No, the iPhone Isn't the Most Disruptive Product in History

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On the occasion of the iPhone's 5th birthday this week, Henry Blodget called it the "the most successful and disruptive product in history." That is fine as far as birthday hyperbole goes, but it's not true. 

Is the iPhone extraordinary? Yes, it is extraordinary. Blodget is excellent on this point. The little black brick with a glass window took down Palm, destroyed RIM, and created a business worth $30 billion of profit per year, making it bigger than Microsoft, rivaling Google, and nearing the realm of Exxon. This is one product we're talking about, mind you. The ripple effects in the App Economy, which was shocked into life by the iPhone, accounts for another $20 billion in annual revenue, and has created as many as half a million jobs in the U.S.

But let's be prudent: This is not the most disruptive product in the history of the world. It didn't kill tens of millions of people and reshape foreign policy for the next infinity years, like the nuclear bomb. Its effect on American industry will almost certainly never rival that of the cotton gin, whose invention led to the quintupling of southern slaves and reshaped the global cotton trade, not to mention a century-plus of southern history. Let's not even start with the steam engine and its industrial-revolution cousins, which together threw 10 millennia of economic stagnation out the window and delivered consistent and global rising incomes for the first time in human history. (I'm even tempted to point out that the iPhone might not even be the most disruptive technology with the world "phone" in it.)

In an update to his post, Blodget writes:

Several readers have suggested that "the wheel," "the cotton gin," "the computer," and several other products are more disruptive and successful than the iPhone. To which I say... yes, but not in 5 years.

This issue of the speed of technological diffusion reminds me of one of my favorite chapters from A Farewell to Alms, a book I promise I'll eventually stop citing. If the iPhone is indeed the fastest most-disruptive technology in history, it is winning an unfair race against every other invention in history. Two-thirds of Apple's revenue comes from outside the United States. In historical context, this is a remarkable fact. It is possible, not merely because the product is so universally applicable, but also because of a global supply chain that didn't exist a few decades ago. As Gregory Clark has shown, for most of human history, as clever people have been inventing things, their new ideas could travel no faster than horses or ships could carry them. Research by Richard Duncan-Jones showed that information of major world events moved at an average of 1 mile-per-hour for most of the last 2000 years, from the Roman Empire to the early American empire, until the invention of the telegraph for the first time allowed complex information to move faster that people (speaking of disruptive!). In other words, if an "iPhone" fell through a worm-hole onto the head of some Spanish guy in 1000 AD, news of this incredible event wouldn't even reach China for five months.

For this reason (and because there was no such thing as an airplane in the 18th century) the most famous inventions of the industrial revolution some took DECADES to gain a foothold in other countries. The cotton mill, invented in 1771, took 20 years to get to the United States, Clark writes. Watt's steam engine took 30 years to get to India. The steam railway, invented in 1825, reached the U.S. by 1830, but history doesn't show its adoption in Sweden or Portugal for another 30 years. Part of this lag was trade laws and a protectionist British government, which clung jealously to its tech talent. But even with spies lurking around the factories of London, it still took several decades for the most disruptive technologies in millennia just to cross the the English Channel and North Sea!

In other words, to praise the speed of the iPhone's adoption is really to praise other disruptive technologies -- the telegraph, the airplane, the intermodal container -- that make the immediate worldwide adoption of new products possible. To call the iPhone the fastest most-disruptive technology in history is really just another way of calling it the most recent most-disruptive technology in history. No shame there, but let's share the love with the other disruptors.
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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