Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Sorcerer's Phone, Part 1: Luke Skywalker’s Dwarf Sister

I’ve always thought the person who deserves the most credit for the personal computer revolution is not Bill Gates for convincing IBM to use his MS DOS operating system in the original IBM PC, or Steve Jobs for infusing a dumb box of wires and circuits—created by and largely for geeks—with Apple’s “insanely great” consumer-friendly technology innovations like the graphical user interface, the mouse, and plug-and-play functionality.

Instead, I’ve always thought the person who deserves credit for the PC revolution is whoever wrote the “Solitaire” program that comes bundled with every Windows operating system, and whoever was responsible for deciding to ship Windows with “Solitaire” in the first place.

I’m not making that up. I really believe it. Let me explain.

While computers seem fairly intuitive nowadays, that’s only because we grew up on them. We know how to turn them on, how to open a file, get online, play games and generally find our way around—even if we only use 5% of what’s available thanks to Microsoft’s annoying, engineer-driven habit of packing anything we might theoretically possibly need at some point in our lives assuming we were Stephen Hawking.

But “back in the day,” as old-timers will recall, the PC was a frustratingly non-intuitive beast, controlled not by pointing and clicking but by typed 'commands'—incomprehensible strings of words and backslashes each in their own highly specific sequence.

If you didn’t type exactly the right string of words with exactly the right number of backslashes, nothing happened. There were no cute little buttons showing miniature trash cans and spreadsheets and mailboxes that helped you find what programs you needed.

Worse, once you found what program you needed, there were no tool bars at the top of the screen to lay out your choices when you wanted to add up a column or change the font or print a letter or underscore a sentence.

There wasn’t even a “Start Button.”

You couldn’t cut-and-paste or drag-and-drop, and forget trying to plug a new printer into the thing and get it to start printing actual legible material before your infant child graduated high school.

Of course, all this assumed you were able to buy a PC in the first place, because buying one of the things was an equally non-intuitive process involving “Authorized Dealers” like Computer Factory.

And “Authorized Dealers” like Computer Factory were not exactly consumer-friendly Best Buy sort of places.

Instead of being staffed with friendly young teenagers who know how to make eye contact, these "Authorized Dealers" were staffed largely with serious young males in white, short-sleeved shirts who knew a great deal about Star Wars and programming FORTRAN or BASIC, but very little about communicating with three-dimensional human beings.

Still, they might be willing to sell you a computer if you spoke in FORTRAN or BASIC or happened to know Star Wars trivia, like who killed Luke Skywalker’s great-uncle in the Battle of Warf-Tweeter, and whether R2D2 was, in fact, Luke Skywalker’s dwarf sister, as Luke confessed he feared in one of the later episodes, “Revenge of George Lucas Milking the Phantom Jedi Empire, Batteries Sold Separately.”

But go to a Best Buy or Target and buy a computer, bring it home and put it together and start using it right away?

You couldn’t do it.

It was not until Windows came along—its entire user-friendly way of pointing-and-clicking having been ripped off from the Mac—that average people could at least get a general idea of what a personal computer was capable of doing.

For the first time, a person could turn on the machine and get it to do something without knowing ‘commands.’ And eventually you could go into a Best Buy to look at a Compaq or an IBM personal computer, not some "Authorized Dealer" with pasty-faced guys in a white shirt speaking in FORTRAN following you around.

But you still couldn’t do much on them.

You could turn them on, and you could see neat little icons, and you could try to play around with Lotus 1-2-3 (the spreadsheet from which Microsoft ripped off Excel), or WordPerfect (the word processor from which Microsoft ripped off Word), or…well, you get the idea.

But what was the point of opening Lotus 1-2-3 or WordPerfect or whatever else Microsoft would eventually rip off? Even if you could open it, you wouldn't know where to begin.

And that’s where the genius of “Solitaire” came in. Anybody—anybody—could move the mouse pointer over the “Solitaire” button, click, and start to play.

Which is why any time you walked into the computer section of a CompUSA or a Best Buy, you’d see somebody—male, female, young, middle-aged—doing one thing on a computer: they’d be playing “Solitaire.”

There wasn’t much to it. Just click on a few buttons and start playing—but those were things anybody could do. By the end of a game, the most computer-illiterate, non-FORTRAN fluent, never-saw-Star-Wars-and-never-plan-to person knew a little something about clicking on a program to bring it up on the screen; using drop-down menus to start it; and pointing-and-clicking the mouse to play the game.

It made you feel you could at least get the hang of the thing—and that, in my view, was immensely important to drawing consumers into the experience of using a PC.

Which is why, ridiculous as it may seem, I’ve always thought putting “Solitaire” on Windows was a stroke of unappreciated genius.

Now, we’re here to talk about the iPhone.

And you may be wondering how anyone could possibly care less than yourself about “Solitaire” and whether or not Bill Gates or Steve Jobs really deserves to be considered the genius behind the personal computer revolution, and if R2D2 was in fact Luke Skywalker’s dwarf sister.

The reason I dwell on it is this: I believe the clever folks at Apple have included the internet-generation’s version of “Solitaire” on the iPhone.

And I believe this feature—along with several very slick new technological advances, most of which you’ve probably seen on the television ads already—will help the iPhone become as widespread as the PC itself.

That is, assuming Microsoft doesn't do what it did with everything else Apple did on the Mac...

To be continued…

Jeff Matthews
I Am Not Making This Up

© 2007 NotMakingThisUp, LLC

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews' recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes a solicitation of business or investment advice. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.


smithycroftman said...

Oh Jeff, you're such a tease...

Andrew said...

It's disingenuous to say MS copied Apple by way of 'pointing-and-clicking' without further stating that the Mac GUI was a rip-off of Xerox's PARC division.

