Is an iPhone really more useful than the early 90s’ gadgets?

Advert showing a Tandy 286-basec computer for $1,599, with various office software bundled.I saw this linked on Facebook yesterday; it’s centred around a 1991 American Radio Shack advert in which a Tandy computer is offered for sale at a then reduced price of $1,599 (about £975 today, though I’m not sure what the exchange rate in 1991 was), alongside a portable CD player for $159.99, a “mobile cellular telephone” (i.e. an in-car telephone) for $199, a VHS camcorder for $799 and speakers with a “massive 15in woofer” for $149.95. His point is that assessing inflation is difficult with these kinds of goods, because they cost far less than gadgets cost 20 years ago yet do more (and do different things), while an apple (with a small ‘a’) does the same as it does in 1991 and yet costs more. However, I wouldn’t be so quick to proclaim that the iPhone is vastly superior to a computer with a proper keyboard and screen: their functions are very different.

Yes, it’s true that that Tandy computer wouldn’t be able to browse web pages, hold thousands of songs and record HD video. However, it did not need to do any of this because the web had barely been invented and most people had no form of internet access, and nobody had thought to store a huge amount of music on a hard drive. The machine could easily run the word processors of the day, such as the DOS-based WordPerfect and Microsoft Word, spreadsheet applications like Quattro Pro and Lotus 1-2-3, databases like Paradox as well as basic desktop publishing software. You could get things done and run a business on it. It was not a machine you bought for playing games on; that was when the Amiga and Atari ST were still very popular and they also had productivity apps, although they were more aimed at home use. Even the servers and graphics workstations of the time, which cost tens of thousands of pounds or dollars, had less storage and processing power than today’s basic desktop PCs and consumed a lot more power.

It was more expensive in large part because it was still manufactured in western countries, in Japan and in small Far Eastern countries like South Korea and Taiwan. The huge expansion of manufacturing in China had yet to take off, and so its economies of scale and beaten-down non-union workforce were yet to become available. Technology would be much more expensive today, and perhaps today’s iPhones and other miniature computing devices would either not have been made or would be much less widely available, had China not become the major source of manufactured goods. Economies of scale are also provided by the extra demand; there is a critical mass generated by social media, music and video downloading and by the convenience of email for correspondence rather than fax or the post. In 1991 you could get by quite well without having access to a computer; they were fun for some people and a good business tool for others, but rarely an essential item. However, another reason technology was more expensive then was that software was much more expensive: those productivity apps cost £300 a piece in the UK, or more. An entry-level software development package like Quick C or Turbo Pascal would cost something like £70. Today, an entire suite of productivity apps costs about £300, and then only when you need it for commercial reasons, and the software you need to develop software can be had for nothing. This is because enthusiasts developed it in their spare time, because they were sick of paying over the odds for software they couldn’t modify when it didn’t do what they wanted (although they were later aided by corporations and academia). This is another reason why smartphones are cheap: much of the software used on them is free, particularly on Android.

Finally, some of that kit is in some ways more useful than today’s iPhone. A smartphone is really no substitute for a computer, because its keypad and screen are tiny, indeed usually one and the same, and you can’t touch-type and you can’t see more than a few lines of what you’re writing at a time. Needless to say, if you’re a graphic designer or editor and need to see an entire A4 page or A3 spread, forget doing it on your iPhone. While I could write an email on my smartphone (which isn’t an iPhone), I could much better do it on a proper keyboard, and I could probably do it better on a very basic text-based email client (indeed have done, when I first started using the Internet at college in the mid-90s) than on a smartphone or even a tablet. I rarely write blog entries on smartphones or tablets; for that I really need access to a proper keyboard and screen, and preferably my own blogging software! Some can and do, and some have no choice, but even with a good predictive text keypad, I find I cannot write as fast on any smartphone keyboard as on a proper keyboard. I should add that even though CDs are bulkier than an iPhone, they carry a fuller range of sounds because the sound files used on smartphones are clipped to make them smaller, and the average iPhone can store less music than the iPods of five to ten years ago (which also did not also have to store other apps and their data).

So, an iPhone is a jack of all trades but really not a master of most of them; indeed, some modern smartphones have proven less than adequate as phones, because the phone app seems tacked on as an afterthought. An iPhone is not really the descendent of that Tandy anyway; a proper modern computer is, and that has also been miniaturised to some extent (particularly the screen, which is now usually a flat panel) and can do an awful lot more than either an iPhone or a 16-bit early-90s desktop computer, and is cheaper than the iPhone and a lot cheaper than a 1991 desktop computer. That said, if I had to sell all my gadgets the smartphone would be the last to go, because it does the basics of what I need and would keep me in touch with family, friends and potential sources of housing, employment etc. but I’d make sure I had a computer as soon as I was able to run one afterwards. So the comparison between an iPhone and “$3,000 [£1,825] of Radio Shack gadgets” is not really valid, not only because an iPhone is in some respects less useful than that computer but also because those $3,000 paid workers in real jobs real wages, while your $500 smartphone is made possible by near-slave labour conditions, minerals sourced from conflict zones and work done in people’s free time.

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