The iPhone and the Invisible Hand of Government

October 5, 2011 | Alex Trembath,

With sad news this week of the passing of Apple's Steve Jobs, we look back at the history of public-private partnership behind so many of the platform innovations later brought to market in groudbreaking and unexpected ways by the pioneering CEO. He will be missed.



cook-iphone.jpg
Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Following yesterday's announcement of the new iPhone 4S, tech bloggers this morning have been abuzz with the realization that the federal government played a strong role in the new smart phone's innovations. Siri, Apple's new voice-recognition software, is a project straight out of DARPA, the Defense Department's accomplished research agency. The new intelligent programming is just the latest addition to iPhone's many government-backed technology platforms.

Wired blogger Steven Levy tweeted about DOD's hand in Siri's development during the announcement yesterday, news that was quickly picked up by both the Wired national security blog and Adam Clarke Estes of the Atlantic's technology page. As Estes wrote,
 

Originally a part of the Personal Assistant that Learns (PAL) program from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Siri started out as SRI International. The technology appealed to the DARPA for making everyday tasks more efficient as much as it did for combat tasks.

Of course, this isn't really groundbreaking news - as we documented in our 2010 report "Where Good Technologies Come From," the iPhone's major hardware and software innovations were only possible though initial government investment and procurement, often for military purposes.

Cellular technology is a byproduct of early government investment in radiotelephony and communications. The Internet originated out of DARPA-net, a military communications platform developed in the 60s and 70s. GPS was originally created and deployed by the military's NAVSTAR satellite program in the 1980s. The semiconductor and microchip industry would have been dead on arrival if not for the eager early customers at NASA and the Defense Department. Even the iPhone's multitouch technology was developed by researchers at the University of Delaware, a public institution, supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the CIA.

The iPhone is often perceived to be the symbol of private sector ingenuity, a token of entrepreneurial market innovation. It's true that revolutionary engineers and industrial designers at Apple deserve considerable credit for the creation of many blockbuster computing technologies, up to and especially the iPhone 4S. But these discrete technological advances would be wholly impossible without the innovation platforms enabled by direct and sustained government investment.