At the age of fifteen, the iPhone is a very well-rounded and self-confident teenager. Few things have seen so much flattery and refinement during their relatively short lifespan. This may be due to the extensive scrutiny the iPhone faced even before the late Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs took the stage at Macworld to unveil it on January 9, 2007.
The original iPhone — sometimes referred to as the “Jesus Phone” due to its ability to power and elevate an entire industry — was a pretty big deal. And a big risk. No other phone manufacturer, not the then-dominant BlackBerry or T-Mobile with the hugely popular Sidekick, has taken such a big swing.
We had never seen a phone with such a large touch screen (3.5 inch!) and almost no buttons, save the home, power and volume buttons on the sides. It was possibly the most mysterious device of the century. If you hand it to someone, they might stare at it and then you beg, “What the hell am I doing with this?”
There are things we forgot about the first iPhone:
It wasn’t a great phone. It has only supported one carrier in the US: AT&T and it can take up to six steps before you can place a call.
The iPhone was a great companion to iTunes, offering the best virtual way ever to manage your music library, but it had a terrible little speaker.
I played videos but they looked horrible on the small, low resolution screen.
Initially, Apple limited the iPhone to a few built-in widgets for things like stock, YouTube, weather, and the web, but they prohibit the installation of native third-party apps. Instead, it supported web applications. For some, the inability to install apps the way BlackBerries and Palm phones already might make the iPhone less than a true “smartphone”. Apple cleverly reversed this decision by the summer of 2008 when it opened the App Store.
My favorite part of the trivia is that even after the official launch of the iPhone, Apple didn’t own the “iPhone” brand name. It was acquired by networking company Cisco in 2000 along with long-forgotten InfoGear. Few knew until the week after the launch that Apple had been involved in intense negotiations with Cisco for years.
I remember we’re all joking about what Apple would call its devices if it couldn’t keep the iPhone name: “Apple Phone” was an obvious choice, but “Steve Phone” made us laugh. A month later, the two companies stabilized.
I was not immune to the intense interest surrounding the device. While I didn’t attend Macworld, I tracked the launch and then launched my quiet campaign to be among the first to pick up and review a phone. I was the editor-in-chief of PC Magazine, so I thought I had a chance.
I was not.
In July of 2007, Jobs chose four tech journalists for his suit with the new device: David Pogue (The New York Times), Steve Levy (Newsweek), Walter Mossberg (The Wall Street Journal), and Ed Paige (USA Today). I knew them all but none of them were good enough to call and say, “Hey, can I see this phone?”
Furthermore, Apple’s rules for these early review units were strict. While the reporters were expected to hold the original iPhone and review it, they were also supposed to keep it out of sight and hands of anyone else (I still remember owning my first iPad and was afraid to let my family touch it).
It’s hard to review a product if you keep it in your pocket all the time, so Ed Baig can be forgiven for pulling an iPhone out of his pocket at an industry event (this was two days after the review ban was lifted but a year before availability). I swear, I smelled the phone before I saw it and directed the beeline to the respected tech writer.
“Is this an iPhone?”
Ed stared blankly at me for a moment.
Then he smiled a big smile on his face and admitted that he was holding the “Jesus Phone”.
When I asked if I could hold him, Baig complied, but his eyes were focused on my fingers as they moved over the smooth plastic, glass, and metal object. I heard a whisper in my head, “Very sexy.”
I pressed the home button, as that seemed to be the obvious thing to do, and then started clicking the icons. I guess I hit Weather, Safari, Maps, and Photos. Ed said nothing as I intuitively navigate tools, locations, pinch and zoom.
After a few minutes, I carefully handed the phone to Ed, who silently put it back in his pocket.
The illicit business was risky for him and changing the world for me.
You changed everything
For all the things this iPhone wasn’t (a great phone, an excellent media player, a true smartphone), I knew then it was a paradigm shift. Whoever touched this device was bound to feel similarly, that it was intuition in physical form.
There has never been a phone quite like it and everything that followed will have its effect.
In an industry where there are multiple platforms and hardware styles, each in its own orbit, the world of mobile design has, at least for some time, re-positioned the iPhone at its center.
After 15 years, the iPhone is still a leading brand among competitors, but it no longer has the innovation curve alone. What Apple did was reinvent the phone, but it also paved a clear path for competitors who also dumped buttons and made multi-touch screens bigger than ever.
Every smartphone on the planet owes this first iPhone, but the focus on smartphone innovation in one design language (large screen, thin chassis, glass and metal chassis, premium cameras) has led to a less interesting technology sector than it was in 2007 when it took over. Steve Jobs theater and reinvented the product category.
[Updated to reflect the fact that Ed Baig did not break his embargo agreement with Apple when he handed me the first iPhone]