IT Life: Building A Smartphone In 1999

Andy Harter Real VNC

Ten years before the iPhone, Andy Harter was building a smartphone in Cambridge

Andy Harter created the pretty-much-ubiquitous remote access software VNC in the 1990s. He’s now CEO of the company which proliferate it, RealVNC, and lives in Cambridge where he is a Visiting Fellow at the University’s Computer Laboratory.

What were your first steps in tech?
As a boy I loved tinkering with electronics, and built my own computer in 1975 when I was 14. I think it was then that I realised the importance of software, because the electronics didn’t do anything on its own! When the BBC Micro and others came out, I became even more interested in programming.

AT&T broadband phone 1999 Apple iPhone 2007


Building a smartphone in 1999

What has been your favourite project so far?
It’s got to be the Broadband Phone, a project I was responsible for as director of research and engineering at the AT&T Laboratory in Cambridge during the late 1990s. We invented a digitally networked full-colour touchscreen phone complete with a cloud-based application architecture. We built and deployed hundreds of phones, and even created a mobile version. It was at least a decade ahead of its time  (shown here with an Apple iPhone from 2007)

What tech were you involved in ten years ago?
Amazingly, the same technology that I am now. Another project I was responsible for was VNC remote screen sharing. We did this in 1995, and made it freely available in 1998. We then started a commercial company, RealVNC in 2002. There are over a billion copies of the software, and it’s on more different kinds of computer than any other application. It’s even an official part of the internet alongside protocols for web and email. The reason it has endured is because we kept it profoundly simple, which means it’s portable to new devices when they come along. We’re continuing to create markets around VNC, the latest being in Automotive where it lets you use your smartphone apps and data on the big screen in the dashboard and seatbacks.

What tech do you expect to be used in ten years time?
I think augmented reality such as Google Glass or Google Contact Lenses will be much more widespread. If this gathers momentum, it might even be the next wave of computing, as impactful as the Internet itself. The technology landscape is lining up to make it all possible, wireless, internet of things, nano-technology. Another game changer that might mature in the next ten years is 3D printing. It’s getting better and cheaper, and the range of materials and quality are improving. I think it’s mind blowing to think about inorganic and even organic molecules being fashioned into useful objects, not just for prototypes but for home manufacturing and everyday use.

Who’s your tech hero?
There are too many people and companies that have contributed to advances in technology and the way it has changed the world to single anyone out. But I’m always drawn back to the pioneers in the 50s 60s and 70ss who built the first computers, the first networks, and the first UI devices. In a slightly depressing sense, everything since then is a bit derivative, but I can live with that.

Patents, Law © Gor Shutterstock 2012

Patents are a racket

Who’s your tech villian?
The patent office! Patent’s are an impediment rather than a benefit to the technology industry. Good ideas and good execution should be the determining factors in commercial success, not an outdated model that is not dissimilar from an extortion racket.

What’s your favourite tech ever made? Which do you use the most?
So far, it’s probably the smartphone, and not just because I was responsible for one nearly ten years before Apple. It’s hard to imagine life without one, and it’s become completely acceptable to be constantly fiddling with one even in important meetings and social settings.

What is your budget outlook growing forward? Flat? Growing?
Growing, without a doubt.

Apart from your own, what company do you admire the most and why?
It’s hard to not pick the obvious ones like Apple and Google from the current wave. They really have redefined not just technology, but to some degree society itself.

What’s the greatest challenge for an IT company/department today?
The same that it’s always been, how to keep a lid on complexity. Heterogenous devices, software and networks, managing updates, upgrades and compatibility, migration and backup – and it’s about to get even worse if the bring your own movement becomes popular. The challenge of IT has always been how to provide a reliable and predictable service without being able to be in control of everything.

To cloud or not to cloud?
Depends if you want rain or sun! Clouds are great for some people and applications. I guess you have to draw a distinction between private and public clouds. There are organisations that will simply never use a public cloud, but who might be quite prepared to run a private cloud. For most individuals, clouds are a good thing provided they have good security, reliability and availability. I don’t want my details to leak, or my photos to disappear.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
Either a scientist or a musician. It could have gone either way, but science won out and music is a great relaxation. My old school physics teacher, a retired Naval Officer who really was called Captain Kirk once said to me don’t make a career out of your favourite hobby. Good advice!

Here’s some old smartphones in a quiz!

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