Ten years ago today, my guys were among the first ones lined up outside Caffe Macs to head up to the meeting room where the iPhones were stacked up to hand out. We were all employees, and we’d all been watching the internal meeting a month earlier that Steve finished by telling us everyone would get an 8GB iPhone, gratis. So the $500 I’d been accumulating on my dresser drawer was suddenly turned into free cash, because the iPhone – the iPhone, first of its name, the mythological device made real – would be placed in my hands for nothing more than having turned up to work the last two years as a staff employee.
I was ahead of the game – I’d brought a laptop so I could quickly activate, and my existing Apple-provided phone (at the time a Nokia flip, the last of a half-dozen desperate attempts to get some kind of signal in our long-since-demolished offices) so that I’d have a live SIM card ready to ride. And sure enough, I was the first of our guys to be activated, and spent the next hour or so going between helping other guys get live and marveling over this thing, this slice of the future that rested in my hand.
It was metal in back and glass in front. It didn’t have 3G or GPS, but I hadn’t any data service on my work plan to that point (the data package was automatically added when the iPhone arrived) so I didn’t have any sense of not having those things. It was not too big, not too small, just right. I’d impulsively bought a SonyEricsson P800 four years earlier and sold it just as quickly a year later (at a significant loss), because it was too big and too bulky – and replaced it with a Nokia 6620 with similar issues. So while I’d technically had a smartphone, and even attempted to install things like Opera Mini on it (or on my parade of imported unlocked devices for that matter), I’d never had anything that just worked like this did.
No high-speed data. No location services. No cut and paste. Not even support for MMS. (I suspect that Steve thought email would rapidly pummel MMS as the preferred way of sending. Guess not.) No App Store, not even a way to bookmark sites on the home page at first. Just a list of URLs for AJAX-based web apps for instant messaging, or for Twitter. There was a brief vogue for sites that began “i.example.com” rather than the WAP-style “m.example.com” so you’d get the iPhone-optimized form of the site. We were trading new “app sites” every day. We had to activate VPN to use it to get our AAPL corporate mail over the wireless at the office, and it would work with the free Google wi-fi in Mountain View but not the secure wi-fi version, and it definitely wasn’t compatible with the third-party iPod integration in my new Rabbit.
None of that mattered.
Because it was the future. It really was. Real email in my pocket, no more scrounging for ways to check webmail on the road (or worse yet, ways to try to ssh into my personal email). A proper keyboard for texting, after a fashion, but one that disappeared to give you more space for the map or the browser window. All the services my prototype iPod offered me, music and video (and full-screen wide-screen video!) I’ve told the tale before, but in first grade, my friends and I would fold up a sheet of loose-leaf by thirds, then fold the resulting long strip by thirds, and use our pencils to make it into a combination of badge, comlock, tricorder, blaster, what have you. (In 1979, Star Wars was huge, but Star Trek and Space:1999 were on the television and there was more than one of them.) It was the all purpose sci-fi device, a complete flight of fancy that we could make into anything we wanted. Holding that first iPhone, you could see the path we’d stepped onto, and it was hard not to feel like a little piece of my childhood imagination was coming true thirty years later.
Ten years on? Never mind piffle like MMS and cut/paste, the App Store really kicked things off. As did GPS. And LTE. By 2013, the iPhone and its spawn had destroyed the market for standalone cellphones and pagers and PDAs and point/shoot cameras and camcorders and digital media players and GPS devices. It had created apps and products like Foursquare and Uber and Instagram that not only didn’t exist before the smartphone but couldn’t exist without the smartphone. Twitter isn’t what it is now if it still relies on web browsers and texting 40404 to work. I walk into the Sunnyvale Fry’s and it’s a shell of what it once was – the combination of the Amazon bomb and the smartphone consolidation has rendered brick-and-mortar consumer electronics stores merely showrooms for products that perform a function that can’t fit in an app in your hand.
But more to the point: since that day in 2007, I have bought a burner Nokia for $20 and a Moto X, and my wife has bought a burner Nokia abroad. Every other penny our household has put on mobile phones in these ten years has gone on one iPhone or another. And that’s where the ecosystem lock-in gets you: either Apple or Google controls the OS through which we mediate our conduct with the modern world. But once you pick your side, for the most part you can get at the same stuff: Uber, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Waze, Citymapper, Foursquare – apps that don’t even make sense before the consumer smartphone is a reality. None of those make sense before the iPhone, because if they did they would have existed. Consider Foursquare – it was a derivative of Dodgeball, a service by the same developers to do check-ins via SMS on your phone, released in 2003 and bought by Google in 2005, out of sight by 2007. Because it was complex and convoluted. In 2009, Dodgeball took off like a rocket – because it was a smartphone app, in a New World where Apple was responsible for at least the Santa Maria.
So ten years on – what now? I still maintain that the smartphone effectively crossed the finish line four years ago. We had fingerprint ID, NFC, decent RAM and screen size and storage and LTE and in some cases even decent battery life, all by the time of the iPhone 5s and the Moto X. Right now, aside from a little faster processor and a few more pixels in screen or camera, what’s out there that would make me lay down the iPhone SE? Most vendors seem to think it’s virtual or augmented reality, and Apple certainly seems to be loading up iOS 11 as their play for the AR world – but does that really need a new phone? And if it does – one with high-contrast AMOLED and a home button fingerprint reader under the screen and no bezels and A BATTERY THAT DOESN’T SUCK OUT LOUD, JEEZ O FLIP APPLE – is it going to be worth laying down an extra $1200 when the phone I’ve got is everything I need and nothing I don’t?
Because a bigger screen gives you two things: easier media consumption and a bigger battery. The problem is avoiding that sour spot where the iPhone 6 and 6S landed, where the phone is bigger enough to draw more power but not bigger enough to have an appreciably larger battery. You can either go real big (and pricey) like the Plus line, or cozy like the SE. In eschewing the larger screen and the (frankly Samsung-esque) gimmickry of “3D Touch”, the iPhone SE combined performance and user experience and pricing into the perfect package. This year’s processor, all-day battery and fit in one hand? That’s as close to the original vision of the iPhone as you could ask for.
So now we wait to see what Apple does next, and whether they drop some special super donkey collider phone that overshadows the notional 7S/Plus and wounds the goose that lays the golden egg. If this is the end of the line for the iPhone Decade, though, you have to say that it’s been ten world-changing years. I can say that I was there on the day it happened for the two biggest events that shaped the 21st century so far – and Cupertino on the day the iPhone landed was a hell of a lot better than Washington DC on September 11.