Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Technological Identity and Difference

Can we trace any link between the Apple Newton and the Apple iPad? When can we regard a technology as "the same again"?

When Apple discontinued its Newton hand-held computer in 1998, one possible explanation for this decision was that it had been "an idea ahead of its time".

Apple's surprise decision to discontinue its Newton hand-held computer ends one of the computer industry's boldest experiments. CEO Steve Jobs' decision halts further development of the Newton technology, which includes the hand-held MessagePad and the portable eMate. An earlier plan to spin off Newton as a separate entity was reversed by Jobs. Many observers interpreted Jobs' move at the time as assigning a role to Newton in Apple's evolving strategy. Apple instead will devote resources to its mainstream Macintosh computer line. Newton has won critical praise for its newer versions, but the product failed to overcome negative publicity on its handwriting recognition flaws. Competitors, such as the PalmPilot device, surpassed Newton in the market. Apple has sold about 200,000 Newtons since 1993, compared to more than one million PalmPilots sold since 1996, according to analysts.
Source: Jim Carlton, Apple drops Newton, an idea ahead of its time (The Wall Street Journal Western Edition, 1998)

It would not be hard to produce one list of the similarities between the Newton and iPad, and another list of the differences. Some people might regard the similarities as more important, and argue that the essential idea was the same. Other people might regard the differences as more important, and argue that the iPad was essentially new, with merely a distant family connection to the Newton.

For many purposes, it doesn't really matter how we talk about this relationship, and some writers may flipflop erratically between identity and difference. But if we wish to understand more deeply how technological ideas develop and evolve and spread, we need a more rigorous basis for talking about technological identity and difference. What are the essential characteristics that we must pay attention to?

Can an idea that was once ahead of its time ever return, or is it always going to be transmogrified by our intervening experience? Can we step into the same technological river twice?

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