When something is as ubiquitous as the iPhone, it can be hard to remember what life was like without it.
Appleâs iPhone, which was introduced 10 years ago today at MacWorld by Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, is more than a device or expert integration of components, software and design. Itâs a cultural object with influence thatâs still being felt far and wide.
I wasnât present at the unveiling. At the time, I worked for PCMag.com and, though we covered Apple and its products, we didnât always attend MacWorld (back then, Macs held just a fraction of the then critical desktop market). We were aware that Apple had smartphone ambitions, but they were entering a market dominated by BlackBerry, Palm, Microsoft and Nokia (for less-smart âfeature phonesâ).Â
Even so, by 2007, Steve Jobs had already proven he could disrupt and transform a market. Appleâs iPod hijacked the music player industry (and maybe the music industry, too) and laid the groundwork for every pocket-sized device to come, including, of course, the iPhone.
Before the iPhone, there were touchscreen communication devices, but virtually all of them had physical keyboards. Screens were fine for the occasional taps and menu selections, but the real work got done on tiny, plastic keys. Even gaming needed physical controls. To play Breakout on my old Blackberry Bold, I used the tiny trackball. If I wanted to draw on a touchscreen, as I sometimes did on my old Palm Trio 700p, I used a stylus.
The first iPhone wasnât an assured homerun:
It was expensive: $499 to $599.
It was available on just one carrier: AT&T.
It had no keyboard.
Apple had no phone experience at all.Â
Apple didnât own the “iPhone” name. It was a pithy product name coined by Infogear in 1998. By 2007 Cisco owned the brand name. First Cisco sued, but settled before the iPhone shipped.
The great unknown
What the iPhone had going for it in those early days was a mystique. Steve Jobs unveiled the device, demonstrating it on stage in January of 2007, but it would be months before the iPhone went on sale. By June of that year, the unseen, untested, illusive iPhone was the most talked about gadget in the world. (Few will remember that AppleTV made its debut at that same January 2007 event, and it took years for it to have even a margin of the iPhoneâs impact.)
Just prior to shipping the first iPhones in July, Jobs handed them to a handful of lucky journalists (not this one). The mania surrounding these men and the gadgets they had sworn to keep hidden from view was such that when I did spot one reporter whom I knew had one, I all but tackled him and wrestled it out of his hands (in reality, USA Todayâs Ed Baig handed it to me with zero fuss or fanfare).
I wrote an entire hands-on story based on my 10 minutes with the first iPhone. It was such an important story that we squeezed it into an issue of PC Magazine that was just days from hitting the newsstands.
What I remember about that day is that when I finally touched the iPhone, the earth seemed to move. This was the rare consumer electronics devices that lived up to my expectations (and the promises of its maker). It was beautiful, responsive, intuitive, and smarter than any smartphone I had ever touched. Yes, I stumbled badly with the virtual keyboard, but even then, I knew that was my problem and not the iPhoneâs.
I also knew that nothing in the smartphone universe would ever be the same.
The iPhone was a shot through the heart of BlackBerry, Nokia and Microsoft. None of their smartphone fortunes would ever truly recover. They had their chances, but BlackBerry misunderstood the difference between a button and a touch screen and delivered the abysmal Storm, a touchscreen that worked like a giant button. Microsoft sat on its hands for years and then delivered bad ideas like the dead-on-arrival Kin. Nokia, a company that prided itself on unusual and innovative designs, essentially threw up its hands.
The iPhone also turned into a category killer.
The first iPhone had just one 3.2-megapixel camera, but by 2010, it had two, including a 5-megapixel camera capable of 720p video recording. Almost from the start, consumers used the iPhone camera, especially since the rise of the iPhone coincided with that of mobile social media. Eventually people started to leave their point-and-shoot cameras at home and share far more images than they ever did with those digital, but largely disconnected, devices.
The first iPhone had an iPod inside it, essentially torpedoing the iPod momentum (Apple had already sold millions of them). Even an all-screen iPod could not stop what became a steady decline. Apple doesnât even hold iPod launch events anymore.
Two years before the launch of the iPhone, I gave a talk about mobile phone gaming and showed the audience a motorcycle racing game running on an old Samsung feature phone. It was one of the first phones to feature haptic technology, so the phone vibrated with the game. The screen was tiny and the sound tinny, but it was a big hit. People clearly wanted to play games on their mobile phones. With its large screen, myriad sensors and, for the time, larger speaker, few smartphones at the time were more perfectly built for mobile gaming than the iPhone.Â
Yes, I know, the iPhone did not arrive with its own app store. That happened in March of the following year, but can anyone really remember a time when we werenât downloading apps and playing games on our iPhones?Â
Handheld gaming devices have seen a vinyl-record-like revival in recent years, but thereâs no question that the growth of the iPhone coincided with the fall of handheld-gaming leader Nintendo, which tried to lure gamers back with gimmicks like the 3DS.
Ups and downs
It hasnât all been smooth sailing for the iPhone.
It took almost four years for Apple to expand beyond a single carrier, leaving the door open for Google and Android. To this day, there are more Android devices than iPhones in use around the world.
Appleâs first major iPhone redesign, which switched out most of the curves for edges and exposed antennas, led to one of the iPhoneâs biggest controversies: Antenna Gate, a classic line from Steve Jobs (âYouâre holding it wrongâ) and Apple’sâ rare and begrudging apology.
Steve Jobs died on Oct. 5, 2011, just days after Apple unveiled the iPhone 4S. Rarely has the leader of a company and our perception of him been so intertwined with a product. It was, at the time, hard to imagine how Apple would innovate on its core product without him (that remains a fair question to this day).
iPhone Part II
There is no way to compress a decadeâs worth of innovation, impressive sales (1 billion iPhone sold) and cultural change into one story. The iPhone changed our perception of mobile gadgets and, through innovation and countless apps, our lives.
Appleâs iPhone did not have to be the product to do this. Someone else could have made a game-changing smartphone, but they didnât. Maybe itâs because they didnât have Steve Jobs or perhaps they didnât have the vision to see how all these disparate parts would make a beautiful whole.
Today, virtually every new smartphone on the market is either a pale imitation of the iPhone or owes its success to the iPhoneâs influence on smartphone design.Â
Apple iPhoneâs next 10 years will almost certainly not be like its first 10. The company is now more apt to follow (and improve upon) than lead and its attention is increasingly turning to lucrative services built on the back of the still popular mobile handset.
The iPhoneâs best days may be behind it. Or maybe not.
Tim Cook could pull on some faded jeans, lace up a pair of white New Balance sneakers, slip into a black mock turtle neck, walk out on stage this September and reinvent the smartphone category all over again. It could happen.