In the final three months of 2014, customers around the world bought 74.5 million Apple iPhones, 21.4 million iPads, and 5.5 million Mac computers. That’s 765 Apple product sales every minute for an entire quarter, and Apple’s $18 billion profit was an all-time record for any firm.
The Chinese bought $16.4 billion worth of iPhones, and 65 percent of Apple’s sales were outside the US. Information technology is a powerful American export, and its spread around the world is a central factor in a rising global middle class.
Digital cost-performance increases don’t just make today’s products a little better or a little cheaper for today’s consumers. No, they create new products, new markets, and give hundreds of millions of new consumers previously unimaginable computational and communicational power.
Just how much computing power do these 101.4 million Apple products, sold in just one quarter, represent?
Consider that a leading edge Pentium II microprocessor in 1997 (0) contained 7.5 million transistors, the basic building blocks of silicon electronics and the information age. It was a dramatic leap from Intel’s first microprocessor, released in 1971, with just 2,300 transistors. In a 1997 speech (1), commenting on the success of the personal computer revolution, Intel cofounder Gordon Moore noted an astounding figure. The worldwide semiconductor industry would that year ship 100 quadrillion (or 1017) transistors, about the number of ants on the planet.
Where are we today? Well, today’s iPhone 6 contains an Apple A8 microprocessor with two billion transistors. It contains at least 16 gigabytes of flash memory, composed of perhaps 128 billion transistors. iPads are similar, though they often contain more memory, and of course the devices contain dozens of other chips – radios, camera sensors, digital signal processors, etc. Macs are moving away from hard disk drives and toward solid state drives, dramatically boosting their transistor counts.
The bottom line is that in the fourth quarter of 2014 alone, one firm, Apple, shipped around 29 quintillion (1018) transistors. On an annual run-rate, that’s more than 100 quintillion, or a thousand times all the digital switches shipped in 1997, the number at which Moore marveled.
Each iPhone, iPad, and Mac also contains an 8 megapixel camera, and so Apple in one quarter sold more cameras than the worldwide total camera sales of 2012, which was the peak for the industry (2) at just under 100 million.
These highly distributed, high bandwidth information tools are propelling the Web and app economies. They are minting Silicon Valley billion-dollar firms. And most importantly, they are allowing more people, in every place, in every walk of life, to participate in prosperity.
It is thus ever more imponderable why the FCC wants to dramatically increase regulation on this successful industry (3), using a dusty law written 13 years before the transistor was invented.