Myhrvold's 'consumer computer' vision in 1991, as published by Men's Journal.

Nathan Myhrvold is back in the national spotlight again, but in a very different way this time.

Myhrvold in his chef's garb

A cover story in Men’s Journal, called “How a Geek Grills a Burger,” casts the former Microsoft chief technology officer as a “mad scientist” living out a “nerd fantasy.”

He has a bestselling six-volume cookbook, he studied astrophysics with Stephen Hawking, and his giant Tyrannasaurus rex skeleton has turned his waterfront home into a tourist attraction.

And yes, by the way, he tried to convince Microsoft to make the iPhone, basically, more than two decades ago. From the piece …

In 1991, Myhrvold predicted the emergence of the iPhone down to the smallest detail, describing a “digital wallet” that would consolidate all personal communication — telephone, schedule manager, notepad, contacts, and a library of music and books, all in one. It would record and archive everything you asked it to, he surmised. “The cost will not be very high,” he wrote. “It is pretty easy to imagine a $400 to $1,000 retail price.” Microsoft, however, was too cost conscious and risk averse to execute Myhrvold’s vision. “Hey, it was better than predicting the wrong thing,” Myhrvold says now.

Taken in its entirety, it’s very different picture of Myhrvold than the one painted last year in the This American Life/Planet Money piece, “When Patents Attack.” The radio investigation likened the approach of Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures  patent holding company to a “mafia-style shakedown.”

The Men’s Journal piece leaves a different impression overall, portraying Myhrvold more as geeky genius than as a patent troll. Myhrvold participated in the story, apparently enthusiastically — even sticking a half-lemon in his mouth for one goofy pic.

Follow-up: Inside Nathan Myhrvold’s office: The ultimate ‘geekspace’

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  • Guest

    The last time one failed to listen to Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft lost a 15-year (!!!) lead on iPhone.

    Now that Mr. Myhrvold’s company is developing cures for global warming, how long will it take for the learnèd to listen?

    • William Mahmood

      Respectfully I heard these guys supported positively polluting the atmosphere to allow less sunlight in. This was a Wired magazine feature in the same vein as the article being discussed here. Critically speaking one need only imagine it’s impact on the plant population, with it’s complex externalities. I believe innovation will allow us to maintain a wealthy, efficient existence in the long run but this idea is plain silly.

      • Guest

        With respect, William, men like Nathan need to think outside the box when it comes to curing global warming. Feel-good ideas like installing solar panels and buying hybrid cars have only hastened our planet’s demise, so perhaps a few feel-bad ideas can save humanity.

    • JohnDoey

      Nathan, you are enough of a dick without posting anonymous defenses of yourself here.

      • Guest

        John, please watch your language. I sometimes allow children to read GeekWire.

    • Joey Tamer

      Just because you had the idea doesn’t mean you had the ability to implement it. I too can create magical ideas and ‘theories’ on how to implement them. Doesn’t mean they’ll come to fruitation. Also, what as Intellectual Ventures produce so far, or does it continue making money by suing real innovators? 

  • john

    actually the first iphone was not able to do all those things. interesting how people simply forgot that there were smartphones that did all those things long before the iphone appeared, like the E and N series from Nokia…

    • Garlicstew

      And did them do poorly that only a few geeks dared subject themselves to the torturous interfaces. I should know, I was one of them.

      • John

        That is beside the point. The point in the article is about a device that has those functionalities not if you needed to be a geek to use them. So while there were many – and in fact successfull – devices before the iphone nobody seems to remember. Btw if you needed to be a geek to use the nokia n95 and n96 I have nothing more to say…

        • Guest

          People also forget Palm’s contribution as the first (I think) “smartphone” that really had apps, touchscreen, and various sources for apps.The treo wasn’t successful for other reasons, but apart from the better display of the iphone and the capacitive screen rather than Palm’s resistive screen that required a stylus, the Palm actually offered more than the original iPhone (pre-Appstore).  

    • Anonymous

       This one also has a slot for removable media. The iPhone still doesn’t have that.

      • Abra

        Ya, back in 1991, the removable media was 5 inch floppy drives that are bigger than the device shown here. Something just doesnt add up here :)
        Obviously this drawing is in retrospective.
        Another thing. Back then, even the smallest GPS receiver would have taken up 1/3rd the size of an iphone today. There is no way that they could have fit in all these gizmos including multiple radios in a form factor of that size (let alone that such a device would require something the size of a laptop battery to power it for more than 4 hrs)

        • Aaron Evans

          Back in 1991 an analog cell phone radio took up twice the space of an iPhone.  And GPS didn’t exist.  But there were 3 1/4 inch floppy drives.

