The iPhone, Xerox PARC, and the IBM PC compatible

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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