For technology enthusiasts, June 29, 2007 marked one of the most highly anticipated days of the year. About six months before that, at Macworld’s then-annual San Francisco event on January 9, Apple’s legendary founder Steve Jobs had taken the stage to introduce what most were expecting to simply be a new iPod; however, with Jobs’ well-known showmanship, what he unveiled instead was “a revolutionary mobile phone, a widescreen iPod with touch controls, and a breakthrough Internet communications device with desktop-class email, web browsing, searching and maps” — the original iPhone. This was just a pre-announcement, however; it would be another six months before anybody outside of a few fortunate members of the press would even be able to touch the device.
Jobs’ on-stage announcement created an incredible amount of both hype and anticipation, representing the first time that Apple had broken its well-known cone of silence to pre-announce a product, but as Jobs said on stage, since the iPhone had to undergo regulatory approval before it could be sold, he wanted to be the one to break the news, rather than leaving it up to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Those who have come of age in the era of modern smartphones may not fully appreciate how revolutionary the original iPhone was. In fact, no matter your smartphone platform of choice, it’s hard to argue that it was Apple’s iconic iPhone that defined the entirely new era of mobile technology that we have been enjoying for the past twelve years.
With almost every smartphone today bearing almost buttonless all-glass screen faces, it’s easy to forget that Apple’s choice to do so was a brave and bold one in an era where hardware keyboards were the norm. The first Android devices, which came out that same year, looked nothing like the Android smartphones of today, bearing a much closer resemblance to the then-popular BlackBerry. In fact, Steve Jobs made this exact point when he first unveiled the iPhone, comparing it to the other smartphones of the time.
For those too young to remember, a quick look back at CNET’s Best mobile phones of 2006 provides a really good indication of the kind of world that the iPhone was being born into.
A Personal Tale
I was there — in the audience at Macworld 2007 — when Steve Jobs first unveiled the iPhone, and it would be an understatement to say that, despite my skepticism, I shared in the excitement around this revolutionary new device. We’ve become so accustomed to the iPhone and other similar smartphones by now that we either don’t realize or have simply forgotten how magical the original iPhone really was.
At risk of dating myself, I had already been a long-time user of smartphones and PDAs prior to the advent of the iPhone, hearkening back to the original Pilot 1000 as a straight PDA, and moving up to a Qualcomm pdQ-1900 as my first integrated “smartphone.” In the seven years between that pdQ-1900 and the iPhone, I switched smartphones on a regular basis, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I tried every mobile platform available, from Windows CE to Palm, and from BlackBerry to Symbian. When the iPhone came out, I was skeptical that it would be enough to replace my trusty Nokia E62 — it didn’t even have a physical keyboard after all — but as an Apple enthusiast I was eager to still give it a try.
Once I got an iPhone in my hands, it took less a week for me to get hooked, and I haven’t looked back since.
The iPhone Then and Now
For those who don’t remember it, the original iPhone was a shockingly limited device — even by the standards of the time. Even back then, every competing smartphone platform offered the ability to load on additional apps, yet with the original iPhone, there were no third-party apps — the App Store wouldn’t arrive until a year later — and even features like copy-and-paste and MMS messaging were conspicuously missing.
The iPhone didn’t do much better on hardware specs either. At a time when 3G was getting a lot of hype, Apple released a device that only ran at slower EDGE speeds. It was also only available in 4 GB and 8 GB capacities at launch with no expandable storage (a 16 GB model was added in February 2008), along with Bluetooth 2.0 and a 2 megapixel rear camera. There was no front camera, no replaceable battery, and in fact it didn’t even support video recording.
You also couldn’t customize the home screen at all. What you got was a slate of 16 apps, stuck in fixed positions: SMS, Calendar, Photos, Camera, YouTube, Stocks, Maps, Weather, Clock, Calculator, Notes, Settings, Phone, Mail, Safari, and iPod. While many of these apps still exist on today’s iPhone in various forms, they’ve all gone through significant changes of course.
However, these core apps were far more intuitive and easy to use than anybody had ever seen. Even the software keyboard, which many feared would be hard to use, worked remarkably well due to intelligent features like predictive typing.
While the iPhone didn’t do as much as other smartphones of the time, what it did so, it did brilliantly well.
The move to a touchscreen as the primary way of interacting with a phone had never really been done properly before, and Apple focused on getting that absolutely right with extremely natural pinch-to-zoom gestures and inertial scrolling that made the whole experience feel more fluid. The Safari web browser itself was also years ahead of the competition, delivering a rich web browsing experience at a time when most mobile browsers were clunky text-heavy beasts that tried to reformat pages for mobile, with usually ugly results. By stark contrast, Safari presented web pages in their unadulterated form, allowing users to easily zoom in and out and pan and scroll around to see the whole page. Even on a 3.5-inch screen, it was an experience light years ahead of anything that had come before.
Still, many tech industry pundits shrugged off Apple’s original iPhone, with Microsoft’s then-CEO Steve Ballmer famously stating “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”
Certainly anybody who felt that the iPhone was Apple’s answer to the smartphones of the day would mostly be walking away disappointed, but the thing that many in the tech industry seemed to miss was the fact that only about 5 percent of the mobile phone market was dominated by smartphones, while the other 95 percent was made up of users with “feature phones” that generally found the smartphone offerings of the time to be intimidating due to their complexity. Steve Jobs made it fairly clear on stage that it was the 95 percent that Apple was going after, not the extremely fussy and demanding power users.
Looking at the iPhone XS today, it’s hard to believe that the iPhone actually had such humble beginnings, and may even be hard to believe that such a limited device managed to become so incredibly popular, but of course Apple managed to absolutely nail the core experience, and then took an iterative approach that the company has now become famous for. In most cases, Apple hasn’t been the first to introduce new smartphone features, but more often than not, the wait has proven worthwhile, as Apple almost always offers a much better implementation of its new features.