Twenty years ago, could you have imagined finding your best friend from middle school, talking to her, while looking at her from a tiny box you keep in your pocket? What about using that little box to deposit your checks when you can’t make it to the bank? Or just because you can? What about listening to all your favorite songs, just by pressing a button on this little portable box? Twenty years ago, could you even imagine carrying anything around with you 24/7 that wasn’t your wallet or ID? Probably not. As imaginative as you may be, if you were asked these questions twenty years ago, you probably would have assumed I was referencing a spy film, or some sort of sci-fi thriller. But that’s OK. So would most people.
Twenty years ago, only the elite actually had cell phones, and only a select few people in the world – namely scientists – had the imagination for what would come next. These scientists, researchers, and engineers – and their vivid imaginations – would ultimately be responsible for packaging some of the most successful technological innovations of the last twenty years into one “tiny little box” for us – the iPhone. As a leader in the computer industry, Apple, Inc. managed to revitalize the mobile phone industry with the creation of its revolutionary iPhone. In this essay, I will discuss the technical, historical, economic, and political background of the Apple iPhone, as well as present my insights and analysis of the emergence and impact its had on technology and our culture.
The iPhone could not have been imagined without the technologies that came before it. Of course the Internet and the telephone are the two technologies that are essential in discussing modern smartphone technology such as the iPhone. Smartphones are basically mobile phones with Internet access. Without the telephone, there would be no mobile phones. Without the Internet, there would be no smartphones.
Personal digital assistants (PDAs) emerged in the late 1990s, and are widely considered to be the earliest smartphones. PDAs could make phone calls and had basic Internet access. In short, they were the closest in function to what smartphones are today. However, they were heavy, large, and limited by the hardware that was available at the time. Ultimately, PDAs were not conducive to the mobile technology that people wanted, but without them, the iPhone might never exist.
What had initially set the iPhone apart from its predecessors was its interactive surface. Much of the iPhone’s early success could be attributed to this technology. Touch screens had existed long before the emergence of the iPhone, even if they were much more basic. The iPhone used the existing touch screen technology, but rearranged it in order for it to become a multiple touch system. So what had originally been a one-point touch system eventually became the fully operational iPhone surface it is today.
In order to fully comprehend the tremendous impact the iPhone has had on the mobile phone industry, we must first understand how it functions. The surface of the iPhone fully operates via touch screen. There is no physical keyboard whatsoever. Unlike touch screens of the past, the iPhone relies on your fingers and not a stylus. Electronic devices that use touch screen typically monitor changes in electrical current. When you place your finger (or a stylus) on the screen, it changes the state that the device is monitoring. Most systems establish a baseline when you touch the screen. If you were to touch it again, it would create a new baseline. These kinds of systems would be problematic for devices that rely solely on a touch screen interface. Texting, for example, would not be possible on those types of devices if that were the case (Wilson & Fenlon).
Yet the iPhone is unique in that its interface is multi-touch compatible, meaning that you can touch several different points on the screen at the same time. An example of its multi-touch interface would be its zoom feature. In order to zoom in or out of a picture, you are required to touch different points on the screen and drag them in or out with your fingers. Its touch screen includes a layer of capacitive material that is arranged according to a coordinate system. It can sense changes at each point along the grid. Each point generates its own signal when touched, and then it relays that signal to the iPhone’s processor. The processor then uses software located in the iPhone’s memory to interpret the signals as commands and gestures (Wilson & Fenlon). The following illustration from HowStuffWorks demonstrates the iPhone’s touch sensing capabilities:
The iPhone’s processor and software are central to correctly interpreting input from the touch screen. The steps below demonstrate exactly how this happens.
- Signals travel from the touch screen to the processor as electrical impulses.
- The processor uses software to analyze the data and determine the features of each touch, including size, shape, and location of the affected area on the screen.
- The processor uses its gesture interpretation software to determine which gesture you made by combining your physical movement with information about which application you were using and what it was doing when you touched the screen.
