Hope everyone got that new iPhone for the holidays 🙂
While you hold that thousand-dollar phone in your hand, ask yourself: what actually makes an iPhone an iPhone? University of Sussex economist Mariana Mazzucato, who has just published a new U.S. edition of her book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, makes a timely argument that it is the government, not venture capitalists and tech visionaries, that truly made the iPhone.
“Every major technological change in recent years traces most of its funding back to the state,” says Mazzucato. Even “early stage” private-sector VCs come in much later, after the big breakthroughs have been made.
Mazzucato has made a list of 12 key technologies that make smartphones work:
- Tiny microprocessors
- Memory chips
- Solid state hard drives
- Liquid crystal displays
- Lithium-based batteries
- Fast-Fourier-Transform algorithms
- HTTP and HTML
- Cellular networks
- Global Positioning Systems (GPS)
- The touchscreen
All of these technologies are important components of what makes an iPhone, or any smartphone, actually work. The foundational figure in the development of the iPhone wasn’t Steve Jobs. It was Uncle Sam. Every single one of these 12 key technologies was supported in significant ways by governments – often the American government.
A few of these cases are famous. Many people know, for example, that the World Wide Web owes its existence to the work of Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He was a software engineer employed at Cern, the particle physics research centre in Geneva that is funded by governments across Europe.
And the internet itself started as Arpanet – an unprecedented network of computers funded by the US Department of Defense in the early 1960s. GPS, of course, was a pure military technology, developed during the Cold War and opened up to civilian use only in the 1980s.
The Fast-Fourier-Transform is a family of algorithms that have made it possible to move from a world where the telephone, the television and the gramophone worked on analogue signals, to a world where everything is digitised and can therefore be dealt with by computers such as the iPhone.
The most common such algorithm was developed from a flash of insight from the great American mathematician John Tukey. What was Tukey working on at the time? You’ve guessed it: a military application.
Specifically, he was on President Kennedy’s Scientific Advisory committee in 1963, trying to figure out how to detect when the Soviet Union was testing nuclear weapons.
Smartphones wouldn’t be smartphones without their touchscreens – but the inventor of the touchscreen was an engineer named EA Johnson, whose initial research was carried out while Johnson was employed by the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment, a stuffily-named agency of the British government.
The work was further developed at Cern – those guys again. Eventually multi-touch technology was commercialised by researchers at the University of Delaware in the United States – Wayne Westerman and John Elias, who sold their company to Apple itself.
Yet even at that late stage in the game, governments played their part: Wayne Westerman’s research fellowship was funded by the US National Science Foundation and the CIA.
Then there’s the girl with the silicon voice, Siri.
Back in the year 2000, seven years before the first iPhone, the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, Darpa, commissioned the Stanford Research Institute to develop a kind of proto-Siri, a virtual office assistant that might help military personnel to do their jobs.
Twenty universities were brought into the project, furiously working on all the different technologies necessary to make a voice-activated virtual assistant a reality. Seven years later, the research was commercialised as a start-up, Siri Incorporated- and it was only in 2010 that Apple stepped in to acquire the results for an undisclosed sum.
As for hard drives, lithium-ion batteries, liquid crystal displays and semiconductors themselves – there are similar stories to be told. In each case, there was scientific brilliance and plenty of private sector entrepreneurship. But there were also wads of cash thrown at the problem by government agencies – usually US government agencies, and for that matter, usually some arm of the US military.
Silicon Valley itself owes a great debt to Fairchild Semiconductor – the company that developed the first commercially practical integrated circuits. And Fairchild Semiconductor, in its early days, depended on military procurement.
Of course, the US military didn’t make the iPhone. Cern did not create Facebook or Google. These technologies, that so many people rely on today, were honed and commercialised by the private sector. But it was government funding and government risk-taking that made all these things possible.
That’s a thought to hold on to as we stand in line at the Apple store.
Thanks for reading,