The original iPhone: The blueprint for all modern day smartphones

Five years ago, Apple released the original iPhone, and it's not an overstatement to say that the iPhone fundamentally changed the way the world interacts with technology. The list of smartphone features we now take for granted would have never been possible had it not been for the iPhone.

A famous quote from Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky reads, "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been." In designing the original iPhone, you might say that Apple took this line of thinking to heart. Indeed, Steve Jobs once referenced the aforementioned Gretzky quote in reference to the company's approach to developing new products. And when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time, it was clear that Apple completely re-imagined the very notion of what a smartphone is and could be.

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Five years ago, Apple released the original iPhone and it's not an overstatement to say that the device fundamentally changed the way the world interacts with technology. Now, the original iPhone admittedly didn't come with every feature right out of the box - GPS and copy and paste come to mind - but there's no question that the iPhone revolutionized the smartphone industry and injected a much needed breath of fresh air into a market that was largely stagnant.

As is typically the case, the original iPhone launch brought along with it a number of tech pundits who were quick to lambast Apple's foray into the smartphone market. For a variety of reasons, pundits were adamant that the iPhone, at worst, was bound to fail or become a niche product at best. But almost comically, many of the features that the original iPhone was overwhelmingly criticized for have now, to a large degree, become standardized on many of today's more popular smartphones. Further, one can make an overwhelmingly strong case arguing that the design principles that went into the iPhone, going all the way back to the original, have helped form the blueprint for what has since become the modern day smartphone.

The virtual keyboard

Back in 2007, the smartphone market was dominated by companies like RIM who made money hand over fist by selling smartphones with physical qwerty keyboards. Apple went about things much differently and completely abandoned a physical keyboard in favor of a virtual keyboard. This didn't sit well with everybody and was, in fact, one of the main reasons why tech pundits predicted the device would fail.

"People need tactile feedback," they argued.

"People will never be able to efficiently type on a glass screen," they predicted.

Five years and over 300 million iOS device sales later, it's safe to say that the virtual keyboard is here to stay. The reality is that most people are gladly willing to sacrifice a physical keyboard in exchange for a sleek device with a large display.

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For quite a while, many companies tried to outflank the iPhone by releasing devices with pull-out keyboards. Indeed, this feature was often positioned as a key selling point and differentiator from the iPhone. And while these devices sold quite well for a while, there now seems to be a growing trend wherein manufacturers are ditching the physical keyboard in favor of a virtual keyboard exclusively.

To wit, the immensely popular Samsung Galaxy S II did not have a physical keyboard, save for its AT&T variant. And the highly anticipated Samsung Galaxy S III does not sport a keyboard either. So while Android handsets with physical keyboards remain plentiful, top of the line Androids such as the HTC One X are increasingly shipping with nothing more than a virtual keyboard.

Also noteable is that even previously successful Android handsets with physical keyboards - such as the once popular Motorola Droid devices - have fallen by the wayside. Now, granted, there will always be room for keyboard-equipped smartphones, but when you look at the most popular non-Apple smartphones on the market, the trend is increasingly moving towards virtual keyboards. The design decision Apple made years ago is slowly but surely becoming the standard amongst premium smartphones.


The prevalence of multitouch smartphones is a more obvious example of Apple's influence on the smartphone market. While multitouch technology had existed for years prior to the iPhone, Apple was responsible for ushering the technology into the mainstream. Today, you'd be hard pressed to find a smartphone worth its salt without a multitouch display.

As a quick aside, for a while it seemed that the iPhone had all but killed the stylus, but with the recent success of the Samsung Galaxy Note, it seems that there still might be a bit of life for the input device people love to hate.

But overall, Apple's implementation of multitouch technology as the primary, if not exclusive, means of input has also become the standard amongst the majority of smartphones.

Full Web Experience

By opting for a virtual keyboard and combining it with a large 3.5 inch multitouch display, Apple was also able to deliver, for the first time, a true desktop web experience on a mobile device. The iPhone, as Apple liked to advertise, really provided users the real web, the full Internet, in their pockets. It's easy to take mobile browsing for granted today, but it wasn't all that long ago that mobile browsing entailed slowly scrolling through dinky webpages optimized for relatively low-powered devices. Today, a large multitouch display with full desktop style web browsing functionality is a given on almost any smartphone.

