“Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.” It was Jan. 9, 2007 when this rather audacious claim was made in a California auditorium full of journalists and industry members during the annual Macworld trade show. After much speculation and rumours, Apple’s co-founder and then-CEO Steve Jobs lifted the veil on the company’s new device. It’s still a vivid memory, feeling like just yesterday.
“An iPod, a phone and an internet communicator,” he said. “These are not three separate devices. This is one device and we are calling it iPhone.”
This moment, now 10 years ago, is widely accepted as when the modern smartphone was born (even though it didn’t actually become available for purchase until June). Despite what someone might think of Apple and its current offerings, it’s important to recognize the historical significance of this event on technology.
The context of the iPhone’s unveiling is important to the narrative when trying to understand the day’s impact on the industry. Up until this point, smartphones weren’t exactly smart. Devices from manufacturers such as Palm, Moto and BlackBerry had basic computer-like functionality such as text-based e-mail that could handle some attachments or web browsing that used a mobile standard to turn pages into poorly organized text.These smartphones were essentially PDAs that could also make phone calls, controlled either with a stylus or some kind of button to navigate the selection. Devices usually had a basic set of rudimentary applications included such as calendars, calculators, solitaire and, if you’re lucky, a media player of sorts if you could get music or photos on there.
In short, they were products full of computing limitations and compromises, but also all we had available at the time. If you needed to do some sort of sudden work on the go after receiving an e-mail, you’d often just have to shoot a reply back saying you’ll do the task properly when you got back to your computer due to restrictions. Still, corporate users seemed to adore them, while the average consumer was typically using a flip phone with T9 text messaging.
Then along comes a phone that promises to bring a computer-like experience to your pocket, using a heavily modified desktop operating system. Though it still ended up having bugs at launch — and missed important features such as copy and paste, 3G network speeds or the App Store (which came a year later) — it became the new standard of what a smartphone could or should be.
People in the audience audibly gasped at what seem like trivial moments now, such as when Jobs swiped to unlock the iPhone with his finger for the first time from the stage. A multi-touch screen? That was unheard of, and introduced pinch-to-zoom functionality that is now entrenched into most technology today.
In addition, there were now new features being introduced like Visual Voicemail, an Internet browser that supported desktop-like webpages (minus Flash), a camera that took fairly impressive photos (for its time) and an excellent media manager for music or videos — all wrapped together in a very intuitive user experience. Smartphones were no longer being designed for corporate use, they were now consumer friendly.
There was much criticism and scepticism at the time though, primarily centred around the device’s high price tag. One of the most vocal critics was Steve Ballmer, then-CEO of Microsoft, who famously laughed on television when asked about the iPhone.
“$500 fully subsidized with a plan?” he said through his chuckles. “If that isn’t the most expensive phone in the world… And it doesn’t even appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good e-mail machine.”
As we know, the iPhone did go on to become a success. Up until this point, Apple’s big ticket item was the iPod — which is why Jobs focused so much on the iPhone’s music-playing capabilities during the keynote — but the iPhone would eventually go on to sell more than one-billion devices in less than 10 years. It took a few iterations to tweak features, expand into more countries and eventually woo over the physical keyboard diehards, but iPhone sales quickly drove up Apple’s shares and turned the tech giant into the world’s most valuable company.
Most importantly, however, is that the iPhone laid the groundwork for all smartphones to come (not to mention tablets). When looking at mobile devices and cell phones released prior to the iPhone announcement and then those that followed from all manufacturers, the evidence is obvious.
Of course, many companies have further innovated in the smartphone space since the iPhone was announced and built upon the many concepts introduced or popularized by Apple. More competition means more innovation from all, and consumers now have great options from a variety of tech giants.
But the original iPhone’s DNA is still sprinkled everywhere today, no matter the mobile device. And not just in the devices themselves, but in our newfound app-driven society where most things can be somehow controlled, paid for or modified by a mobile multi-touch device.
So regardless of your phone or company allegiance, it’s important to still recognize the significance of Jan. 9, 2007 and tip our hats to the keynote’s 10-year anniversary. We have yet to see another consumer tech product that has so widely transformed the industry — and, arguably, day-to-day living — the way the iPhone did, but here’s hoping a company will soon introduce another one that we can celebrate in another 10 years.
— By Josh McConnell, Financial Post