The iPhone is 10 years old -- and so are my horrible predictions about it
On this day in history, all the way back in 2007, a device that not only revolutionized an industry but changed the way everyone thought about all industries, was unleashed on the world.
Okay, okay, before I go any further, I know what you're thinking. "Oh, great, another one of those flowery, rose-colored articles about the nostalgia of all things Apple and how the iPhone changed cell phones forever. Kill me now." No, that's not what this is. It's a much broader reflection of how the landscape has changed around media, consumer culture, and communications of all forms, and the fact that mobile technology has been there every step of the way.
June 2007. The month that I turned 21 years old. I had already spent a few years writing about technology, and even longer than that as a ravenous consumer of all things technology content related. I felt pretty well versed in the history of consumer electronics, which to that point had largely consisted of the big players always being the big players, change occurring rapidly but predictably, and the knowledge that big egos only rarely translated to big results.
I grew up knowing what the next generation of video game consoles would be, several months or even years before they were released. Sure, the players shifted, but at a slow and entirely expected pace. Microsoft's entry to the market was far from smooth, and Sega's exit was slow and painful, but not surprising.
And I also grew up knowing Nokia and Motorola were synonyms for "mobile phone." Just like Tide means "detergent" and Kleenex means "tissue." There were certain commodity products that were dominated by a few companies, with enough scraps left over for anyone else who wanted them. And by 2006, although some tried to look sleeker or pack in extra "features," cell phones were a commodity. At least in the United States.
So when Steve Jobs came forward in January of 2007 saying that Apple, a company that had zero experience with mobile communications, was going to jump in and sell 10 million phones by 2008, the overwhelming consensus was that was a crazy goal. What differed were the opinions on just how crazy.
On June 26, 2007, I wrote an article for TGDaily.com entitled Isn't the iPhone just a phone? (You'll have to excuse the way several rounds of redesigns over the years has led to horrible rendering on this site of very old articles).
In it I lambasted people who were lining up more than 72 hours to buy the iPhone, boastfully suggesting that there was no point in lining up because Apple was so over-the-top in its predictions that there would be no supply issues.
Even when I was essentially proven wrong, three months later when sales had eclipsed one million units, I instead focused on Steve Jobs's 'unthinkable' goal of reaching 1 percent of the cell phone market share (which at the time would have been around 10 million units). I instead compared it to the Motorola Razr brand, and even -- laughably -- the Verizon Chocolate "multimedia phone" (both of which did in fact have 10-fold to 50-fold more units sold than the iPhone).
It's worth noting that even though I was an idiot 21-year-old, I was not alone in my sentiments. The New York Times expressed skepticism about the 1 percent market share goal. The Register argued there was no way Apple would reach its 10-million goal, citing the oppressively high cost. And of course Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer dismissed it entirely saying it didn't appeal to a wide enough audience (remember that the iPhone was $500 with a two-year contract; unheard of at the time). It's obviously not surprising that Ballmer would want to try to shut down any hype about its biggest competitor, but he made good points about the fact that, for example, Apple was a blip on the market share radar compared to the 90+ percent of the market that Windows owned.
Yet, right on schedule, the iPhone eclipsed 10 million units sold by the end of 2008. It rocked the core of the industry, and spawned the present-day definition of "smartphone" (a term that was very loosely used in the past). It's hard to find a similar example of a product that entered such a saturated market and climbed with such immediate and deliberate trajectory. Research in Motion, for example, spent 11 years in mobile communication products before its BlackBerry brand was cemented as the business phone that every important person owns.
And there was no reason for anyone to think there could be something better. Part of that was because even if you wanted to suggest that there could be a better enterprise phone, you had no outlet. BlackBerry was already ensconced in the mainstream, and it was very difficult for anyone to get a voice in otherwise. Ironically, a CNBC documentary called Crackberry'd, which chronicled the obsession with and likely never ending climb for BlackBerry, aired in 2010 by the time the iPhone was already starting to eclipse the market. No doubt that documentary was first pitched a few years earlier, with the mindset that it would of course still be relevant after it took a couple years to produce. Although there was some obvious editing in post-production to bring it up to the current times, the title alone already made it an almost amusingly outdated look on the high-tech mobile world on the day it came out.
The thing is, in 2017, if an entirely brand new, "blue ocean" (that's my B.S.B.A. degree talking, yo) market segment is created and millions of consumers flock to it, the first sentence out of everyone's mouth is "this will revolutionize everything." The second sentence is "I wonder how long until it's obsolete."
That overwhelming mindset just did not exist as recently as 10 years ago. Back then, if you were successful at creating something, especially if you defined a market, you got to hold onto that mantle. It was your reward for success. Sure you'll have people coming in and trying to one-up you, but you'd always get to keep your core consumer base.
In the mobile space, Research in Motion (now known as BlackBerry Ltd) had that mantle for enterprise customers. Motorola was for the trendy early adopters, and Nokia owned the "I just want a cell phone" space. Apple decimated every. single. one. of those categories. Even those who were optimistic about the iPhone didn't predict, for example, that it would dethrone BlackBerry as the new standard for corporate and even government customers (I couldn't find one article from 2007 suggesting that). And at $500 as the subsidized price, it was only supposed to be a high-end segment.
The consumer culture has changed in a big way. It's hard to believe it, but Twitter was barely a thing when the iPhone came out. Google had just recently acquired YouTube. And people who didn't have an "edu" email address were just beginning to sign up for Facebook. Those platforms were getting ready to change the world and, lucky for Apple, that was exactly when the iPhone launched.
Social media has made everything become very exciting when it's brand new, but the reverse is that it also makes everything become incredibly boring very quickly. It has led to a schizophrenic environment in all industries around the world, but especially industries that have photogenic products and consumers, or have easily spawnable hashtags (that is to say, Tide and Kleenex still aren't facing any great risks).
So as I look back to the launch of the iPhone, as many others are doing today, I not only look back with egg on my face for getting it so wrong, but also realizing what an interesting shift there has been in the power of the consumer, the frailty of big business, and the manic competitive spirit that now consumes all corners of the planet. And those are all good things.