Linked by Thom Holwerda on Fri 30th Jun 2017 23:23 UTC
PDAs, Cellphones, Wireless

Ars has started a series on the advent of the IBM PC, and today they published part one.

The machine that would become known as the real IBM PC begins, of all places, at Atari. Apparently feeling their oats in the wake of the Atari VCS' sudden Space Invaders-driven explosion in popularity and the release of its own first PCs, the Atari 400 and 800, they made a proposal to IBM's chairman Frank Cary in July of 1980: if IBM wished to have a PC of its own, Atari would deign to build it for them.

Fascinating history of the most influential computing platform in history, a statement that will surely ruffle a lot of feathers. The IBM PC compatible put a computer on every desk and in every home, and managed to convince hundreds of millions of people of the need of a computer - no small feat in a world where a computer was anything but a normal household item. In turn, this widespread adoption of the IBM PC compatible platform paved the way for the internet to become a success.

With yesterday's ten year anniversary of the original iPhone going on sale, a number of people understandably went for the hyperbole, such as proclaiming the iPhone the most important computer in history, or, and I wish I was making this up, claiming the development of the iPhone was more important to the world than the work at Xerox PARC - and since this was apparently a competition, John Gruber decided to exaggerate the claim even more.

There's no denying the iPhone has had a huge impact on the world, and that the engineers at Apple deserve all the credit and praise they're getting for delivering an amazing product that created a whole new category overnight. However, there is a distinct difference between what the iPhone achieved, and what the people at Xerox PARC did, or what IBM and Microsoft did.

The men and women at PARC literally invented and implemented the graphical user interface, bitmap graphics, Ethernet, laser printing, object-oriented programming, the concept of MVC, the personal computer (networked together!), and so much more - and all this in an era when computers were gigantic mainframes and home computing didn't exist.

As for the IBM PC compatible and Wintel - while nowhere near the level of PARC, it did have a profound and huge impact on the world that in my view is far greater than that of the iPhone. People always scoff at IBM and Microsoft when it comes to PCs and DOS/Windows, but they did put a computer on every desk and in every home, at affordable prices, on a relatively open and compatible platform (especially compared to what came before). From the most overpaid CEO down to the most underpaid dock worker - everybody could eventually afford a PC, paving the way for the internet to become as popular and ubiquitous as it is.

The iPhone is a hugely important milestone and did indeed have a huge impact on the world - but developing and marketing an amazing and one-of-a-kind smartphone in a world where computing was ubiquitous, where everybody had a mobile phone, and where PDAs existed, is nowhere near the level of extraordinary vision and starting-with-literally-nothing that the people at PARC had, and certainly not as impactful as the rise of the IBM PC compatible and Wintel.

It's fine to be celebratory on the iPhone's birthday - Apple and its engineers deserve it - but let's keep at least one foot planted in reality.

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RE: Let's get some perspective...
by Alfman on Mon 3rd Jul 2017 16:06 UTC in reply to "Let's get some perspective..."
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And then the PC space stagnated. Sure, they got faster, extra features were added and components got more integrated. We got more colour, more RAM and more FLOPS. But between the Xerox Alto and today, very few novel and original ideas have appeared. Going back to car analogy, they got faster, larger, more powerful. But someone who was used to driving an Austin 7 could step into a 2017 stick shift Mercedes and still be able to drive it. Maybe not well, but they wouldn't be lost. Same goes with PC's

That's the nature of technology. Once the foundations are invented, there's less to invent other than to improve on previous work. It's not necessarily that engineers are less creative, but rather that the space between creations are becoming more and more subtle as the field matures.

It's not just tech, as content creation explodes on a global scale, literature, movies, art, music, apps, recipes, and even blogs and news events have less room to distinguish themselves. It doesn't happen suddenly, but ultimately this implies new work becomes less and less novel as time goes by. It's just statistically unavoidable.

So in our lifetimes novelty has shrunken, and this will continue for future generations as well. Some people may find this idea discouraging, but I'm uncertain whether human limitations to remember and consume so much information might "save" our perception of novelty. Ie, if a writer writes a creative work they think is novel and a reader reads the creative work thinking it's novel, then does it really matter that thousands of other writers may have already written the same thing by coincidence?

Same applies to the iPhone. Sure, it's not as huge a shift as some people make it out to be, but it's still a groundbreaking change in the way we, as people, interact with technology. We wouldn't have been able to get to the iPhone if it wasn't for Colossus, IBM System/360 or the Apple Macintosh. Does that make it less revolutionary? No. Does it make it any more revolutionary? Also, no. It makes it "as" revolutionary as it's predecessors. Allowing instant access to the welth of the internet whereever you happen to be is a pretty revolutionary concept in itself. The iPhone took what we had on the PC, packaged it into a portable format with a long researched, but revolutionary (in the consumer space,) interface.

The iphone may deserve credit for popularizing mobile internet, but they surely don't deserve credit for inventing it unless we allow ourselves to forget about the rest.

If we just look at the form factor, we can look to popular films from decades ago well before the technology was viable to see that the idea of featureless portable device was already there too, so apple cannot get credit for the idea.

Of course I don't know if apple knowingly copied these sources, maybe or maybe not, but either way it's another illustration of how hard it is to be genuinely original since the ideas are already there. There seems to social tendency, at least in this culture, to give an extraordinary amount of credit to individual people and companies, but in actuality it's usually collective efforts that enable all the necessary factors to converge. I'm not sure if my saying this will upset anyone, but for all the fame and glory some individuals get, the significance of them personally is quite arbitrary in the grand scheme of things - if not for them, it would just be someone else.

Edited 2017-07-03 16:10 UTC

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