The iPhone wasn’t the first so-called smartphone when it launched in 2007, but it was arguably the first to capture the popular imagination, and it certainly shaped the evolution of smartphones after that. The iPhone and other smartphones are such a central part of life that it’s easy to forget what the world was like before they showed up. It was a world of Blackberries, pen styluses, and a few poorly functioning touch screens. And Facebook was just a baby.
To refresh our memories of the context and to better understand how the iPhone changed the computing world, we talked to internet historian Brian McCullough. He runs the popular Internet History Podcast and a new book based on the conversations during those podcasts will be coming out on Liverlight/W.W. Norton in Spring 2018.
Fast Company: 50 years from now, how will historians like you describe the effect of the iPhone on the internet?
Brian McCullough: In 2007 we were still thinking, “Why would I want the internet in my pocket when I’m walking around? If I want to get on the internet I’ll sit down in front of my computer.” So 50 years from now, we’ll look back and see the iPhone as the demarcation point between when the web was growing, and the era when the web was ubiquitous and something where everybody, even your grandmother, is using it–not only daily, but on an hourly basis.
And 2007 is around the same time that Facebook was discovered by everybody. I think it’s really the combination of the iPhone/smartphone and the rise of social media that really leads to the internet as we understand it today. I’m looking out on the street in Manhattan right now, and seven out of 10 people walking by are looking down at their screen.
[The smartphone is the most quickly adopted piece of technology in recent history, says Pew Research, with about three-quarters of U.S. adults (77%) owning a smartphone, up from 35% in 2011.]
FC: The iPhone definitely impacted mobile internet usage, but do you think it also increased internet usage in general, including on the desktop?
BM: The iPhone–because it was so dead simple to use–was a device where you didn’t have to dial up and log in; you could just tap it on and start swiping. This led to the internet becoming this thing everybody did on a regular basis.
I’m sure if you look at desktop usage it goes down because more people are using mobile over desktop, but I bet if you looked at the overall usage of the internet, it goes up, and the inflection point is the smartphone, the iPhone.
FC: In terms of personal computing, describe the context in which the iPhone showed up.
BM: I call it the Golden Age of the gadget because you had things like the iPod selling hundreds of millions of units. People forget that things like the Palm Pilot were huge in the late ’90s. But “huge” then meant maybe 3 million units [sold in a year], which were mostly used by business people or power users who used things like the Blackberry. So there was this groundswell of these devices being able to do more and more and more, like adding cameras. The iPhone put that all together: GPS, the touch screen, and getting rid of the keyboard.
And a big thing was that it was the real internet. Since the late ’90s, if you had a phone that was internet capable, your browser would browse to the WAP version of a website, which took out most of the graphics and left just the text and the links and stuff like that.
At the time the iPhone was announced in 2007, the thing that blew everybody away was that, “Holy shit this is the real web.” During the keynote, Steve Jobs [used the iPhone to] browse the New York Times webpage, and it was the actual New York Times home page. In 2007, that would have been the thing that wowed everybody.
FC: And yet the iPhone wasn’t an immediate hit in 2007.
BM: And everybody forgets that it launched without the app store. The sales that first year were good for what Apple was intending the iPhone to be, but they didn’t sell 50 million units in the first year. The thing that really made it mainstream was when the app store opened up.
[The App Store launched on July 10, 2008, with 552 apps–135 of them free and most of the rest ranging from between $1 and $10.]
Then not only could you use Google Maps to get around, but you could have a run-tracking app to chart your jogging route and calculate your pace. I think that’s overlooked. The phone that was introduced 10 years ago is not the iPhone we think of today.
FC: How did the iPhone change telecommunications? How did it change things for AT&T and Verizon?
BM: The infrastructure companies, the cell-phone companies, their biggest fear is something they’ve just been unable to stave off–that they’re just dumb pipes and all we care about is the reliability of those pipes and ubiquity of those pipes. But there’s nothing else we need from them except for the data [service].
FC: And they didn’t even do the dumb pipes part very well. I remember a couple of years there where the broadband service was painfully slow.
BM: Cingular [owned by AT&T, which was the exclusive carrier of the iPhone] was saying, “You’re going to launch this device that’s going to suck down a firehose of data, and we don’t have infrastructure for it.” Part of the reason Apple launched the iPhone on Edge service [a slower 2.5G service, when 3G networks were already available] was they were trying to be nice to AT&T, not out of altruism, but because it was going to lead to a poor user experience, a poor browsing experience.
But also it turned out that the components weren’t there yet, either. I read that it would have been too much of a suck on the iPhone’s battery life if they would have gone with a 3G chip at that point. That’s part of why they launched it a little bit neutered. But then of course, like everything Apple does, that just gives them this wonderful new feature that they can launch next year.
FC: Do you think Jobs understood that the iPhone would become this huge internet device?
BM: I don’t think so, because based on the people I’ve talked to and the research I’ve done, the iPhone was originally meant to be an iPod with calling capability. They were trying to disrupt themselves before someone else could do it [with a cell phone that offered a great music experience].
If they’d been able to just add calling to the iPod with the click wheel, they would have done that. But the [iPod’s] click wheel didn’t work very well for sending SMS messages. And it was just an accident of history that they had this skunk works project that was creating a tablet device, and they shrunk that down and made the first iPhone. The fact that it became this great internet machine was just a bonus, because they went with that big screen.
So now, when we look back at the iPhone, we see it as this great leap forward in computing, it’s this great internet device. But I don’t think, while they were doing it, that they had any idea that it would be the most revolutionary aspect of it.