The iPhone turned 4 this week. And in that short amount of time, Apple’s smartphone has made a huge impact on the world as we know it. In fact, the iPhone is probably the most influential consumer electronics product ever made.
Here are the 12 ways iPhone has changed the world in only four years.
How iPhone changed the world
1. Changed the world of cellphone handsets
When Apple shipped the iPhone in 2007, its radical design and incredible popularity caused not a ripple, but a tidal wave of change throughout the mobile phone industry. One reporter covering Spain’s Mobile World Congress in 2009 wrote that “the name on everyone’s lips was Apple, despite the Californian company playing no part in the show…. It’s little wonder that many of the devices and services unveiled in Barcelona owe more than a little to the trail blazed by the iPhone.”
Specifically, the iPhone prompted handset makers to abandon physical keyboards in favor of all-screen input and make thinner phones with much better screens capable of multi-touch input.
2. Changed the world of software distribution
A casual observer might be forgiven for believing that Apple invented the App Store, or even cellphone apps. But cellphone app stores and apps had been around for years before Apple showed up.
However, before the iPhone, installing phone apps was relatively complicated and problematic. You had to find a good store online, download the app to a desktop computer, and follow the unique and often complicated directions for installation to the phone, which happened through the sync process. Each app maker had to be paid using PayPal or a credit card. Uninstalling apps was rarely straightforward.
The iPhone App Store made all this obsolete. Apple forced users to set up an iTunes account with a current credit card and password. Then, to get software, users just find the app in the App Store, press “Install,” enter their password and watch the icon status bar for evidence that the install was complete.
The iPhone radically improved the processing for discovering, installing, paying for and uninstalling software. The process was so seamless and easy that it forced Apple-style app stores on smartphone competitors and even desktop software makers like Microsoft.
3. Mainstreamed ‘jailbreaking’
Apple’s granting of national carrier monopolies in the first couple of years, as well as strong control and censorship of apps, legitimized the practice of jailbreaking — the opening up of an iOS device to remove limitations imposed by Apple.
Users jailbreak their iPhones to use them with non-approved carriers, to install non-approved software, and to enable capabilities that locked phones can’t do.
The iPhone’s popularity and long list of limitations made “jailbreaking” a household word. It also made the practice of jailbreaking widespread and accepted, even among novice users.
4. Unified music and phones
Everybody had been talking about integrating music player functionality into phones for years, but it didn’t catch on among the majority of smartphone users until the iPhone. Apple even made an iTunes mobile application for other handset makers like Motorola to pre-install on phones. But most people didn’t bother. After the iPhone, music on phones became standard for most people.
5. Made the world safe for software keyboards
Before the iPhone, the idea of using an on-screen keyboard on a phone or tablet seemed unimaginable. The biggest initial complaint with the iPhone itself was about the screen-based keyboard. Rather than giving users what they were screaming for, which was an add-on, peripheral or third-party range of physical keyboards, Apple deliberately made sure they were unavailable. If you wanted to use an iPhone, you had to use an on-screen keyboard.
Apple dragged the user community kicking and screaming into the future of keyboards. After a couple of years, everybody got used to the idea. When Apple shipped the iPad, with its much bigger version, it seemed like a luxury. And 10 years from now, when most computing is done with an on-screen touch keyboard, historians will remember that the iPhone made it possible by forcing the user community to overcome their resistance to the idea of an on-screen keyboard.
6. Addicted the world to motion and orientation sensors
Apple’s accelerometer in the original iPhone was something of an exotic novelty to many users. The current model comes with an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a compass built in, and thousands of app designers rely on these sensors to create really amazing effects. Some apps, like games, can use these sensors to create all kinds of illusions and innovative effects. Others, like Instapaper, use them for simple input (to scroll text).
Thanks to the iPhone, these sensors are now simply expected by both developers and users.
7. Killed the stylus as a mainstream input device
It’s hard to imagine now, but before the iPhone, most smartphones came with little pens for writing and pushing on-screen buttons. They were clunky, inelegant and easy to lose. And they still exist. But after the iPhone’s elegant touchscreen, styli on phones have been relegated to the periphery.
8. Opened the door for PC-to-Mac switchers
The PC-Mac wars have been raging since 1984. People tend to choose sides and stick with them. Apple, which had a one-digit desktop PC market share for most of its history, has always sought ways to get users to switch to Macintosh. Apple launched a famous TV ad campaign starring John Hodgman as “PC” and Justin Long as “Mac” with the explicit message that PC users should switch to Mac.
In the past five years, Apple has in fact made enormous gains in market share, thanks mainly to the iPod and the iPhone. These devices served as a kind of “gateway drug” for PC users to discover the larger world of Apple products.
The vast majority of both iPod and iPhone users were and are Windows users. These devices gradually introduce PC users to Apple’s way of doing things. They get people into Apple stores. The constant iTunes updates bring people to the Apple website. Eventually, some PC users make the switch, but after being softened by one of Apple’s mobile devices.
9. Shattered the myth that Japanese consumers only buy Japanese phones
The fourth-largest handset market in the world is gadget-crazy Japan. Before the iPhone, it was common knowledge that only Japanese companies could succeed in that market. Nokia spent a fortune trying to succeed in Japan, only to reach the 2 percent market share mark before essentially giving up and going away.
But by 2009, just a year and a half after Nokia left in defeat, Apple had acquired an astonishing 72 percent of Japan’s smartphone market. It turns out Japanese consumers will buy foreign phones — if they’re cool enough.
10. All but killed the mobile gaming market
Before the iPhone App Store came along, mobile gaming meant dedicated pocket gaming systems from companies like Nintendo and Sony. Now, the mobile games market is rising to new heights, and most of the growth is thanks to the iPhone. The stand-alone systems are no longer growing, as gamers and developers increasingly gravitate to the iPhone (and, to a lesser extent, the Android platform). Some in the industry even speculate that dedicated handheld gaming systems are on their way out.
When Nokia made a play for a handset that combined cellphone functionality with mobile gaming with its N-Gage gadget in 2003, a few experts thought the convergence of phone and gaming had arrived. They were wrong. Nokia’s phone was buggy, overpriced, clunky and ultimately rejected by users.
It wasn’t until the iPhone that cellphone gaming really took off.
11. Accidentally brought the world’s attention to the plight of Chinese factory workers
A recurring problem of abuse and suicides at some Foxconn factories where iPhones are manufactured has made the horrible conditions at many Chinese factories common knowledge. While the iPhone factories are far safer and more humane than most, the idea that the warm-and-fuzzy device you carry in your pocket may have been made by a worker driven to suicide has made the issue very real for millions of people. That, in turn, has driven improvements in conditions throughout China.
12. Launched the touch revolution
Computer scientists and user interface researchers have been working on touch computing for decades. And a decade from now, most computing will no doubt happen on touchscreens.
It was the iPhone that brought the touchscreen into mainstream acceptance and use.
The iPhone may be the most influential consumer gadget ever, changing the way phones work, changing the way people see the world, and changing human culture. Not bad for just four years.