The iPhone at 8 – so how was the smartphone revolution for you?

29 Jun 2015

Eight years ago today the iPhone went on sale for the first time. And technology was transformed forever.

Eight years ago today, Apple released the original iPhone and a revolution that continues to this day was unleashed. Now, in a mobile-first world, what has really changed? Well, everything.

If you remember 29 June 2007 like I do, the world was a very different place. Most of the team were either still in school or college, I was about to buy my first home and the mobile phone of choice around that time was the BlackBerry Pearl, with its distinctive and opaque little ball-mouse.

Microsoft ruled the tech world from a desktop point of view and mobility as we mostly understood it concerned laptops running Windows Vista – the equivalent of pushing a Porsche engine into the structure of a Morris Minor. It sucked.

Elegance in technology terms was confined to Apple’s Mac notebooks and Palm was about to go into its death throws. In fact, so were Nokia, BlackBerry and Sony-Ericsson – they just didn’t realize it yet.

Nokia ruled the mobile world in 2007 and you can tell from the dizzying array of devices from the N800 to the E61 it was just bashing out all kinds of concept phones in all shapes and sizes simply because it could.

Having sampled a device from Motorola called the ROKR two years previously featuring the first iteration of iTunes on a mobile phone, it was clear that it was an experiment that Apple was reluctant to enter into. It was shabby, badly designed and songs were painfully slow to transfer from your computer’s iTunes library.

The term cloud computing had yet to become a marketer’s wet dream.

Yes folks, this was the abyss – the twilight period from the promise of mobile data thanks to BlackBerry, mobile music on iPhones and Microsoft trying to put the entire Windows Mobile OS on screens the size of a postage stamp. There was little to be nostalgic about.

By early 2007 there was talk of an Apple Phone coming to the marketplace.

At the time the idea was too good to be true – was Apple really about to do this and if it did, could it be an abject failure? Remember Newton? After all, what did Apple really know about phones at this point?

Apple introduces the iPhone for the first time

9 January 2007 was really the day that the smartphone revolution truly began. Watching Steve Jobs via video feed from the Moscone Center in San Francisco remotely from a desk overlooking the Slough-like terrain of Park West in Dublin, the future unfolded before my eyes.

“Oh, and one more thing,” Jobs said as he fished a shiny little device from the pocket of his jeans and held the iPhone with a deadly glint in his eyes. It shimmered beautifully in the lights of the stage and probably the thing that most impressed me at the time was just how easy it was to write and send text messages. I know, but that’s what I remember. I liked the icons on the screen, the Safari browser, but most of all you sensed the madness of design of devices up until that time was being fizzled out. Clarity was about to reign, or so we thought.

Unbeknownst to most of us at this time, a crack team of 1,000 workers at Apple had been working on the iPhone secretly since 2004.

But after this tantalising glimpse of perfection it wouldn’t be until 29 June 2007 that Apple released the original iPhone through an exclusive deal with AT&T, with the first 8GB device costing US$599.

Over on this side of the world it was November 2007 when the iPhone began selling in the UK, France, Germany, Portugal and Austria. I distinctly remember O2 winning the exclusive deal to sell the iPhone in Ireland and the UK and the day the device went on sale rumours spreading that most shops had less than a dozen of the prized devices per store. Early buyers would in most cases exist on a waiting list that lasted for weeks for their object of desire.

The device attracted rave reviews from Walt Mossberg and David Pogue.

The iPhone came, saw and conquered, but the revolution truly gained pace with the App Store

In my mind the first generation iPhone, while a game-changer, really improved with the iPhone 3G in 2008.

This coincided with another big revolution – the onset of the App Store in 2008. Up until this point the way most people consumed software applications was mostly via disc, occasionally risking viruses to download software from the internet.

All utterly changed with the release of iOS 2.0 in July 2008, which was accompanied by the App Store – the way software would be built, distributed and consumed was to change forever. Users could simply download apps in seconds onto their iPhone either for free or for a price and 70pc of the revenue would go to the app’s publisher.

At WWDC recently Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, revealed that there are more than 1.5m apps now on the App Store and more than 100bn apps have been downloaded, generating US$30bn in revenue for developers.

As for the hardware, the first generation and second generation (3G) came with 3.5-inch screens and were coated in glass and plastic. The phones took on a more metallic and glass look with the launch of the 4 and 4S, increased to a four-inch screen with the 5 and 5S models and returned to glass and plastic with the more affordable 5C model.

The sophistication of the devices has changed hugely in this time, with more powerful cameras, faster LTE and Wi-Fi capabilities and, with the 5S, for the first time, 64-bit computing and fingerprint recognition.

Last year, Apple increased the screen size of the iPhone to 4.7-inches and 5.5-inches with the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus respectively to deal with the competitive force of big-screened devices from rivals like Samsung.


Evolution of the iPhone (infographic)

Proving the critics wrong

There can be no doubt that in the eight years since the iPhone first launched, the device has been a major money maker for Apple, in fact leading to it becoming possibly one of the wealthiest companies on the planet with a war chest of US$170bn, US$231bn in assets and a valuation approaching US$1 trillion.

More than 700m iPhones have been sold since 2007. In the company’s Q2 revenues in April it revealed that iPhone sales brought in US$40.3bn in revenue – with some 61.1m iPhones sold.

Last year, JP Morgan estimated that the iPhone’s share of the worldwide smartphone market stood at around 15pc, however, Apple makes a higher profit margin than its rivals.

Ironically, when the first iPhone went on sale eight years ago today it was dismissed by the then CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer, who laughed, “it has no buttons”!

Both CEOs of BlackBerry Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie tried to undermine the impact of the device, stating that the most important thing in mobile that year would be full QWERTY keyboards on mobile devices.

Nokia decided to fight back with a reaction device called the N95, which it called an iPhone killer. As did BlackBerry in 2009 with the BlackBerry Storm. Both devices bombed.

And guess what? Nokia is gone, with Microsoft buying the company for US$8.5bn a year ago, while BlackBerry is now a shell of itself.

Google entered the smartphone market in 2007 with Android via the Open Handset Alliance consisting of manufacturers like Samsung, HTC and Sony.

Having acquired Andy Rubin’s Danger in 2005 Google was bristling to come to close quarters with Apple and the first commercially available Android device to come to market was the HTC Dream, which was released on 22 October 2008.

With the iPhone’s introduction in 2007, everything in mobile was to change forever.

iPhone image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years