Wi-Fi

In 1941, Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr devised a system and submitted a patent for radio signals that changed frequencies.

Background

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (Heidi Lamar) was born in Vienna. She is most famous as the first woman to appear nude in a mainstream film. In the same movie, she was also the first woman to fake an orgasm. If that wasn’t enough, she wrote the patent for her spread spectrum technology with orchestra director George Antheil.

In an age where Tesla was still alive and Edison only recently died nobody took the Hollywood bombshell and her band director seriously. Nevertheless, their invention eventually proved as important as anything the Wizard of Menlo Park, Edison, or The Man Who Invented the 20th Century, Tesla, ever released.

Eventually, in 1985, the US Federal Communications Commission opened bandwidth for unlicensed use. Wireless phones followed as a common use case. Subsequently, bathroom was never the same.

More significantly, in 1991, NCR invented a wireless data standard named WaveLAN for use in retail. WaveLAN extended Ethernet, the wired standard invented by Robert Metcalfe at Xerox PARC, over radio waves.

Wireless Ethernet, Wi-Fi

Eventually, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) — the standards committee for everything electronic – realized the need to beam data over radio waves, not wires.

Vic Hayes, chair of the IEEE, worked on the 802.11 standard released in 1997. Specifically, 802.11 is the wireless extension of wired Ethernet, invented by Metcalfe.

In 1997, a consortium of equipment makers created the Wi-Fi alliance and branded wireless ethernet (802.11), as Wi-Fi, trademarking the name.

Today, Wi-Fi is everywhere from individual homes to businesses. Walk into a coffee shop in Manhattan and they’ll offer Wi-Fi. Similarly, walk into a coffee shop in Hanoi and they’re also likely to offer Wi-Fi. Consumers expect water to be sold but there is a worldwide expectation for free wireless internet access.

Web Search Engine

Noteworthy early search engines include Archie, from 1990, that searched filenames, and Gopher, from 1991, that organized files.

Early Search Engines

In March 1994, Stanford students David Filo and Jerry Yang created “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” Their website contained lists arranged by category of the burgeoning
World Wide Web. Sites were added by hand, with short snippets written by site creators. Initially, there was no charge to list a site. In January 1995 they renamed their website Yahoo.

In December 1995, to showcase the power of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) hardware, engineers designed a computer program to read and search (index) the entire World Wide Web. Originally meant as a hardware demo their website, Alta Vista, became popular. Alta Vista was the earliest full-text search engine.

Alta Vista merely matched words a user searched for and verbiage on websites. It was extremely primitive technology that did prioritize the significance or quality of websites. Yahoo was hand curated so did a better job, but the curation process did not scale well and, eventually, they started charging a fee for inclusion. Neither site did an especially good job searching. A third search engine, Excite, founded in 1994 rounded out the top search engines of the era. There were other smaller but still popular web search engines including Lycos (1994), Ask Jeeves (1996), and LookSmart (1995).

Google

In 1996 Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin worked on a computer program to determine context. They decided to read the entire web, the same way that Alta Vista did, except to rank the importance of websites. Initially, their primary criteria for importance was the number of links from other websites and the rank of those sites. This metric, called “Page Rank” (a pun on Larry Page’s last name and the utility of the technology), yielded vastly better search results than either Yahoo or Alta Vista. In late August 1996, Larry Page noted Google downloaded and indexed 207GB of content storing it in a 28GB database.

In September 1997 Page and Brin moved towards commercializing their search engine, registering the domain name google.com, a play on the word googol (a one with a hundred zeros after it).

Wish to return to their academic lives Page and Brin tried to sell their young company. They offered it to the owners of Alta Vista and Excite for $1 million. Both passed. They lowered the offer to Excite to $750,000. The company still passed. Page and Brin were all but forced to build out their budding search engine, eventually selling plain-text ads based on the search request.

