Looking forward, looking back: Reflecting on 10 years of iPhone

10 January 2017

Can you believe it? The first iPhone was unveiled ten years ago. 

On January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs took the wraps off the "Apple phone". Many of us weren't quite sure what to think. It was lambasted for its lack of a physical keyboard, jokes were made about its inability to copy and paste, and it wasn't even 3G. But the decade since has proved that the original iPhone was the start of a revolution.

Sure, the iPhone wasn't the first smartphone, but it pulled the concept of smartphones into the mainstream. It took a product that was designed for big business or nerds, and made it accessible to everyone. Whether you're a fan of Apple, it's hard to argue about how influential the iPhone has been. If you're feeling generous, you could say the iPhone changed the world. If you're feeling a bit more conservative, you can say it helped define a decade.

For one, the iPhone kick-started the app economy. Uber wouldn't exist without the smartphone, neither would Tinder, Instagram, or Snapchat. Each of these businesses is now valued over a billion dollars.

The iPhone also shook up the world of photography. Good cameras are now in most pockets or handbags at all times. We're always ready to capture a glimpse of the world around us. Point and shoot camera have almost been made redundant. 

Smartphone design has unified around a form-factor that hasn't made too much of a departure from the original iPhone. Many manufacturers have spent the last ten years either aping Apple or trying to escape its shadow.

While the iPhone has spurred on great change, it hasn't really changed itself. The iPhone gets better every year, but they're incremental improvements. Refinements, rather than revolutions. Each successive iPhone is better at accomplishing the tasks the original set out to achieve, and these changes made have helped bring the iPhone to the masses, but without really changing core functionality.

This itself is reflective of the broader smartphone industry; smartphones are rapidly becoming a commodity, and have reached the same kind of maturity that we see in other parts of the tech world. Laptop computers, for example. There's still change; better screens, thinner designs, and faster internals; but changes are becoming more gradual. Now cheaper smartphones deliver the same kind of experiences as a more expensive devices. Hell, even $150 phones come with fingerprint readers these days. It might get harder to sell a premium smartphone in the future but that doesn't mean innovation in the space is dead.

Smartphone hardware may not look too different to what we had 10 years ago, but software is still improving. With the iPhone, Apple's done a lot of work around its Continuity software: the behind the scenes tech that makes your life better when you own more than one Apple gadget. Your Apple Watch unlocks your Mac, you can reply to your iPhone messages from your Mac, your iPad also rings when your iPhone is ringing. It might not seem necessary, but it creates a more unified computing experience.

The W1 chip powered Apple's latest headphones reinforces this story. Using a bit of software magic, AirPods seamlessly pair across multiple devices. Not life changing, but a pleasant innovation that fixes some of Bluetooth's pain points.

And a unified computing experience might only be the start. The natural extension is something like Microsoft's Continuum, where your smartphone can become a "full-fledged" computer after you plug it into a monitor. As smartphone processors get faster, the dream of an all-in-one phone is close to being realised. And in terms of power, we're certainly getting there; Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 won't just be in this year's flagship smartphones, it's going to be in Windows 10 laptops. 

Voice driven artificial intelligence - such as Siri, Amazon's Alexa, and Google Assistant - is the other "next frontier". Google, for one, believes artificial intelligence will be the "next big thing". If this reality eventuates, it's possible that smartphone as we know it won't exist in ten years. We might live in a Her-like world where we have computers in our ears that we talk to, rather than screens we type on. The broader tech world is quickly latching onto this vision, with manufacturers baking voice assistants into cars, fridges, baby monitors, and more.

Right now, it feels like artificial intelligence is very much in its toddler phase. It understands what you're saying, you can understand it, but you have to be quite specific with your interactions. As it matures, interactions should become more natural, and we'll reach the tipping point where the utility offered by the likes of Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant becomes greater than the resulting awkwardness of being the person on the train talking to your phone.

I could be wrong, but I don't think we'll see dramatic change in the next few years of smartphones, at least in terms of form factor and functionality, and that's okay. We'll keep seeing new businesses enabled by mobile technology and we'll keep seeing clever new features that make our lives a little easier. And at some point, we will see the next big thing, whether it's another drastic shift in the direction of phones, or an entirely new kind of device.

But for now, its fascinating to look back on how our lives have changed thanks to the smartphone we mercilessly mocked for not being able to copy and paste. So thank you iPhone. Here's to another 10 courageous years. 


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