Article: January 9, 2007
There will be plenty of articles published today looking at the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the iPhone. We’ll most likely see another round of items shared on June 29, the tenth anniversary of when you could actually buy one. The thing is, both were special, but the launch of the iPhone itself left a lot of people unprepared for how massively it would reshape the technology and communications industries.
The iPhone was introduced at Macworld Expo & Conference in San Francisco, which typically focused on the Mac and Apple was just one of many vendors showcasing their products. When Apple left the Macworld Expos, that was a big blow to the event, but gave them the freedom to introduce new and exciting products when they wanted, rather than focusing on one big event in January or February.
I was in college at the time, working on a degree in Telecommunications (think Mass Media, but the concentration I selected was more technology-focused), and our department was one of the Mac-centric ones on campus. The Mac was still mostly marginalized, despite the recent switch to Intel processors a year before. My computers were a Mac mini G4 that I did just about everything on in my residence hall room and an old iBook G3 that was mostly for a few tasks at that point, such as when I spent a few hours working at the desk in my hall. The world was Windows XP-centric and being a Mac user meant that you were still part of a special little club that had to put up with snide remarks and defending Apple like it was 1997. Plenty of people had iPods, but for some reason, there was still a big disconnect between the music player they loved and the computer that happened to be made by the same company.
I recall vividly that I was stuck at the desk during the keynote, and thought I knew what to expect from it, as I had been following the rumors for months. Rumors were different back then, more based on what someone heard and a fuzzy, grainy picture, rather than actual components that came from a supplier in China. Apple also did not stream the keynote live—coverage was often a live blog feed with a few pictures on your favorite Mac news site. Some still do this, but other than running commentary, why not just watch the event as it unfolds?
I think most people were expecting some sort of souped-up iPod that could make phone calls. Mobile data plans were still a bit of a weird, business-only option other than some sort of scaled down portal on a flip phone. I seem to recall that Cingular really wanted you to use their MEdiaNet service, so they put a button that launched the Internet on most phones, even if you didn’t have a data plan. If you hit it, you had to scramble and hit the End button to get out of the browser before getting charged pay-per-use data for a couple of kilobytes.
Even though the rumors seemed to focus around an Internet-capable device, I was still skeptical given that data was still an out-of-the-question add-on for a normal consumer. My iPod was about a year old at the time, so I wasn’t in the market for a replacement, but certainly fascinated with the direction Apple was going. At the event, the Apple TV was introduced, and while I would eventually have a high definition TV, I wasn’t fully invested in purchasing video content from iTunes, so it seemed like a product for future-me to worry about.
From what I was able to understand from the relayed reports, the iPhone was phenomenal. In a world where most phones still had ugly, low-resolution interfaces or tons of carrier-installed garbage, and a smartphone mostly meant BlackBerry-style keys or some sort of terrible, pressure-sensitive-screened Windows CE device, this was a reinvention of what one should expect in a phone. It was clean, simple, friendly, and most importantly, could take the place of carrying two devices. Multitouch seemed too good to be true, as did many of the mechanics and physics with the user interface. I wanted one, and just about everyone else I know did, too. My knee-jerk thoughts nitpicked a bit, but there were two gems among that has held up over time:
On the interface front, this makes almost every product out there look antiquated […]
In some ways, I’m reminded of when the iPod first came out. Everyone thought it was going to be a flop, but we know how that ended up. I guess we’ll just have to see where we are in June…
To put into context the environment in early 2007, 3G cellular service was still in a few cities, but even fewer devices could take advantage of it. Most people didn’t care about mobile data anyway, and it was sort of assumed that most phones wouldn’t work all that well in any campus buildings (room-to-room calls were still somewhat the norm, as was AOL Instant Messenger). 802.11g WiFi was in most academic buildings of our campus, and the residence halls had just gotten a few access points for select locations, but ethernet still was king. Because of that, even if we could’ve gotten iPhones at that moment, most of us would still end up using them like glorified iPods.
At that time, I was the only one in my family with a cell phone (my parents’ house was in a no-man’s-land of coverage), so I was using T-Mobile’s prepaid service on a Motorola L6. I had just bought the phone at full price the summer before and was trying to keep costs down on the service (about 10¢/minute and 10¢/outgoing text). Some sort of two-year-contract was out of the question, not to mention the extra expense for a data plan and the $599 iPhone itself. Fortunately, we had enough classes encouraging us to "pay attention to what Apple releases tomorrow" so there were enough other people who were complaining about what they wanted but couldn’t have. Today, this idea seems foreign, as just about every phone is a smartphone, and there’s payment plans and used, few-years-old iPhones still work reasonably well.
There was a lot the original iPhone couldn’t do, not to mention that it was only offered on one carrier with some pretty restrictive pricing, but it was a start. I’d switch to AT&T about a year later and eventually join the iPhone club with the iPhone 4 at its launch (I was using an iPod touch before).
I dug out an original iPhone I later acquired for posterity, and played around with it, and while everything feels familiar, it certainly does show how far things have come in the last decade. That first introduction was unlike anything else in the technology industry during my lifetime, and I suspect Apple’s plan was for an iPhone in every pocket, even if it took a few years for all the conditions to support it.