Welcome to Episode 214 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
For our podcast topic this week, we’re going to chat about the impact of the iPhone, on its 10th anniversary. Hardly seems like 10 years have gone by since that revolutionary product sort of changed the way we compute and the way we live our lives. But very interesting to sort of go back in time and think about the context of computing and mobile smartphones as they were in 2007. I actually went back and checked out Steve Jobs’ debut presentation for the iPhone, which you know is very interesting to me from a number of standpoints. We have some audio clips from that today to take a listen to. Just wanted to start by setting the stage for what life was like in 2007, prior …
Yeah, well it’s funny because we don’t think about all these differences. I’ll just start out by saying that smartphone computing didn’t exist pretty much at all. We were mostly looking at the Palm devices, which were very much geared towards a business audience. Same with Blackberries. They were in fact kind of a status symbol, but they’re mostly email devices. At the same time, Apple was on this trajectory where they were becoming more and more this very popular, trendsetting technology firm, beginning with Steve Jobs’ return. You know, he made to colorful gumdrop iMacs, and then all of a sudden there is the iPod, which has really disrupted the music industry and making gobs of money for Apple.
This is the context, this wave of consumer technology that was happening as a result of Apple, and there were these rumors that the Apple was going to get into the phone space and all of the entrenched providers there were pretty much saying you just can’t walk into the phone space and do … I mean, they were these consumer-type company and that was fine, but you’re not going to walk into the phone space and do anything.
This first clip is from Steve Jobs’ debut of the iPhone, just sort of setting the stage.
Three things: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communications device. An iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator. An iPod, a phone … Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices, this is one device, and we are calling it iPhone. Today, today Apple is going to reinvent the phone.
I love the way he sets that up, because it pretty much shows you the landscape there. He’s saying an iPod, right, this … for the people who like music it was a ubiquitous device, and it put a lot of power. You were able to carry around your entire music collection, but it was just for that. Then …
But even beyond, for people who like music. I mean it became just sort of a common accessory for most people of a certain demographic, of a certain socioeconomic class.
Most people had some form of iPod. There were lots of form factors for the iPod.
Sure, so you have that and then you have the phone, and then he says revolutionary internet-connected device.
Internet communication device, yeah.
What’s so amazing about that is we don’t think of those as separate things anymore. When he’s talking about that … I mean can you imagine carrying around an iPod now, carrying around a device just to store your music? Or really just to store anything. It sort of makes you view the market differently when you think about these individual devices that are doing very specific things, like we have our Fitbits or whatever. You start thinking about these separate devices and you know they’re just going to get sucked into the mobile computing platform.
But regardless of that, we would never even consider putting an iPod in a pocket again. That’s so past tense. He sets this up, and what’s funny about all of this, and really makes you realize what a visionary he was, he’s evangelizing this. He’s ramping up the audience in a way that few can do. He is working that audience until he gets to, you know … and they’re all coming together in the iPhone. But I thought that sound clip really did a great job of laying the … showing you the perspective of just where computing was at that point, and he was going to bring it all together into the iPhone. But even when I saw the iPhone debut, I did not get it at all. I did not get it. What were your thoughts at that time, 2007?
Yes, so I didn’t anticipate the degree to which the iPhone would turn almost everyone in the United States above a certain very modest income level into everyday, all day long computer users. To me, that’s the miraculous part of it all. I gave a talk in 2004 called The Future of Digital Product Design, where I anticipated and spelled out the iPhone device. Not that Apple would do it or call it an iPhone, but that these different things would converge into a single device. So Apple doing it, calling it … that wasn’t surprising to me, that was fully in line with the things I have been predicting for a few years.
But what really was remarkable was the degree … and not just the degree, more the speed at which our culture transformed into … just into ubiquitous computer users. It’s funny to hear Steve again in 2007, his order is iPod, phone, internet communication device. The only one that matters now is internet communication device. What would be called “iPod” is a teeny micro feature. You know, it’s … the point of music is a teeny micro feature. The phone … I mean we joke around, what’s a phone, ha ha ha, right? It’s all about the internet communication device. Voice is just one method of communication in the continuum of what is an internet communication device.