Further Apple is just as guilty recently as MS with their leveraging of the open-source community. Be it BSD or the GNU/Linux side.

Dave said...

Perfect analogy and great history example for driving it home. Too bad the tech industry still doesn't get it. What business did you say you're in and how do I put some money behind it ?
Seriously my other favorite example is Quicken - make it look like a check and hide everything else behind something they know.
How many bizzapps actually look like the job people are trying to to ? Practically none.
What would happen if somebody actually figured out, for example, there's an SMB market bigger than the large guys who'd love a whole suite of easy-to-use apps.
Sorry - just riffing away hear(here). You nailed it.

Jeff Matthews said...

Dave's comments are much appreciated.

For the record, however, this blog is not affiliated with a fund, nor do we respond to any investment inquiries from any readers of this blog, ever.

dmantoo said...


If I may draw an analogy of my own here, I would say that your blog postings used to be like the early Harry Potter books: short, more frequent, very well and tightly written, insightful, amuzing, a pleasure to read.

It all changes with the Buffett pilgrimage series. The posts are still good and insightful, but have become loooooong and cumbersome to read. As a faithful reader of your blog, I was personally annoyed at the length of the Buffett series and the time it took to get it out as well as to digest it. Part of my annoyance was that it was just so hard to scroll through pages and pages and pages of text - I realized blogs are not a good medium for reading e-books. I could only begin to appreciate what you had created with the Buffet series when I gave up trying to read it on my computer. I printed all of it out (it came to close to 100 pages) and read it like a book during my train commute. I enjoed it immensely that way.

The other part of my (uninvited) critique is that it seems that it is taking you a lot longer to get to the point, much like J.K. Rowling in later Potter books - there are just too many side stories, anecdotes, and alleyways.

I am also not a big fan of cliffhangers and teases, which you also recently started using with some frequency - they do have a legitimate purpose on TV to create suspense (and ratings), but the downside is they also leave a viewer/reader with the feeling of slight resentment and of being somehow cheated and manipulated.

This is your blog and you are entitled to do whatever you please. Hope that you will interpret this the way it was meant: constructive feedback from a loyal reader.

Dan said...

oh I should add, maybe the photo app. is just wishful thinking on my part. count me as one of the few who still buys film as the digital camera gathers dust. I can't stand managing/emailing/sharing digital photos

Randy said...

It's disingenuous to say that the Mac GUI was a rip-off of Xerox's PARC division without mentioning that the Mac was also a huge improvement over those technologies (some of Xerox's UI metaphors were goofy), and made them usable at a price point everyone could afford.

Microsoft was the one that did a bad copy. To this day their user interface is still a pale shadow of Apple's, both in design esthetics and ease of use simpllicity. And I've been using Windows for the last six years or so.

But to the point at hand, my IPhone doesn't have Solitare. The four innovations I think the IPhone brings to the table are the touch screen, the browser, the IPod, and Maps. The screen is just an enabling technology, others have done MP3 players in the phone that just didn't work nearly as well, and the browser is cool but not sure it's earth shattering.

I think Jeff is talking about Maps. I needed to find a McDonalds the other day, and Maps was amazing. Of course it would be that much better with GPS, but that's just a matter of time.

Martin said...

On a flight from Pittsburgh to Chicago last week, the gentlemen sitting next to me conspicuously placed his iPhone on the tray table. He was obviously anxious to talk about his new toy, so I obliged and asked him how he liked it.

Despite the pre-flight warnings about turning off cellphones, he powered it up and showed me the clever picture viewer and web browser. He also walked me through the more mundane tasks of making a call and sending out e-mail.

Two things struck me about the device. First, the way it allows users to select specific voice mail messages to listen to is the most important advance in cell phone interfaces in a long time. This is must-have functionality that will surely be copied by Nokia et al very soon.

Second, I was surprised by how difficult and slow it was to actually type out an e-mail. This basically guarantees that the iPhone will not steal significant market share from Blackberry and Palm. Business users simply will not accept a device that makes it very difficult to perform a core task.

Looks to me like the iPhone should have been named Newton 2.0. Early adopters loved their G4 cubes too, but Apple never sold them in any volume.

Konrad said...

"I believe the clever folks at Apple have included the internet-generation’s version of “Solitaire” on the iPhone."

Konrad said...

You wrote: "I believe the clever folks at Apple have included the internet-generation’s version of “Solitaire” on the iPhone."

That's kind of like "introducing" alcohol to the Russians. This is the generation that believes a person doesn't exist until they have a MySpace account.

Eli said...

I agree with what dmantoo mentioned.

Cliffhangers are very annoying when one is posting infrequently to a blog.

July 2nd: Big iPhone analysis coming!! You will not believe it!!

July 10th: Long, drawn-out, drug-induced post that alludes to the iPhone analysis that is coming any moment now!!!!

It is sort of like J.K. Rowling on peyote writing a blog on business/finance..

Now, I like long posts.. so that doesn't bother me.. I read Calculated Risk constantly. But, if you can, please give me a break on the "Tune in next time.." stuff.

Also, people love/loved to play Solitaire while using Windows.. but I don't know that they purchased their computers in order to play solitaire.

punchcard said...

Have to agree with dmantoo, I was thinking about making a similar comment regarding frequency. You used to write every 2-3 days but lately it's been less than once per week. Thirteen days was especially long for a content-lacking intro piece that ended with a teaser.

I very much enjoyed your Berkshire series, and appreciate that you have a day job and that this is all free. As dmantoo eloquently put it though, I figured you would want feedback from dedicated readers. Other than your sharp insights and wit, it was the frequency of your writings that caused me to bookmark this page and check it every day.

pondering said...

I too am a JM crackhead in withdrawl.