The iPhone Didn’t Emerge From Nothing. Here’s What Came Before It
On January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs stood on the MacWorld stage in his jeans and a black turtleneck. “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything,” he declared. “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”
Even after years of speculation, the iPhone was a revelation. No one had seen anything like it: here was a communication device, music player, and personal computer that you could hold in the palm of your hand. The media hailed it as trailblazing, almost magical.
Bloggers called it the “Jesus phone.” The introduction of the iPhone was characteristic of great innovations: they come at us unexpectedly, with novelty that seems to have come from nowhere.
But, despite appearances, innovations don’t come from nowhere. They are the latest branches on the family tree of invention. Research scientist Bill Buxton has curated a collection of technological devices for decades, and he can lay out the long genealogy of DNA that has forged a path to our modern gadgets. Consider the Casio AT-550-7 wristwatch from 1984: it featured a touchscreen that allowed the user to finger-swipe digits directly onto the watch face.
Ten years later—and still thirteen years before the iPhone—IBM added a touchscreen to a mobile phone.
The Simon was the world’s first smart phone: it used a stylus and had a collection of basic apps. It was able to send and receive faxes and emails, and had a world time clock, notepad, calendar, and predictive typing. Unfortunately, not many people bought it. Why did the Simon die? In part because the battery lasted only one hour, in part because mobile phone calls were so expensive at the time, and in part because there was no ecosystem of apps to draw upon. But just like the Casio touchscreen, Simon left its genetic material in the iPhone that followed “from nowhere.”
Four years after the Simon came the Data Rover 840, a personal digital assistant that had a touchscreen navigated in 3-D by a stylus. Contact lists could be stored on a memory chip and carried around anywhere. Mobile computing was gaining its footing.
Looking through his collection, Buxton points to the many devices that paved the way for the electronics industry. The 1999 Palm Vx introduced the thinness we’ve come to expect in our devices today. “It produced the vocabulary that led to the super thin stuff like today’s laptops,” Buxton says. “Where are the roots? There they are, right there.”
Step by step, the groundwork was being laid for Steve Jobs’ “revolutionary” product. The Jesus phone didn’t come from a virgin birth after all.
A few years after Jobs’ announcement, the writer Steve Cichon bought a stack of timeworn Buffalo News newspapers from 1991. He wanted to satisfy his curiosity about what had changed. In the front section, he found this Radio Shack advertisement.
Cichon had a revelation: every item on the page had been replaced by the iPhone in his pocket. Just two decades earlier, a buyer would have spent $3,054.82 for all this hardware; they were now taken care of by a five-ounce device at a fraction of the cost and material. The ad was a picture of the iPhone’s genealogy.
Groundbreaking technologies don’t appear from nowhere—they result from inventors “riffing on the best ideas of their heroes,” as Buxton observes. He likens Jonathan Ive, the designer of the iPhone, to a musician such as Jimi Hendrix, who often “quoted” other musicians in his compositions. “If you know the history and pay attention to it, you appreciate Jimi Hendrix all the more,” Buxton says.
In a similar vein, science historian Jon Gertner writes:
We usually imagine that invention occurs in a flash, with a eureka moment that leads an inventor towards a startling epiphany. In truth, large leaps forward in technology rarely have a precise point of origin. At the start, forces that precede an invention merely begin to align, often imperceptibly, as a group of people or ideas converge, until over the course of months or years (or decades) they gain clarity and momentum and the help of additional ideas and actors.
Like diamonds, creativity results from pressing history into brilliant new forms. Consider another of Apple’s breakthroughs: the iPod.
In the 1970s, piracy was a major issue in the record industry. Retailers could return unsold albums to a record company for a refund; many took advantage of this to send back counterfeit copies instead. In one case, two million copies of Olivia Newton-John’s album Physical were printed, and in spite of the album topping the charts, an astounding three million copies were returned.
To stop the rampant fraud, British inventor Kane Kramer came up with an idea. He would develop a method to transmit music digitally across phone lines, and an in-store machine would custom-print each album. But then it occurred to Kramer that a cumbersome machine might be an unnecessary step. Instead of producing an analog record, why not keep the music digital and design a portable machine that could play it? He developed the schematics for a portable digital music player, the IXI. It had a display screen and buttons for playing the tracks.
Kramer not only designed the player, he foresaw a whole new way of selling and sharing digital music with unlimited inventory and no need for warehouses. Paul McCartney was one of his first investors. The main drawback of Kramer’s music player was that, given the hardware available at the time, it only had enough memory to hold one song.
Seizing on Kramer’s promising idea, Apple Computer’s engineers incorporated a scroll wheel, sleeker materials, and, of course, more advanced memory and software. In 2001—twenty-two years after Kramer’s idea—they debuted the iPod.
Steve Jobs would later say:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while; that’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.
Kramer’s idea did not come out of nowhere, either. It followed in the footsteps of the Sony Walkman, a portable cassette player. The Walkman was made possible by the invention of the cassette tape in 1963, which was itself made possible by reel-to-reel tapes in 1924, and so on back through history, everything emerging from the ecosystem of innovations before it.
Human creativity does not emerge from a vacuum. We draw on our experience and the raw materials around us to refashion the world. Knowing where we’ve been, and where we are, points the way to the next big industries. From studying his collection of gadgets, Buxton concludes that two decades typically pass before a new concept dominates in the marketplace. “If what I said is credible,” he told the Atlantic magazine, “then it is equally credible that anything that is going to become a billion dollar industry in the next ten years is already ten years old. That completely changes how we should approach innovation. There is no invention out of the blue, but prospecting, mining, refining and then goldsmithing to create something that’s worth more than its weight in gold.”
From The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright 2017 by Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman.