The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame: Apple iPhone

Apple’s original iPhone, like the ones that would follow it, was at once trailblazing and irritating

5 min read
Front and back of the Apple iPhone.
The Phone for the Rest of Us: In introducing the original iPhone, on 9 January 2007, Steve Jobs announced that “Apple is going to reinvent the phone.” He went on to describe the new device as “a widescreen iPod with touch controls.”
Photo: Apple

In 2007 Apple introduced its first cellular handset with the advertising slogan “Apple reinvents the phone.” Unlike most such slogans, this one was not a ridiculous exaggeration. It was a statement of fact. Though the iPhone incorporated a lot of features that had already been pioneered by other phone manufacturers, it was still a paragon of functionality, coupled with a user interface that was innovative for its simplicity and elegance. Crucially, the phone fit comfortably into Apple’s nearly seamless environment of products and complementary services, notably iTunes and the App Store.

From Apple’s inception, cofounder Steve Jobs had been intent on changing the way people used electronics. The first Macintosh computers famously incorporated the most cutting-edge user interface technology available. Jobs was ousted from Apple in 1985, but after a 12-year exile he returned and began to apply the same philosophy of user-interface simplicity to a series of consumer electronics items that would include the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. That imperative basically took the form of minimizing the number of hardware buttons and also relying on the user’s index finger as a pointing and input tool.

As for buttons, Jobs wanted just one of them—if Apple engineers could figure out how to pull it off. There had to be at least one, if for no other reason than to turn the darn thing on and off.

imgWheel of Fortune: The original iPod music player featured a click wheel with a central button. It was an early incarnation of Steve Jobs’s insistence on design and user-interface simplicity, which led to the minimalist aesthetic embraced by the iPhone.Photo: Apple/Getty Images

The iPhone wasn’t developed from scratch but rather began with the iPod MP3 music player, the first generation of which was introduced in 2001. Apple engineers had devised a click wheel for the iPod, a big step toward a one-button user interface. The click wheel wasn’t a single button, but it sort of resembled one, at least from a distance. It had a central button within a ring that had four more buttons embedded within it, one at each of the cardinal points.

As for finger input—that was a tougher nut to crack. Touch-sensitive screens had been around for decades, but for a long time they were seldom used because they were sluggish and imprecise. To make them more responsive, the display industry developed screens in the 1990s that would work with specialized electronic pens. One of the pioneering instances of stylus input was Apple’s own Newton personal digital assistant, introduced in 1993 and discontinued in 1998. By the early 2000s, several companies were making headway with triple-layer capacitive multitouch touch-screen technology, which held out the promise, at least, of precise input. But at the end of 2004, when work on the iPhone began, that technology was just barely on the verge of being ready for commercialization.

If you had responsive finger-based input, you wouldn’t need multiple physical buttons. Put a virtual keyboard on the screen and there would be no reason to have a physical keyboard, which many smartphones had in those days. Such an arrangement would also mean that the screen could occupy almost all of the face of the phone. For Apple, specifically, use of a good, responsive touch screen meant the click wheel could finally be reduced to Jobs’s vision of a single-button device. He decided the first iPhone would have such a screen, as would the next version of the iPod. To make that happen, in 2005, Apple bought FingerWorks, one of the companies working on triple-layer capacitive touch screens.

imgIt’s for You: Tiny by today’s standards, the original iPhone’s LCD display measured 3.5 inches on the diagonal. It was the second capacitive touch screen to be used in a smartphone.Photo: Apple

The original device, introduced in 2007, was built around a 620-megahertz Arm microprocessor. Some of the supporting chips came from Skyworks Solutions and Marvell Technology Group. The touch screen measured 3.5 inches on the diagonal, and it had a resolution of 480 x 320 pixels. Connectivity options included GSM/EDGE (basically 2G wireless), Wi-Fi 802.11b/g, and Bluetooth. There was a music player and a 2-megapixel camera, which was pretty good in those days. Not long after it was introduced, the iPhone also began incorporating some other features that had already been introduced by other phone manufacturers, including support for games, apps, and the Multimedia Messaging Service (a form of text messaging).

Apple also included a headphone jack in the original iPhone that was so deeply recessed into the upper edge of the phone that it forced customers to purchase new headphones or an adapter for their old ones. It was a harbinger. With almost every new generation of iPhone, Apple has made one thing or another obsolete, forcing its famously loyal customers to buy some additional new thing—headphones, an adapter, a power cord. Although no one could have guessed it at the time, the original iPhone with its clunky headphone jack set the tone for Apple’s future reputation in smartphones: at once boldly trailblazing and bafflingly irritating.

imgTech Trailblazer: LG’s Prada was the very first smartphone with a capacitive touch screen. Priced at US $849, it beat the iPhone, which started at $499, to market by a few weeks.Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

Apple was not the first smartphone maker to introduce a touch screen. That distinction went to LG, which publicly announced it would have a phone with a capacitive touch screen early in 2007. The phone, called the Prada, was created with the Italian luxury designer. Jobs announced the iPhone shortly after; he likened it to an iPod that was also a telephone with Internet connectivity. LG got the Prada to market in May 2007, edging out Apple by just a few weeks. The iPhone version with 4 gigabytes of storage sold for US $499; the 8-GB version was $599. (The iPod Touch music player, also sporting a touch screen and a nearly identical appearance to the iPhone but with no telephone, followed shortly after in September.)

Reviewers and customers agreed: Apple had indeed reinvented the phone. It was simple, it was attractive, it was elegant. It was the little black dress of consumer electronics. Music was easy to enjoy and purchase through the iTunes app, which had already been a hit with the iPod. There were many, many more apps to come. Smartphones, essentially pocket-size computers, were becoming favored platforms for applications developers, especially game designers. Apple made it easy to develop, sell, and download apps with its App Store. The iPhone wasn’t just a product; it was an experience.

Still, the original iPhone sold a total of only 6.1 million units. One problem was that it worked only with 2G networks, and in 2007 2G was already giving way to 3G. The original model was replaced just a year later, in 2008, with a 3G version. From that point on, Apple retroactively referred to the original iPhone as the iPhone 2G.

Apple has never been the sales leader in smartphones. In recent years that’s been Samsung, which sells over 300 million smartphones a year. Apple’s emphasis has always been on prestige products. Its legendarily loyal devotees pay more for them because of Apple’s reputation for exceptional quality and superior product design. And it’s not that sales were unimpressive—quite the contrary. The iPhone 6 and 6+ together sold roughly 220 million units, behind only the Nokia 1100 (250 million units) as the best-selling cellphone model of all time. By early 2019, Apple had achieved cumulative iPhone sales in the neighborhood of 1.6 billion (an exact figure is unavailable because Apple stopped announcing iPhone sales figures in 2018).

Jony Ive became one of the most prominent industrial designers in the world for his work on the iPhone, iMac, iPod, iPad, and MacBook; he was even knighted in his native England. He made worldwide headlines in the spring of 2019 when he announced he was leaving Apple.

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Akos Stiller/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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Photo-illustration: IEEE Spectrum; Photos: Boston Dynamics

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