The thing that surprised me is just the speed at which that all changed. The iPhone came out, it became so popular so quickly, and it just … it served the combination with trends and with marketing, just unpredictable things beyond the product, all galvanized to change the way that we behave in society. It’s interesting, it’s only hard to take a long view in the short-term, but what I think we’re going to look back at a hundred years from now, two hundred years from now, is that the personal computing, the period of personal computing, which would be from the mid-seventies when the earliest viable personal computers were coming out, until 2007 … I think that that 30-year window is going to be remembered by history somewhere to how gaslights are remembered.
Right now, we have electricity ubiquitously in our homes, we have … light is just one of the features that we get from electricity. Electricity has completely changed the way our world looks. But before that, there were gaslights, and gaslights provided light, and they were really frikking amazing. Because before gaslights, after a certain time of day, we were in the dark all the time. But gaslights allowed some portion of society in certain ways to benefit from light in times it would otherwise be dark. It took the electric light bulb, it took that technology to change the world into one where in most people’s homes, there is light at night, and we shifted to functioning in night similar to how we function in the day prior to that.
That’s the revolutionary difference, and I think in the long haul, we’ll look back the same way. That personal computing, as cool and interesting and sort of foundational tool as it is, is immature to the point of being sort of historically irrelevant in a certain way. When it mattered, what the technology, similar to the light bulb … then there’s different types if lights, we won’t get into the whole etymology of the history of that, but it’s really the iPhone. It’s moving to these hand-held personal computing devices that shifted our world from one where most people would not self-identify as geeks or nerds. Most people wouldn’t be using their computer on a daily basis outside of work at all. Now, we’re in our “computer,” with an iPhone or a watch or with our laptop or pad, or whatever we’re using, all the time everyday. It’s a revolutionary shift, and it was the iPhone that unlocked it.
Yeah, I think the iPhone was the Trojan horse for mobile computing. As you identify the strata of people, the geeks who love computers, were willing to be on their laptops or their desktops, you know in the 80s, and spending that time, but that certainly was a small portion of the population. Then on the business side, computing was increasingly important. But for it to go from something niche to something ubiquitous, it took the iPhone. What’s funny is it’s called the iPhone, but as you pointed out, the phone is just a tiny feature. The iPod or music storage is a tiny feature. It’s really about all of us carrying around computers in our pockets now.
Massively powerful computers.
But the phone, everybody’s comfortable with a phone, and that’s what makes it a Trojan horse for mobile computing because people feel like they need a mobile phone, right?
If you had said, we have a mobile computing product that you can carry around with you, I don’t think people would have necessarily bought that in the same way that they bought the iPhone.
That’s a great take, Jon.
It’s like, I can just imagine folks who are not into computing in any way, shape, or form looking at that and just saying, “What the hell would I need that for?” Or, “Hey, the company can buy that for me, who gives a shit, you know, who gives a crap about that?” But in this case, you’re getting the phone and then oh, the phone can just happen to do your email. Well that’s nice. Oh, I can play some games on it. Then down the road, I can order this car the come and get me. Or I can map my way to the job site or whatever it is that …
Don’t underestimate, from a feature impact perspective, the photographs and taking pictures, because I think that’s one of the things that really accelerated adoption, was the socialness, the sharing, the taking things that used to you had to carry around this big, clunky, junky thing, suddenly now it’s right on your “phone,” and you’re zipping it off around the world as soon as you take it. That’s frikking amazing.
I have another clip from Steve Jobs’ debut presentation, which I think was a really interesting couple of sentences just about how the touch screen interface sort of fits in to Apple’s innovation around the user interface. Let’s take a listen to that now.
