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…
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.
Posted by Jeff Matthews at 5:38 PM