That the iPhone had to share the stage the same day it was unveiled to the world is a footnote in history, especially given the degree to which that history has been indelibly shaped by the most consequential device the tech industry has ever produced.
I get that that is a bold statement: what about the IBM System/360, which transformed the back-end systems of governments, financial institutions, and enterprise? What about the PC, that did the same on an even broader scale, first in the office and then at the home, achieving Microsoft’s seemingly impossible goal of “a computer on every desk and in every home”? Or what about the data center, without which much of the iPhone’s magic would simply not exist?
In fact, the truth about any historical breakthrough is that it is built on everything that came before; this is especially the case with technological products. Even looked at narrowly, the iPhone’s software was built on OS X, itself built on NeXTSTEP, which was built on Unix; Unix was a product of AT&T’s Bell Labs research center, which also pioneered the transistor. The latter’s evolution to a 412 MHz single-core ARM11 CPU that was just powerful enough to drive the iPhone was just as critical to making the iPhone a viable product as was the evolution of a command-line driven operating system to one driven by touch.
And yet, out of all the evolutionary steps of both software and hardware the iPhone truly is special for a very simple reason: it combined the two in a way that made the power of each not just accessible but desirable for every single person on earth, resulting in a device that was not just stuck on a desk but in every pocket. This is the potential payoff from Apple’s focus on the integration of hardware and software: it creates the conditions to bring in users motivated not by a sense of professional obligation but drawn by delight.
I have long been struck by Marc Andreessen’s comment in a 2014 New York Magazine interview that he arrived in Silicon Valley filled with disappointment:
There had been this PC boom in the ’80s, and it was gigantic — that was Apple and Intel and Microsoft up in Seattle. And then the American economic recession hit—in ’88, ’89 — and that was on the heels of the rapid ten-year rise of Japan…I came out here in ’94, and Silicon Valley was in hibernation. In high school, I actually thought I was going to have to learn Japanese to work in technology. My big feeling was I just missed it, I missed the whole thing. It had happened in the ’80s, and I got here too late.
Andreessen, of course, went on to create Netscape, the pioneering web browser that declared in its advertising that “the web is for everyone”; it is, in terms of historical impact, the software analog of the iPhone. The Internet had existed in some form since the 1970s, and the World Wide Web was first proposed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, but it was Netscape that made that transformational technology accessible to everyone. Indeed, this is the common trait of truly consequential breakthroughs: they are adopted by everyone. And, by extension, it is that adoption that drives everything that follows.
To that end, the reason I was struck by Andreessen’s quote is that I once felt the same: I went to university during the dot-com era, and while even then I was obsessed with technology, my background was such that I never even considered working in the tech industry; by the time I figured out that I might have something to contribute not only had the tech industry bounced back from the bubble bursting, but the iPhone and the competitors it inspired had long since launched. What was left?
In fact, nearly everything: the reason the iPhone is so important is that by combining the Internet with the portability of mobile it created the conditions for the transformation of every part of society, from business to government and everything in between. Today I see my role with Stratechery as not only providing analysis of the news of the day but in many respects as a chronicler of some of the most fundamental transformations in history.
So here we are, ten years on: over two billion people own smartphones, the entire post-World War II economic order is teetering, and populism is on the march; I don’t think these facts are independent of each other.
There is, though, one more lesson, and that comes from the Apple TV: none of us ultimately know anything, including the late Steve Jobs. There’s no question that Jobs knew that Apple was on to something — he said so in the keynote, when he analogized the iPhone to the Mac and iPod. And yet, had he truly known that the iPhone would be exponentially more consequential than either, the Apple TV would have not made an appearance.
The truth is that dents in the universe are only observable after they have occurred; this is why their continued creation is best induced by the establishment of conditions in which risk-taking and experimentation are rewarded. The temptation is to adopt the mistaken mindset that all there is to be invented — and, more pertinently, to be adopted — already exists.
Andreessen worried innovation was over, when in fact the browser unleashed more innovation than had ever come before; for me it turned out that the smartphone wars were simply a prerequisite for the upending of everything we thought we knew about business and society. And, ten years on, it’s worth remembering that even Steve Jobs hedged his bets; the truly transformational can scarcely be imagined, much less established by fiat. That it happens anyway is freedom’s greatest triumph.
- The product had been previewed as “iTV” a few months prior [↩︎]