Some of us are old enough to remember when public telephone boxes served as more than rainstorm shelters and public convenience after the pubs closed; train journeys were a more peaceful experience and the work day started when we reached our in-tray in the office, rather than the inbox on our various devices.
Today, we live among a new generation for whom the Internet, mobile telephony, social media and white headphones come fitted as standard. This digital generation might be surprised to learn that, like the Beatles, it took a number of years of playing to small audiences before the holy trinity of Apple, Microsoft and Google became overnight sensations.
Charles Arthur has been a technology and science journalist for the last 25 years. During that time, he has been a professional witness at the birth, the awkward adolescent years and the eventual graduation of the digital world. Last night, I went to hear Charles speak about Digital Wars and the battle for the Internet, his book that chronicles how three of Silicon Valley’s behemoths changed the way we work, communicate, interact and are entertained.
Over the years, Charles has worked hard to earn and maintain a reputation as someone that public relations people need to tread very carefully with, so it was interesting that the event was held at the offices of Fishburn Hedges, a (pretty good and very hospitable) PR consultancy. The audience was made up largely of PR and marketing types. When armed with copies of a book to sell, even Charles Arthur is capable of being charming to a group of PRs. On last night’s performance, maybe he should be considering the safe return to the organisers of the Crapps Awards which he won in 2010 and retained in 2011. But I digress.
The book begins in 1998, a pivotal point in digital history. Google had just been incorporated and had signed a lease on it’s first garage; Apple was limbering up for an iRenaissance with the prodigal Steve Jobs reinstalled as CEO; and Microsoft’s legal team was busy reading up on anti-trust legislation. It ends with the untimely death of Steve Jobs in late 2011.
Digital Wars is a genuinely fascinating book. For those of us who, like Charles, grew up as active participants and observers of the revolution, it’s a timely walk down memory lane. For the digital generation, it’s a fastidiously-researched, well-written and interesting history lesson in how the world was changed with vision, determination, brains, microchips and computer code.
I would challenge the fact that the book gives scant acknowledgement to the crucial role the telecoms industry played as a revolutionary usher of the digital revolution. Were it not for the innovation and investment telecoms made in high speed broadband switching, routing, fibre optics and wireless signalling over both fixed and mobile networks, the growth of the Internet and digital music downloading – arguably Apple’s saviour – might have been less interesting. If you’re a member of the digital generation, you might have to ask your dad what it was like to download a single song from Napster over a standard telephone connection. Alternatively, spend a few days in deepest, darkest Devon.
But perhaps I’m being a tad picky. Digital Wars is a business-technology-history book, and a good business-technology-history book. Once read, it will sit comfortably in the reference section. Thankfully, it doesn’t try to paint too many predictions for the future. If anyone really knew what the next decade of technical innovation would lead us to, it wouldn’t be necessary for them to work too hard to make a living.