Today’s iPhones have the same capabilities (and more!) than 13 distinct electronics gadgets, worth more than $3,000, found in a 1991 Radio Shack ad. Buffalo writer Steve Cichon was the first to dig up the old ad and make the point about the seemingly miraculous pace of digital advance, noting that an iPhone incorporates the features of the computer, CD player, phone, “phone answerer,” and video camera, among other items in the ad, all at a lower price. The Washington Post‘s tech blog The Switch picked up the analysis, and lots of people then ran with it on Twitter. Yet the comparison was, unintentionally, a huge dis to the digital economy. It massively underestimates the true pace of innovation and, despite its humor and good intentions, actually exposes a shortcoming that plagues much economic and policy analysis.
To see why, let’s do a very rough, back-of-the-envelope estimate of what an iPhone would have cost in 1991.
In 1991, a gigabyte of hard disk storage cost around $10,000, perhaps a touch less. (Today, it costs around four cents ($0.04).) Back in 1991, a gigabyte of flash memory, which is what the iPhone uses, would have cost something like $45,000, or more. (Today, it’s around 55 cents ($0.55).)
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