- The processor relays your instructions to the program in use. It sends commands to the iPhone’s screen and other hardware. If the data doesn’t match any applicable gestures or commands, the iPhone disregards it as an extraneous touch (Wilson & Fenlon).
As I mentioned earlier, the iPhone’s user-friendly touch screen interface allows it to be fully functional, without the use of a stylus or keyboard. The only button it does have on the surface of its screen is the Home button. Pressing this button takes you to the main screen of the iPhone’s graphical user interface. From there, you can choose from the device’s four primary functions using icons at the bottom of the phone (Wilson & Fenlon). These functions include:
- Phone. The phone function operates as a cellular phone service, complete with a list of contacts, and visual voice mail.
- Mail. The mail function operates as an e-mail service, with HTML capabilities, as well as POP and IMAP e-mail access, allowing you to toggle between several different inboxes and e-mail addresses.
- Web. The web function allows you to browse the Internet using Apple’s Safari web browser.
- iPod. The iPod function does exactly what iPods do, which is play music and videos.
Additionally, other applications can be accessed from the iPhone’s Home screen, as it is completely customizable. The iPhone comes stocked with applications specifically made for it, such as a calendar, calculator, notepad, weather reports, stock quotes, and a camera function, which has evolved and improved over the years. Third-party applications are available for download, both free and paid, through the iPhone App Store. Applications can be downloaded over a Wi-Fi connection or through your cellular data network.
The original iPhone was available solely through AT&T when it was released, which caused many of its users to fault Global System for Mobiles (GSM) for the slow speeds that they had initially experienced. However, the iPhone currently uses both Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and GSM networks. CDMA networks include Verizon Wireless and the Sprint Corporation. Verizon is the largest mobile phone operator in the United States today, which supports the fact that CDMA networks are more prevalent in the US; GSM continues to be more popular in Europe.
The iPhone is the ultimate example of efficient convergence. The idea of convergence is essentially the combination of different forms of media and technology. The purpose of converged media is to create a single network or device that can carry out multiple tasks efficiently. Thanks to cell phone convergence, the iPhone functions as so much more than just a mobile phone. It is a mobile phone, the Internet, a camera, a music player, an alarm clock, a gaming console, a recording device, and a calendar all rolled into one.
Although the possibilities of the iPhone seem endless, it does have its limitations. As I mentioned earlier, the iPhone was only available through AT&T initially. It could be purchased exclusively from retail and online locations owned by AT&T and Apple. This of course, shut out a lot of potential customers unless they chose to switch carriers. By doing so, however, they would have had to pay close to $1400 for the phone itself, a data service plan, as well as the two-year contract with AT&T. The iPhone’s first model was also not supported by a 3G network at the time.
Another limitation of the iPhone is its lack of Adobe Flash compatibility. Apple never has, and never will, support Flash on any of its products, including the iPhone. This has been a source of criticism for the iPhone since its release. However, Apple has several reasons for its lack of Flash support. In fact, there is a section dedicated to this issue on Apple’s website that was written by its former CEO Steve Jobs in 2010.
Most technological advancements do come with tradeoffs, and the iPhone is no different in that regard. According to Steve Jobs (2010), the iPhone’s “revolutionary multi-touch interface” is not compatible with Flash games or websites because “Flash was designed for PCs using mice,” and “not for touch screens using fingers.” So iPhone users are technically trading Flash for an innovative touch screen. Another tradeoff would be the actual price of an iPhone. Upon its initial release, the price of the now-discontinued 4GB iPhone was $499, which is approximately $300 more than the average cost of a smartphone in 2007.
As with any new technology or invention, there is always the possibility of unintended consequences. One such consequence of toting the iPhone, as with any mobile device, is frequent exposure to cell phone radiation. According to research by the World Health Organization, sufficient evidence has been found to categorize exposure to cell phone use as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Dellorto, 2011). We are the first generation to carry mobile phones with us as often as we do. Therefore, we will be the first generation to experience its side effects.
