The iPhone: Five years later...

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Steve Jobs after introducing the original iPhone at Macworld Expo 2007.

Five years ago, Steve Jobs stood on stage at Macworld Expo and unveiled the iPhone.

At the time, it seemed like a big deal. In hindsight, it seems even bigger.

At this point, sadly, we’ve seen all the Steve Jobs presentations we’re ever going to see. As far as I’m concerned, the 2007 introduction of the iPhone is the definitive Steve Jobs presentation. It’s the one that people will reference for as long as Steve Jobs is remembered.

Not only was it a tour de force performance—most of the two-hour run time was devoted to the iPhone, with only a little time left over for some extra details on the Apple TV, the changing of Apple Computer’s name to Apple Inc., and a couple of songs from John Mayer. (Seriously!)

Also amusing is an appearance by then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt. As our original report said, “Schmidt said that the iPhone lets companies like Apple and Google ‘merge without merging,’ combining the ‘brain trust’ of Apple’s development team and companies like Google to create a ‘seamless environment.’”

No wonder Jobs was so steamed about Android.

Sometime during that Expo week—if it wasn’t on January 9, it was the next day or two—I finally got my hands on the iPhone. I remember it well; I got to hold it in my hands for a few minutes during a briefing—and for about six months I was one of a very small number people outside Apple’s cone of silence who could say that. I wrote at the time:

As big as an impression as the iPhone has evidently made simply by dint of Steve Jobs’ extended product demo and its coolness factor when slowly rotating in a clear cylinder, let me tell you with personal experience, it’s much more impressive when it’s in your hand—or more to the point, when your finger’s running across its multi-touch screen…. I can admit that I found it quite difficult to form complete sentences while I was holding the iPhone. In terms of sheer gadget magnetism, its power can not be overstated.

The memory that sticks with me, in fact, is that I was temporarily dumbstruck by the sheer feel of the device. I was testing it while sitting with a couple of Apple executives as well as an Apple PR handler. The idea was that I could try out the device while also asking them questions. As I used the iPhone, I found it very difficult to speak questions or even listen to the answers. The iPhone was so unlike anything I’d ever handled. The brightness of the screen and the density of its pixels were shocking; the weight of the small slab was strangely comforting.

It was all in shocking contrast to my phone at the time, a Palm Treo. I hated it. Every time I went somewhere, I asked myself, “Do I need to bring my phone with me?” If I could avoid it, I wouldn’t bring it along. The iPhone would be the first phone I’ve owned that I wanted to keep in my pocket at all times.

The iPhone I handled five years ago was still six months away from being finished, and it showed. Some apps were missing: Tapping on Notes and Calculator led to mock-up images of what those apps would eventually look like. They just weren’t there. But others worked just fine.

I have to admit, I'm a little surprised that my article about using the iPhone for the first time also includes a bit of prognosticating about the promise of a third-party App Store for the iPhone.

Which leads me to the larger issue, that of third-party software development on the iPhone. After all, Apple’s engineers will strive to write software that fits the majority of the needs of the majority of iPhone users. But will other developers be able to write software to fill the gaps, to address the more specialized needs of certain corners of the iPhone user base?…

During Macworld Expo, I chatted about this very topic with at least a dozen people. And by the end of it, the prevailing conventional wisdom was this: that Apple would probably not allow applications to be installed on the phone willy-nilly, but rather would force would-be software developers to follow some strict guidelines and get explicit permission from Apple before the software could be sold. At that point, the software probably will only be available via iTunes, with Apple taking its cut and providing DRM so that there’s less risk of piracy….

Make no mistake: I think Apple must allow third-party developers to have access to the iPhone. It’s a far more complex device than the iPod. And while it’s not a Mac, and shouldn’t have that level of complexity attached to it, its features are so rich that there needs to be a clever collection of developers who are filling the gaps that Apple won’t, and in many ways shouldn’t, bother with.

So, yeah, I talked to some really smart people during Macworld Expo in 2007, and the results of those conversations were pretty solid. Many of us came to the conclusion that there would be third-party iPhone development, eventually. (It was announced about 14 months later.) And that apps would probably be sold in some sort of curated fashion from within iTunes. It took Apple some time to get there, but that’s exactly what happened.

As for that original iPhone? It still holds up. I’ve got one here as I write this, and it doesn’t feel dated at all. (I suppose that says something about how conservative Apple has been in altering the iPhone design across all four successive iterations of the product.)

It feels light. It’s comfortable to hold. There are a few design concessions that Apple wouldn’t make today (clashing chrome and aluminum bits, the black strip along the bottom to aid in wireless reception), but in general the original iPhone does not feel particularly different than the iPhone 3GS that’s still available today.

In fact, the original fares a little bit better in terms of overall design—I prefer the metal back to the plastic one—although its innards are sadly underpowered and it can’t run software more recent than iOS 3.1.3.

In any event, it’s hard to believe it’s been five years since the iPhone first appeared in public. In the intervening time, the entire smartphone market has been redefined. But don’t sing “Happy Birthday” to it just yet. The iPhone real birthday isn’t until June 29, the first time (but not the last!) people lined up outside stores in order to buy one.

Nostalgia trip

(While I’m being nostalgic, here are some other pieces from 2007 that I found amusing when doing research for this story:)

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