Writing the design history of computers

ATKINSON, Paul (2016). Writing the design history of computers. In: SPARKE, Penny and FISHER, Fiona, (eds.) The Routledge companion to design studies. Abingdon, Routledge, 111-122.

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To paraphrase a by now well-known story, back in 1975 on the West Coast of California, a group of hobbyists interested in the latest developments in electronic computers met in the garage of a suburban house to exchange stories, information and show each other the latest pieces of technology they had acquired and the adaptations they had made to the same. This was the Homebrew Computer Club. One of the early computers scrutinised by this congregation was a mail order do-it-yourself kit for the Altair 8800, which had featured as the cover story of the January issue of Popular Electronics. It was a fairly basic machine –just a simple steel box with a number of toggle switches and LED lights which, when assembled, allowed the user to do nothing more than use the toggle switches to programme the computer to make the lights flash as it counted in binary and performed mathematical calculations. One member of the club, a certain Steve Wozniak who had been building electronic projects of his own since elementary school, saw this as an unacceptable state of affairs, and thought that he could build something much better. In six months, using the cheapest microprocessor chip on the market, Wozniak developed a computer that used a keyboard to enable programming and a television monitor as an output. With his friend Steve Jobs he founded the company Apple Computer Inc. in 1976, used Steve Jobs’ parents’ garage as the company’s headquarters, and sold the components for around 175 of the Apple I computer in kit form. It was a well-received product, despite owners having to make wooden cases for the computer themselves. Using the money from selling these kits, the two Steve’s went on to design and produce a more commercial and hugely successful machine, the Apple ][ (or Apple II as it became known) in 1977, just in time for Apple to become a major force in the explosion of the home computer market that occurred that year. Numerous detailed academic and mainstream accounts of the birth and history of Apple Computers have been written over the years , and whole books have even been written about individual products, particularly the ground-breaking Apple Macintosh of 1984. This level of media attention has accompanied every step of Apple’s progress on its route to becoming the largest and most profitable technology corporation the world has ever seen. For a company that is notoriously secretive, there is a huge amount of information out there about every product they have ever sold, ranging from official corporate press releases, journalistic coverage in newspapers and magazines, academic analyses in books and journals and user opinion on numerous blogs. This has been rendered possible largely because of the unprecedented rationalisation of their product portfolio. As an example, let us take a particular point in time. In 2001, Apple launched the iPod – a device which, although not employing any new technology, nevertheless completely altered the way vast numbers of people engage with music. At the time of its release on the 23rd of October, the official Apple website displayed the company’s complete range of hardware as: the iPod, the iMac, the Power Mac G4, the G4 server, the iBook, the PowerBook G4, the 22” Cinema Display monitor, the 17” and 15” Studio Display monitors, the Apple Pro mouse, Apple Pro keyboard and the Airport modem. That’s it. A mere 12 products produced and sold globally. It is a radically minimalist approach indicative of Apple, and one which is completely in line with the aesthetics of the company’s design philosophy. A highly considered output of very refined products, each eagerly anticipated by and released with huge fanfare to an enormous fan base of ‘Macolytes’. And every time a product is released it is immediately splashed across every newspaper and magazine; dissected, analysed and discussed at length on innumerable websites, with every strength and weakness highlighted through social media. It is the kind of exposure and reverence that has allowed every product that Apple has ever produced to become a collectible piece of design history, documented and indexed to from part of a coherent, manageable timeline of production and consumption that could be, and indeed to a large part has been, pragmatically displayed in a single exhibition with an appropriately considered catalogue. This is not the usual state of affairs. Compare the output of Apple with just one of its competitors. At almost exactly the same time, Sony, a similarly global corporation selling similarly priced high-end technology, had a significantly larger product portfolio. On the 13th December 2001 the Sony UK website listed 25 different product categories including TV, Video, Hi-Fi, Home Entertainment, Walkman, Playstation, Portable Cassette, Radio, Computers, Vaio Notebooks, Clie Handheld Computers and so on. Within just one of these categories, Vaio Notebooks, there were seven different series of Notebooks listed, each containing between one and seven products. A total of 36 discrete models of laptop – three times the number of products produced by Apple across their complete product range. And that is just for one of the 25 product categories, each of which contained a similarly sized or larger range of products; and that website only covered the United Kingdom. The global site listed 55 separate countries, each of which had its own individual website, each containing different ranges of country specific models of their products. In short, and in sharp contrast to Apple, it is to all intents and purposes impossible to compile a complete list of technology products emanating from a single corporation such as Sony at any particular point in time, let alone any kind of complete historical picture of all technological products. The point of this comparison is to highlight one of the main problems of researching any aspect of the design history of modern technology – the sheer amount of different products produced and discarded year upon year by companies such as Sony, Philips, Hewlett-Packard, Fujitsu and numerous other well-known global brands. In itself an incalculable amount of production, yet likely dwarfed by the combined output of an enormous number of much smaller, less well-known competitors producing lower quality, cheaper, ‘me too’ products. After all, if two guys in a garage can change the world, surely anyone can do it?

Item Type: Book Section
Research Institute, Centre or Group: Cultural Communication and Computing Research Institute > Art and Design Research Centre
Depositing User: Paul Atkinson
Date Deposited: 02 Aug 2016 14:30
Last Modified: 02 Aug 2016 14:30
URI: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/id/eprint/12797

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