Why the iPhone makes 2008 seem like 1968 all over again

Updated Wednesday, 23rd January 2008
Early attempts to engineer a hand-held computer finally come to fruition with the Apple iPhone.

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According to Google, 'iPhone' was the most googled gadget in 2007 as well as the fastest rising search term across the World. Clearly Apple's entry into the mobile phone market has grabbed the public's attention. But for all its sleek modernity, the iPhone has a heritage reaching all the way back to the end of the 1960s. Mobile telephones that do more than make calls and send messages are usually lumped together as 'smartphones'.

Most smartphones contain a suite of programs such as word processors, image viewing and editing programs, document viewers, media players and so on. Some phones now include GPS that allow the user to find their location, others are relatively powerful games consoles.

All of these tasks require powerful microprocessors, needing relatively large amounts of electricity, which call for large powerful batteries, or limit the amount of time the phone can be used before it needs recharging.

Smartphones have traditionally been relatively bulky and expensive; and suffer from short battery lives and complicated interfaces. As a result, sales have been disappointing, only accounting for a tiny fraction of mobile telephone sales. 

The iPhone has much less processing power and memory than comparable smartphones and simply can't perform many of the tasks found on these phones. But that doesn't mean the iPhone isn't a smartphone - in fact it might be the first smartphone for the masses, because it is a good example of a thin client computer.

Thin clients are something of a step backwards for computers. For the last twenty years, the computers on our desks have become ever more powerful and capable of running ever more sophisticated software; but before then, back in the dark ages of the 1980s and before, most computer users worked at a terminal.

The machine they sat in front of did very little work other than accept their typed commands (remember - windows and mice lay far in the future) and display the results. All the hard work would be performed by a large mainframe computer at the end of a length of network cable.

In many ways this type of computer never went away - your Web browser does much the same thing as those ancient 1970s terminals, its just that the network now extends all the way around the World and you have a colour screen. When you clicked on the link that brought you to this page, your computer sent a small amount of information (called the URL) to one of The Open University's server computers.

The server then gathered all the information needed to build this page - the text of this article, the menu bars, the images, other links and so on - and sent them back to the browser on your computer, which then drew the page you're reading right now.

Servers can do much more - an e-commerce server, such as those used by Amazon or eBay, can calculate prices; others can work out tax returns, perform complex statistics or even handle email and word-processing. All you need is a computer capable of sending, receiving and displaying information; and access to a network. Such as a mobile phone.  The iPhone iPhone [Image: Apple]

Making the iPhone into a thin client means that the phone doesn't do much of the hard work, it doesn't need such a powerful processor, allowing for a smaller, which means a smaller, lighter phone. It also means that Apple don't have to write and support iPhone applications; soon almost anyone will be able to deliver services to iPhone users over the Internet. More applications, will attract yet more iPhone converts and another record year for Apple.

A second triumph for the iPhone is that it doesn't behave like other computers. Many companies have tried to squeeze their PC applications on to a handheld device with mixed (but frequently disastrous) results. One example is Windows Mobile (which used to be called Windows CE). When originally designing Windows mobile, Microsoft recognised that the vast majority of computer users are familiar with their Windows operating system and with its interface. They have tried to replicate this experience as far as possible on the vast range of Windows Mobile devices that are on the market.

However, Windows was designed for comparatively large, high resolution screens, not the cramped confines of a handheld computer which makes Windows Mobile much less useful than it should be. Recognising the novelty of the iPhone, its designers have built an interface unlike anything else from Apple or any other company. 

A seemingly intractible problem with handheld devices is getting information into the computer. A desktop or laptop computer offers enough room for a keyboard, but pocket-sized devices have no such luxury. Some phones and PDAs such as the Treo and Sony Ericsson P910 have crammed minuscule 'thumb boards' on to their machines, allowing a dextrous user (with reasonable eye sight) to key in text using a single finger or their thumbs. But the tiny keys are awkward and the machines unattractive.

Other designers have chosen slide-out or flip-out keyboards which can be made larger, but increase the bulk of the device. Most mobile phones have stuck with the simplest of all options. It is possible to squeeze all the letters of the alphabet on to a conventional telephone keypad by allocating more than one letter to a single numeric button; a single press of '2' will produce an 'A', two presses a 'B', three presses a 'C'; a single press of '3' a 'D' and so on. The buttons can be reasonably large and easy to recognise, but the process of entering anything more than a short SMS message is time consuming and frustrating for many users. 

The iPhone dispenses with buttons in favour of a large liquid crystal display incorporating a touch interface. The keyboard is drawn on the screen with each finger press being recognised as a keystroke. The advantages of a virtual keyboard are many - it can be resized and reoriented to suit the task in hand, alternative character sets for non-English users are easily incorporated and new buttons can be added to the keyboard for specialist purposes such as entering email or Web addresses.

