March 30th, 2016

Hard Stare

This will get me accused of fanboyism (again), but like it or not, Apple shaped the PC industry.

I recently read that a friend of mine claimed that "Both the iPhone and iPod were copied from other manufacturers, to a large extent."

This is a risible claim, AFAICS.

There were pocket MP3 jukeboxes before the iPod. I still own one. They were fairly tragic efforts.

There were smartphones before the iPhone. I still have at least one of them, too. Again, really tragic from a human-computer interaction point of view.

AIUI, the iPhone originated internally as a shrunk-down tablet. The tablet originated from a personal comment from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs that although tablets were a great idea, people simply didn’t want tablets because Microsoft had made them and they didn’t sell.
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Jobs’ response was that the Microsoft ones didn’t sell because they were no good, not because people didn’t want tablets. In particular, Jobs stated that using a stylus was a bad idea. (This is also a pointer was to why he cancelled the Newton. And guess what? I've got one of them, too.)

Gates, naturally, contested this, and Jobs started an internal project to prove him wrong: a stylus-free finger-operated slim light tablet. However, when it was getting to prototype form, he allegedly realised, with remarkable prescience, that the market wasn’t ready yet, and that people needed a first step — a smaller, lighter, simpler, pocketable device, based on the finger-operated tablet.

Looking for a role or function for such a device, the company came up with the idea of a smartphone.

Smartphones certainly existed, but they were a geek toy, nothing more.

Apple was bold enough to make a move that would kill its most profitable line — the iPod — with a new product. Few would be so bold.

I can’t think of any other company that would have been bold enough to invent the iPhone. We might have got to devices as capable as modern smartphones and tablets, but I suspect they’d have still been festooned in buttons and a lot clumsier to use.

It’s the GUI story again. Xerox sponsored the invention and original development but didn’t know WTF to do with it. Contrary to the popular history, it did productise it, but as a vastly expensive specialist tool. It took Apple to make it the standard method of HCI, and it took Apple two goes and many years. The Lisa was still too fancy and expensive, and the original Mac too cut-down and too small and compromised.

The many rivals’ efforts were, in hindsight, almost embarrassingly bad. IBM’s TopView was a pioneering GUI and it was rubbish. Windows 1 and 2 were rubbish. OS/2 1.x was rubbish, and to be honest, OS/2 2.x was the pre-iPhone smartphone of GUI OSes: very capable, but horribly complex and fiddly.

Actually, arguably — and demonstrably, from the Atari ST market — DR GEM was a far better GUI than Windows 1 or 2. GEM was a rip-off of the Mac; the PC version got sued and crippled as a result, so blatant was it. It took MS over a decade to learn from the Mac (and GEM) and produce the first version of Windows with a GUI good enough to rival the Mac’s, while being different enough not to get sued: Windows 95.

Now, 2 decades later, everyone’s GUI borrows from Win95. Linux is still struggling to move on from Win95-like desktops, and even Mac OS X, based on a product which inspired Win95, borrows some elements from the Win95 GUI.

Everyone copies MS, and MS copies Apple. Apple takes bleeding-edge tech and turns geek toys into products that the masses actually want to buy.

Microsoft’s success is founded on the IBM PC, and that was IBM’s response to the Apple ][.

Apple has been doing this consistently for about 40 years. It often takes it 2 or 3 goes, but it does.

  • First time: 8-bit home micros (the Apple ][, an improved version of a DIY kit.)

  • Second time: GUIs (first the Lisa, then the Mac).

  • Third time: USB (on the iMac, arguably the first general-purpose PC designed and sold for Internet access as its primary function).

  • Fourth time: digital music players (the iPod wasn’t even the first with a hard disk).

  • Fifth time: desktop Unix (OS X, based on NeXTstep).

  • Sixth time: smartphones (based on what became the iPad, remember).

  • Seventh time: tablets (the iPad, actually progenitor of the iPhone rather than the other way round).

Yes, there are too many Mac fans, and they’re often under-informed. But there are also far to many Microsoft apologists, and too many Linux ones, too.

I use an Apple desktop, partly because with a desktop, I can choose my own keyboard and pointing device. I hate modern Apple ones.

I don’t use Apple laptops or phones. I’ve owned multiple examples of both. I prefer the rivals.

My whole career has been largely propelled by Microsoft products. I still use some, although my laptops run Linux, which I much prefer.

I am not a fanboy of any of them, but sadly, anyone who expresses fondness or admiration for anything Apple will be inevitably branded as one by the Anti-Apple fanboys, whose ardent advocacy is just as strong and just as irrational.

As will this.