Today marks the 5th anniversary of the release of the iPhone. To say that it has changed the cell phone industry as we know it would be an understatement. Just think for a second about the phone that you had before, and compare it to the one you have now. Even if it isn’t an iPhone, it has almost certainly been influenced by it. The iPhone changed the balance of power in the industry. Americans were are the short end of the mobile phone stick. Every other country had cool phones, while we languished in whatever the carriers felt we deserved, which was an unimpressive line of boring handsets that did almost nothing. Here is my retrospective on the first half decade with my iPhones.
I jumped on the smartphone bandwagon before it was cool. Sure my first few phones were dumb (sorry I mean feature, no wait, I mean dumb) phones. But then came the Palm Treo 650. I had owned a few Palm devices prior to the Treo, but this device finally combined two different handhelds into one, something that seemed revolutionary at the time. It was not cheap, that’s for sure. And it was not fast either, at about the speed of a good dial up modem. But it could go online, for real, and get email. And it even ran apps! That’s right, apps existed before Apple, even if we used to just call it software back then. I loved my Treo, and held on to it for a good two years. People were amazed by it. But by late 2006, it had grown pretty long in the tooth. It was starting to feel slow. The software, which was buggy to begin with, really never got any substantial updates (Palm OS 6 was never used by any released device, ever). Palm released the Treo 680, followed by a strange deviation into Windows Mobile territory, but nothing they did was all that interesting, so my 650 kept limping along. Meanwhile, rumors about what Apple had planned was starting to hit a fevered pitch.
The Macworld keynote in 2007 may have been the most anticipated ever. Everyone on the web was sure that Apple was finally going to release a phone. But no one had a clue what it would be. Most of the mock-ups were merely iPods with dial pads stuck to them (Steve Jobs even used one of the more ridiculous examples during the presentation). Many people, including myself, had a fear that this device would be nothing more than a consumer level feature phone, that looked nice but didn’t try to dig deeper like the tiny smartphone market did. But then we found out that not only were we getting a smartphone, we were getting one that placed more emphasis on the “smart” than “phone”. This was exactly what I wanted. My long abused Treo could finally slip off into retirement.
And then we got a month when we could expect this amazing device to reach us. June.
Phrases like “coming next month” are a lifetime in the consumer electronics industry. Six months might as well have been 6 decades. The poor Treo still had to make it a little bit further.
The 2007 keynote was unlike any other Apple had done. Every other year, we had a very standard presentation. We got to see the new iLife, some Mac updates, and maybe something iPod related if we were good children. That year, the Mac got no mention. In fact, they even dropped the word “computer” from the name of the company. Clearly Apple was going all in to this brave new world. And I was so ready to follow them there.
The next few months were filled with the anticipation of a kid on Christmas Eve, every single day. Apple teased and teased. I started making plans on just how I was going to get my hands on this thing. Unfortunately, Tekserve was not able to carry the phone in the early years, so I couldn’t jump the line by using employee privilege. This meant camping out at the Apple Store. At the time there were two choices in New York City, Soho and Fifth Avenue. I knew that Fifth Avenue would be nuts, but that would be part of the fun. Besides, we didn’t know if they would even have enough to go around, sort of Nintendo Wii style. I figured that the flagship store was the best bet to guarantee leaving with a phone.
My coworker Max agreed to join me on the morning of June 29th, 2007. I took off work that day, got a good night sleep, and headed out before the sun came up with a fold up chair and a raincoat (thankfully the rain held off). When I got there, I had to literally go around the block and take a seat in the back of the line. I was number 163 by the count of someone who was walking the line. Max showed up a little afterwards and then, we waited. The release wasn’t going to happen until 6pm. In the meantime every marketer in the tristate area was handing us literature. Kids were trying to sell us their spots in the front of the line for a few hundred dollars (we declined). Every media company big and small was there. Max and I even made it into the Gizmodo slideshow for the day.
When 6:00 finally rolled around and the line started to move, the scene turned into an all out party. There was an insane amount of media there. Entering the store was like walking down the red carpet at the Oscars. The line was now beyond anywhere I could see, but as we inched closer and closer to the store, we got more and more excited. It was almost surreal. This device was so long rumored, so long out of reach, it seemed weird to finally be moments away from having one.
I bought two. One for me, and one for my sister. Remember that the first iPhone was not subsidized by AT&T, so that was $1200 worth of iPhone in the little iPhone bag (that I still have). The actual purchase was over before I knew it. This iPhone didn’t need to be activated until you got home, so Max and I parted ways and I headed to the train. I brought a gym bag to actually conceal the phones in on the way back, not wanting to attract that much attention with what was surely the theft target of the year.
I know this makes me sound like a total nerd (probably not a bad thing for the Nerdketeer blog), but this was an awesome night setting this thing up. It was fast and painless. It worked exactly as expected. The months of waiting had paid off. While I had gotten the Treo to do email and the web well, it took some work on my end. This device seemed to understand what I wanted immediately. It felt natural. I really felt like I was living in the future. Touch screens were a staple of “tomorrow’s technology” and here was one in front of me. Almost no buttons, just slide your finger across the screen.
It is strange to look back now and think about what we DIDN’T have on the first phone. No 3G, no apps, almost no customization at all. Clearly if you handed me an original iPhone running the initial software now, I would feel a sudden step back in time. But in 2007, it was a breakthrough. It was the first phone to really break the cell carrier monopoly on power. It was clear from the beginning that Apple was dictating the terms here, and that decision to fight for that power has paid off in spades. So much of what we have now would have been easily vetoed by the carriers if not for the power Apple possessed with this device.
I have owned four iPhones total on two different carriers. I will own more. This platform is the one I will be stick with as far off into the future as I can predict. For all the complaints, valid or not, it works insanely well. As great as my current phones and iPads are, and as much fun as the line waiting has been for each of them, nothing compares to that first one. I suspect it is a level of excitement and anticipation for a new device release will not be repeated. Those of us who were there on the first day are part of a club.
Love it or hate it, the iPhone changed everything. If you own one, just think about what you held in your hand five years ago (or dig it out if you still have it). You may find yourself horrified. Celebrate that sense of advancement today. It’s practically a nerd holiday. So happy five years iPhone. I look forward to many, many more to come.