Editorials

Apple's iPhone turns 10

Ten years ago last week the world shifted on its axis. On June 29, 2007, Apple released the iPhone, a mobile communications device that Steve Jobs, visionary and disrupter, had introduced six months before as “a revolutionary product … that changes everything.” Although Jobs was both a master showman and sometime fabulist, he was not exaggerating. The iPhone has changed the world, transforming the lives of billions of people around the world and facilitating a social and economic transition that is still underway.

The iPhone project began in 2004, when a team of 1,000 employees were enlisted to join “Project Purple.” Originally conceived as a “tablet-style” device, Jobs became disenchanted with that format and pushed the team to a design concept that focused on the phone. Within three years, the iPhone emerged under the keen eye of Jonathan Ive, the head of design at Apple who has been responsible for the look of many of the company’s most breathtaking products.

In his keynote speech at the annual Macworld Expo in January 2007, Jobs began with the somewhat perplexing note that his company would no longer be Apple Computer but would instead become Apple Inc. The remarks that followed explained why. Jobs then introduced the iPhone (and the Apple TV), and the revolution began.

The iPhone was released some six months later, during which time hunger for the product reached feverish proportions: 270,000 iPhones were sold in the first 30 hours it was available, and 6.1 million units over the first five quarters it was on the market. By the fourth quarter of 2008, Apple had become the world’s third-largest producer of mobile telephone devices, overtaking Blackberry (built by Research in Motion) to trail only Nokia and Samsung.

Today, Apple has, over 10 generations of iPhone models and an equal number of operating systems, sold 1.2 billion units, or nearly 14,000 phones an hour and just over 2.1 million a week. That is 228 iPhone sales worldwide per minute.

That tidal wave of activity has generated an estimated $738 billion in revenue, of which about $100 billion is net profit. Apple has become the world’s most recognizable brand and the world’s most profitable company, proprietor of an entire ecosystem that includes phones and other computing devices (some mobile, some not), as well as home technology systems, and the Apple store that has revolutionized the way digital products and services are delivered.

The iPhone has transformed human interaction as well. The iPhone is not just a phone, but a device that facilitates communication across a variety of media: voice, text, email, even pure symbols. Spoken words are no longer as important, and writing itself is evolving as formats change.

Interaction with devices has changed, too. Phone jacks are now standard features of automobile interiors and the mobile device is an essential component of efficient transportation (and will become even more so as automated vehicles mature and reach the market). Airplanes are increasingly iPhone (or mobile device) friendly, and about 100,000 airline seats already have connectors built in. It is difficult to imagine travel in any form, to a new destination or a regular hangout, without using a mobile device at some point in the process, even if only to find an address or pick the quickest route.

All those changes are not necessarily for the better. Social scientists are increasingly alarmed at how mobile devices have isolated individuals. Rather than uniting users in shared experiences and bringing them together in the real world, ease of access to the digital world is reducing human interaction. A growing number of studies show addiction to devices — a finding that is supported by the number of social engineering classes that teach programmers and designers ways to make users feel compelled to continually check their devices for updated information.

The attention generated by the 10th anniversary of the iPhone has also burst some of the mythology surrounding the device. Jobs, while visionary, was not responsible for the design nor the technology: Thousands of people, both in and outside of Apple, contributed to the development. Indeed, Apple did not even develop the core touchscreen technology that is central to the iPhone’s ease of use.

Deflating the bubble should not diminish the significance of the iPhone itself. The iPhone has transformed the way we live, and is still shaking the corporate landscape, disrupting industries ranging from automobiles to vacations. And, if the history of previous revolutions is correct, we have not yet begun to comprehend the real changes, which emerge only when the application of technologies reaches its second generation. The pace of change is accelerating and we can only wonder what the next 10 years will bring.

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