Today in Apple history: Time crowns the iPhone 2007’s ‘invention of the year’

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TIMEcover
The iPhone was immediately recognized as a breakthrough device.
Photo: Time

November 1: Today in Apple history: Time magazine crowns the iPhone 2007's 'invention of the year' November 1, 2007: Six months after Steve Jobs showed it off, the iPhone becomes Time magazine’s “best invention of the year.”

The iPhone stands out from the rest of 2007’s gadget pack, which includes the Nikon Coolpix S51c digital camera, the Netgear SPH200W Wi-Fi Phone and the Samsung P2 music player. Remember those? (Yeah, we thought not.)

Viewed from today’s vantage point, Time’s cover story offers a fascinating snapshot of a time before the smartphone became ubiquitous. Read it and you’ll be transported back to an era when the world was still adapting to the new iPhone.

Much like the first-generation Macintosh, the first iPhone suffered from some flaws. People who bought it realized that a large part of its appeal was the promise it offered — and the opportunity to be part of that journey.

Don’t get me wrong: When I, and just about everyone else, first used an iPhone it became evident that this was exactly how smartphones should work. Just like the experience of using a graphical interface on a Mac for the first time, it felt like someone showing you the answer to a brain teaser. Everything became totally obvious once you saw how it was done.

The promise of the iPhone

Time’s article reflects this. It starts out by listing everything the iPhone is lacking, before concluding that — yes — it really is that darn good:

“The thing is hard to type on. It’s too slow. It’s too big. It doesn’t have instant messaging. It’s too expensive. (Or, no, wait, it’s too cheap!) It doesn’t support my work e-mail. It’s locked to AT&T. Steve Jobs secretly hates puppies. And — all together now — we’re sick of hearing about it! Yes, there’s been a lot of hype written about the iPhone, and a lot of guff too. So much so that it seems weird to add more, after Danny Fanboy and Bobby McBlogger have had their day. But when that day is over, Apple’s iPhone is still the best thing invented this year.”

Like reading predictions for a year that’s come and gone, part of the fun of articles like this is that they give us the ability to look back and see what Time got right about the iPhone’s future.

What Time got right (and wrong) about the original iPhone

Gushing about Apple’s new Multi-Touch technology, the magazine asks, “Can it be long before we get an iMac Touch? A TouchBook?”

As an interview with Jony Ive about the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar reveals, Apple never seriously thought about incorporating touch interfaces into Macs. Still, it’s hard to say Time was wrong to label “touching … the new seeing” when it comes to interface elements.

And Time definitely nailed it by pointing out that the iPhone isn’t just a phone, but a platform.

In the same way that the Mac GUI took the metaphor of the physical desktop and used it to create a computer environment recognizable to users, the iPhone essentially took a totally new device — a pocket computer that happened to make phone calls — and sold it as a phone (or, possibly, a phone crossed with an iPod).

The first true handheld computer

Time got this spot-on, calling the iPhone “a genuine handheld, walk-around computer, the first device that really deserves the name.”

The story also expresses excitement about the arrival of the App Store. It was totally new territory for most users. At the time, personalizing a phone meant picking a new polyphonic ringtone and buying a new case. As Time wrote:

“Platforms are for building on. Last month, after a lot of throat-clearing, Apple decided to open up the iPhone, so that you — meaning people other than Apple employees — will be able to develop software for it too. Ever notice all that black blank space on the iPhone’s desktop? It’s about to fill up with lots of tiny, pretty, useful icons.”

My final favorite tidbit about the article is the casual mention of Apple’s sales at that point, which Time says add up to “enough … that it’ll be around for a while.” That number? 1.4 million units at press time. Today, when Apple sells upward of 10 million units in a new iPhone’s first weekend, it’s a reminder of how far Apple has come.

Time still loves the iPhone

Time, for the record, didn’t stop by naming the original iPhone the gadget of 2007.

When the magazine crowned the 50 most influential gadgets of all time in 2016, the iPhone topped the list. And the iPhone X made Time’s list of 2017’s best inventions.

“Smartphones had technically existed for years, but none came together as accessibly and beautifully as the iPhone,” Time wrote in the 2016 roundup. “Apple’s device ushered in a new era of flat, touchscreen phones with buttons that appeared on screen as you needed them, replacing the chunkier phones with slide-out keyboards and static buttons.”

It’s hard to disagree with that.