Brain Pickings

The New Swiss Army Knife: Bill Gates Predicts the iPhone in 1995

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What Siri and the appification of faxing have to do with the difference between envisioning and enacting.

In 1995, exactly 20 years after starting Microsoft as a 19-year-old, Bill Gates penned The Road Ahead (public library), in which he envisioned the future of computers, information, and the internet. Now, another almost 20 years later, the book stands as a lucid presentiment of much of the technology we not only use but take for granted today. Particularly fascinating is this excerpt from a chapter titled “Appliances and Applications,” in which Gates envisions what’s essentially the iPhone:

What do you carry on your person now? Probably at least keys, identification, money, and a watch. And maybe credit cards, a checkbook, traveler’s checks, an address book, an appointment book, a notepad, something to read, a camera, a pocket tape recorder, a cellular phone, a pager, concert tickets, a map, a compass, a calculator, an electronic entry card, photographs, and maybe a loud whistle to call for help.

You’ll be able to keep equivalent necessities — and more — in an information appliance I call the wallet PC. It will be about the same size as a wallet, which means you’ll be able to carry it in your pocket or purse. It will display messages and schedules and let you read or send electronic mail and faxes, monitor weather and stock reports, and play both simple and sophisticated games. At a meeting, you might take notes, check your appointments, browse information if you’re bored, or choose from among thousands of easy-to-call-up photos of your kids.

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Wallet PCs with the right equipment will be able to tell you exactly where you are anyplace on the face of the earth. The Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that orbit Earth right now broadcast signals that enable jetliners, oceangoing boats, cruise missiles, some cars — and even hikers with handheld GPS receivers — to know their exact locations. Such devices are currently available for a few hundred dollars, and eventually they’ll be built into many wallet PCs.

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Off the roads, on a hike in the woods, the wallet PC will be your compass and as useful as your Swiss Army Knife.

In fact, I think of the wallet PC as the new Swiss Army knife.

Gates goes on to even presage Siri:

The wallet PC will connect you to the interactive network while you travel and tell you where you are. A voice from its built-in speaker will let you know that a freeway exit is coming up or that the next intersection has frequent accidents. It will monitor digital traffic reports and warn you that you’d better leave for the airport early, or it will suggest an alternative route. The wallet PC’s color maps will overlay your location with whatever kinds of information you want — road and weather conditions, campgrounds, scenic spots, even fast-food places. You might ask, ‘Where’s the closest Chinese restaurant that’s still open?’ and the answer will be transmitted to your wallet by wireless network.

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Eventually we’ll also be able to speak to televisions, personal computers, or other information appliances. At first we’ll have to stick to a limited vocabulary, but eventually our exchanges with our appliances will become quite conversational.

So how come Gates predicted but failed to invent — or, more importantly, create a culture around — this “Swiss Army knife” of the future? “Ideas are cheap and abundant,” legendary management guru Peter Drucker famously proclaimed, “What is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.”

Steve Jobs, it seems, had it right all along: “Real artists ship.”

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