FIVE years ago, the makers of BlackBerry didn’t believe the iPhone was possible. According to a former employee, they held internal meetings on 10 January 2007, the day after the unveiling but six months before it went on sale on 29 June, arguing that Apple was fudging the truth: it was simply impossible for a device that was almost all touchscreen to work on battery power.
How wrong they were. Thanks to the willingness of Steve Jobs to push the boundaries of the possible, half a decade later Apple has succeeded in maintaining its lead. Every day of the first quarter of 2012, Apple sold 377,959 iPhones – more than the daily average of babies born worldwide over the same period. More significant still, Apple takes a massive 73 per cent of the smartphone market’s operating profits, according to analyst Horace Dediu of Asymco’s calculations this May. That’s thanks largely to mobile carriers willing to pay a fortune to provide the latest Sir-Jony-Ive-designed phone.
The triumph of the iPhone is a multi-layered business achievement, in which industrial design, technological envelope-pushing and a brilliantly-managed supply chain all combine to justify the device’s price. Despite the complaints, and there have been plenty, there have always been too many other reasons to stay with the iPhone. Limited battery life, especially of the early models, criticisms of handsets locked to specific carriers, even sometimes its limitations as an actual phone have not been enough to dissuade its fans.
But perhaps the real lesson to draw from this world-conquering gadget is the extent to which its success rests on providing a platform for other people’s creativity. Through its teeming app store, the iPhone has opened up the universal flexibility of computers for a whole world of developers.
The Swiss army knife of mobiles, it can be whatever you need: a notepad, a spirit level, a games console, a photo album, even a library. And if you need a service that doesn’t exist, you can program it and sell it on the app store yourself.
Steve Jobs sometimes said that his central achievement was to bring a liberal arts sensibility to computing, and the iPhone shows that as well as anything else. A liberating device, it blends ease of use with aesthetic elegance, making complex technology into a universally accessible experience. At the same time, it throws down the gauntlet to its users to engage with its computing power and turn it to the best uses they can.
Apple has put a marketplace of invention at the heart of its family of devices. The iPhone’s success is built not just on its own ingenious design, but on offering a platform where we can all use our imaginations to serve one another. Not a bad legacy for a five-year-old.