Fifteen Years of iPhone

The success of the iPhone and the success of Apple, Inc. were by no means obvious to everyone in January 2007 when Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s late entrance into the smartphone market with the iPhone, six months before it went on sale in the summer of 2007. Fifteen years later, when Apple’s stock price (split-adjusted) has gone from $3 a share (December 2006) to $170 or $180 a share (December 2021)—and ignoring the reinvestment of dividends this is still about 60x—it just seems inevitable today that iPhone would be a gigantic, unprecedentedly successful product and steamroll entire industries and change the world. But that is historical revisionism.

Even very smart people and herds of wealthy investors are still quite stubborn and generally will not believe something until they have been bludgeoned over the head with obvious facts for so long that it will be too late to profit from the knowledge. Those of us with eyes to see, in 2007 and 2008 and 2009, could tell that iPhone was the harbinger of the future mobile-first, all-screen-smartphone world. Yet, I will record here a reminder that many contemporary tech pundits, industry experts, and cloudy-ball-gazing analysts were just dead wrong about what was unveiled before them, at the time. In other words, there was a time … when investing in Apple was a contrarian, risky investment. Even after the iPhone was announced on stage in 2007! For many years!

Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, laughed at iPhone’s price and pitched cheaper Windows Phone models (which paled in terms of ease of use). RIM CEO Jim Balsillie reportedly let himself be convinced, in otherwise serious company meetings, that Jobs’ iPhone demo was faked, and that the iPhone was therefore not a credible threat to BlackBerry. Ed Colligan, head of Palm, said in December 2006, concerning potential threats from Apple, “We’ve struggled for a few years here, figuring out how to make a decent phone. The PC guys are not going to just, you know, knock this out.” And many smart tech pundits (Tim Bray) and analysts made it clear (even in 2009) that they thought people would resist switching from a hardware keyboard on their smartphones to a touchscreen software keyboard.

It is true that hardware keyboards are better for typing on. However, it is also true that an all-screen phone is worth all of the trade-offs. Furthermore, the world is now smartphone-first, in terms of primary computing device, and therefore high-end experiences on these devices could justify a higher price point. (Ask a teenager today in 2022 about Palm or Research In Motion or BlackBerry or Windows Phone or hardware phone keyboards and they will just look at you like you are speaking a foreign language.)

So the point is that many things are obvious in hindsight, and some things are even kind of sort of obvious looking forward, but not everyone will always correctly predict the future, even given all of the same publicly available information.

In that spirit, cryptocurrency is a dangerous con and is in for a wild, unpleasant ride. Check back here in 2037, if not sooner.

(Update June 28, 2022, from a recent news article: “Across the industry, investors have endured staggering losses. Bitcoin, the most prominent cryptocurrency, was trading Monday near $20,700, far below its November peak of roughly $69,000. Meanwhile, the market value for all cryptocurrencies stood just below $1 trillion; seven months ago, that figure approached $3 trillion.” When the emperor has no clothes and everyone realizes it all at once, it’s just really awkward all around. I’m not sure I expected this to turn around this fast but there is still a long way for it to go down. I’m sure by 2037 the bottom will be much lower! If anyone tells you that no one could have seen this coming, send them a link to this article. Groupthink is common, but knowing which received wisdom to question is rare.)


Magic: Invisible in Real-time

One definition of Magic:

Something you can’t see happening in real-time

Things at a super small or large scale. Work that was done by someone else or a large team. Work that is enjoyed at speed but took years. Geological processes. Evolutionary processes. Painstaking human processes. Articulate or even elegant and simple design, something that feels inevitable or obvious, but hides a lot of complexity or discarded iterations. Magic.


WOMBO Dream AI Art

I downloaded this free app (iOS and Android) that lets you turn an English phrase into a 960x1440px piece of fantasy artwork. It basically runs computer vision algorithms in reverse to hallucinate or dream up new creations. I have spent hours playing with it. It really rewards experimentation with phrasing and styles.

Some fun queries I have crafted:

“Fiery gates of hell vanishing point” “Flaming dragon pedestal” “Glowing God of light sky explosion winged statue”

(Enjoy it while it is free; they are probably burning through VC money and trying to get acquired, or will have to ask for money at some point. That happened to the Prisma AI app that would make artwork out of photos. See Update below.)

I have played with it enough to get a feel for how to control the results by adding and removing words, and which styles work for which types of subjects. Some useful words to control the general shape of the thing it is drawing: “statue”, “figure”, “dancer”, “orb”, “bust”, “pedestal”. Cool queries to inject elements into a painting: “feathered,” “raven,” “bat-wings,” “devilish,” “winged,” “sky,” “cloudy,” “night time,” “galaxy,” “arabesque,” “mosaic,” “coral reef,” “tapestry,” etc.

I think the strength of the app is the flip-side of its main weakness: it is very abstract and almost like a stroke or a fever nightmare. The strength is that it can create really amazing and surprising results with very imprecise or abstract words (“happenstance”, “dreadful”, “happy”, “funny”, coined words, “reassuring”, moody nonsense phrases like “beyond the tolling bell of avarice”) and particularly, it can combine concepts in a magical way, like “fairy flower,” “winged dancing mermaid,” etc. It can convey a very clear mood or gesture, or set an environment or a feeling.

I like that it is its own art form to craft a query and select and even crop the final artwork. I also like that it is totally random and unreproducible and requires luck to get a good composition. In these senses it is just another tool that I can use to make my own artwork, instead of just producing perfect results that I don’t own, the way Google Image Search might do. The surprise is part of the fun, and gives you ownership of a good “find.”

Additionally, another big strength is its speed and the ability to create many fully-realized, high-level concepts in rapid sequence. Imagine a working artist who gets over the initial response of “I can do better than that” and instead says, “Amazing, a new tool in my tool belt!” That artist could then present clients with dozens of hand-selected small thumbnail mock-ups, and a client could help iterate and rapidly come up with lots of awesome design ideas, on the cheap, in the course of a short meeting or Zoom call, in many styles and compositions, before the artist then goes and paints some real “final” artwork versions, at larger scale and greater cost (of time and money).

It makes me really want to create a card game or board game akin to Magic the Gathering that needs a large quantity of (small) fantasy and sci-fi artwork because it is fun to try to create sets of artwork based on lots of specific ideas, like making a working set of dozens of distinguishable icons that have mnemonic meaning even if they are not concrete or perfect (human figures are a glaring weakness). In fact, the artwork could spur lots of ideas in the gameplay and content side of things.

Update, July 2022: with strong competition from Midjourney, Starry AI, OpenAI’s DALL-E 2, etc. it looks like Wombo has been forced to add obnoxious, intrusive, long, bandwidth-consuming, full-screen video ads. This feels like a deliberate choice to make the free version nearly unusable (and a waste of cellular bandwidth) as a way to force an upgrade to Premium. The other features of Premium may be worth it for their own sake, but this aggressive update crossed the line for me.

Don’t bother with experimenting this app. The ads feel punitive. It’s their product. They have to pay the bills somehow. They were previously subsidizing all of the free users, at a probably very high cost. They are under no obligation to give me free functionality. However, this was extremely tasteless.

If I used this app professionally the cost would be worth it, except for the massive caveat that Wombo owns the license for the images I spend time crafting. Why am I paying to create images for them that I cannot use commercially? Nope!


Rules of Inference

  • Modus ponens — P implies Q. P is true. Therefore Q must also be true.
  • Modus tollens — P implies Q. Q is not true. Therefore P must not be true.
  • Modus trollens — I believe P, therefore P is true.