The iPhone moment

Third in a series. Editor's note: To commemorate iPhone's fifth-anniversary, we present several stories looking at its debut and colorful history -- so far.

iPhone is five years old today, and what a half-decade it has been. Apple launched the handset on June 29, 2007, marking its first foray into the cellular device market and with a single carrier: AT&T, which was Cingular before the launch. There were risks all around: Apple leapt into a market of sharks -- Nokia and Research in Motion, namely; AT&T bet the brand on the one device; and iPhone sold, locked and unsubsidized for $499 and $599 -- who would pay unlocked-mobile prices for a device that wasn't? One million people through early September 2007. For these early buyers, and perhaps for bazillion more who followed, iPhone isn't a phone but a cultural phenomenon.

Before continuing that thought, look at what iPhone has done. Nokia invented the smartphone is 1996, and Apple reinvented it 11 years later by cleverly incorporating sensors and capacitive touchscreen that made the device responsive -- more human-like. Nokia and RIM led the market category five years ago, but now they're laid waste. RIM is near collapse and last quarter Nokia fell from the top market share position held for 14 years. Surely Android is catalyst, but would there be droids if not for iPhone. Manufacturers like HTC and Samsung needed something to compete and Windows Mobile wasn't it. Since iPhone launched, the handset market is heaved over. Last decade's market leaders are the dregs.

This dramatic change started from the iPhone moment, when a perceptive set of people looked ahead to a different future. That's what I recall most about the handset's launch outside Apple Store Montgomery Mall in Bethesda Md. One buyer told me that the launch would change everything, and we would look back on the moment in 10 years or more and see so. Well, it didn't take nearly that long.

Other buyers expressed a sense of community, of belonging to something greater, something good. Again, the sense of being part of a historical moment came through. The photo above pictures iPhone buyers Chris, Steve and Eddie. I went around asking people: "Show us your phones! -- what they would leave behind.

I captured the iPhone moment in a Microsoft Watch blog post the following day, and I present the entire missive here as way of looking back and capturing the moment in historical context and for seeing iPhone's success as much about technology and culture as device innovation:

Maybe the iPhone phenomenon is about purpose or community, making people feel like they can participate in something important or unusual.

My wife put forth that theory this morning as we discussed my experiences covering the iPhone launch at Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Md. No question, the people I talked to in line yesterday had a sense of being caught up in a historical moment.

"I think this is a day that you're going to see a change in how computers, how handheld computers are done", iPhone buyer Steve told me yesterday afternoon. "It's a little marketing history. I'm seeing it that way...I think we'll look back in 10 or 15 years, and like on that day the gadget came out -- same thing with iPod -- it changed the game".

Why are you reading about iPhone on Microsoft Watch? Again. In part because Apple, a cell phone upstart, has generated so much excitement about the iPhone. Microsoft has been in the mobile market for the last decade, with Pocket PC. Windows Mobile reached Version 6 this year. Yet, no Windows Mobile-based cell phone has ever garnered near as much interest or fanaticism as iPhone. Microsoft and its partners can learn much from Apple -- and not from the technology.

Microsoft also must ask how it can reclaim the past. Windows 95 generated excitement -- that sense of history and belonging -- the company has been unable to recapture. Microsoft needs to understand what Apple is doing right and apply the lessons.

The people turning out to buy iPhones yesterday made up one motley group -- representing a broad swath of America. I saw in the line people of all races, ages and lifestyles. For example, near the front, waited a brawny Hispanic dude, with cut T-Shirt that exposed a praying hands tattoo on his upper right arm. He looked more like the kind of guy who works with metal, using his hands, rather than holding a pretty cell phone. Yet he was typical of the people waiting; they shattered geek stereotypes.

The line of strangers happily chatted, with me, with Apple employees and with each other. This moment gave them a sense of belonging together; of being a community and part of something bigger. In retrospect, I feel saddened they couldn't have joined together for some better purpose than commerce.

Apple certainly contributed to that sense of belonging, of participation. The first person in line got there at 4 a.m.; the mall let him and others inside around 7 a.m. Apple store employees brought the line waiters bottled water, snacks and coupons for discounted coffee throughout the day. Employees chatted with customers, adding to the reverie.

An hour before the doors opened at 6 p.m., employees ripped off the paper covering the display windows and set clocks on the two, large iPhone displays to countdown the hour. When the store later opened, customers passed through a human alley of Apple employees, who cheered and clapped. The cheering and clapping resumed whenever iPhone buyers left or entered the store.

No question, Apple made iPhone buyers feel special, even for just a few moments, which, by the way, is a good tactic for endearing customers to the product or brand.

Earlier, before the doors opened, when I asked Apple fan Chris if he was really buying an iPhone to be "cool", he admitted, "I do have my finger on the pulse of pop culture".

Being cool is part of belonging, too, if by standing out.

"We live in a world of gadget envy now", said iPhone buyer Eddie. "There was a time when people judged you based on your clothes or what type of shoes you had. Now, it's like what kind of cell phone do you have. All these people who are standing in line will be cool people for the rest of the week, while everyone else is upset, secretly fuming because they didn't stand in line for one".

For a little while anyway, those first buyers will know who the are, the community they belong to, by the iPhones they see each other use.

Later, after finishing the interviews and taking pictures, I went to the back of the line. There I chatted with a Microsoft solution provider, who more fit my stereotype of an iPhone buyer: Older, white male, who is very much into technology and gadgets. While installing and servicing Microsoft software is his living, the solution provider personally uses Apple products. He admitted using Windows XP on a Mac virtualized with Parallels.

We chatted for about 15 minutes, before getting to the front of the line and being ushered into the Apple Store. I got caught up in the moment, too.

Editor: Do you have a story to tell in celebration of iPhone's fifth anniversary? Please email your personal account to joe at betanews dot com.

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