August 26, 2011
Who came first – first MP3 player, first tablet, first GUI. first smartphone. Just to offset the cult of Jobs a bit
And that’s Jobs, not his pal Wozniak who got out much earlier and hasn’t played the ‘Messiah’ role quite like the “other” Steve. I’m an admirer of both of these Apple founders, and liked their early pre-Mac products because they helped open up low-cost personal computing. And I don’t mind either that they (Apple Computer) made the market larger by embracing the GUI. It’s all good stuff. But I find the more recent holier-than-thou Apple marketing spin nauseous. Coupled with a dislike for messianic born-again leaders like Jobs I guess I have to say that I’m not overly impressed with Apple as a company, as sleek and stylish as their products may be. But I do recognise that they have a knack for functional, intuitive design, too. At a price.
And I’m not forgetting Steve’s years in the wilderness, his Pixar work or even Next. He clearly had vision, and the cash to see it through.
With all of that in mind, here’s a quick and dirty run past some alternative universes where other truths may lie…
Was Apple first to market with the MP3 player? Nope. I can remember the first MP3 files and players (on the PC platform) in the mid to late 1990s and the first portables a little later. There were rumours that a slick new design was being hawked around companies like IBM and HP but that Apple eventually took it up. I’ve never seen the truth or proof there but Apple certainly wasn’t first, nor was it the best. It may have had the best interface, though. And the best marketing.
Ask even seasoned MP3 buffs about the first MP3 player, and they’re almost certain to name the Diamond Multimedia Rio PMP300. If they really know their stuff, they’ll even tell you that it came out in late 1998. They’re wrong either way, although you shouldn’t be too harsh on them–their mistake is understandable.
Diamond Multimedia Rio? Not Apple?
The Diamond Rio’s false status as the first MP3 player is practically cemented in technology lore, so before it’s too late, I want to set the record straight. The world’s first mass-produced hardware MP3 player was Saehan’s MPMan, sold in Asia starting in the late spring of 1998. It was released in the United States as the Eiger Labs MPMan F10/F20 (two variants of the same device) in the summer of 1998, a few months before the Rio.
Eiger Labs, not Apple?
Here comes the irony: In 1998, Compaq’s engineers made the first hard-drive-based MP3 player and licensed it to a Korean company (Hango) that didn’t do much with it. In 2001, the first iPod came out. In 2002, HP acquired Compaq. In 2004, HP made a deal with Apple to distribute HP-branded iPods. I know I’m reducing the situation, but it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to assert that the entity now known as HP beat Apple in the race to make a high-capacity portable music player by three years–an eternity in the world of MP3 players–and still somehow lost.
Eh, Compaq and Hango, not Apple?
The world’s first company to announce a portable MP3 player and the attendant system for uploading MP3 audio content to a personal computer and then downloading it onto a personal MP3 player was Audio Highway. Under the direction of founder and CEO, Nathan Schulhof, Audio Highway announced its Listen Up player on September 23, 1996, won an Innovations Award for its Listen Up player and its Listen Up Personal Audio System at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1997, and began shipping the Listen Up player in the United States in September 1997. The Listen Up player also won a People’s Choice Award at the 2nd annual Internet Showcase conference, held Jan. 30, 1998. The device was not mass-produced; only about 25 units were made.
As the lead inventor on three U.S. patents, as well as co-inventor on another U.S. patent, Schulhof is sometimes referred to as “the father of the MP3 player industry.”[by whom?]
Gosh, no Apple here at all. In brief, they were 3 years late to the party with a device that did less but had a funkier, easier way to navigate the files. And better marketing.
What about first first tablet computer?
Again, not Apple. Well it depends, actually. The Apple Newton may indeed have been ahead of the pack but they ditched it. What Apple did later do was take what laptop makers were doing with accelerometers and WiFi and add in some mobile (cell) phone functionality. So they pretty much just up-sized their own smartphone. Which is a cool innovation, sure.
The term was made popular with the Microsoft Tablet PC concept presented by Microsoft in 2001. Today, the term tablet is also used to refer to computer-like devices operated primarily by a touch screen but not intended to run general PC operating systems or applications.
Microsoft, not Apple? Oh dear.
Following Windows for Pen Computing, Microsoft has been developing support for tablets running Windows under the Microsoft Tablet PC name. According to a 2001 Microsoft definition of the term, “Microsoft Tablet PCs” are pen-based, fully functional x86 PCs with handwriting and voice recognition functionality. Tablet PCs use the same hardware as normal laptops but add support for pen input. For specialized support for pen input, Microsoft released Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Today there is no tablet specific version of Windows but instead support is built in to both Home and Business versions of Windows Vista and Windows 7. Tablets running Windows get the added functionality of using the touchscreen for mouse input, hand writing recognition, and gesture support. Following Tablet PC, Microsoft announced the UMPC initiative in 2006 which brought Windows tablets to a smaller, touch-centric form factor. This was relaunched in 2010 as Slate PC, to promote tablets running Windows 7, ahead of Apple’s iPad launch.
At least the Apple Newton pre-dated Microsoft’s efforts, then. Phew.
Apple’s first tablet computer was the Newton MessagePad 100, introduced in 1993, which led to the creation of the ARM6 processor core with Acorn Computers. Apple also developed a prototype PowerBook Duo-based tablet, the PenLite, but decided not to sell it in order to avoid hurting MessagePad sales. Apple released several more Newton-based PDAs; the final one, the MessagePad 2100, was discontinued in 1998.