        • VHMP01

          Isn’t that why it’s called ‘Prediction’?

  • William Mahmood

    A convenient PR shift for these guys which is alluded to in your article. I think I’ll go with Edison’s 1/99 rule on invention. Personal, mobile computing devices have been an intuition for decades, apple owned its holistic execution and forced the market to move, all the right technologies were available, and the subtle innovations that make consumers adopt these devices were perfected by apple – and they pushed it successfully.
    With all his amazing background, I can’t believe he hasn’t found something more worthwhile to commit himsel to (cooking books excluded) – intellectual ventures, the patent troll is about half baked ideas – that sound flashy – I like the notion of it as an radical ideas incubator – but you have to commit yourself to something you feel strongly about – then go change the world.

  • wadexyz

    The smartest thing Apple has done over the years is not be the first one in……but going all in when the time is right.   So what I’m saying is…..this article is kinda irrelevant.

  • Void

    The technology didn’t exist to build such a device.  Really man, MS was struggling with trying to build a decent GUI OS for IBM clones at the time.  This was way before even Win95.  The only affordable computer that could multi-task at the time was the Commodore Amiga.  How was anyone to build a smart phone with 16 bit cpu’s that ate power like crazy.  Look at notebooks from 1991!  The early cell phones were bag phones and all they did was call other phones.  I can draw pictures of starships but who’s going to build them?  What a joke.

  • ZaggyZooo

    Heck yeah dude that would work jsut fine man. Wow.
    http://www.Total-Privacy dot US

  • Hadi Partovi

    That same year Mhyrvold also predicted the death of banking, books,
    the PC, traditional media, and the Internet. Search for “mhyrvold roadkill” to read these predictions, none of which panned out that decade or even the decade after, although they did cause Microsoft to ignore the Internet until Bill Gates realized it wasn’t going to become roadkill. If you predict enough wild ideas you’re bound to eventually get something right, which is a perfect fit for running a patent-trolling company. 

  • Lance Long

    so only a few years after Gene Roddenberry predicted it.

  • Randall Lind

    That the issue after some one makes something Microsoft is like we could have made it. Like Bill Gates claim to have invented tab browsing. Microsoft can’t invent crap because they lack a vision. Ozzy tried to reinvent Microsoft but gave up and left. The old guard just don’t want to invent new tech they are just happy to be copy heads.

  • Alain Raynaud

    Actually, the illustration shows the exact opposite of an iPhone: multiple overlapping windows. Absolutely no mention of touch, which is the critical piece that made the iPhone so different than every smartphone before it.

    So no, that guy wasn’t a visionary. He was just repeating common wisdom of the early 90s, that is, eventually your Windows computer would fit in your pocket. No one knew how.

  • Joe the coder


    Nathan was famous within Microsoft for creating huge memos on all sorts of things.  Some were wildly impractical at the time but many more were blindingly obvious.  Not a few people referred to his memos as GSO – Grand Statements of the Obvious.

    It is clear that he has hired a publicist to try and remake his image.  But he will forever remain a troll in geek’s clothing.

    And as to the “iphone”, many people had similar ideas.  It took 3 turns of Moore’s law to make it possible.  Just because some one has an idea doesn’t mean they can implement it.

  • AvoidDroid

    Yeah, and Al Gore invented the Internet too.

    • djreedps

      Gore never claimed he invented the Internet.

      Other people like you call themselves “dittoheads” for a reason.  No thinking is required.

      • AvoidDroid

        Sorry genius, apparently my facetious comment flew over your flat head. Next time I will try and s-p-e-l-l it out more plainly for you.

  • djreedps

    As much as I hate Microsoft, I think they made the right decision in 1991 on this concept.

    I recall an ad for a Sony GPS device from 1992.  That device only did GPS, had a very small black and white LCD screen which only showed the latitude and longitude coordinates.  The pricetag was a very low $995!  Plus, it probably took 10-15 minutes to acquire the GPS satellite signals.

    How about storing your music on a device like this one in 1991?  Four megabytes of memory in a home PC was a lot of memory back then.  mp3s had most likely not been invented.  So to put enough memory in a portable device that was a lot more than was in PCs at the time to just hold ONE(!) mp3 song would have been very costly.

    There was no wifi in 1991, at least not for consumers.  There probably wasn’t even 1G data service.

