09 November 2016

John Doerr, the legendary venture capitalist who backed Netscape, Google, and Amazon, doesn’t remember the exact day anymore; all he remembers is that it was shortly before Steve Jobs took the stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco on January 9, 2007, to announce that Apple had reinvented the mobile phone. Doerr will never forget, though, the moment he first laid eyes on that phone. He and Jobs, his friend and neighbor, were watching a soccer match that Jobs’s daughter was playing in at a school near their homes in Palo Alto. As play dragged on, Jobs told Doerr that he wanted to show him something.

“Steve reached into the top pocket of his jeans and pulled out the first iPhone,” Doerr recalled for me, “and he said, ‘John, this device nearly broke the company. It is the hardest thing we’ve ever done.’ So I asked for the specs. Steve said that it had five radios in different bands, it had so much pro cessing power, so much RAM [random access memory], and so many gigabits of flash memory. I had never heard of so much flash memory in such a small device. He also said it had no buttons—it would use software to do everything— and that in one device ‘we will have the world’s best media player, world’s best telephone, and world’s best way to get to the Web— all three in one.’ "

Doerr immediately volunteered to start a fund that would support creation of applications for this device by third- party developers, but Jobs wasn’t interested at the time. He didn’t want outsiders messing with his elegant phone. Apple would do the apps. A year later, though, he changed his mind; that fund was launched, and the mobile phone app industry exploded. The moment that Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone turns out to have been a pivotal junction in the history of technology— and the world.

There are vintage years in wine and vintage years in history, and 2007 was definitely one of the latter.

Because not just the iPhone emerged in 2007— a whole group of companies emerged in and around that year. Together, these new companies and innovations have reshaped how people and machines communicate, create, collaborate, and think. In 2007, computer storage capacity exploded thanks to the emergence that year of a company called Hadoop, making “big data” possible for all. In 2007, development began on an open- source platform for writing and collaborating on software, called GitHub, that would vastly expand the ability of software to start, as Netscape founder Marc Andreessen once put it, “eating the world.”

On September 26, 2006, Facebook, a social networking site that had been confined to users on college campuses and at high schools, was opened to everyone at least thirteen years old with a valid e- mail address, and started to scale globally. In 2007, a micro- blogging company called Twitter, which had been part of a broader start-up, was spun off as its own separate platform and also started to scale globally. Change.org, the most pop u lar social mobilization website, emerged in 2007.

In 2007, Google launched Android, an open- standards platform for devices that would help smartphones scale globally with an alternative operating system to Apple’s iOS. In 2007, AT&T, the iPhone’s exclusive connectivity provider, invested heavily in something called “software- enabled networks”— thus rapidly expanding its capacity to handle all the cellular traffic created by this smartphone revolution. According to AT&T, mobile data traffi c on its national wireless network increased by more than 100,000 percent from January 2007 through December 2014. (Yes, you read that number correctly.)

Also in 2007, Amazon released something called the Kindle, onto which, thanks to Qualcomm’s 3G technology, you could download thousands of books anywhere in the blink of an eye, launching the eBook revolution. In 2007, Airbnb was conceived in an apartment in San Francisco. In late 2006, the Internet crossed one billion users worldwide, which seems to have been a tipping point. In 2007, Palantir Technologies, the leading company using big data analytics and augmented intelligence to, among other things, help the intelligence community find needles in haystacks, launched its first platform. “Computing power and storage reached a level that made it possible for us to create an algorithm that could make a lot of sense out of things we could not make sense of before,” explained Palantir’s cofounder Alexander Karp. In 2005, Michael Dell decided to relinquish his job as CEO of Dell and step back from the hectic pace and just be its chairman. Two years later he realized that was bad timing. “I could see that the pace of change had really accelerated. I realized we could do all this different stuff. So I came back to run the company in . . . 2007."

Technology has always moved up in step changes. All the elements of computing power— processing chips, software, storage chips, networking, and sensors— tend to move forward roughly as a group. As their improving capacities reach a certain point, they tend to meld together into a platform, and that platform scales a new set of capabilities, which becomes the new normal. As we went from mainframes to desktops to laptops to smartphones with mobile applications, each generation of technology got easier and more natural for people to use than the one before. When the first mainframe computers came out, you needed to have a computer science degree to use them. Today’s smartphone can be accessed by young children and the illiterate.

As step changes in technology go, though, the platform birthed around the year 2007 surely constituted one of the greatest leaps forward in history.

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