With 2.2 billion sold, the iPhone is one of the most remarkable products in history. Could it have been invented by anyone other than Steve Jobs? In an alternate history where Jobs died in 2007 instead of 2011, would something like the iPhone exist today? The ‘Great Man’ theory says no: the course of history is altered by extraordinary individuals, and no invention is inevitable. Without Jobs progress in the smartphone market would have stalled, or even reversed: our World would be poorer if not for his presence. Jobs of course was a fan of the Great Man theory – “The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – but famously, so was Hitler.
Curiously, one of the 3 people Jobs picked for “Project Purple”, Tony Fadell, had interned at General Magic a decade earlier, who launched a ‘personal digital assistant’ with apps and a touchscreen. This wasn’t the first time Jobs ‘invented’ something that already existed: the first Macintosh came out shortly after Jobs saw an early Graphical User Interface and Mouse on a tour of Xerox Parc. Even the iconic design was lifted from a Cuisinart food processor Jobs saw in Macy’s (itself a copy of a higher-priced French design). As Jobs said, “good artists copy; great artists steal”.
If these ideas weren’t artfully copied by Apple, would they exist at all? Well it wasn’t just Apple and General Magic that dreamt up the smartphone: these ideas had been around for a while before Jobs skilfully executed on them. Even Nintendo had designs on an early prototype smartphone called the ‘Page Boy’ which featured, Email, Instant Messaging and even a search engine (Ask Mario). The Xerox Parc story is entertaining, but the truth is that most of what Jobs saw that fateful day in 1979 – including the computer mouse, files and folders, windows for applications – had already been demonstrated by Douglas Engelbart in the ‘Mother of all demos’ circa 1968! Of course none of these concepts were entirely new even then. In keeping with Apple, almost none of the most valuable companies today started with an original idea. Google wasn’t the first search engine. Amazon wasn’t the first ecommerce company. Facebook wasn’t the first social network.
This is just how innovation works. You take something interesting and try to contribute to making it more useful. Everything we invent is a product of our past experiences, discoveries, and culture. "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” as Newton said. History is littered with examples of productive rivalries like Edison and Tesla in electricity, simulataneous independent discoveries like Newton and Leibniz with Calculus, and multiple people proposing the same theories, unaware of each other’s work, like Darwin and Wallace with the Theory of Evolution. As Carl Jung said, "people don't have ideas; ideas have people”. Eventually an idea’s time has come. Sadly it’s often not the most deserving inventor that gets remembered, but the one that was better at marketing.
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General Magic, Wikipedia
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The Mother of All Demos, presented by Douglas Engelbart (1968)
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Xerox PARC and the Origins of GUI