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By Jack Ganssle

The Absolutely Not-Boring iPhone 5

Published on embedded.com, October 2012.

When the latest incarnation of Apple's telephone came out tech cognoscenti immediately pronounced it "boring." Apparently it didn't come out with enough gee-whiz features to impress the jaded pundits who seem to need a toke on a crack pipe every few minutes to stay interested or awake.

I haven't seen an iPhone 5, nor do I know much about its specs. However, there is one thing I know for sure. The device is not boring.

It's incredible. Amazing. A stunning product that takes my breath away. A marvel of engineering.

And that's true of any smart phone.

100 billion or more transistors are packed into that tiny form factor. There are multiple radios -- GSM/CDMA, GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-fi, perhaps others. I remember when a single AM-only transistor radio was several times the size of a mobile phone. And that device had a grand total of four transistors.

There's a touch-screen display that can interpret complex finger motions. Remember mobile phones of yore (like, just a decade ago)? The GUI was just a seven-segment LED display.

Some of these devices can understand the spoken word. Playing with Siri on an older-generation iPhone recently I asked when Jimi Hendricks died, and within seconds was told September 18, 1970. Cynics complain that Siri relies on a vast data center to parse these queries. Isn't it amazing -- astonishing! -- that a simple spoken request can wing its way around the world and back so quickly? That phone is an interface to tens of thousands of servers. Wow!

The thing runs for more than minutes on a tiny battery. My first cell was a Motorola bag phone that had a three pound 12 volt lead-acid battery. It ran for a few hours between charges.

There are a lot of ways to measure the cost of a smart phone. But by no metric does that exceed a handful of hundreds of dollars. Apple says the iPhone 5's A6 processor is twice as fast as the A5, which is the CPU in the iPad 2. The latter product is said to have the compute capability of the Cray 2, which in 1985 was the world's fastest computer. And that cost $35 million.

My first deep computing experience was with the University of Maryland's Univac 1108, a machine that cost $10 million, back when $10m was a lot of money. It was protected by an army of acolytes; mere mortals were not allowed to even see the machine, which filled an entire floor of the computer science building. It had a 750 nsec cycle time, a million words of core memory, 200 MB of drum storage (called FASTRAND, it used two counter-rotating 6 foot long drums that weighed about 5000 pounds), and about eight science-fiction-looking tape drives. God alone knows how much more capability the iPhone has over that monster of a machine. There was email of a sort; at night the machine dialed up other mainframes using a 300 baud modem to exchange messages. There were even games; at 3 AM (this was far too compute-intensive to run during prime hours) some of us could use the machine's one video terminal to play Space War -- the computer could actually (though slowly) draw a circle that represented the sun, and then another circle for the spaceship, which followed Newton's Laws of Motion.

A smart phone is a thousand or a million or some huge multiplier times more capable, and, to a first approximation, costs nothing. Boring? No way.

The ENIAC was one of the earliest programmable digital computers. Vacuum tubes were the transistors of the day. A smart phone built of that technology would be the size of around 200 Vertical Assembly Buildings, the massive structure at Cape Kennedy. It would consume 50 terrawatts, which would drain the phone's battery in under a nanosecond.

And that's boring?

Flip a switch and your house is illuminated. A couple of generations ago when night fell one read by the dim flicker of a kerosene lantern. A video Skype call to the other side of the planet is free. Europe, for those of us on the US's East Coast, is just a six or seven hour journey. Even space is accessible, and is becoming more so, to well-heeled tourists.

We live in an age of, as Paul Simon says, miracles and wonders. I find my smart phone to be an astonishing product, a device of beauty, elegance and almost unimaginable functionality.

Boring? Hardly.