iPhone: Five years in our pockets

Five years ago, I was sitting in a tent up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, writing a review of one of the most technologically advanced products I’d ever seen in a remarkably non-technical location. My review of the original iPhone had collided with a long-planned, unmovable family vacation, and so there I was reviewing a phone in a place so remote there was no phone service.

With Friday being the fifth anniversary of the iPhone’s release—five years since those initial crazy lines, since the debate about whether Apple could just walk right in and change the phone industry, and the rest—it’s worth considering what the world was like back then. I’ve already reminisced about my first experience with the iPhone, but there’s a little I can add about the original product itself.

As I said back in January, the original iPhone hardware holds up. While I appreciate the flatness of the pancake-mold design of the current iPhone 4 and 4S models, I think the original iPhone design may still be the best. The curves, the brushed-aluminum back… it’s a classic. Yes, there are design issues—that gaudy silver frame clashes with the soft, brushed backplate—but there’s just something about it.

It’s worth noting that as revolutionary as that phone was—and let me tell you, everyone at camp where I was staying wanted to see it—there were a lot of features it just didn’t have. Of course there was no App Store, so you got the single page of 16 apps and no more. The Maps app was there on day one, but the original iPhone had no way to use either GPS data or cellular information to figure out where it was located.

The iPhone’s screen resolution has since been doubled by the Retina display, but the original 160 dpi model was no slouch. At the time I wrote, “everything on screen looks smooth… the colorful icons on the iPhone’s home screen are so bright and clear that sometimes it’s hard to believe that you’re looking at a computer screen and not something physical, like a sticker. On-screen text looks sharp, more like printed text in a book or magazine than drawn with pixels on the screen.” It’s a reminder that the original iPhone’s screen was almost as big an improvement over Mac displays as the Retina display was over the original iPhone display.

Back then, the iPhone couldn’t copy and paste text, which bugged me enough to mention in my review. It didn’t offer client-side spam filtering—which, come to think of it, it still doesn’t offer! And it never did get around to supporting Adobe Flash.

I had to laugh at one feature omission I complained about five years ago: “It would be nice if Safari allowed users to upload certain kinds of content in order to, for example, post pictures taken with the iPhone’s built-in camera to the Flickr photo-sharing site.” Five years later, that feature is slated to be part of the iOS 6 update this fall. See? Sometimes patience is rewarded.

But though it’s come a long way, the iPhone of five years ago is still indisputably the iPhone. It’s the product that changed how we thought about that little device we keep in our pockets all the time. I remember clearly how I much I hated bringing my Palm Treo along with me when I went somewhere. Sitting in that tent five years ago was the first time that I actually looked forward to bringing my phone with me wherever I went—at least, once I got out of the mountains and got to somewhere with actual phone reception. Five years later, I won’t go anywhere without that device close at hand.

[Jason Snell is Macworld’s editorial director. As with his original iPhone review, he wrote this article while on vacation.]

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