Apple and the web are not nearly as novel as we think

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 March, 2012, 12:00am


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American consumer electronics giant Apple set a new record last week when its market capitalisation surpassed US$500 billion for the first time.

At that level, Apple is worth 25 per cent more than Exxon Mobil, the world's second most valuable company, and more than three times banking behemoth HSBC.

This milestone caps an astonishing bull run that has seen the company's share price climb 50 per cent since November.

The run-up seems entirely in keeping with the hysteria that surrounds the launch of each new Apple product, and the eulogies that followed the death last year of Apple's founding chairman Steve Jobs, who was said by countless breathless obituary writers to have 'changed the world'. Yet although Jobs and Apple may have achieved many things, one thing they have certainly not done is changed the world. Nor, even, has the internet.

Consider Apple. For decades the company's products, from the first Macintosh computer, through the iPod music player, to its iPhone and iPad tablet computers, have been hailed as revolutionary innovations in technology.

In truth, however, none was revolutionary, nor even innovative.

The Macintosh, introduced in 1984, shot to fame because of its 'graphical user interface' in which users clicked on icons using a mouse rather than typing in lines of code, and the ease with which it was possible to connect to a printer.

Yet none of these features was original. As the New Scientist magazine pointed out last month, all were introduced by Xerox in its Star computer, launched three years earlier. Unfortunately for Xerox, it failed to patent its groundbreaking hardware and software, allowing Jobs to launch a cheap - and inferior - imitation to enormous commercial success.

Similarly, the iPod was regarded as revolutionary back in 2001 for the way it married an MP3 player to an online music store. In fact, the combination dates back to 1996 when a company called Audio Highway launched its Listen Up player in concert with the Audiowiz music store, sweeping awards at the following year's Consumer Electronics Show.

Not even Apple's tablet computers are exactly original. Few remember now, but the first tablet computer was a device called the Newton, launched in 1993 by Apple during Jobs' long exile from the company from 1985 to 1997.

In short, all Apple's signature products have been evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. What Apple did in each case was to take an existing idea and market it successfully. Even then, its record at commercialising technologies is far from perfect. Indeed, the company failed utterly to exploit the potential of its own greatest in-house innovation.

New Scientist relates how, back in the mid-1980s, an Apple engineer, American Bill Atkinson, developed a software programme called HyperCard. Described as 'a kind of virtual Rolodex', it allowed users to jump between one card and another by clicking on some underlined text.

It was a neat trick, but Apple didn't know what to do with it. Others, however, were quicker to see its applications, including a young British scientist working at Europe's Cern particle physics laboratory called Tim Berners-Lee, who used it to create the World Wide Web.

Yet although Apple missed out on the big one, not even the internet is as revolutionary as we like to think. It's certainly convenient; if I want to send a copy of this column to someone in London, I can do so in a matter of seconds without even leaving my desk.

Twenty years ago, I would have had to walk to the fax machine, and transmitting the document could have taken a couple of minutes. Thirty years ago, I would have sent a telex, which would have taken about eight minutes. A century ago, I would have sent it by Morse code over the electric telegraph, which would have taken a skilled operator a laborious 15 minutes of key tapping. So in the past 100 years, each successive technology has offered an incremental increase in the speed of transmission, cutting the time it takes to send an 800-word document between two continents from 15 minutes to perhaps 15 seconds - a 60-fold improvement.

Again, this is evolution, not revolution. The real revolution in communications took place with the invention of the telegraph and the laying of a worldwide network of undersea cables in the 1860s. Before that, the only way to send a document to London was to seal it in an envelope and put it on a ship for a journey of almost four months.

Morse code offered a 10,000-fold improvement. In reality, it wasn't the internet that changed the world, but the invention of the electric telegraph 100 years before.

The point here is that because of proximity, we tend to exaggerate the significance of contemporary technologies. It's a tendency that has done wonders for Apple's share price, but it doesn't mean that either Steve Jobs or the internet has changed the world.