In 2008, the iPhone grew up, evolving from its status as the “it device” of the moment into a burgeoning ecosphere. In 2009, that “it” device went thermonuclear. The iPhone software turned 3.0, the barrier of entry dropped to $99, and the App Store hit 100,000 applications and an astounding two billion downloads. With all of that, it’s hard to believe that Apple’s iconic cell phone is still weeks shy of the third anniversary of its unveiling. As 2009 comes to a close, we wrap up the year in iPhone by the numbers.
If the iPhone OS 2.0 update turned an amazing device into a world-beating platform by allowing third-party apps, then iPhone 3.0 was all about sanding off the software’s rough edges and turning it into a full-featured experience.
Apple made no secret about iPhone 3.0, holding an event in March, months prior to its eventual launch, to show off the catalog of new features and developer APIs that would define the next-generation of iPhone software. With Steve Jobs on medical leave, the presentation fell to the capable team of Greg Joswiak and Scott Forstall, who ran through iPhone 3.0’s high points, as well as yet another series of interminable developer demos.
While end users got some nice additional features in 3.0, such as the much anticipated cut, copy and paste, the long-run impact of the update has been more about what lies under the hood—it was the iPhone’s equivalent of Snow Leopard. Developers got the ability to communicate with hardware through the dock-connector port or Bluetooth, peer-to-peer networking, in-app purchase, and the long-awaited push notifications. The testament to iPhone 3.0’s importance is the number of programs on the App Store that require it.
Not all was rosy with this latest software update: while two of the features most demanded by consumers—support for Multimedia Messaging (MMS) and tethering—were promised by Apple for 3.0, MMS didn’t arrive until September, three months after 3.0’s release, and tethering remains imprisoned in an oubliette of AT&T’s devising to this day.
With the iPhone 3G only a year old, it might seem surprising that Apple would roll out a brand new model, but that’s just what it did at June’s Worldwide Developers Conference. This time it was Phil Schiller stepping in as maestro for the proceedings, which included unveiling the iPhone 3GS. If the name, with its ‘S’ for speed, was a bit of a head-scratcher, its performance was anything but. Though outwardly it looked the same as the iPhone 3G, it was unquestionably a horse of a different color on the inside.
While Apple tried to avoid getting into the nitty-gritty of exactly what made the 3GS such a screamer (namely a faster processor and twice as much RAM), it wasn’t shy about dishing on the rest of the 3GS’s new features, such as a 3-megapixel camera with autofocus and video-recording, a built-in compass, and voice controls. Once again, Apple had managed to improve on its existing technology and produce the best iPhone yet.
While the 3GS heralds the eventual death of the 3G, its predecessor merely got a price cut to $99, lowering the introductory price of iPhone ownership to an almost unresistable number. Then again, to anybody who spent any amount of time comparing the performance on the two, which one to buy was more or less a foregone conclusion: the 3GS’s superior speed and camera ended up being well worth the $100 extra.
The App Store’s success went mainstream in 2009, and the sentence on everybody’s lips was “there’s an app for that.” The store had debuted with more than 500 applications in July 2008—by the same time this year, it had grown a hundredfold. In September, it topped 2 billion downloads.
Before the year was over, it would cross another milestone, hitting 100,000 applications. The number put to shame even its closest competitor in the smartphone software market, Google’s Android, which boasts a number of applications only in the low thousands.
However, the explosion of quantity wasn’t entirely untainted by difficulties, not least among which remains the difficulty of finding new applications in a virtual store that carries limitless products. Apple has tried to combat the app overload by tweaking the App Store’s layout, creating its own collections of Apps for Everything, even introducing Genius for apps, based on its similar algorithm for media in the iTunes Store, but the problem has persisted.
A deluge of applications wasn’t the only black mark that marred the App Store’s otherwise stellar year. There was also the continuing matter of developers clashing with Apple over everything from censorship to copyright infringement. Apple VP Phil Schiller responded personally to the disputes in a handful of cases, doing his best to control the damage.
Among the most high-profile of the messes was over the matter of native Google Voice apps. After the departure of Google CEO Eric Schmidt from Apple’s board of directors in August, the relationship between Apple and and the search giant veered from best friends forever to clawing, hair-pulling prom queen rivals, and nowhere was that more evident than in the mobile space. Apple not only reputedly rejected Google’s own iPhone client for its Voice service, but also removed existing Google Voice apps, prompting a few questions from the FCC directed at AT&T, Google, and Apple itself.
That led to Apple’s claim that not only had it not rejected the Google Voice app at AT&T’s behest, but indeed it hadn’t rejected it at all (as of this writing, Google’s official Voice app remains in approval limbo). The company also gave what is, to date, still the closest look into the workings of the App Store. Despite commonly-held belief, the approval process isn’t manned by trained monkeys, but rather by “more than 40” reviewers who pass about 95 percent of the approximately 8,500 submissions per week within a period of 14 days. Those figures did little to comfort most developers, however, and Apple’s relationship with many of the most prominent and vocal of them remains on shaky ground.
If prior years are any indication of Apple’s plans for the future, it seems likely that 2010 will see the introduction of iPhone OS 4.0 and a new model of the phone. It also won’t be terribly surprising to see the App Store hit 150,000 and above, though the question remains how long it can sustain such a quickly-rising wave. And with relations between developers and Apple still tenuous, that wave may break sooner rather than later.