It’s Been 10 Years? Already?

Ten years ago, Steve Jobs announced a new product called the iPhone. After publicly denying Apple was working on a phone, he demonstrated a device that would help to reshape how we view personal computing. The iPhone doesn’t deserve all the credit. Android played a critical part, and was released around the same time. But the world of computing, mobile or otherwise, has a clear boundary in the year 2007.

Smartphones As Business Tool

Before 2007, the smartphone was primarily a business tool. In North America, the Blackberry was king. The rest of the world ran on Nokia’s Symbian-based smartphones. By this time, the smartphone was already over a decade old. The first device you would identify as a smartphone came from IBM in 1992. It was somewhat limited, and wasn’t made in large volume. Nokia truly got the party started 3 years later with the Nokia Communicator.

Smartphones, like the mobile phone before it, required expensive carrier plans to be truly useful. So, like the mobile phone, smartphones got their start as an enterprise device. Everything companies built for them was geared around business productivity. That meant focusing on email, contacts and calendar synchronization, with some support for web browsing. Consumers, generally speaking, stuck with conventional feature phones.

This technology progression isn’t unusual, and we see it time and again. The first consumer VCR’s were based on technology used in TV studios for years. The microwave oven started in commercial kitchens over a decade before home units became viable. The personal computer may have started as a bit of a hobby machine, but it wasn’t until 1981 when IBM released the first IBM PC that PC’s truly took off. PC’s wouldn’t become common in homes until the mid-1990’s.

A New Focus

The iPhone marked a change in how people viewed smartphones. Apple made the device specifically for consumers. Trying to integrate the first iPhones into corporate infrastructure was extremely difficult, and Apple initially showed no interest in it. The iPhone’s purpose wasn’t just the usual communication bits (phone, calendar, email), but was also web browsing and media (music and video). The only “apps” you could build were browser-based one. The iTunes App Store would arrive the following year, and was the final piece to create the concept of “mobile computing”.

The most obvious difference with the iPhone was the lack of a dedicated keyboard. Up until then, smartphones had fixed hardware keyboards, and it was taken as gospel that it was a requirement. Even Steve acknowledged this back in 1997, when he participated in a WWDC “keynote” that was more informal Q&A. But that was because of the focus of the device at the time. By not including a physical keyboard, Apple changed the focus from “typing email” to “consuming, not just communicating”.

But the other big difference with the iPhone was its underlying philosophy: it was a small computer that made phone calls (and I’ve been saying this for many years now). Everyone else called their smartphones “handsets”. That’s how they were viewed. The accepted definition was that a smartphone was a “phone that is smart”. By shifting the focus, and looking at it as a computing device first, Apple helped usher in a sea change in personal computing.


From Periphery To Centre

In the corporate world, a smartphone was largely seen as a combination of PC accessory and extension of the corporate infrastructure. The Blackberry combined with either Blackberry Information Service (BIS) or Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) could be tightly integrated with core corporate information, specifically email, contacts and calendars. The Blackberry lived at the edge of your company’s network.

But the iPhone and Androids were different. Like the corporate world, they were connected devices. But these devices weren’t an extension of something bigger, or a merely a window into something larger. These devices didn’t merely tether you to “the network”. They instead allowed you to build what is, in essence, your own network. They aren’t on the periphery of something bigger. They sit at the centre of your own personal information world.

The philosophies of the iPhone (computer that makes phone calls; centre of your network, not the periphery) were something that Research in Motion (now Blackberry) and Nokia never seemed to grasp. By the time Nokia partnered with Microsoft, and shifted focus to “computer that makes calls”, it was too late. They were already relegated to the “other” slice of the marketshare pie charts. Blackberry never figured it out.

A New World

Before 2007, there really wasn’t something called “mobile computing”. If you had used this phrase in the late ’90s or early 2000’s, people probably would have figured you were talking about laptops. Now, we now have something called mobile computing: highly mobile general-purpose devices like smartphones and tablets. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who would include laptops in this category. The iPhone and Android made this happen, and it started in 2007 with the unveiling of the iPhone.

The iPhone and Android created an entirely new industry. Sure, smartphone were already 15+ years old at that time. We had seen other portable computing devices, including laptops and PDA’s, before. The core technologies had existed for a long time. Detractors would claim that Apple (and Google) didn’t actually create or invent anything new here.

But they would be wrong. Before 2007, no one seriously spoke about mobile computing. People building apps for Palm and Windows Mobile were more hobbyists than anything else, and the world of mobile software was tiny. It was measured in a few millions of dollars globally. Smartphones and PDAs were accessories. They were devices hanging off the edge of something bigger.

After 2007, the smartphone is a ubiquitous computing device. It isn’t a peripheral, it is the core of a personal network, unique to each individual. Mobile apps and supporting infrastructure are industries that employees millions of people and represents tens of billions of dollars a year in economic activity. Apple alone paid out US$21 billion to app developers in the last year.

A Decade of Change

In 10 years, we’ve seen the smartphone become a ubiquitous consumer device. A new category of computing was created. An entirely new industry was built. And we now take for granted that we have ready access to information, entertainment and personal communications. It’s with many people 24/7. Where you used to not leave the house without your wallet and keys. Now you don’t leave without your smartphone either.

What will 10 years from now look like? Who knows. An entirely new industry may be created in that time as well. If I could predict it, I’d be finding a way to make money off of it, not sharing the idea with the world for free. I expect that the role of the smartphone will continue to evolve, though, and I expect it will start to replace things like car and house keys, and parts of our wallet. A day may come where the only thing you leave the house with is your smartphone. And an iPhone will be part of that mix.