In March 2005 IAC/InterActiveCorp purchased Excite, which still had significant traffic, for $1.9 billion. As of 2019 Excite has no significant search traffic. Excite was shuttered August 2013. Google parent Alphabet is worth just over $800 billion. Other search engines exist, most notably Microsoft’s Bing, but none have nearly the same number of users as Google.

Visual Web Browser

Tim Berners-Lee original world wide web was entirely text-based, mainly used to link textual papers to one another.

Mosaic

Marc Andreesen, then a student at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, extended Andreesen’s HTML. Andreesen extended the original HTML, adding components describing not only the contents of a page but also how it should be laid out.

Andreesen created a web-browser that is graphical, which assembled the text into what looked like a document on-screen. He named his visual web browser Mosaic.

Mosaic quickly gained in popularity, creating a surge of interest in the web. Eventually, Andreesen left school for Silicon Valley to commercialize the product, renaming it Netscape.

Netscape

However, Andreesen failed to receive intellectual property releases from his school. They worked out an arrangement for Netscape but also licensed the technology freely, including and most importantly to Microsoft.

Thereafter, Microsoft bundled a free web browser (Netscape initially sold their browser) into the then-dominant Windows operating system. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer quickly became the leading web browsing software in an era known as the “browser wars.”

Netscape eventually folded, unable to compete with Microsoft’s free browser and failing to find a different workable strategy.

Years later, Netscape released their software as open-source. Eventually, the non-profit Mozilla Foundation adopted it and the browser lives on as Firefox.

Besides fueling the early internet, Netscape also fueled internet investing mania. The company went public on Aug. 9, 1995, about a year after it was founded. At that time, young companies did not offer shares and companies without profits never sold shares. Defying both conventions, Netscape offered shares at $28 and closed the day at $58.25, touching $74.75 at one point. Dot-com mania ensued. Andreesen went on to become a successful entrepreneur and investor in other areas.

Today, the most popular browsers, Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari, are both open-source projects. As of 2019, Microsoft announced plans to eventually shutter the last proprietary closed-source web browser.

One important note: Engelbert’s “Mother of all Demos” demonstrated combined text and graphics, with hyperlinks, in 1968.

Smartphone

In 1909, Nicola Tesla described what eventually would be a smartphone. They’ve existed in various forms for many years.

History

IBM invented a phone called the Angler in 1992 with PDA like functions. Subsequently, they released a commercial version in 1994.

The term “smartphone” first appears in 1995 describing AT&T’s PhoneWriter Communicator.

Eventually, more phones appeared in the US using Palm OS, Newton OS, Symbian, and Windows CE. Common functions included email, texting, calendar operations, really slow web browsing, and voice calls. Overall, they were slow and clunky.

HP and Nokia released a hybrid phone/PDA in 1996. It opened like a clamshell and contained a screen and keyboard.

In 1999, the Japanese firm NTT DoCoMo released the iMode, the first smartphone to gain mass adoption. Equally important, DoCoMo invented their own HTML-lite page description language, being the first to recognize the importance of high-quality content for smartphones.

Progress continued leading to the Handspring Treo that fully integrated a Palm Pilot and phone, in 2002.

In the early aughts, various phones typically had small physical keyboards, mimicking the then-popular Blackberry email/phone combination.

Subsequently, in 2007, Apple released the first iPhone. Initially, there were no apps nor app store: the iPhone did a small number of things and did them well. It was a web browser, email reader, texting device and phone. Sales were strong but not spectacular.

Hackers digitally broke into the iPhone enabling the installation of third-party apps. These became popular. Apple resisted at first but eventually created a process to install third-party apps without hacking and the iPhone app store opened in July 2008.

Android phones, based on an open-source operating system Google purchased, were released in October 2008.

Since then smartphones have become ubiquitous, dominated by Android (Google OS) and Apple. IBM and AT&T, developers of the earliest smartphones, do not produce smartphones.

Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED)

Organic Light-Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) emit light with virtually no electricity. Lamps, televisions, mobile phone, and computer monitors are common applications. Additionally, OLEDs are bright, high-contrast, and extremely thin.

OLED screens are faster, brighter, and use far less energy than LED-based displays. As the technology develops, they will eventually cost less than LED displays.

OLED’s are literally and figuratively flexible: they bend. Consequently, this ability enables all sorts of interesting lamps. Curved OLED televisions already exist and bendable mobile phones are in development.

Eventually, inkjet printers will produce OLED’s, dramatically lowering costs.

In 1987, Ching Tang and Steven Van Slyke of Kodak invented OLED’s. Subsequently, as usual, Kodak failed to meaningfully commercialize the technology beyond patent licensing.

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Flexible OLED Display
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OLED Lamps
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OLED Video Wall

Mobile Phone

Mobile phones allow calls from anywhere that’s within range of a tower. They vastly increase productivity, convenience, lower the risk of a missed call, and they’re fun. Mobile phones work by beaming voice (and, later, data) to a tower, seamlessly switching from tower-to-tower as the person moves.

Cooper Creates the Mobile Phone

Battery-operated gadget maker Motorola invested $100 million between 1968 and 1983 to develop the mobile phone. Martin Cooper led the development effort. This culminated in the release of the $3,995 ($9,900 in 2019) Motorola DynaTAC 8000 in 1984. The world’s first mobile phone weighed 28 oz., offered about 20 minutes of talk time and took ten hours to charge. “The battery life wasn’t really a problem because you couldn’t hold that phone up for that long,” Cooper famously quipped.

The first public mobile call was from Cooper to Joel Engel, his competitor at AT&T who was also working on a mobile phone. In front of reporters, Cooper called Engel and said “Joel, this is Marty. I’m calling you from a cell phone, a real handheld portable cell phone.” Engel conceived of the idea for a cellular phone network, with switching from tower to tower, as a Bell Labs employee in 1970.

Mobile Mania

In 1980 consulting powerhouse McKinsey famously predicted there would be about 900,000 worldwide mobile subscribers by the year 2000. Instead, there were 109 million.

Due to mobile phones, Motorola revenue skyrocketed. A decade later, in 1994, their revenues of $22 billion put the firm 23rd on the Fortune 500 list.

Finnish company Nokia overtook Motorola in 1997 by retooling for digital, rather than analog, phone calls. Rather than focus on digital mobile phones, Motorola instead focused on Iridium satellite phone.

Motorola Stumbles

However, CEO Chris Galvin focused on a small digital phone, the Razr, but was fired in 2003 before it launched and replaced by Sun Microsystem COO Ed Zander. However, Galvin’s Razr was a mega-hit, boosting Motorola’s market cap to $42 billion in 2004.

Eventually, Zander struck a deal with Steve Jobs’ Apple to release an iTunes enabled phone, the Rokr, in 2005. Surprisingly, the iPod/iTunes phone flopped. However, as part of the development process, Motorola taught Apple about mobile phone technology and the mobile phone business. Simultaneously, Samsung adopted blue ocean strategy to manufacture good-enough phones at lower cost.

Subsequently, in 2007, Apple released the iPhone. Motorola had no smartphone, either in the development or the sales channel. In 2008, Carl Icahn purchased 6-percent of Motorola and demanded it be broken into parts and sold. Motorola continued working to compete, building an early Android phone. However, by 2012, Samsung had built a better Android phone, at lower cost.

On August 15, 2011, Motorola was sold to Google for $12.5 billion, a 63-percent premium over it’s then market capitalization. Twenty months later, Google sold what little remained of Motorola, besides the patents, to Lenovo for $2.9 billion.

Today, Motorola – innovator of the mobile phone – is essentially nothing more than a brand in the mobile phone world.

Flash Memory

Flash memory stores and retrieves information more reliably and faster than hard drives. It works similar to RAM but is slower and far less expensive. It is fast, cheap, reliable, and virtually shock-proof.