Naturally the screen can display and recognise far more than keyboard presses, software designers are free to design intuitive controls for other tasks - photos can be resized by pinching them with two fingers and it is possible to run your finger along a 'shelf' of music tracks just as you might do at home. Intuitive controls make devices much more easy to use, but are extraordinarily hard to design and program. 

The iPhone has proven there is a demand for such interfaces and we can look forward to many similar devices in the future, not just from Apple, but its competitors such as Microsoft and Hitachi. Commentators are almost unanimous that the iPhone is merely the first in a family of small, powerful, easy-to-use, always-on, networked devices, but there a warning from history that Apple will be only too aware of.

Fifteen years ago, a high-flying computer company released a revolutionary hand-held computer which promised to change the World. Five years later, the same company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, in no small part because of this device. The computer was called Newton and the company was called Apple. 

Throughout the 1980s Apple Computers was a stockmarket phenomenon; it had created the market for home computers, brought computers into schools and unveiled the futuristic Macintosh. But the 1990s had seen Apple's share of the PC market inexorably shrink as users switched from Apple towards much cheaper IBM PC compatible machines and increasingly sophisticated versions of Microsoft Windows. Apple was in trouble and needed something new if it were not to be relegated to history.

Apple's then CEO, John Sculley had been recruited from Pepsi where he had devised the Pepsi Taste Test that had dramatically increased that company's sales. Sculley was seen as an 'ideas man', and he had just the idea to solve Apple's problem - or rather he knew someone who did. That person was Alan Kay, a brilliant, maverick computer scientist who had joined Apple in 1984 but whose big idea had occurred to him as long ago as 1968.

Then, whilst working on his PhD, Alan Kay had invented the future of all computers - not just laptops, but PDAs, games consoles and smartphones. He had conceived the KiddiComp, a book-sized, battery-powered portable networked computer with its own colour graphical display all weighing less than a kilo! The KiddiComp, thankfully renamed as DynaBook, was not a flight of fancy, but an extrapolation of the trends that had allowed NASA to design the Apollo Flight Computer for its Moon missions.
A triumph of 1960s technology, the AFC was one of the first computers to use microchips, it weighed almost thirty kilograms and had the same processing power as a modern musical greetings card. But Kay realised chips would become more powerful, smaller, and most of all - cheaper. It was only a matter of waiting for industry to catch up with the DynaBook. The DynaBook remained an intellectual curiosity for almost twenty years until John Sculley heard about Kay's work.

At which point he decided the DynaBook would be Apple's salvation. Rebranded as the Knowledge Navigator, Sculley boasted about founding a $3.5 TRILLION business in personal information devices! Apple immediately set to work publicising the Knowledge Navigator; they employed LucasFilm - most famous for their Star Wars movies, to make a number of corporate videos showing the computer of 2010.

The public loved the idea of the Knowledge Navigator, tens of thousands of them bombarded Apple demanding where and when they could buy one. In reality the Knowledge Navigator was decades away, but as stop-gap Apple promised Newton, a revolutionary hand-held computer which users drew on using a stylus. newton would not need a keyboard - it would recognise the users' handwriting. It would be the simplest, most friendly, most practical computer ever built. 

Newton cost billions of dollars to develop and after repeated delays it finally slipped on to the market in 1993 to be met by almost universal disappointment. Newton was the Knowledge Navigator's ugly sibling - no colour screens, no seamless networking, no bowtied butlers.

Instead, Newton was slow and buggy - even its handwriting recognition didn't work reliably. Rather than usher in a new generation of computers, Newton became a butt of comedians jokes - even appearing in the comic strip 'Doonesbury' and TV's 'The Simpsons'. Newton limped on until 1998, successive versions improved the software and increased the speed until it was a genuinely useful machine.

Newton spawned the eMate, a tiny, rugged computer designed for schoolchildren, it provided inspiration for the Palm personal organiser which went on to become a billion dollar business and a 'must-have' business accessory - but none of that money went back to Apple. 

Newton was so futuristic that a decade after its cancellation, the handwriting software is still the best ever included in a consumer product - so much so that tens of thousands of the venerable machines are still in use. However Newton was doomed; Apple of the 1990s appeared to be in a state of terminal decline; news stories were dominated by the company's ever-shrinking sales and terrible reliability.

When costs had to be cut, the unprofitable Newton line just one of many to be discontinued in favour of the company's eventual saviours - the iMac and iPod. In 2007 Apple changed its name from Apple Computers to Apple Inc. recognising that the Macintosh is no longer its sole breadwinner.

The company is increasingly dependent on revenues from other devices such as iPod and iPhone and is looking to expand its range into new markets. After a forty year delay, Alan Kay's DynaBook might just have arrived.


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