Another unintended consequence of the iPhone, as well as other smartphones, is that there is the potential to create a lazy society in general. Keeping a smartphone with you at all times may seem beneficial, and it is – to an extent. It’s as if we have a personal computer or a mini-encyclopedia with us all the time. If we want information, all we have to do is type it into our devices, and the information will be retrieved almost instantly. But what does that do to us in terms of creativity, motivation, and ambition? Will we be less likely to spend the time it takes to learn and develop expertise in one subject? Or will we be satisfied knowing a little bit about everything? Of course, time will tell. My experience with smartphones has been a positive one thus far, but the lack of face-to-face social interaction, and the fact that so many people can do so many things with ease is somewhat frightening. We rely on our smartphones so much, that I’m afraid the future generation – the one that knows nothing but smartphone use – will not have the social skills or the drive to create a better society.
Furthermore, research has shown that teenagers who own smartphones are more likely to engage in risky behaviors and are more sexually active than those who don’t (Dotinga, 2012). In a study done by Eric Rice, an assistant professor at the University of California’s School of Social Work, it was found that a total of 47 percent of teens who owned a smartphone said they were sexually active, compared to only 35 percent of those without smartphones (Kuhn 2012). The issue of bullying is also prevalent in today’s society, and some believe that the smartphone can be used as a tool to make it easier to bully others. Others believe that teens can be bullied if they don’t own a smartphone. However, it’s important to remember that it must be a difficult decision for parents to decide whether or not to give their children these devices. In the past, researchers had made similar claims about teenagers who owned cars, and as we know, cars (and smartphones) do serve good purposes as well.
The iPhone has a plethora of great features and special qualities that let it stand out among other smartphones. Initially, the iPhone’s most unique quality was its innovative touch screen. It also lacks a user-changeable battery or memory card, unlike most smartphones (West & Mace, 2010). Today, the iPhone has Siri. Apple’s voice-recognition software, Siri, acts as an electronic intelligent personal assistant, and is meant to adapt to its user’s preferences over time to deliver more personalized results. Siri was introduced in the iPhone 4S model, and is activated by continuously pressing the Home button on the surface of the phone. Although some other smartphones do offer voice-activated commands, none are nearly as advanced as Siri, which can interact with you and even update your social networking statuses for you (Haury, 2012).
With the invention of the iPhone came the remedial technologies that have been created for and because of it. One such technology is the iPod Touch. Apple released the iPod Touch shortly after the release of the original iPhone as a sort of reduced-capability iPhone for those who wanted the iPhone but either could not or would not switch carriers to AT&T. The iPod Touch did almost exactly the same things that the iPhone did, except that it did not include a camera or the ability to make phone calls. Apple also opened an online marketplace called the iPhone App Store, in which iPhone users could buy or download supplemental applications for their phones directly from Apple. The store was a huge success, and many other smartphone makers followed suit opening their own mobile marketplaces.
Before Apple allowed third party applications, many angry but tech-savvy developers saw an opportunity to create applications to “jailbreak” the iPhone. The purpose of jailbreaking an iPhone is to be able to add applications or modifications that have not been approved by Apple, or that are unavailable in the App Store. The risk involved is that once a phone is jailbroken, it is no longer under warranty or supported by Apple. It is actually illegal to jailbreak your phone in order to unlock it. Unlocking your iPhone would be done in order to switch carriers, and as of 2013, it is illegal to use a third-party unlock vendor to do so (Heath, 2013). One such application, JailbreakMe, was created by developers and released as a series of tools to unlock the device, taking advantage of flaws that are in the Safari browser. Apple is aware of the malicious attempts to hack into their devices, and while they’ve released software updates to fix the flaws in their browser, hackers are always looking for new ways to attack any flaws in the operating system. However, Apple products are known for being less susceptible to the viruses that plague Windows-based operating systems and it often makes free security updates available to its users (Apple).
