Today in Apple history: Apple buys ‘iPhone’ web domain

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iPhone SE 7
Do you remember when you first heard the name iPhone?
Photo: Sam Mills/Cult of Mac

December 14: Today in Apple history: Apple buys 'iPhone' web domain December 14, 1999: Apple acquires the domain name, prompting years of speculation that Cupertino is considering building a cellphone.

While the news generates interest, some take it as a warning sign. Apple only recently abandoned the kind of non-computer gimmicks like games consoles, PDAs and digital cameras that proved to be dead ends earlier in the decade.

An Apple phone could never be a thing, right?

iPhone: Another doomed invention?

As we see weekly with patents, just because Apple shows an interest in a technology doesn’t mean the company necessarily plans to proceed with it. This was certainly the case with the iPhone.

The journey from filing for a domain name to launching a product took the best part of a decade. (Apple showed off the iPhone for the first time in 2007.)

There was good reason to be skeptical. There is often a narrative suggesting that Apple failed to innovate after Steve Jobs’ left the company in the mid-1980s. In fact, the opposite is true: Apple continued experimenting throughout his 11-year absence.

Apple rolled out expandable Macs, revolutionary personal data assistant the MessagePad, videogame console the Pippin, the QuickTake digital camera and other products. Cupertino even entertained a proposal for a Planet Hollywood-style string of Apple restaurants.

With the arguable exception of the Macs (which nonetheless lost market share during the 1990s), none of these products captured the public’s imagination. They failed despite often being good products — far better than what other companies offered, in fact.

As a result, Jobs scrapped many of them when he returned to Apple in the late 1990s.

iPhone web domain and the Cisco battle

The name “iPhone” is now synonymous with Apple. However, “iPhone” was a 2000-era copyright owned by Cisco Systems.

The networking hardware maker acquired the name after buying a company called Infogear. Cisco used the name “iPhone” for its dual-mode cordless VoIP network phones. The name actually dated back as far as 1996, before Apple’s use of the “i” prefix for the iMac G3.

Apple went ahead and used the name “iPhone,” which prompted Cisco to threaten litigation. Eventually, they settled the case. Apple got to keep the name, and the two companies went on to work together. Apple later wanted to use the term “iOS,” which Cisco also owned. They reached a second deal. (This wasn’t the first time Apple paid for a name: Cupertino shelled out cash to use the name “Macintosh” as well.)

The official iPhone history

The official version of Apple’s iPhone history, as told in books like Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, starts around 2005. There’s good reason for this. With iPod sales skyrocketing at the time, this is when the iPhone became a real research project. That year, Apple teamed with Motorola to release the Rokr E1, the grandfather of the iPhone and the first Apple-sanctioned cellphone to run iTunes.

Jobs’ unhappiness with the results of that collaboration — and the fact that he went along with it in the first place — suggests that the dream of an Apple-manufactured phone was not something solidified in his mind until well after the 1999 date commemorated today.

Nonetheless, Jobs made several comments in later years that suggested he was busy connecting the dots about what a smartphone might involve. In 2002, for example, he said Apple had decided against building another PDA because PDAs would eventually turn into one feature in a cellphone, rather than standalone devices.

He meanwhile told the International Herald Tribune that “one never knows,” when asked directly if Apple would build an iPhone. All the time, Apple continued applying for trademarks in places like Singapore and the United Kingdom.

When did you first hear rumors about an Apple cellphone? And (be honest!) what was your first reaction? Leave your comments below.