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Steinberg: Something big behind iPhone, and it wasn’t just Apple

Apple CEO Steve Jobs holds up the iPhone during his keynote address at MacWorld Conference & Expo in San Francisco, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2007. | AP file photo

Follow @neilsteinbergAlexander Graham Bell was not trying to invent the telephone when he did just that. What he was trying to do, at first, was make a better telegraph. It was the 1870s, and the telegraph was 30 years old — about as old as cellphones are now. Like cellphones, the telegraph had become enormously popular, so popular that messages backed up at telegraph offices, waiting to be sent. The problem had to be solved; there was no point in telegraphing a message from Washington to Baltimore if it took three days for operators to get around to tapping out your message. You could walk it there in two.

Bell was working on sending many messages simultaneously through the same line in the form of different tones, then stumbled onto the idea that these tones could be a voice, a reminder of the often accidental nature of technological advancement.

So it is fitting that when Apple founder and chief executive Steve Jobs began to develop the iPhone, which he unveiled on Jan. 9, 2007 — 10 years ago Monday — what he was trying to do was safeguard the iPod, his wildly popular music player responsible for nearly half of Apple’s revenue. Jobs saw how cellphones decimated the digital camera industry, and worried his competitors would include music too. Then Apple might become Kodak: just another once-hot tech company.

Jan. 9, 2007, was also the day Apple dropped the word “Computer” from its corporate name, because it was going to be more than a computer company. You can’t sail across the ocean without leaving the shore.

When Jobs announced the iPhone, at the company’s MacWorld convention in San Francisco, he telegraphed his priorities by the order he listed them. “Today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products . . ., ” he began, “an iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator.” The big reveal was that all three were contained in one device.

“We are calling it ‘iPhone,'” Jobs said — the definite article “the” coming later, as did the ability to shoot videos. The camera on the first iPhone couldn’t take videos. None of the features Jobs thought were important ended up being what was really influential about the iPhone. Certainly not playing music or making phone calls, or even connecting to the Internet itself. But taking and posting videos — that ended up toppling governments and rocking our nation, most recently last week, affecting such basic matters as race relations and our view of the police.

OPINION

Follow @neilsteinbergUsually credit for the iPhone is laid at Jobs’ feet, and rightly so. But Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato points out something worth remembering on this anniversary: credit should be spread. In her book, “The Entrepreneurial State,” she points out that the 12 key technologies that make smartphones smart, from GPS to touchscreen displays to, of course, the Internet, all came from government research projects. Apple might have gathered them together in one oh-so-attractive package, but crediting Jobs with creating the iPhone is like saying Alexander Graham Bell invented the idea of communicating over a wire. He didn’t. The wires were already there.

This is important because our president-elect and his Congress cherish tearing down government and defaming science as a core principle, while still lauding business innovators like Jobs. When the truth is — for that dwindling slice of us who care about truth — that without both science and vigorous government investment in it, these advances will dry up.

Not right away. And the sad part — one of many sad parts — is, we’ll never know what advances won’t arrive due to our government being kneecapped because the advances simply won’t be here. We won’t know, so we won’t miss them.

Or maybe we will. When the iPhone debuted, we thought it was just the beginning.

“It’s a genuine handheld, walk-around computer, the first device that really deserves the name,” Lev Grossman wrote in a 2007 Time magazine article, contrasting the iPhone with the clunky, monochrome 2001 iPod. “Now imagine something that’s going to make the iPhone look that primitive. You’ll have one in a few years. It’ll be very cool. And it’ll be even cheaper.”

Didn’t happen. Apple glasses and watches are, so far, amusing curiosities. We’ll just have to keep imagining.

Tweets by @neilsteinberg