The iPhone Is Turning 5

On June 29, 2007, Apple introduced the first iPhone, and changed the landscape for smartphones. Prior to the iPhone, smartphones were primarily business tools, and were generally used for 4 basic functions: phone calls, e-mails, contacts and calendars. The first iPhone didn’t do much more than that, but it was a landmark device because it was aimed clearly at consumers. Enterprise integration features were virtually non-existent. This was a device meant to be managed from a home PC by an individual. As the device evolved, it changed how people viewed smartphones. The biggest impact: the rise of the app. But what this all stemmed from was from a philosophical difference when approaching the smartphone.

Small Computers vs. Phones With Smarts

Prior to the iPhone, smartphones were “handsets”. They were called handsets. They were treated as handsets. They were a phone that was smart. Manufacturers made different models (with different part numbers and SKUs) for different networks. They would even get a different name, even though they were the same basic device. Some were locked down to a degree, not allowing you to do much more than customize the ringtone and the background image on the screen. For people who wanted to get apps (what was basically only the Treo and Windows Mobile devices), you had to go hunting. You had to track down the apps. You had to install them. There wasn’t a central clearing house for apps, and installation was sometimes tricky. The apps themselves weren’t generally consistent, and a lot were pretty unstable.

Apple approached the iPhone as a small computer that made calls. It didn’t get a different model number or name for different networks. You bought an iPhone. It was the same iPhone, whether you bought it from Telus, Rogers or Fido (in Canada). It came with the same default apps, and nothing extra. The first device wasn’t subsidized, making it the most expensive smartphone out there.

The App Store

As I mentioned, you could get apps for some smartphone platforms. The selection was rather limited, you had to do most of the work to find them, and the apps themselves varied considerably in terms of quality (or impact on your phone, like storage or battery life). When the iPhone 3G came out, and along with it the App Store, things changed radically for phones. I’m sure it drove some carriers nuts that they couldn’t pre-install their own apps, or couldn’t lock down the device to prevent app installs from Apple. But for the consumer, it was a new world: here was a simple and reliable way to find, install and manage apps that would bring additional features, and additional usefulness, to your phone. It took the “small computer that makes calls” philosophy a step further. It wasn’t “just a phone” anymore. The iPhone could be so much more than calls, e-mail, calendars and contacts.

This also created a new industry, and one that has paid out billions of dollars to developers since its inception. The App Store made it possible for a single developer working in his spare time to have a chance at success. You didn’t have to figure out storefronts and payments. Yes, you lost the ability to choose your reseller (with Palm and Windows Mobile, you could pick from a handful of on-line stores). But Apple simplified it, and for their efforts, they took 30% of the sale price. You could give your apps away for free if you wanted, and Apple didn’t charge you for it. Of course, the App Store didn’t remove the marketing, branding and awareness problems (which is in reality a far larger nut to crack). But at least the sales and distribution was taken care of, as was distribution of updates as you evolved your own products.

The Complete Ecosystem

The addition of apps completed the initial ecosystem for the iPhone: music, video and apps. No other smartphone offered as a complete, and fully stocked, an environment as the iPhone, and that ecosystem is what drove a lot of sales. In one place, iTunes, I could manage my device, and get things to make it useful to me. Sure, iTunes has its problems. The interface certainly suffers from a lot of bloat and complexity. It is in dire need of an overhaul. But it was still simpler than trying to manage the disparate bits and pieces (for those you could manage) for other platforms.

The only thing missing from the iPhone natively were books, but Amazon changed that quickly with the addition of the Kindle. PDF readers from various sources, along with e-readers from others like eReader.com, expanded the available library for books and reference material. Apple eventually got into the act with iBooks, and the addition of newsstand brought periodicals (for those still wedded to the idea of subscription news and information in a periodical format).

The iPhone and its ecosystem set the standard for what a smartphone had to be, not just what it could be, and only Android has managed to replicate a similar effect. A smartphone was no longer about calls-and-communications. The iPhone showed us that it could be about entertainment, information and productivity. It came with a “real” web browser, not some stripped down thing. It allowed us to personalize the device beyond ring tones and wallpaper: apps let us tailor the device to be useful for “me”.

Not All Roses and Sunshine

The iPhone isn’t all roses and sunshine though. The App Store, while provided a bit of a buffer against “bad” apps, is no guarantee that the app you buy isn’t going to be a bug-fest. The App Store is also the sole purveyor. Consumers and developers benefit from a single location, but they don’t have an sort of choice, and the competitive benefits that can sometime have. And Apple is the sole arbiter of what goes on the App Store, and they reserve the right to remove an App if they don’t like it after the fact. Up until the App Store guidelines were published last year, developers didn’t have clear and obvious rules for what was and wasn’t acceptable. We had to guess, and go on hearsay and real experience to know what Apple would allow and what they wouldn’t.

The technology in the iPhone isn’t always groundbreaking. Apple did set new standards for industrial design, and for things like the display and processing power, they were generally in front. But when it came to the actual radio technology, they are generally a step behind everyone else. The first iPhone was EDGE when most devices were 3G. When the iPhone 4 arrived, it was still 3G, even though 4G/LTE was started to gain some traction. There are some technical reasons (generally decreased battery life), but it seemed more about Apple being conservative.

In one of the iPhone’s biggest market, the United States, customers had one choice for carrier: AT&T. Right next door here in Canada, we had 3 carriers to choose from. Many regions that had multiple carriers meant you had a choice for your network provider. Limiting themselves to AT&T likely held back some early customers. It also gave competitors an opening to point out the “lack of choice” in the American market.

The lack of a physical keyboard was, and is, a deal-breaker for some people. Hardcore users of previous smartphones can be very, very fast on physical keyboards, and find they aren’t as fast or as accurate with a soft keyboard.

It took a while for the iPhone to be a more stand-alone device. Up until iOS 5, your ability to manage the phone by itself was limited. You had to tether it to manage most content, back up the data and install operating system updates. It is still “tethered” to a single computer for some things, and you have to erase and re-install if you want to use a different machine as the “master” for some operations.

It is also important to point out that, despite perceptions, the iPhone was never the dominant smartphone globally. While the device grew to prominence very quickly, and gained a fairly healthy marketshare, it was Android that took over the lion’s share of the global market. Both iOS and Android have displaced the previous top-2, Symbian and Blackberry, but Android grew faster, and the iPhone has never managed to be higher than 2nd-place in the “marketshare standings” globally. The iPhone still has a healthy chunk of the market, and being perceived as the leader can be as good as actually being the leader. But others have held the top spot.

What’s Next?

As always, the next steps are really more about evolution than revolution. Faster and better processors, 4G support, slimmer designs and extra hardware bits are going to be on the menu. Any truly revolutionary change won’t be found in the iPhone, or other smartphones for that matter. Despite the hyperbole that Apple likes to use when they announce a new or updated product, the reality is that they are ultimately a variation on a theme. Yes, things are better. Sure, stuff gets faster, screens get sharper, batteries last longer. But at the end of the day, the devices aren’t conceptually any different that their predecessors. Higher-resolution screens, faster processors and 4G/LTE support aren’t disruptors, they are steps along the path.

Will Apple find a way to disrupt the smartphone market? Who knows. They could have all manner of interesting devices, with new approaches to operating systems and software, cooking in their labs. But so could Google, HP, Microsoft and others. But the next big thing in mobile computing may not come from any of the current players, and it won’t look or act like anything we can buy today.

For now, though, the iPhone is what it is, and we can look forward to it getting better (and sometimes worse), just like any other product. It will continue to evolve and grow, gaining and losing features as market forces come to bear. And it will still be a pretty good smartphone.

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