Since its original release, Apple has introduced several different models of the iPhone, evolving and improving its product every single time. The first and most marked improvement of all, most would agree, is the allowance of third party applications. At a conference for application developers, Steve Jobs unveiled the 3G iPhone, which was the first model of the iPhone to act as an application platform, encouraging developers to create content for it for free by using a Software Development Kit (SDK) and allowing users to run and load such content. Some of the new applications that became available when Apple opened up development for the iPhone take advantage of the device’s accelerometer feature, which lets the operating system know how to change the orientation of the image on the screen. Games like Super Monkey Ball let the player control the game character by tilting the phone in different ways (Wilson & Fenlon). It was at this point that the iPhone also gained recognition in the gaming world.
The iPhone has also become faster since its initial release. Apple now offers more storage space on the iPhone than it did in the beginning. Evolved features include an 8megapixel camera with panoramic capabilities, video recording, and a Global Positioning System, or GPS. Hardware has been updated since the first model as well, including multi-function buttons on the side of the phone for volume and standby. The phone has become more human too, because of Siri and its ability to adapt to user preferences.
The iPhone’s early strengths and weaknesses left room in the market for competition from hardware companies that had already begun research and development on touch screen phones. Asian manufacturers, such as Samsung and LG, were among the first to offer the iPhone major competition. Due to the iPhone’s initial “weakness” in partnering solely with one operator, phones like the LG Voyager and the HTC G1 from T-Mobile were heavily promoted for their similar qualities. Verizon also tried to compete with Apple on its music distribution platform iTunes, with Verizon VCast. Although Verizon’s VCast became the largest operator-specific music store in the US, its downloads (and sales) paled in comparison to iTunes. Nokia’s Ovi, which was Nokia’s own content distribution website, tried to compete with the iTunes store as well, but failed shortly after its launch in 2009. Operators found that their pricing power was limited due to consumer expectations set by Apple’s iTunes (West & Mace, 2010). Currently, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the Apple iPhone 5 both include a high-resolution display, although the screen on the S4 is slightly bigger. The iPhone 5 also competes with the HTC One in that the cameras on both devices are of the same quality, but both lack a “microSD” slot for storage expansion.
Understanding the iPhone’s success depends heavily on understanding its emergence onto the mobile phone market. When Apple introduced the iPhone to the market in 2007, the company answered a problem that mobile phone industry had been trying to figure out a solution for since the mid-1990s. The problem mobile phone companies were facing at the time was creating a “mobile internet” that didn’t exist yet. Instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, so to speak, Apple decided to create a mobile phone that would be able to wirelessly connect to the Internet the way it was – and to make it look good doing so, while integrating and promoting their own software such as iTunes. As former Apple CEO Steve Jobs said three weeks before the initial release of the iPhone, “You’ve used the Internet on your phone, it’s terrible! You get the baby Internet, or the mobile Internet – people want the real Internet on their phone. We are going to deliver that.” Research by West and Mace (2010) supports the fact that with its iPhone, Apple rapidly gained smartphone market share while spurring widespread adoption of mobile data services in the United States. According to Nielsen, Apple currently controls 28 percent of the market (Wilson & Fenlon).
The concept of an Internet-enabled mobile device came about as early as the 1970s. The digital convergence between communications and computing was inevitable. During the 80s and 90s, key aspects of the convergence idea were further developed by computer scientist Nicholas Negroponte and Apple’s former CEO John Sculley (West & Mace, 2010). By the late 90s, the idea had been fully adopted and called the “smartphone” in the mobile phone market. The earliest smartphones were essentially PDAs (personal digital assistants) that could make calls, but they were heavy and limited by the hardware that was available at the time – two things that were not conducive to mobile technology. The Nokia 9000 emerged in 1997, and seemed to resemble what users and providers wanted out of a convergence device, but it was still not efficient as a complete device, with gaming and entertainment capabilities. During the iPhone’s development in 2005, Motorola launched an entertainment-compatible phone with iPod capabilities licensed by Apple, but critics say it was destined to fail because of the song cap Apple had placed on it to avoid eating into iPod sales.
