Fifteen years ago, on Jan. 9, 2007, I sat on the floor of a Las Vegas Convention Center entryway and pondered the iPhone. While I was running around the Consumer Electronics Show looking at the latest LG Chocolate, Steve Jobs was over at Macworld changing the world.
I’d been covering smartphones for three years by then, and they were complex gadgets for road warriors. Apple simplified the smartphone and made it a must-have for everyone.
This wasn’t solely about Steve Jobs’ brilliance. He struck when several other technologies were becoming available—3G for the mobile web and capacitive touch screens for finger-friendly interfaces. And he worked without the legacy-software hangovers that Microsoft, Nokia, and Palm all struggled through from the first generation of proto-smartphones.
The iPhone has made a huge number of things easy, which were previously the province of techies. Mobile social networking and image sharing apps, the great 4G applications, generally came to the iPhone first throughout the early ’10s, transforming how we use our devices, interact with our friends, and see our world.
But with that has come a stifling feeling of control. Two companies, Apple and Google, now control pretty much all the mobile platforms in the US; two manufacturers, Apple and Samsung, sell the vast majority of phones. Three platforms, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, manage much of our discourse.
There are a bunch of things I didn’t get right in my early iPhone analysis because I was looking at the phone that was, not at the future. (Also, Steve Jobs tended to lie.) Apple’s AT&T exclusive, especially, distorted the market in ways that made the phone look less dominant and less revolutionary than it was. When I reviewed the first iPhone, I think I properly understood the importance of the new interface, but I got stuck on its lousy phone-calling quality and how it didn’t support many desktop Web standards. Apple eventually fixed the phone calls, and in the battle between Apple and Flash Web sites, Apple won.
It’s no coincidence that Apple’s AT&T exclusive years, 2007-2011, saw a tremendous flourishing of competing consumer smartphone ideas: Palm WebOS, BlackBerry 10, and Windows Phone all rose during the time when the iPhone was influential, but boxed-in. Releasing the iPhone into the wild demanded a single competitor as bold and focused as Apple, and so now here we are in our duopoly.
It’s a long way from the joyous if confusing welter of options in 2007, and I think the iPhone’s ease and power have a lot to do with this.
In a lot of ways, that iPhone release helped herald in our current era of “Big Tech,” where a few huge platform companies control so much of our software and services. Lots of other factors made it happen, to be sure, but Apple did a few key things to push our tech world into its current centralized state.
Back before the iPhone, carriers dictated a lot of the software preloaded on phones. A lot of that software sucked! But there were also a lot of carriers, which meant a lot of diversity and decentralization.
From 2007, I can think of AT&T, Cingular, T-Mobile, Verizon; Sprint and Nextel with the same ownership but different networks; MetroPCS and Cricket, both then independent companies; US Cellular, Alltel, and Dobson Cellular One. That whole list except the Big Three is now gone.
Apple broke the carrier control over software—in consumer’s favor!—by loading its own Google and Yahoo! relationships onto that first phone. Big Tech now dealt with Big Tech. And as the iPhone’s influence spread, especially after it became available on all US carriers in 2011, Apple’s sole power to make those deals grew.
The next step came with the iPhone 3G, which introduced the App Store. Before the App Store, people bought their (relatively few) apps either from several independent stores, like Handmark, or from their carriers. In 2007, there were many more US wireless carriers than today, which meant much less centralized control there, too.
Now, if you buy apps in the US, it’s almost always from one of two places: Apple or Google. Other stores exist for the Android platform, but they’re little used in the US except on Amazon’s proprietary tablets.
I once read, somewhere, that humans’ favorite form of government is a benevolent dictatorship. The problem is, those are hard to find because power corrupts. Apple’s mostly benevolent dictatorship has been great for a lot of little guys over the years.
Having a single, clean API and a single store let software developers focus on making money, and it made apps easy to discover. Having a single interface shared by tens of millions of people let network effects spread the smartphone gospel, as people could share tips, tricks, and help with their friends and family.
Of course, dissidents don’t fare well under even benevolent dictatorships. Folks who wanted features or customization that Apple wasn’t on board with were largely cut out.
We’re very much now living in a world the iPhone made—a world of user-friendly, strictly controlled platforms in the grip of a small number of private companies.
And honestly, I don’t see how that changes. The current froth over “Web3” and distributed organizations misses what made the iPhone great: simplicity and ease. Given a complex, difficult system like the new blockchain-based systems versus Apple’s simple user interfaces, policies, and guidance, consumers will almost certainly pick ease of use.
When the first iPhone came out, I saw it as a revolution. Revolutions, history tells us, often resolve into monarchies. Will the wheel turn again?
Be sure to check out My Reporting Notes From the Original iPhone Launch 15 Years Ago and The Top 5 iPhones of All Time.
PCMag.com’s lead mobile analyst, Sascha Segan, has reviewed hundreds of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets in more than 9 years with PCMag. He’s the head of our Fastest Mobile Networks project, one of the hosts of the daily PCMag Live Web show and speaks frequently in mass media on cell-phone-related issues. His commentary has appeared on ABC, the BBC, the CBC, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, and in newspapers from San Antonio, Texas to Edmonton, Alberta.
Segan is also a multiple award-winning travel writer, having contributed to the Frommer’s series of travel guides and Web sites for more than a decade. Other than his home town of New York, his favorite …
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