, created the World Wide Web in 1989.

Brynjolfsson also likes Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, which pioneered devices similar to Google Glass in the 1990s.

The list is pretty Western-heavy but Forrester's Frank Gillett said there's a lot of disruption going on abroad, too.

"It's interesting there aren't more Chinese innovators," Gillett said. He suggested Lenovo's founder Liu Chuanzhi and Sina's CEO Charles Chao, among others.

Based in the United Kingdom, analyst Devlin has a top pick that is probably a name you've never heard of: Olivier Piou, CEO and founding member of the Dutch company Gemalto. Established in 2006, the firm is a market leader in mobile phone SIM cards, mobile payments for banks, NFC (mobile communication by proximity) and digital transactions.

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Piou has worked in related digital fields since 1981 and is important because he has "a vision of where the market might go," Devlin said. "Gemalto positions itself in terms of digital security."

And, despite all the major technological advances of the past 25 years from personal computing to the Internet, Brynjolfsson said you haven't seen anything yet.

"This is the second machine age. I hope that people appreciate the fact that we are just in the early stages," he said. "The first disruption was in the last 25 years. That was just a warm-up stage, a tidal wave that's just getting under way."

Who do you think were the most influential leaders of the past 25 years? Click here to cast your votes.

—By Evelyn Cheng, Special to CNBC. Follow her on Twitter @chengevelyn.