Linking the Great Eastern, Nokia and The iPhone at 10

The Great Eastern in all her glory. Credit: Wikipedia.

The Great Eastern in all her glory. Credit: Wikipedia.

The Great Eastern

Launching in 1858, the Great Eastern must have been a wonder to behold. The largest ship to ever sail the seas at the time (it would take another 43 years for it to be surpassed), capable of sailing from England to Australia with 4,000 passengers and without having to stop to refuel. While now, 160 years later, the very idea of sailing to to Australia would be regarded as unusual - unless you're either working on a cargo ship, or sporting a private or racing yacht - at the time, it's size must have been mind-boggling.

And it was mind-boggling, coming at the beginning of the era of the steam engine. And thus, the Great Eastern would be launched with five chimneys (even now, larger than usual) to give room for the engine exhausts. But of course, there is a major clause to this. In that, she was also a sailing boat - the engines weren't powerful enough to move her alone, as well as including paddle wheels as the design of propellor screws was too new at the time. The key piece being that she had been designed in the era of sailing ships which had a strong engineering and design understanding, and had the additional steam-engined pieces added to this original setup.

In the end, The Great Eastern would be a huge technical achievement, but not the end-game in design of the next generation of ships*. 

 

Jumping to the 2000's

Why do I bring all this up? Because, if we jump forward to the early 2000's, this is the equivalent state we were in when it came to mobile telephony. By then, the engineering and design understanding for creating a 'telephone' was well understood, with 140 - 170 years of history behind it (accounting for when the first telephone call was completed in 1876 and the first telegraphs in the 1840's). 

And what was happening through the early 2000's was we were retro-fitting the Internet (steam engines) onto telephones (sailing). And it was working for the most part, with most people really struggling to "think different". Nokia was king of the pile in feature phones and "Great Easterns" (aka their vision of the smartphone). The closest to innovation being the Blackberry which separated out email onto a dedicated device. But unfortunately, what no-one (including Apple) realised what was about to happen....

 

Upending norms

But we are also at the beginning of something new - something that was, and still is, profoundly changing modern communication methods.

The Internet.

Because up until the mid-90's, it was all about the telephone call - in existence for over 100 years and well established in its circuit-switched ways (granted adapting to digital to push more and more telephony calls down a wire). The most recent evolution being the telephone going wireless with mobile telephony, and the happy accident that was text message (originally envisioned as a tool for engineers to troubleshoot mobile phone networks).

However, there's also that strange anomaly I mentioned before - telecommunications started out, not with voice, but by message with morse code and the telegraph. And then messages, largely just worked away as a simple system until a certain few individuals - Vint Cerf, Tim Berners Lee, etc. - went on to create the Internet. I wonder did most of the world stand up and notice when the early world wide web came into existence?

So, from the 1960's and 70's, this profound 'idea' was slowly created that would have the same impact as other major milestones as the Printing Press, electricity or the automobile. Because up until the 90's, the assumption from the Telecoms world was that the Internet would run on the telephone wires - with the Telecoms industry even trying to put the Internet onto mobile with the abomination that was WAP.

The Internet really got its leap into the mainstream on mobile with the advent of the iPhone. One important piece to note is again, when you change the world and no-one notices, because if you watch the iPhone unveiling below, you'll see there is huge applause for the 'music player' and the 'phone', but only polite claps for the 'mobile Internet communicator'. Not even the geeks in the room realised that the both the iPod (with Spotify and Apple Music) and the phone would now run on the Internet, not the other way round. 

Without the iPhone, we wouldn't have Android as it is now (Android loyalists will be upset to realise that Android originally looked like a Blackberry until the iPhones's introduction) and modern web services such as Uber, Whatsapp, Snap, etc. etc.

So, as we all go about our days, in Jan 2017 and 10 years on from the announcement of the original iPhone, pay a small tribute to the vision of those leaders and engineers that gave us the modern smartphone.

Where Are We Going next?

So, Where Are We Going next? Personally, there's a lot of hype around Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning right now.

On VR, it's going to be big. As a gaming machine, but it has huge applications in simulation training (e.g. firefighters, military, etc.). AR is a neat trick right now, but definitely not there yet. A.I. is still a good bit away, but since it's the hype for this year, I'll just call it out and say that anything you hear as A.I. right now is actually Machine Learning: a computer following a very elaborate set of rules. We're moving past that, but it's not there just yet to make a truly 'smart' computer.

In short, I'm yet to see the iPhone for these tools. I.e. I feel like I'm seeing lots of Nokias from the late 90's, early 2000's. Perhaps I'm looking at wrong already, and what is really the next phase is the iPhone becoming a hub for a range of connected wearable devices (e.g. such as the image above of Apple's latest AirPods) providing access to ML assistants such as Siri? 

Don't believe me? Don't forget that the new Apple AirPods have the same processing power as the original iPhone. In a single earpiece......maybe we're not so far away after all!

 

An aside on The Great Eastern

The Great Eastern is also more than just an interesting Segway for my post above as it was to play a massive part in the history of telecommunications unintentionally. After its completion, it struggled significantly financially, killing its founder from the stress of creating it, however it would then be found to be the ideal ship for one purpose that no other ship of the time could handle: laying the first permanently successful transatlantic telegraph cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. Sometimes, ideas and fate has unexpected little links. For more on this, I highly recommend 'A Thread across the Ocean' by John Steele Gordon (Amazon link):

Neal McQuaid