    The Apple Newton came out around this time.  The Newton had very cool technology.  But even it could not find a sustainable market at its price of at least $600.  Plus the original Newton did not have cell phone capability but it did have an analog modem you could plug a phone cord into and it could sound the dialtones if you held it up to a landline phone to automatically dial voice calls on a landline phone from your Newton address book.

    So a Microsoft “iPhone” in 1991 doing all of these things with a pricetag less than $1000 was just a pipe dream.  A nice pipe dream, but way ahead of its time.

    • Aaron Evans

      I think you mean 2002.  GPS wasn’t operational until 1994 and not available to the public until 1996 (according to Wikipedia.)

      • djreedps

        That’s strange. I think the Sony GPS advertisement was in a magazine or brochure I got at Comdex, a now-defunct computer show which used to take place in Las Vegas. I worked in San Jose, California, from 1992-1994 and have not lived there since. The only year I went to Comdex was when a group of us took time off from work and drove from San Jose to Las Vegas. So that would not have been any later than 1994. So from your response, I was obviously wrong about the ad being from 1992, but I am fairly certain it wasn’t any later than 1994. But the GPS ad would have likely been in a trade publication and the device may not have actually been available in 1994 although I do remember the price shown in the ad.

        I wish I still had the ad. I may have scanned it and stored it on a DVD, but I don’t have the time to look for it now. Thanks for the information.

  • Guest

    “One of the greatest things that Apple and Jobs were very good at doing was daring to do the very different thing.”

    Even Myhrvold can see what a failure Ballmer has been.

  • JohnDoey

    Bullshit. He predicted the PDA about 18 months before it shipped in 1993 (Apple Newton) and he did it at a company that was so ill-equipped to ship such a device that they did not even get their own PDA out until 1996 and it did not even look like this prediction then, it attempted to look like a little Windows 95.

    Alan Kaye predicted the consumer touch computer (realized in iPad and iPhone) in the 1960’s. He did not attempt to patent his prediction and then extort money from the people who actually designed, built, and marketed such a device, including building a platform on top of it and support system underneath. Including building the 30 years of software infrastructure it took to realize the iPhone.

    There are science fiction authors who had more input on iPhone than Nathan Myhrvold, who is not a super-nerd but is rather just super-rich, and completely detached from reality. The author of this article is only semi-detached from reality. You can get help and find your way back. Nathan is lost forever.

  • Dirt Bags

    Seems like the same logic as the BS trolls like IV hide behind all the time. I could have, might have, somehow almost thought of X, so I threw a crap patent out for something, never built anything, etc. or, even better, I bought a crap patent from someone for X. Then I sue on the patent or, even better, let someone else sue on the patent so I can claim I’m not a troll while having a revenue split on the back-end. Nathan and his pack of fools are a bunch of dirtbag pseudo-smart people. High IQ’s, generally low practical intelligence and very little, if any, real success in business. 

  • dpgj

    “Myhrvold predicted the emergence of the iPhone down to the smallest detail…” its as detail as a patent description. lol.
    btw, when did Alan Kay invent ipad, the big iphone?

  • Seattleinvestor

    But Microsoft did build a phone. They invested in Windows CE for such devices, then built a successful line of mobile phones … until the iPhone came along. Just shows you how fast technology/consumer trends can change on you.

  • Guest

    This list of things Microsoft “could have” done is a long one. Ballmer has been a disaster.

  • Cynic

    Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda – but didn’t invent the iPhone as Apple did.

  • Kathrine Mya

    This is very interesting stuff

  • Alex Hillinger

    The patent troll comments not withstanding, what seems most relevant is that Microsoft was too risk averse in 1991 to go down this path, and that risk aversion seems to be an enduring aspect of Microsoft’s culture to the present day. Apple took the risk to innovate the iPod, then iPhone, then iPad (along with the online services – iTunes, App Store, etc. to accompany them).The results speak for themselves. 

  • Lou Pole

    And Al Gore invented the internet.

  • chuck goolsbee

    If Myhrvold were the inventor the iPhone, then Myhrvold would have invented the iPhone.

  • Anon

    That’s not an iPhone. It’s a Blackberry…

  • Concerned373

    I remember when I worked at Microsoft and the ‘Cold Fusion’ news
    story broke. Nathon send out a company wide email endorsing the result,
    claiming it explained a lot previously unexplained natural phenomenon and that
    this was about to change the future of mankind.   That one always makes me

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