What about smartphones?
The first smartphone was the IBM Simon; it was designed in 1992 and shown as a concept product that year at COMDEX, the computer industry trade show held in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was released to the public in 1993 and sold by BellSouth. Besides being a mobile phone, it also contained a calendar, address book, world clock, calculator, note pad, e-mail client, the ability to send and receive faxes, and games. It had no physical buttons, instead customers used a touchscreen to select telephone numbers with a finger or create facsimiles and memos with an optional stylus. Text was entered with a unique on-screen “predictive” keyboard. By today’s standards, the Simon would be a fairly low-end product, lacking a camera and the ability to install third-party applications. However, its feature set at the time was highly advanced.
Oh, so IBM beat Apple both by concept and production. You’d never think that, would you?
The Nokia Communicator line was the first of Nokia’s smartphones starting with the Nokia 9000, released in 1996. This distinctive palmtop computer style smartphone was the result of a collaborative effort of an early successful and costly personal digital assistant (PDA) by Hewlett-Packard combined with Nokia’s bestselling phone around that time, and early prototype models had the two devices fixed via a hinge. The communicators are characterized by clamshell design, with a feature phone display, keyboard and user interface on top of the phone, and a physical QWERTY keyboard, high-resolution display of at least 640×200 pixels and PDA user interface under the door. The software was based on the GEOS V3.0 operating system, featuring email communication and text-based web browsing. In 1998, it was followed by Nokia 9110, and in 2000 by Nokia 9110i, with improved web browsing capability.
In 1997 the term ‘smartphone’ was used for the first time when Ericsson unveiled the concept phone GS88, the first device labelled as ‘smartphone’.
OK, so Nokia beat Apple, too. And Ericsson as well. Anyone else?
In 2000, the touchscreen Ericsson R380 Smartphone was released. It was the first device to use an open operating system, the Symbian OS. It was the first device marketed as a ‘smartphone’. It combined the functions of a mobile phone and a personal digital assistant (PDA). In December 1999 the magazine Popular Science appointed the Ericsson R380 Smartphone to one of the most important advances in science and technology. It was a groundbreaking device since it was as small and light as a normal mobile phone. In 2002 it was followed up by P800, the first camera smartphone.
Gosh, so Apple didn’t even win the race to include a camera. Given that there’s a heap of Palm, Blackberry and Windows devices yet to come, what exactly did Apple invent here?
In 2007, Apple Inc. introduced its first iPhone. It was initially costly, priced at $499 for the cheaper of two models on top of a two year contract. It was one of the first mobile phones to be mainly controlled through a touchscreen, the others being the LG Prada and the HTC Touch (also released in 2007), though the iPhone was the first mobile phone to use a multi-touch interface. The iPhone featured a web browser that Ars Technica then described as “far superior” to anything offered by that of its competitors.
OK, so Apple were again years behind the real innovators but came in late with a better browser and a multi-touch interface. Well that’s still innovation, but like all great innovations it was built on previous work. And it was a slick device made even slicker with the later App Store functionality. In many ways that easy-to-use shopping function was the clincher. Add in great marketing and whammo, success.
What about the GUI? Apple was first there, surely?
When the Macintosh was introduced in 1984, it represented something altogether new to the public – an affordable Graphical User Interface (GUI) on a computer with a mouse. Suddenly, while others were typing commands like “del index.com,” Mac users were dragging and dropping the image of a file into the image of a trash can. Users had a computer with an interface that made sense (intuitive).
Phew. New to the public. So they invented it, right?
But although Apple was the first to successfully mass-produce a GUI, they were not its inventors, nor were they the first to market it.
The honor for producing the first working GUI goes to Doug Englebart – at the time an employee of Stanford Research Institute. Englebart and colleagues created a program called the oNLine System in 1965-‘68. This program used the first mouse, a windowing system, and hypertext, and was based on a description of a system called “memex” proposed by Vannevar Bush in 1945. The name “mouse” comes from this period. The mouse used in oNLine had three buttons on one end and the line coming out the other end. Apparently, the buttons for eyes and nose, plus a cord for a tail, reminded the users of a mouse and the name stuck.
Oh, so Apple didn’t actually invent it. But their messianic leader Jobs, presumably, had the vision to take over other people’s ideas and package them in a way that sold. Are you seeing a pattern here?
There’s plenty more to this story but you have the gist of it. What I wanted to offset was this “Jobs – the man who changed the world” sort of media spin, which doesn’t recognise at all that many other people at other companies and institutions “innovated” just as hard – if not harder – before Apple added their unique and very stylish ‘extras’. In some cases Apple took bits out before others, like disk drives, and in other ways produced something that felt better in the hand or looked better to the eye. Or they came up with a better interface, or a better way to access extensions like Apps. Now I see that as icing rather than the cake itself. What do you reckon?
But it’s not just about me, either. So here is another, more celebratory view:
There’s a reason Mr. Jobs was named “CEO of the Decade.” Never has a CEO meant so much to one company or been as inextricably tied to a single brand identity. Indeed, there will be much to read about Mr. Jobs, his life and his legacy in the near future.
What matters is that in a very real sense, Steve Jobs changed the world.
Thanks to him, we all think a little bit different than we did before.