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Looking Down at an iPhone: It Changed My Life

When Steve Jobs demonstrated the first iPhone at a Macworld Expo on January 9, 2007, I was only half listening. To me, a cell phone was all about making phone calls. Their web browsers and email tools were clunky, clumsy, and how can you type quickly on a telephone keypad?

At the time, I would cast a curious look at my son, Grayson, while his thumbs busily typed text messages to his friends. Clearly he knew something, but I wasn’t sure it was worth taking seriously. He’d grow out of it, I thought. But that’s what parents always say about their children.

When the iPhone 3G arrived in 2008, I had the chance to get one from Apple to review. In addition to supporting 3G cellular networks, the Apple Store had debuted. When the first iPhone arrived, Jobs talked in terms of web apps, which went precisely nowhere. Having a real app store, with software that ran natively on the iPhone, created a revolution for developers.

Since iOS was derived from macOS, you could use the same developer tools to create both. On a Mac.

While other mobile handset makers offered their own app stores over the years, they were usually overpriced, performed poorly, and cost a lot more than they were worth. In Apple’s App Store, many apps were free, while others were no more than a dollar or two. So it was easy to try them out, see if you liked them, and if not, delete them without any great loss.

Where Apple blew past other smartphones was in making the iPhone a real mobile computer, a genuine counterpart to a Mac, and its touchscreen and simple interface were easy for people to grasp. Up until then, the standard bearer, a BlackBerry, and similar devices, had physical keyboards. But the keys were tiny, and you almost had to learn to type all over again to master one. They were mostly toys for executives or politicians, but regular people weren’t apt to pay attention.

It almost harkens back to the days of DOS, and text-based PCs. The Mac arrived with a graphical interface, and it was regarded as little more than a toy, not a serious work computer. Well, until Microsoft delivered a version of Windows that was mostly usable. Suddenly such complaints no longer mattered, although Apple was forever regarded as beleaguered.

Now about that iPhone from Apple: It changed my evening computing habits almost overnight. Until then, I had the habit of bringing my MacBook Pro into the bedroom to keep tabs of email and to do online research. I’d stick it on a chest and reach for it every so often to stay up to date.

It didn’t take long until I was able to set the notebook aside. I could just place the iPhone in the night table,  or hold onto it while watching the family TV. Either way, it made easy work of staying touch via email or messaging real easy. I wasn’t a great consumer of apps — I’m still not — but I found a few that were indispensable.

I asked Apple if I could keep it a little longer. They allowed me two more weeks. Before I returned it, I ended up buying one.

Since I signed one of those two-year contracts, I ended up upgrading on a fairly typical schedule. Sometimes I’d get a loaner from Apple in an alternate year, and a couple of times they allowed me to keep it longer if I transferred my own phone number to the device. That way, they didn’t have to pay for the online account.

As you recall, when you signed a cell phone contract, you were locked in for two years, unless you paid an hefty early termination penalty. In a sense, you were buying the handset and paying it off in two years, but the price never went down after that period.

Things changed with T-Mobile’s “Un-carrier” pricing scheme, where the purchase of the handset was separated from the cellular plan. You may still be taking two years to pay off that loan, but when it’s paid off, the price goes down. Maybe you end up keeping that phone a little longer. But you can also pay a few dollars more and upgrade every year. Just return the old phone, take home the new phone, and you’ll pay forever. AT&T Next is an example of such a sales scheme.

At least that’s what the carriers hope.

Now back to the iPhone: In some ways the history of the macOS is being replayed, but it’s more in Apple’s favor.

Apple releases a revolutionary operating system and computer, and another company comes out with something that’s almost as good. But cheaper, and built by loads of manufacturers. Apple nearly got buried by Microsoft in the move to Windows.

But that hasn’t quite happened this time. Although Apple’s iOS retains a small portion of the mobile handset market, its represents the sale of hundreds of millions of costly devices around the world. Only one manufacturer, Samsung, sells more. But Samsung’s largest proportion of sales are in the lower price ranges. The cheap stuff doesn’t make a lot of profits, but it builds market share.

Google’s Android OS, in turn, dominates the mobile OS race. Its market share isn’t quite the level of Windows, but it’s high enough. In turn, Android handsets heavily resemble iPhones. The influences are clear. Apple set the pace and made smartphones warm and fuzzy, and now even people in third-world countries have one. If the iPhone hadn’t arrived in 2007, would there have been a smartphone revolution? Or would smartphones remain expensive executive toys with tiny physical keyboards?

A smartphone is an important work tool in ways never anticipated even by Apple. Many jobs depend on them. So imagine riding and driving for such ride-sharing services as Lyft and Uber, which requires their navigation apps, and consider whether that would have been possible without what Apple brought to the industry.