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.
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.