When Apple set out to build a smartphone, the team tasked with doing so didn’t plan on changing the world. It didn’t foresee the App Store becoming a billion-dollar business full of billion-dollar businesses like Uber, Snapchat, and WhatsApp. It wasn’t trying to reinvent how people communicate, shop, and even hook up.
It was trying to build an iPod that made phone calls.
“The grand vision wasn’t really articulated, because there wasn’t one,” says Andy Grignon, a senior manager on the project and now a partner at design firm Siberia. Even the name, iPhone, started as an homage to Apple’s hit music player. Most early prototypes featured a screen and a click wheel. “That was kind of the mindset that we had. It was just going to be, not a revolutionary product, but an evolution to iPod.”
Eventually, they came around to a bigger plan. “It was a general computer that was connected and in your pocket at all times,” says Tony Fadell, one of the senior execs behind both iPod and iPhone. “We saw the dramatic usage of both the iPod and the cellphone of the time and knew people would carry and tend to only one device wherever they went.” You know what happened next. The device Steve Jobs launched at Macworld 2007, 10 years ago today, became so much more than even he imagined. It became an economic and cultural revolution while almost single-handedly making Apple the most valuable company on the planet.
But as now-CEO Tim Cook looks ahead to the iPhone’s second decade and the rumor mill speculates on the next device, it seems appropriate to ask whether Apple has accomplished the goals Jobs laid out on that January morning in 2007. And to wonder what might come next.
The Killer App
If you watch Jobs’s announcement—he goes on for 77 minutes—what’s most amazing is how even he hasn’t fully grokked the import of it all. Granted, it’s easy to appear prescient now, but in many ways the iPhone’s announcement feels understated given how radical the device was.
“Today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products,” Jobs says. “The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough internet communications device.” And then the prestige: These are all one device.
Listen to the reaction. When Jobs mentions iPod, people go nuts. A phone: double nuts. This is what they wanted. But when he says the words “internet communicator,” the audience seems almost puzzled.
Even for Jobs, the phone was the thing. “What’s the killer app?” he asked. “The killer app is making calls!” He raved about visual voicemail, and the ability to call someone simply by tapping a contact. He made quite a show of placing a three-way call. “Steve was very particular,” Grignon says. “The number one job of this thing was to make and receive phone calls, and anything we did that detracted from that core experience was a huge failure.” That’s why Jobs didn’t want apps: He worried that they might crash and screw up your calls.
No one realized that the “internet communicator” would be what changed everything. “At that point, Apple was aiming at unifying an iPod, a phone, and a camera,” says Gadi Amit, president of New Deal Design, a leading industrial design firm. “Not only did they succeed, they created something bigger: the true first personal computer.”
What feels most oracular about the MacWorld presentation is when Jobs celebrates the simplicity of his new gadget. He proudly demonstrated swipe-to-unlock, then repeated the trick for good measure. He extolled the brilliance of swiping and tapping and pinching with your finger. Everything was beautifully designed, easily used, and intuitively understood. That was the iPhone’s true killer app.
Dreams Come True
The iPhone was the phone many designers had dreamed of, but never thought possible. “The idea of just a slate made a ton of sense,” says Mark Rolston, a co-founder at Argo Design. “But it felt so fanciful, it felt so far out of reach.”
By stripping away physical keys to leave only a screen and a truly multi-touch interface, Apple made it possible for designers and engineers to do things few had ever imagined. Even Jobs didn’t seem to fully understand exactly what it he’d created, though. But he knew it was special.
Jobs demonstrated software that he insisted was so simple and so intuitive that it was five years ahead of everyone else—and he turned out to be right. He called Safari “a real browser on the phone where you can see real web pages,” in stark contrast to the WAP crap on every other device. He found a Starbucks on Google Maps, right from his phone. “It’s the internet in your pocket,” Jobs said, “for the first time ever.”