We’re going to use the best pointing device in the world. We’re gonna use a pointing device that we’re all born with — we’re born with ten of them. We’ll use our fingers. We’re gonna touch this with our fingers, and we have invented a new technology called multi-touch, which is phenomenal. It works like magic. You don’t need a stylus. It’s far more accurate than any touch display that’s ever been shipped. It ignores unintended touches, it’s super-smart. You can do multi-finger gestures on it. And boy, have we patented it.
We’ve been very lucky to have brought a few revolutionary user interfaces to the market in our time. First was the mouse. The second was the click wheel. Now, we’re gonna bring multi-touch to the market. Each of these revolutionary user interfaces has made possible a revolutionary product — the Mac, the iPod and now the iPhone.
So, there’s a lot of sell and hyperbole in those statements, but he really was correct in that each of these products had new ways for the user to interact with computing.
I think he’s given the click wheel a little too much credit.
Yeah, yeah, he needed that third one to you know, make that group a three. But I think what’s remarkable about that is that also suggests that the changes in user interface very much … those coincide with the shifts in computing. As we start to see very much coming along voice user interfaces, or gestural user interfaces that don’t necessarily require screens anymore, you can see that the next generation of computing happened, and it is very much about how humans interact with computers that is driving part of that. Computer power goes along with that. You can’t have these amazing interfaces if you don’t have the powerful processing behind it. But it really is the user interface that’s driving this in a significant way. I thought that was an interesting piece from his presentation.
We’ve marveled at this new invention that was the iPhone, and I think it’s worth nothing the events that transpired along this decade of mobile computing that we’ve established was this new paradigm. One of those things worth remarking on is the walled garden of computing that Apple so successfully exploited and has really become sort of a … not in a fight with the open internet, but certainly at odds at times with sort of the open nature of the internet, the way it was conceived and the way open standards work. Apple basically locked down their App Store, made access to the platform, this mobile platform … they’re the gatekeepers. There is no other way to get things easily onto the iPhone but through Apple. It is not something that developers would necessarily choose to do, and certainly there are other mobile ecosystems like Android or what-have-you that are more open than Apple, but you see company after company try to replicate that success, some more than others.
In some ways, Facebook has also taken to the walled garden approach for things. But at the time, the open web was in my opinion much more dominant. Nobody had App Stores, and Facebook wasn’t a thought at that point for anyone. These sort of closed, fractured computing environments, the fracturing of the open web, that really in some ways starts with the iPhone and the App Store. Your thoughts on that.
I don’t know, I don’t want to say too much about the open web. I mean I think … we’re talking of a lot of interesting things. The thing that really resonated with me is that … I’m going to give the credit to Steve, I’m not going to give the credit to Apple, because since Steve departed, I mean I think Apple’s crap, right? What Steve had such a great instinct for is what’s correct for consumers. In his touch interface he very proudly said no stylus, you’re using your fingers. He had a private issue with the stylus, in sort of … we might have called him Trumpy in a way of sort of ego and insecurity.
But regardless of those parts, his instinct was correct. A stylus is actually better if you’re a business user, if you’re a power user. There’s more precision, it’s more correct. But the presence of the stylus is the thing that is going to prevent your mother, your neighbor, your child, your sibling, from getting into the device. It goes from being this thing that’s easy, accessible, fun, quick, to being a device, a thing that is a little bit foreign and a little bit hard.
That translates to the App Store. He really understood — look, we’re going to curate and pick the really good, cool, amazing things and get them to people, and all the other crap that would otherwise get in the way, we’re going to carve out of there. I think it really validates that approach that a decade on, if you look at like the Android app store, I mean it’s still is a cesspool. It was a cesspool 10 yeas ago, and it’s a cesspool now. That opened every get it up there, freewheeling way. It doesn’t result in something that again, makes that common everyday user feel comfortable and feel like they can easily get the correct things, the right things, the best things. The things that will be useful for them.