Fuio Masuoka was a Toshiba employee. He developed a better type of solid-state memory and filed a patent in 1981.

His new chip allowed storage to reliably retain memory even without power.

No sooner did Toshiba release the new chip than Intel created their own and successfully commercialized it. Masuoka sued Intel for patent infringement and won $758,000 in 2006.

Flash memory – first used in thumb drives – today powers computers, phones, servers, and other electronics. In 2019, the global flash memory market was $61 billion.

Eventually, In 2017 Toshiba sold its chip business — primarily the lucrative flash memory business — to private equity firm led by Bain for $17.7 billion. The business was immensely profitable but a cash crunch forced Toshiba to sell.

24-Hour News

Broadcast news was a staid affair, a half-hour visual summary showing events of the day. American networks NBC, ABC, and CBS each had a newscast and each aired at the same time.

Ted Turner inherited an outdoor advertising company. To build more advertising outlets he purchased a third-rate television station running old TV series and movies. In 1976, US regulators allowed him to transmit his channel via satellite to cable companies eager for cheap content. Eventually, he purchased the rights to WTBS and named his station the Turner Broadcasting System.

As the American public transitioned to cable, WTBS was a common channel and Turner’s reach — the number of people watching he could sell ads to — rapidly expanded. His net-worth also increased.

In 1977, media executive Reese Schonfeld contacted Turner about creating a 24-hour news network. Initially, Turner said no but later reconsidered. Turner’s Cable News Network, CNN, was launched with Turner announcing “We won’t be signing off until the world ends.”

Broadcaster Ted Turner created the 24-hour news channel that would continually update, rather than the short news broadcasts that preceded CNN. The “24-hour news cycle” became a business success and also changed the US political landscape.           

Roone Arledge and I had negotiated a new contract at ABC News, the country was in double-digit inflation, our children were about this high, and here I was thinking about going to work for a network that didn’t exist.

Bernard Shaw, CNN

The rehearsals were a nightmare…people would call for things that weren’t ready, the tapes weren’t there, the scripts were not completed.

Ted Kavanau, CNN

They started giving me a valium in my orange juice in the morning. But I didn’t know anything about it. After a week she stopped, because it wasn’t making any difference.

Reese Schonfeld, CNN

Cell phones were still a few years away. There was no Internet, but people could look at CNN and see history unfold before their eyes.

A cartoon in the New Yorker magazine from that time showed a dead bird, its feet in the air and a CNN cameraman capturing the event. “A sparrow falls,” said the caption, “and CNN goes live.”

Reese Schonfeld, CNN

Today, due to CNN and the internet, always-on news is the norm, not the exception.

Personal Portable Music Player

Battery operated portable personal music players are fun, enabling users to build a cocoon of their own music.

Portable radios and stereos date back to the invention of the transistor. Over time, these grew in size and power. Enormous stereos run from batteries, “boom boxes,” were commonplace. However, boom boxes played music from speakers and one person’s music is another person’s noise.

Walkman

Eventually, on July 1, 1979, Sony introduced the Walkman TPS-L2, the first portable modern music player. The system featured high-quality headphones and played cassette tapes. Unlike boom boxes, the Walkman was small enough fit in a (large) pocket. At $150 (about $500 USD in 2019). Sony predicted they would sell 5,000 units per month and subsequently sold 50,000 in the first two months. Initially introduced in Japan, the Walkman migrated to the US in June 1980.

The first Walkman ad | The Walkman Archive
Sony’s First Walkman Ad

Sony dominated portable music in the 1980’s, first with their cassette player and later with a DC version. However, due largely to inter-company conflict, Sony lost the market with the introduction of MP3 technology and digital music. In addition to their electronics business, Sony owned a music and movie studio. Unlike prior technology, MP3’s could make an unlimited number of music copies. Executives at the studio reviled MP3’s due to piracy and refused to release a Walkman that supported the popular MP3 format.

iPod

There were many MP3 players, the vast majority of them underwhelming. Eventually, on Oct. 23, 2001, Apple released the iPod which supported MP3’s. It was not the first portable MP3 player but was substantially easier to use than competitors. Arguing that piracy was out-of-control as people “shared” pirated music tracks over the internet, Apple convinced the studios to allow the company to sell individual songs for $.99.