In the weeks and months that followed, everyone who used an iPhone experienced a moment in which they realized just what Apple had done. For Grignon, it happened when he was testing a prototype just before the iPhone’s release in June, 2007. “This was back in the day when Mapquest was a thing, and if you were going anywhere you would have to Mapquest it and print it out,” he says. “I’d forgotten to do that. But I was like, ‘Oh, I can launch Safari and go to Mapquest.’ I did that, and it worked. I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is cool.’” His thoughts immediately leapt to real-time navigation, but he stopped himself. Baby steps.
Still, it’s easy to see the progression from there. Just look at your phone. GPS plus Wi-Fi plus touchscreen ultimately led to Uber. The camera led to Instagram. Multi-touch led to gaming. The iPhone changed the world at a level even Jobs would never have guessed. In trying to reinvent the phone, Apple created a device that could be anything and everything.
“I had somehow imagined it being more like a traditional flip phone, but with a touch interface of some sort,” says Robert Brunner, who was head of design at Apple before founding the design firm Ammunition. Instead, “It was a whole new device.”
If Apple’s initial plan was to reinvent the phone, it’s almost an understatement to say it was successful. Jobs said in his presentation that Apple’s goal was to get to one percent of the smartphone market; it’s since sold more than a billion iPhones, igniting a market that has connected more people than ever before and making an almost unfathomable amount of money in the process. “It’s overachieved, and in a very short period of time,” Fadell says. But this is tech, and tech moves fast. So what’s next?
A decade later, so much about the iPhone has changed—it is bigger, faster, and takes better pictures—yet it remains fundamentally the same. It is still exquisitely designed and intuitive. The iPhone defined how smartphones look and feel even as it evolved from being three things, as Jobs declared, to 3,000. But that evolution presents a problem. “Using so many apps, with so many icons on your top screen, is becoming cumbersome,” Amit says.
There’s great power in a phone that can do a thousand things, but an app-based universe requires you to learn each one of those things individually. Whatever comes next, be it chatbots or voice assistants or entire virtual worlds, will let you do new things without having to learn how. You’ll already know. The intuitive ease of the first iPhone will be everywhere.
You see this at Amazon, which clearly wants Alexa everywhere. Amit points to Alexa as a natural counterpoint to the iPhone. “It’s a joke from a functionality perspective, but it’s such a fresh concept and product in terms of interactions,” he says. It’s an entirely new sort of device, built on new infrastructure, meant for new things. It’s new in the same way the iPhone was new.
That makes you wonder where the iPhone—where smartphones—go from here. Apple’s already moving into the wireless future by killing the very 3.5mm headphone jack Jobs excitedly announced in 2007, and adding AirPods. Siri is in many ways the next homescreen, the place you begin every task simply by asking questions. The iPhone 7 Plus features two cameras, which can compute more data more quickly and surely will create new tools and use cases.
More than all that, though, the iPhone increasingly is the center of a vast ecosystem connecting all of your devices to you and to the internet. The first iPhone put a dozen devices in your palm; the next ones will add countless more. We’re already seeing this with smart devices that use Apple’s HomeKit, the expansive universe of beacons that connect to your phone, and the ability to pay for stuff with your phone or your fingerprint.
This makes you wonder what the future of the the iPhone might look like. For Rolston, it looks like AirPods combined with Siri and an increasingly powerful cloud driven by AI. The processing moves off the phone into the cloud. “That’s the future iPhone,” he says. “Just an earpiece.”
You might carry a screen for those few instances you need it—and you can see the Apple Watch fulfilling this need—but most of the time, that earpiece could be all you need. Or maybe something else. “Mobile phones will really be useful when we are mobile, walking around in public spaces,” Fadell says. “What we will see is that very similar functionality will be built directly into homes, office spaces, and even cars, where we can have the best screens (or not), power, microphones, connectivity, etc. We will be more effective and efficient using the tools.”
That future remains some time away, and it’s hard to say just what the iPhone of 2026 might look like. Even Jobs didn’t have that kind of vision. But he saw something no one else did when he said, “iPhone is like having your life in your pocket.” And he didn’t even know the half of it.