iOS 7 teaser (iPhone 5s ad 009)

As inexpensive and powerful as technology is today, it’s easy to take it for granted. You can buy a smartphone today that could outperform desktop machines from 20 years ago, at a fraction of the size, for a fragment of the price.

To really put things in perspective, analyst Bret Swanson decided to do a rough calculation of what the iPhone would have cost to build in 1991. And to give you an idea of how pricey it gets, a 1GB HD cost around $10K back then…

Swanson begins by calculating the cost of storage in ’91:

“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).)

The mid-level iPhone 5S has 32 GB of flash memory. Thirty-two GB, multiplied by $45,000, equals $1.44 million.”

And here he breaks down the cost of the A7’s performance:

The iPhone 5S uses Apple’s latest A7 processor, a powerful CPU, with an integrated GPU (graphics processing unit), that totals around 1 billion transistors, and runs at a clock speed of 1.3 GHz, producing something like 20,500 MIPS (millions of instructions per second). In 1991, one of Intel’s top microprocessors, the 80486SX, often used in Dell desktop computers, had 1.185 million transistors and ran at 20 MHz, yielding around 16.5 MIPS. A PC using the 80486SX processor at the time might have cost $3,000. The Apple A7, by the very rough measure of MIPS, which probably underestimates the true improvement, outpaces that leading edge desktop PC processor by a factor of 1,242. In 1991, the price per MIPS was something like $30.

So 20,500 MIPS in 1991 would have cost around $620,000.”

All told, Swanson figures that trying to duplicate the iPhone in 1991 would have cost roughly $3.65 million. And that’s just for the memory, processing and broadband communications. There’s still the camera, display, and various sensors.


The figure also doesn’t take the iOS ecosystem into account, and its App Store with over 1 million applications, or the size of the iPhone. It would’ve been impossible to fit that much technological performance into a pocketable device in ’91.

Obviously this is all hypothetical, as it’s impossible to do a 1 to 1 comparison with tech from 20+ years ago. But it does give you a general idea of how quickly, and dramatically, technology has improved over the last 2 decades. Crazy, huh?

  • Priyank Nauni

    “The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.”

    Elbert Hubbard

    • Melvco

      love this quote!

      • asdlb4

        Funny, you have the same photo as Cody Lee

    • RarestName

      Hoverboards will never be possible.

      Okay, someone please work on it and prove me wrong!

      • Priyank Nauni

        Someone please work 😛 , why not you ?

      • RarestName

        Because I’m still a noob!

      • Michael Hulet

        My Chemistry teacher made a couple with plywood and Shop-Vacs (although I hear he successfully replicated it with a leaf blower) to move stuff around as he was moving into his room at the school (since he’s new this year)

      • Bailey Clark

        My friend said something about air jets and attaching then to a skateboard?

  • Adam Bowman

    That was a little over 10 years ago. The thought experiment is just as interesting and fun when considering where our tech will be in just over 10 years from now.

    It’s exciting.

    • alexanderlyd

      more like a little over 20 years ago… 1993 was 21 years ago…

      • Adam Bowman

        Oh my… You’re right. Damn. I’m gonna edit.

      • OSurse7775

        мʏ ʀօօмαт­­­­­­e­­­­­­’ѕ ѕιѕт­­­­­­e­­­­­­ʀ мαĸ­­­­­­e­­­­­­ѕ $72/нօυʀ օɴ тн­­­­­­e­­­­­­ ʟαքтօք. ѕн­­­­­­e­­­­­­ нαѕ в­­­­­­e­­­­­­­­­­­­e­­­­­­ɴ աιтнօυт α ʝօв ғօʀ ­­­­­­e­­­­­­ιɢнт мօɴтнѕ вυт ʟαѕт мօɴтн н­­­­­­e­­­­­­ʀ ιɴƈօм­­­­­­e­­­­­­ աαѕ $20465 ʝυѕт աօʀĸιɴɢ օɴ тн­­­­­­e­­­­­­ ʟαքтօք ғօʀ α ғ­­­­­­e­­­­­­ա нօυʀѕ. α ĸɴօƈĸօυт քօѕт SaveJury&#46­com

  • hos4am

    even with that cost it would be impossible .. generally there was some technologies that has to be exist in order for others to exist .. (flash memory,processors, Etc) ,

  • Nirvana

    Would be much higher if compared today’s Mac Pro to the PCs or Macs back in the 1970s or 1980s

  • Svs

    Why the iphone? Why not my 2 TB Hard Drive?

    • smtp25

      do you mean in the 1991 vs 2014? if so SERIOUSLY? because the iPhone combines all of the features from the 1991 devices.

      • Jonathan Liu

        That was not the point. He was trying to say how much would a 2TB hard drive would be considering 32GB was a lot

  • Burge

    And thanks for making me feel old. Thanks a lot..just thanks .

  • 4p0c4lyps3

    Lol, graduated high school in ’91.

  • I still remember when 120GB computer hard drives were the big deal. Now we have 2TB hard drives.

    • smtp25

      My Amiga 500 had a 20MB hdd. Our 386sx 16 had 40MB

      also we have 3TB drives now too and larger tomorrow

      • Guest

        Advert from around that time

      • Jonathan

        127.8 MB hard drive, and 1 MB of RAM, with up to 8 MB. It seems like compared to today, the only thing you could do is let it process of moving the mouse. That’s IT.

      • iOSX

        Adjusted for inflation $1699.99 in 1991 is the same as $2973.73 in 2014. So basically the price of a Mac Pro.

      • Guest

        An ad from around that time

  • Gabriel

    Amost the price of a brazilian iPhone… :/

  • Jonathan

    Reasons like this I love living this current generation.

  • Aric Bolf

    Makes me think of my first PC. A 486DX2 66mhz.

  • PiraCee

    That awkward moment when you copy a RedmondPie post from over a week ago..

  • brooks whiffen seale

    Accept the iPhone isn’t an instant camera…