The iPhone changed the face of the mobile phone market as we know it. While smartphones had existed before the iPhone, Apple’s focus on touch controls, as I mentioned earlier, pushed the industry in a new direction (Wilson & Fenlon). In 2007, it was the world’s first completely human touch screen mobile smartphone and soon rendered PDAs obsolete. However, in the days immediately following its initial release, users and reviewers criticized some of the iPhone’s features, which included slow browsing speeds and difficulty using the virtual keyboard. In some cases, Apple’s iPhone received even more attention for what it couldn’t do rather than its wide range of features (Wilson & Fenlon). At first, the iPhone didn’t offer MMS (multimedia messaging) to its users, even though it is a common feature on some of the most basic mobile phones. It took two years for Apple to integrate MMS and a cut and paste feature into the iPhone. Despite all of the difficulties, Apple sold its millionth iPhone in September 2007 – nine months after Apple iPhone was introduced to the world and only three months after the very first iPhone was shipped.
The iPhone itself has evolved since its release in 2007. The evolution started in June 2008, when Steve Jobs announced the release of the 3G iPhone. The annual timeline below further demonstrates each release of the iPhone as well as the improvements and additions that were made to them, in addition to those mentioned earlier.
- 2008: The iPhone 3G was released with only minor changes to its physical design. The phone was sleeker, and the back of it was not silver anymore. It was available in 8 and 16GB. Those who bought the 16GB model had the option of choosing either a black or white plastic back on their phones, whereas the 8GB version was only available in black. The iPhone had a GPS receiver as well. The only drawback was that GPS devices seemed to drain batteries quickly because of the constant receiving of satellite signals. At this point, the iPhone was able to be synchronized with Microsoft Outlook accounts. This feature made the iPhone more competitive with other enterprise smartphones, allowing businesses to keep executives and employees connected. And for the first time ever, the Apple iPhone allowed third party applications, encouraging developers to create content for it. In addition to the existing accelerometer – a feature that controls the orientation of the screen – developers were prompted to create gaming applications for the iPhone 3G, in which the player would be able to control the game by tilting the phone itself in different directions.
- 2009: The iPhone 3GS was released as a faster alternative, with the ‘S’ standing for ‘speed’. It was immediately available with more storage space, including a 32GB model. All versions were available in white or black. The camera was improved, allowing for video recording. The iPhone also included voice control, a compass, and an oleophobic screen, which was meant to repel oil and stop smudging. Tethering, or using your phone as a modem, was also made available to those whose cell phone carriers allowed the service. Although these features were a marked improvement, many other smartphones had already included some of these features.
- 2010: The iPhone 4 was the first model to have a flat back, instead of the usual curved back design of its predecessors. It had two cameras, one in the front and one in the back, and could capture 5-megapixel pictures and 720p video. The new phone also included a new application called FaceTime, which allowed iPhone users to make video calls. The iPhone 4 was the first iPhone to have more than one button, although the buttons were located around the edge of the phone. The buttons acted as an on/off switch and controlled volume. The iPhone 4 had a retina display as well, which gave the screen a 960 by 640 pixel resolution.
- 2011: The iPhone 4S was released shortly after the death of Steve Jobs, who was an integral part of the development of the iPhone. However, he made sure that it included a faster processor, an 8 megapixel camera, and Siri, a new voice assistant software program that’s integrated into the phone.
- 2012: The most recent iPhone available today is the iPhone 5. It was released as the “thinnest, lightest, fastest iPhone ever” by Apple. It includes a larger display, a faster chip, the latest wireless technology, and an 8MP iSight camera, which allows for panoramic photos. Apple also boasts enhanced audio, with the Apple EarPods, which can now be plugged in to the bottom of the phone. One of its tradeoffs is the new power adapter, which is also different in that it’s reversible. This new adapter is called the Lightning connector (Apple).
The photo below illustrates each generation of the iPhone, starting with the very first generation on the far left, and the newest one to the far right.
