Resetting the score

This is HMS Dreadnought. It was launched by the Royal Navy in 1906 and was the first modern battleship, such that all previous battleships are known retrospectively as ‘pre-dreadnought’. Amongst other innovations, it was the first to have turbine engines and the first to have a single large-calibre battery. 

Rather like the iPhone, it contained few things that were fundamentally new – most of the key features had been around for a while and considered elsewhere – but it was the first to put all of them together in one place in the right way, and, like the iPhone, this changed everything. Every other warship afloat was obsolete. 

The Dreadnought also created a problem. The Royal Navy had been funded since 1889 on the ‘Two Power’ rule – that it would not only be the strongest in the world but that it would also be stronger than the next two largest navies combined. Hence, the day before the Dreadnought was launched it had 32 battleships where Germany had 11 – a huge lead. The day after, it effectively only had one. It had to start again. The naval supremacy question was reset. 

This is rather what the iPhone did, to both the mobile business and the entire consumer technology industry. All the existing parameters and entrenched advantages went away and the whole market was reset to zero. 

Again like the iPhone, the Dreadnought was followed by a period of frenzied iteration. Dreadnought-type battleships got much bigger, faster and more powerful, as every innovation was extrapolated to its conclusion. Hence you got oddities like HMS Nelson, the phablet of battleships (the curious layout was partly a function of naval treaties – regulation distorting product design). 

But the Dreadnought was also launched three years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. It was the apotheosis of 400 years’ development of naval gunnery, but the last battleships were built only 40 years later. Aircraft and aircraft carriers were the future, though no-one saw it at the time. And though the Royal Navy ended WW2 with 55 aircraft carriers of various form factors, ultimately carriers for squadrons of jets were so expensive that the UK economy could not support building a fleet of them and (for this and other reasons) ceded naval supremacy to the US Navy. This is a common theme, incidentally – ‘disruptive’ military technology has almost always been more expensive, not cheaper, and the higher cost tended to be as disruptive to the broader environment as the technology itself. 

The iPhone was the first time that personal computing got reset to zero since, well, ever, arguably. The result for Microsoft, which dominated the PC era but which unlike the Royal Navy missed the big shift, was a total change in its market position.  

But not done yet. I doubt, for example, that we’ll be using black glass rectangles as our main computing device in, say, 20 years. One of the things I think we can see in the aggression of Google and Facebook in particular, and their sometimes perplexing M&A, is a determination to navigate the next such shift by finding it first – jumping over the horizon in a conscious attempt to find something that looks as laughable as the idea that an aircraft posed a threat to a battleship, or that the iPhone would be a success