How the State helped build the iPhone

How the State helped build the iPhone

Apple has been lauded as the pinnacle of private effort. They have championed user friendly technology and re-written the game in the market for music and cellphones. However, not everything Apple did was through private effort. They had the invisible hand of the State supporting their research and development. The Internet and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) have a deep and intertwined history. DARPA played a significant role in the development and early stages of the Internet, which eventually evolved into the global network we know today. However, there were a lot of different technologies that were eventually commercialized and helped shape the electronic device we today know as the Apple iPhone. Here’s taking a look at how Apple benefited from R&D expenditure made by the State:

1. Giant magnetoresistance (GMR): GMR is a quantum mechanical effect that occurs in thin-layered structures of alternating magnetic and non-magnetic materials. It was discovered in the late 1980s by Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2007. GMR has found numerous applications in various technological fields, particularly in magnetic storage devices such as hard disk drives. This allows for higher storage densities and increased data capacity in hard drives. This type of compact storage helped Apple store thousands of songs on the iPod. The research into GMR was mostly funded in Germany and France. The US State helped in the commercialization of the technology. Dr. Grünberg worked at the Department of Energy laboratory in Illinois receiving critical support from the DoE before the discovery of the GMR.

2. Silicon based semiconductor devices: ICs are a vital part of most CPU-powered devices. Semiconductor devices include diodes and integrated circuits (ICs). Silicon-based semiconductor technology has been the driving force behind the rapid advancement of the electronics industry over the past several decades. The transition of ICs from Bell Labs, Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel into the iPod was facilitated by the US Department of Defence. Defence contracts helped fund the juvenile microprocessor industry. The US Air Force had large scale demands for micro-processors which led to flow of investment into ICs. Thus, the government became instrumental in expediting the R&D, driving down prices of ICs and making improvements in the IC technology.

3. Capacitive sensing: E.A. Johnson is credited with the capacitive sesing technology. Capacitive sensing is a technology that allows for the detection and measurement of changes in capacitance, which is the ability of a system to store an electric charge. Capacitive sensing has found widespread application in various industries, particularly in touch-sensitive interfaces. It is commonly used in touchscreens, touchpads, and touch buttons in consumer electronics devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops. It enables users to interact with the devices through gestures, taps, or swipes, providing a more intuitive and responsive user experience. E.A. Johnson first published his studies while working for Royal Radar Establishment, a British Government agency established for defence R&D. The touchscreen was invented at the CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) by Ben Stumpe and Frank Beck in 1973. In 1971, Samuel Hurst made a breakthrough invention in resistive touch screen while working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a national research lab set up in Tennessee. Thus, the foundations for the touch-screen actually originated in the work done in state-funded labs meant for defence or scientific research.

4. GPS: GPS is a satellite-based navigation system that provides location, timing, and velocity information to users worldwide. It consists of a constellation of satellites in orbit around the Earth, ground-based control stations, and user receivers. GPS enables precise positioning and navigation for a wide range of applications, including military, civilian, and commercial purposes. The development of GPS can be traced back to the 1970s when the U.S. Department of Defense recognized the potential of satellite-based navigation for military operations. The DoD initiated the Navstar GPS program with the goal of developing a reliable and accurate positioning system for military use. The DoD continues to play a crucial role in the maintenance and operation of GPS. They are responsible for the management and upkeep of the satellite constellation, monitoring signal accuracy, and ensuring the overall system integrity. Next time you use Apple Maps for directions, remember that the State had a major role to play in making maps accessible on your hand-held device.

5. SIRI: Siri was born out of a request made by DARPA to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in 2000 to design a virtual office assistant to assist military personnel. SRI was put in charge of the “Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organises” (CALO) which was a collaboration of 20 universities across the US. After the launch of the iPhone in 2007, the SRI recognized potential of the voice activated assistant as a smartphone application. SRI commercialized the technology calling it SIRI which was then picked up by Apple in 2010 to give us the omniscient SIRI that revolutionized the smartphone market.

There is a general tendency to decry the state as a slow-moving behemoth. However, when we espouse that opinion, we forget the role of the State played in long gestational technological advancement. The role of the State cannot be ignored in the direction and shape that scientific research has taken. While most of the research is focused on defence purposes, we cannot tide over the fact that when the State takes on a mission-oriented role, it does also lead to serendipitous inventions that help the wheel of innovation speed up. The State is not just a rule-maker and gate-keeper. It has a much more nuanced role in R&D which cannot be taken for granted.