Behold: Today marks Year Five of the iPhone Era
Fire. The Wheel. Steam engines. Just trinkets
Apple has been credited with the first smartphone, with creating the mobile application business and pioneering touch interfacing. None of these things are true: but actually the launch of the iPhone, five years ago, was a much bigger revolution than that.
Apple's wasn't the first smartphone by a long chalk, and people (your correspondent included) had been selling mobile applications for many years, many of them based around touch interfaces - but we did that with the considered leave of the all-powerful network operators. Network operators called the shots and decided, sometimes quite arbitrarily, who would succeed and who would fail, and it's that impregnable edifice which Apple successfully challenged, conquered and dismantled.
These days the network operators are more-humble beasts, still powerful but fearful too, forced to innovate their business models and sign deals with companies they'd have considered sworn enemies in times past, if they'd considered them at all. That might have happened anyway - the technology was coming without Apple - but it would have happened a lot more slowly, and without the blinding white glare of Apple cool the network operators might have fought harder to hang on to their turf.
Before the iPhone was launched your correspondent predicted it would fail - believing that Apple's arrogance combined with operator intractability would cripple the launch. But operators (O2 specifically, in the UK) proved more craven than could have been imagined, while Apple showed a little humility by accepting a handset subsidy in exchange for MMS support amongst other things. But the damage was still done, the customers for content weren't with O2 any more - they were (and are) with Apple, and with Apple they remain.
Other manufacturers have gained from this rebalanced relationship too: no longer do they go begging to the operators in the hope of getting their handsets placed well or bundled with a popular contract. No longer must they submit to the pretence that the network operator actually had something to do with making the handset (remember the "O2 XDA"?). Now the makers let operators bid for the privilege of being a customer.
Apple may have tipped the balance a little too far in its own favour. The Fruit Factory's insistence on control over every promotional word has landed some operators in trouble (specifically when the word is "4G", though it was Apple who ended up paying the fine on that one) but given the overwhelming power the operators used to wield that's a small correction.
Marking the half-decade anniversary there's a lot being written about how the iPhone changed users' perception of what a phone is, and how computing could become pervasive, not to mention how well it might do over the next five years, but without Apple we'd still be using handsets and services dictated to us by the network operators, a shift for which we should all be grateful - even those of us who've never used an iPhone. ®