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Reviewed by:
  • From Mainframes to Smartphones: A History of the International Computer Industry by Martin Campbell-Kelly, Daniel D. Garcia-Swartz, and: Abacus to Smartphone: The Evolution of Mobile and Portable Computers by Evan Koblentz
  • Elizabeth Petrick (bio)
Martin Campbell-Kelly and Daniel D. Garcia-Swartz, From Mainframes to Smartphones: A History of the International Computer Industry, Harvard University Press, 2015.
Evan Koblentz, Abacus to Smartphone: The Evolution of Mobile and Portable Computers, self-published, 2015.

A traditional scholarly publication from an academic press, From Mainframes to Smartphones by Martin Campbell-Kelly and Daniel G. Garcia-Swartz chronicles the history of the global computer industry from 1950 to 2010. They divide this chronology into four 15-year periods that provide a structure through which to trace six historical themes. One of the most compelling themes also maps well onto the otherwise rather arbitrary periodization: the changes in overarching standards that the computer industry worked with or around. The era from 1950 to 1965 was the period of no standards; 1965 to 1980 was the era of the IBM System/360 standard; 1980 to 1995 was the era of the IBM PC standard; and last, 1995 to 2010 was the era of multiple standards.

IBM is, unsurprisingly, the dominating player throughout this history, and the authors provide an insightful examination of how the company came to control standards of very different kinds of computer technology and how everyone else in the industry responded by either adopting the same standards or rejecting them and attempting to control a niche outside of IBM’s purview. This look at standards also connects with another striking theme that Campbell-Kelly and Garcia-Swartz trace: the coexistence of persistence and change in computer technology. At the same time computer technology was, [End Page 10] in many ways, radically changing over this 60-year period, following standards allowed for the major players in the industry to persist. These major players bring in another important theme: that this is not a history of the American computer industry but an attempt at telling a global story. The authors contrast the computer industries in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, and later, Taiwan, China, South Korea, Singapore, and India.

Overall, the book paints a comprehensive picture of the global computer industry over the decades of its existence, drawing out comparisons between different countries and trends that wove their way through how the technology developed. As broad as the subject is, however, the authors had to make choices about what topics they covered in detail. While examining the relationship between government backing and national computer industries, the book devotes little space to other aspects of law, such as the role of intellectual property in supporting companies’ innovations. In addition, the authors focus their discussion of computer hardware on components and systems, with little probing into companies that dealt with peripherals. These issues aside, the book manages a delicate balancing act of breadth and depth, giving the reader an understanding of both overarching themes and rich, historical detail.

Evan Koblentz’s Abacus to Smartphone faces similar challenges in telling a broad history of computer technology, in his focus on one feature of computers: portability. This is a rather different kind of book, however. It is self-published, slim, makes prominent use of personal correspondence with the author, and is intended to appeal to computer enthusiasts as much as historians. It also describes examples of computer technology that have rarely, if ever, been discussed in academic histories. These are the understudied machines that were, to varying degrees, portable and the companies that were determined to make mobility a factor in how computers were used. The book traces this history from military truck computers of the mid-twentieth century to research into miniaturization to the phase of “luggables”—suitcase-sized computers of the 1980s, to pocket computers, PDAs, and the smartphones and tablets of today. Throughout, tangential technologies and false starts are also mentioned, and pages of photographs of mobile computer technology are included. The book suggests many avenues of future research for historians interested in these technologies.

Koblentz does not state his historical themes explicitly, beyond the goal of understanding...


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pp. 10-11
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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