Regardless of any philosophical questions about open or closed, the simple fact of the matter is, if you’re trying to package something for consumers and that is going to get consumers broadly to cover all these different demographics, all these different types of people, to embrace the technology and use the technology and spend a significant of money on both all of hardware, software, and network fees to make it all work, it’s got to be simple. Steve was great with that, and it’s why the iPhone was such a success, and the things that Apple did during his tenure tended to be … pitch perfect might be a little bit of an overstatement, but what the hell, I’ll call it pitch perfect. Steve was just great with that stuff.
Yeah, that’s an interesting take. I think another significant part of this that really goes along with what you were saying is this transformation from computing as something that’s only occasional, to sort of constant computing in context. Not only are you waiting in line at the store, you can use your mobile device, but also, you’re using it in a variety of ways that are sensitive to where you are geographically. It’s really transforming computing in such a way that it’s not quite embedded, ubiquitous computing, but it is a massive step in that direction.
Because of that, it sort of lays the groundwork for disrupting industries. I mean, Uber being the most or the greatest example of that, where without the iPhone or smartphones, this leap forward, you don’t get a product like Uber, which is software intensive and is also … rely on things like GPS, you know combined with the geographic context and just mobile computing generally. That’s multi-billion dollar industry that is being shaken up because iPhone basically laid the groundwork for it.
Amen. I mean, it is the electric white. It is at that level of impact in terms of completely transforming civilization, I’ll say. That’s a huge deal. It’s the most important single technology of the last hundred plus years, from the standpoint of sort of consumer everyday society.
Yeah. It’s funny because I will admit freely that I had very little understanding what the shift was as it was taking place. Not that I should have, but it was funny to reflect back and … I definitely didn’t have an iPhone 1, I didn’t have that first device which by the standards of iPhone 7 is kind of clunky and you know, we had all that icons and user interface patterns and all of that. It seems almost quaint in comparison to what we have now.
But for a while, even as a computer enthusiast, I had no desire to go out and have a smartphone in my pocket. It just wasn’t on my radar. Then a couple of years in, I kind of realized what was going on. It was a slow bubbling to the surface, at least for me. I’d be interested in going back and seeing the adoption rates, because it didn’t immediately take off but it sort of grew in volume quarter over quarter, just sort of building on that. I had a flip phone for a while, I had my Nokia flip phone and that’s what I was using.
That’s pathetic, that’s pathetic. I also was not on the iPhone 1, but I had been on a Blackberry since the early 2000s. At the point I switched to an iPhone, which I don’t know which one, maybe it was the iPhone 2, I had been using a Blackberry for more than five years. Mobile computing was already a part of my life. Going back … I mean starting in the early 90s, I was using a computer 12 or more hours a day. For me, it was 15 years of constant computing prior to the introduction of the iPhone.
What that sort of technology represented for me was more features, more functionality, more convenience. But it didn’t change my life that much. I mean I just would have a laptop on my lap and carry it around with me most of the time many years before that. Also, for me, it snuck up on me, the degree to which, that it was such a revolutionary force, because it didn’t change my life that much. For a while, I stayed on the Blackberry-laptop, and then I eventually moved to iPhone-laptop and I was like, bigger better faster more, but more of the same stuff of geeky Dirk on the computer all the time. What was remarkable was not geeky people were now on a computer all the time.
Yeah, yeah, that’s for sure. It will be interesting to see … you know, as we look forward over the next 10 years, there’s certainly all kinds of potential computing breakthroughs, whether you’re talking about the internet of things, environments that are connected, virtual reality, augmented reality, these are all computing technologies that could get a foothold and become something more substantial than what they are … right now, gaining traction certainly all of those, but by no means anywhere … nowhere close to the impact that the iPhone has so far. I do wonder whether we saw the major technological change and it’s … all the technologies from now on will build on that, but won’t be as nearly as revolutionary, I don’t know.
The iPhone turned all of us into computers in a certain way. I think the next big, huge important technology will be the ones that changes not behavior into computers, but physically into computers, and that’s still decades away.
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You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N -F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R and thanks so much for listening.
That’s it for Episode 214 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.