The evolution of the Apple iPhone

We take a look at the gadget that changed the world

When the first generation iPhone appeared almost a decade ago, it loomed over a wasteland of unenticing blocky handsets like the sleek, black obelisk at the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

At Apple’s keynote address on January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs grandly proclaimed that, ‘today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone,’’ and described the new product he held in his hand as, ‘revolutionary”.

And largely, he was right. Not only did the iPhone revolutionise mobile phones, it reshaped our relationship with technology. Like the man-apes in Stanley Kubrick’s film, we cast aside the rudimentary bones we had been clumsily playing with and picked up the powerful, highly designed tools that were going to change the world from our pockets.

The science of simplicity

The key to Apple’s success was to present complexity and technological muscle in a package that was outwardly extremely simple, unintimidating and – above all – beautiful. Looking back at the iPhone’s spiritual ancestor, the iPod (introducing the 1st generation iPhone, Jobs called it a ‘widescreen iPod with touch controls’), it seems clear that the reason it took off in 2004 after four years on the market is because that was when Apple removed all of the device’s superfluous buttons, absorbing the play/pause, skip and menu buttons into the iPod’s celebrated click-wheel.

It’s easy to forget what it was like to use those controls for the first time, and how impressive it felt to glide your finger around the iPod’s smooth circle and see that motion translate perfectly into an on-screen scrolling action. Nothing was extraneous, everything was functional – it was simple enough that all operations could be performed with a single thumb. The iPod was overhauled in its 5th generation with a slimmer profile, colour screen as standard, and a highly-polished front suddenly available in black, and it became everything it had been striving to be – a covetable objet d’art in which you could lose (or stare at) yourself for hours.

A smarter phone

These elements were in the DNA of the very first iPhone, released two years later. This time, Apple had done away with buttons almost entirely – only the home button remained. Now, for the first time on a phone, there was a multi-touch sensor that allowed hitherto unprecedented levels of screen manipulation. The armies of letter and number buttons that had cluttered up so many handsets were gone, replaced with an innovative on-screen keyboard. And the phone somehow magically knew when you had rotated it and could reorient its screen automatically.

It was a triumph – one that competitors scrambled to replicate, and one that Apple has yet to change in any fundamental way. Compare the iPhone 7 to the first of its kind and you will see that they look startlingly alike; Apple have only ever sought to make their handsets slimmer and shinier in design, and faster and more powerful in performance of core functions. Their vision for the iPhone has been to bring form and function ever closer together with smaller and smaller tweaks, as if repeatedly folding a piece of paper until it reaches the moon.

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Consumers latched onto the product almost immediately, and iPhone sales have grown steadily every year since its release – to the point where Apple now has more than a 40% share of the market. It was revolutionary in the sense that it established the blueprint for 21st century communications: a large, simple touchscreen and minimal buttons paved the way for a web-led mobile phone experience. On the one hand this was a technological revolution – in this sense, competitors have arguably improved on the iPhone’s formula, without ever reinventing the wheel in the same way Apple did.

Reshaping the landscape

But on the other (perhaps even bigger) hand, the iPhone was at the vanguard of a cultural revolution. Its technological innovations were the means by which phones and the Internet became more ingrained in our lives than ever before, and the largest, most determined strides of Apple’s evolution have been taken in its iOS releases and its native apps. With interfaces so intuitive that everyone from babies to their grandparents can understand them, Apple has been a major driving force in repositioning phones as an all-purpose cross between personal computers, cameras and televisions, placing the ability to share life and entertain ourselves at our fingertips 24 hours a day. The ease and readiness with which we reach for our phones to perform an unprecedented variety of functions has rendered them as necessary as a limb.

So much that would have been unthinkable and bizarre a few short years ago has become indispensably normal in the age of the smartphone: checking messages and social networks the moment we wake up and before going to sleep; navigating to any new destination with a handheld GPS map; ‘selfies’. Even our romantic lives have been boiled down to the flick of a finger in the palm of our hand. Still, Apple works tirelessly and ambitiously to find areas of modern life as yet untouched by the iPhone, and to develop innovative ways for their software to improve the way we relate to our surroundings and – increasingly – our bodies.

At its most basic this is exemplified by something like Apple Pay; a streamlined solution to an everyday problem, with the potential to make yet another of the items we lug around with us on a daily basis redundant. The Home app announced for iOS 10 promises to enable remote control of our home and all its attendant accessories and entry points. Already, smartphones have become the Swiss Army knives of modern life, yet there appears to be no end in sight to their potential applications.

Looking to the future

But Apple’s vision is grander than that; with the Health app released in 2014, the company sought to make itself essential to wellbeing, offering to monitor the heart rates, blood pressure and biochemistry of its customers. As lofty a goal as this is, it seems to be taking hold – how recently did somebody tell you how many steps they’d walked on a certain day? The real genius of Apple lies in their ability to inspire changes in behaviour, and not just on an individual scale; 2016’s updates to iOS 10 will make it possible for users to directly sign up as organ donors through the Health app.

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Even more promising are the opportunities afforded by opening up app development to external individuals and institutions. At its simplest, this guarantees an effectively infinite supply of apps for every conceivable purpose developing in tandem with Apple’s technological advances. Most exciting, however, are the possibilities opening up to, for example, medical researchers. Through ResearchKit and CareKit, Apple has provided the tools necessary for groundbreaking research into Parkinson’s disease and autism; entirely facilitated by the fact that direct access to users of the world’s largest-selling brand of mobile phones can generate a huge amount of high quality data at great speed. Given the technological power and variety of inbuilt functions available on devices collecting the data, it feels possible that the iPhone’s significant impact on the world so far may end up being less dramatic than what is still to come.

Yet these developments can feel slow in a world geared towards expecting dramatic change on a daily basis. Apple comes in for angry criticism for every step on its journey that isn’t quite a leap, and for their refusal to reinvent a phone that has already reinvented the mobile phone market. But its goals are more grandiose now, and by their very nature more gradual. Apple no longer wants to revolutionise phones; it wants to make iPhones an instrument through which people can more easily be an agent of revolution, in both themselves and the world.

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