Developers Rejoice

Though the iTunes App Store didn't exist when the original iPhone launched, its far reaching impact is unquestionably worth a mention. Besides, the mobile app store as we know it today wouldn't have been possible without the iPhone; its large display, accelerometer, and multitouch technology paved the way for mobile apps that have fundamentally changed the way we use our phones, interact with friends, and get things done.

Now,  if we go back to 2007 for a second, the mobile app landscape looked completely different - and that's a good thing. With respect to games, for example, graphics were subpar, gameplay was mediocre, and more than that, titles were inexplicably expensive. The design decisions Apple put into the original iPhone, however, provided a platform for original and creative apps that just a few years ago would have seemed like science fiction.

What's more, the 70/30 revenue split Apple introduced for developers helped foster a mobile app ecosystem which today enables thousands of individuals to earn a full-time living developing mobile apps. The 70/30 split first put forth by Apple has since been mimicked by a slew of other companies looking to create their own app stores. But before the iTunes App Store came along, developers often received significantly less than 70% of mobile app revenue. Apple's decision to give the bulk of mobile app revenue to developers was instrumental in creating the mobile app landscape iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone 7 users enjoy today.

It's quite telling that the lack of a viable app store in today's smartphone market is a sure-fire death knell to anyone trying to compete. It's why Google and Microsoft have been working furiously to get their respective app stores up to par with Apple's, and it's one of the reasons RIM's smartphone sales have been faltering. The mobile app store experience Apple introduced one year after the original iPhone release has, like the examples mentioned above, become the golden standard.

Since the iTunes App Store went live, Apple has paid out over $5 billion to developers. Before the iPhone, the notion of this type of vibrant and profitable mobile app ecosystem was laughable.

What comes around goes around

When Steve Jobs first unveiled the iPhone back at Macworld 2007, he bragged that Apple had created a product that leapfrogged the competition by five years. Looking back, that bold statement seems quite prescient. Feature-wise, the iPhone was for a long time the dominant smartphone on the market by a mile. But today, there are no shortage of able iPhone competitors that bring their own sense of style and design to the market. And as the smartphone market has matured, Apple hasn't been immune to the influence of other smartphone platforms.

As a quick example, Apple has only recently caught up to Android with respect to features such as turn-by-turn directions, voice controls, and system-wide notifications.

So while the iPhone ushered in the modern smartphone era, it certainly hasn't been responsible for every innovation in the smartphone realm. But none of the smartphones that people enjoy today would have ever been possible without the iPhone. Indeed, even the shape of the original iPhone has, in many ways, become the de-facto form factor for many of the more popular smartphones on the market.

It's really hard to overstate the influence the iPhone has had on the way we use our phones. Further, the industry-wide changes Apple helped bring about when it launched the original iPhone are too numerous to list comprehensively.

Remember that the iPhone enabled Apple to wrestle away power from cellphone carriers and provide, for the first time, a really integrated and seamless mobile user experience. Put differently, Apple helped usher in an era where technological innovation outweighed carrier profits. Whereas phones were once designed by committee at the behest of carriers, replete with obnoxious branding and clunky pre-installed software, smartphones today are elegant devices designed with the consumer in mind, not the carriers.

The list of smartphone features we now take for granted - watching high -quality movies, visual voicemail, playing console quality games, access to the full web, thousands of songs at your disposal, and all from the same device you make calls with - was completely unheard of back in 2007.

The iPhone made all of that possible, and in doing so, formed the template of the modern day smartphone experience. Because many of the features present on the original iPhone were adopted and implemented by competitors so quickly, it's really easy to forget how clunky and user un-friendly many phones, and even smartphones, were back in 2007.

In a 2010 interview, former Microsoft CEO Bill Gate stated that his reaction to the original iPhone was "Oh my God, Microsoft didn't aim high enough." Thankfully, Apple did.

(image credit: Declan McCullagh/CNET)

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