Apple had long been a company that used its software skills to distinguish its personal computers from competitors. It was consistent in using end-to-end systems design to create and capture value (West & Mace, 2010). The emergence of the iPhone was a reflection of Apple’s systems approach, maintain control over hardware, software, music content, and distribution. The iPhone was revolutionary from the beginning, and it didn’t take long for it to gain some competition. By 2008 — just one year after the initial release of the iPhone — the makers of BlackBerry, Research in Motion, had some of its features implemented in the release of the company’s BlackBerry 9530 “Storm” which boasted a slightly larger touchscreen. Since then, other companies have tried to match the success of Apple’s iPhone by implementing some of its features.
Although many smartphones do currently share similar features, very few have come close to reaching the same level of success as the iPhone. RIM’s BlackBerry line, for instance, has been in steady decline for years since the emergence of Apple’s iPhone (Wilson & Fenlon). However, many speculate that because of its open source operating system, Google Android has given Apple its most serious competition. An open source operating system like Android, allows practically anyone to its source code in order to create applications that could be beneficial to a smartphone’s users. While Google’s Android does control 39 percent of the smartphone market in the United States — with popular devices from Samsung, HTC, Motorola, and LG to name a few — that 39 percent is spread out over many devices and manufacturers. Apple, on the other hand, reaps all the rewards from its iPhone sales (Wilson & Fenlon).
As of 2013, the most recent model available from Apple is its iPhone 5. The newest iPhone’s biggest competition is Samsung’s Galaxy S4, which runs on an Android operating system designed by Google. The two companies have become fierce competitors in the media within the last two years, and many attribute it to Samsung’s aggressive marketing. Samsung has continuously poked fun at Apple’s products and customers, criticizing iPhone fans for waiting on long lines to purchase it each time a new model is released. However, the iPhone continues to outsell the Galaxy S4. While Samsung has a host of other mobile phones, Apple’s iPhone alone consistently beats its competition in number of sales. According to research firm Strategy Analytics, the iPhone 5 was still the best-selling smartphone worldwide during the fourth quarter of 2012; Apple shipped 27.4 million phones and Samsung 15.4 million (Stern, 2013).
The business model Apple used to distribute the iPhone was just as revolutionary as the iPhone itself. As I mentioned earlier, the iPhone was available in the beginning solely through AT&T and Apple retailers. It was a smart move and profitable for both parties. During the iPhone’s development in 2005, Apple began a bidding war between AT&T and Verizon for sole distribution of its product. Although Apple hadn’t previously been in the mobile phone market, it was able to use its reputable name and iPod market position to negotiate leverage (West & Mace). This approach guaranteed revenue to AT&T through new subscribers and their purchase of data service plans. Apple made its profit through this shared revenue business model, which also guaranteed the company ongoing subscriber revenues, earning it approximately 40 percent of the gross monthly service charge.
Apple has since allowed the sale and distribution of the iPhone to multiple phone companies and retailers, expanding its market reach. Due to the increase in demand, the company has come under fire for its use of Chinese labor. Americans feel as though they’ve lost the job opportunities to cheap Chinese labor. Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturer, has been blamed for the suicides and riots of workers in the factories the company operates. It’s been reported that low wages and poor working conditions have caused these conflicts, just so that Foxconn is able to deliver Apple’s product as quickly as possible.
Apple has also had other legal issues surrounding the distribution of the iPhone. The first legal issues arose when the company did not allow third party applications on its devices. As I mentioned earlier, developers often illegally unlocked the iPhone, which is in direct breach of the licensing agreement Apple has with its iPhone users. Another legal issue Apple’s had is with its competitor, Samsung. Apple has accused Samsung of copying the physical style and design of the iPhone. Samsung has repeatedly denied stealing the iPhone’s look.
In conclusion, the iPhone has become one of the most popular and successful modern technologies of our time. From the beginning, Apple started a revolution in the smartphone industry. From the design of the iPhone, to its App Store marketplace, Apple has always led the pack in terms of modern technological innovation. How the iPhone will affect our society long term remains to be seen. However, Apple’s iPhone will most certainly be an example of what technology can do and where it can go in such a short time.
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