Quoting articles from the time:

“The iTunes Music Store may be just the thing to get Apple rocking again too. As everyone knows, it’s been a tough couple of years for the computer industry as well. Apple swung back into the black in the first quarter of 2003 after two quarterly losses, but its profits were only $14 million, compared with $40 million a year ago. And as popular as Apple’s iPod portable MP3 player may be, it contributed less than $25 million of Apple’s $1.48 billion in revenues last quarter. So Jobs is betting that by offering customers ‘Hotel California’ for 99 cents, he can sell not just more iPods but more Macs too.”

Songs In The Key Of Steve Steve Jobs may have just created the first great legal online music service. That’s got the record biz singing his praises. Fortune Magazine. May 12, 2003. (emphasis added)

On Apr. 28, 2003, Apple opened the iTunes Music Store for use with the iPod; in the first week, iTunes customers purchased over a million songs. By 2018, Apple’s quarterly revenue was about $60 billion per quarter.

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Patents

Andreas Pavel filed patents for a portable music player, called the Stereobelt, in 1977 but failed to sell the idea to any music company. After protracted litigation ー where Sony won and lost various rounds in different jurisdictions ー Sony paid him a substantial settlement in 2003. Kane Kramer held the first broad patent for portable digital music players but lacked funds to renew it and allowed it to elapse before digital music players became popular.

Portable Computer

Portable computers are more convenient than stationary computers. They increase productivity for people who travel, allow office workers to bring work home, and enable telecommuting.

Background

Portable computers were developed at (where else), Xerox PARC. The Xerox NoteTaker, released in 1978, was the first portable computer. Staying true to Xerox tradition, only about ten were built and the project abandoned.

In April 2981, Adam Osborne, a frequent visitor to the Homebrew Computer Club released the first production portable computer, the Osborne I. The Homebrew Computer is where Wozniak and Jobs dreamt up the Apple. The Osborne was clunky but functional, with a 5-inch screen, 64Kb memory, two floppy disk drives, and a full-size keyboard. It weighed 10.7kg (23.5 pounds), cost $1,795 (about $5,000 in 2019), and used the then-popular CP/M operating system.

Despite far less power and memory than what today is a throwaway flip-phone, the Osborne sold well, moving 125,000 units in 1982.

Storm clouds were on the horizon when IBM released its first portable computer, the IBM-PC, on August 12, 1981.

Osborne announced plans to build a portable PC. The promised new computer decimated sales of the prior unit. Startup Compaq, founded by three former Texas Instrument executives, released the first IBM-PC compatible driving Osborne into bankruptcy.

Compaq

Founded in 1982, Compaq captured the market with the first IBM-compatible mass-market portable computer, released in 1983, the Compaq Plus Portable. It featured a nine-inch screen, 128Kb RAM, shock-proof disk drives, and the newly released MS-DOS operating system. The price was $4,995 (about $12,850 in 2019). Apparently, buyers of portable computers were not especially price sensitive.

Compaq thrived selling high-end PC’s until they started to struggle, in 1998. In response, they purchased Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC). That made no difference and the “high-end” computer maker continued to stumble in a market where PC’s were commoditized. In 2002, HP acquired Compaq for $25 billion in 2002, a merger often cited as one of the worst in history.

Alta Vista

While focused on machines and mergers, Compaq/DEC executives ignored an offer from two Stanford students to sell groundbreaking search technology to Compaq/DEC wholly-owned search engine Alta Vista for $1 million. Yahoo also turned the students down, forcing them to forge ahead and build their own business. In 2019 that business, Google, is worth approximately $830 billion.