Do you remember where you were when Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone, more than 10 years ago? It’s a pretty nerdy thing to admit, but I do. I spent the day glued to my computer, at my desk — theoretically hard at work. But I was actually devouring Engadget’s liveblog, after which I watched and rewatched video of the event so I could see the mythical device in action. And then I spent the next 12 months waiting for my Verizon contract to expire, hating my Moto RAZR the entire freaking time. (No, I wasn’t a day-one adopter, but I definitely stopped in an AT&T store to play with their demo phones.)
The first iPhone wasn’t a world-beater in terms of sales, and many have pointed out that it was the classic “first-gen” Apple product. It lacked important features like 3G connectivity and any third-party apps, you had to hook it up to iTunes to activate it, and it was wildly expensive — $ 500 for a paltry 4GB of storage (or $ 600 for 8GB), and that was with a two-year contract.
None of that mattered to me, and that’s in large part due to Jobs’ presentation, one that’s widely considered the best he ever gave. I’d agree with that assessment, because he so clearly outlined the benefits of the iPhone over the phones that most consumers (including me) were using. Some of my colleagues fondly remember the Windows Mobile devices they used before the iPhone and noted how they waited a few years for Apple to fix those first-gen issues before getting on board.
But the 2007 smartphone market was wildly different, particularly in the US. BlackBerry and Palm Treo devices dominated, but they were business-focused and didn’t resonate with the people buying iPods. Jobs’ presentation was the complete opposite. The first feature he announced and demoed was iPod functionality — before even bothering with the phone part. Nearly everything he showed off was focused on consumers, from photos and movies to looking up restaurants on Google Maps.
Of course, Jobs tied it all together at the end, showing a sequence where he listened to music, took a call, sent a photo over email and looked up a movie while still talking on the phone. He then hung up the call and the music automatically resumed. Right now, it seems laughably simple, but in the days of flip phones this seemed like magic.
Even the six-month gap between the iPhone’s announcement and its on-sale date worked in Apple’s favor. The company didn’t typically announce products that far in advance, but in this case it gave them crucial time to polish the device and make improvements (like adding YouTube support and using glass instead of plastic for the front screen cover). It also helped build up some serious hype and anticipation among the Apple faithful. Jobs’ presentation paid dividends over those months; it was something fans could rewatch and use to stoke their interest in the iPhone while they waited.
Jobs had made presentations like this before, and Apple has continued to do so long after he died, in 2011. The format has changed slightly, but Apple still focuses on selling you on the entire vision of its connected universe of products — all of its devices and services work better the more you use them together. When Apple makes a presentation like the one at this year’s WWDC, I often come away with the notion that my digital life would work better if I went “all in” on its software and hardware. It’s not just Apple, though — after Google I/O, I always consider whether things would be easier if I used Android for everything, and Microsoft has been doing a good job of selling me on the benefits of Windows everywhere lately as well.
The iPhone presentation was a bit different, because it was focused purely on one device — Apple hadn’t tied the phone so closely to the Mac just yet. But Apple did tie the iPhone to the Mac — before the cloud, it was home base for your phone and let you sync photos, movies, contacts, calendars and music, making it a mini-extension of your personal computer. And even though some aspects of the first iPhone did feel a bit beta (remember how you couldn’t send pictures via text message?), it also did exactly what Apple promised.
The relatively large screen and unique UI couldn’t have been more different from the garbage Verizon forced onto the Moto RAZR. There weren’t any third-party apps, but between Safari, YouTube, Mail and Maps, I could get to the most essential info on the internet while on the go … even if it took forever. I learned to accept that and use the phone’s more data-heavy features when on WiFi, which was fairly easy to find in 2008.
I still carried my iPod around for a while, but it wasn’t long before I started working around the iPhone’s limited storage space and leaving my iPod at home. Sure, the Windows Phone and BlackBerry crowd may have been doing many of these things for years, but for me (and millions of other iPhone owners), this was a huge step forward, even if there were caveats.
Looking back, the iPhone’s influence on the consumer electronics market is obvious. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reflecting on. It’s also worth considering Jobs’ performance to see how it influenced Apple’s competitors. Jobs made many similar presentations over the years, but after the iPhone became a success, Microsoft, Samsung and Google (among others) really started emulating Apple’s events. It’s common now to see companies sell you on their entire vision, not just a series of products or software features.
Ultimately, Jobs’ presentation is as much a part of the iPhone’s history as the product itself. The introduction was nearly a complete disaster, with shoddy prototype phones barely able to connect to the internet, running out of memory and crashing if they weren’t used very carefully. But that craziness only adds to the legend of the iPhone’s introduction.
Fortunately, the experience of actually using the iPhone was pretty seamless when it launched six months later. The first iPhone didn’t age very well (I had mine for only 18 months before grabbing a 3GS when it launched), but it made a good enough impression that I’ve been a repeat customer for nearly a decade. If Jobs’ introduction had gone as badly as it could have, things would have worked out very, very differently for both the iPhone and Apple as a whole. Yes, the first iPhone was basically a working beta — but it worked well enough to change an entire industry.