Commentary: The iPhone took off because it came at the right time — a moment that may be impossible to re-create.When the original iPhone arrived in 2007, few people knew it would lay the foundation for the devices we now carry in our pockets each day. As the June 5 date of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference approaches, all eyes will be focused on whether the tech giant can re-create that impact with its first entirely new product in almost a decade: a head-mounted computer.
The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, nor was it the first mobile device to achieve cultural relevance as a status symbol. But it came at just the right moment, and there arguably hasn’t been such a perfectly timed tech product launch since. Re-creating that moment will be challenging, even for Apple.
The tech industry has evolved a lot since 2007, and so has our relationship with technology. Devices like the iPhone and the BlackBerry revolutionized the way we access information and communicate, at a time when the idea of constant internet connectivity was relatively new.
But the biggest new gadgets since then (think smartwatches, wireless earbuds) were initially useful because they untethered us from those phones, helping us better navigate the influx of alerts flowing from them. It took years for the Apple Watch to establish its direction as a health and wellness device, and I suspect it’ll similarly take time for the headset to find its niche.
The arrival of a completely new product — whether it be a smartwatch or a headset — doesn’t feel the same as it did 16 years ago. Nor should it.
For the iPhone, timing was everything
The iPhone debuted at a formative time for personal technology. As the internet became a more integral part of our lives, so did the need to take it with us.
The iPod, BlackBerry phones and other personal digital assistants (better known as PDAs) provided a way to keep us connected on the go as people recognized the need to listen to music, send emails, and manage calendars away from home. Shipments of handheld computers from brands like BlackBerry and Palm rose 18.4% in 2006, according to Gartner data reported by the Associated Press in early 2007, underscoring the demand for mobile access to email and other communications.
Then the iPhone came in 2007 and changed everything. Steve Jobs famously introduced the first iPhone as a phone, an iPod and an Internet communicator in one device. What made the iPhone so impactful was that those three things were already necessities in people’s lives, as the success of cell phones, the iPod and home computers showed.
In 2000, 51% of US households had one or more computers, and more than 40% of households were connected to the Internet, according to a 2001 New York Times report covering Census Bureau data. The US added a record-breaking 25.7 million new mobile phone users in 2005, reported InfoWorld in 2006, citing data from the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. And sales of MP3 players were booming in the early 2000s, as market researcher IDC reported back in 2002.
Clearly the internet, MP3 players and cell phones were permeating everyday life long before the iPhone made its debut at the Macworld conference in 2007. The iPhone was the culmination of these trends, showing how hardware was catching up to the way people were already using tech products in their daily lives. Though PDAs and early “smart” phones like the IBM Simon were a promising start, they were largely designed to be handheld computers with cell phone functionality.
The iPhone and other modern smartphones took that idea a step further. When Apple’s App Store arrived later in 2008, apps turned the iPhone and other handheld devices into Swiss Army Knives, expanding their functionality beyond the business-focused PDAs of years past. Today, mobile devices can serve as phones, internet and email portals, music players, mini-TVs, flashlights, wallets, keys and so much more, largely thanks to the proliferation of apps.
But it’s important to remember that even the iPhone wasn’t an overnight success. The original model’s price and initial exclusivity to AT&T, combined with the notion that Apple was a newcomer to the mobile phone business, certainly resulted in some skepticism about the iPhone’s future. Let’s not forget that the first model also had many shortcomings, as former CNET Senior Managing Editor Kent German pointed out in his review.
Still, the iPhone had a long-term impact because it filled a need at the right time — even if it wasn’t immediately accessible to everyone right away. Consider technologies that came before their time. Microsoft’s SPOT platform sought to turn everyday objects like watches and household appliances into smart gadgets — preceding today’s smartwatches and the so-called internet of things boom. The SPOT watches never caught on, thanks in part to their bulky design and the subscription fee required to access Microsoft’s MSN Direct service, as my colleague David Carnoy wrote in 2008, marking the end of Microsoft’s efforts in that area at the time.
An Apple headset has a lot more competition for our attention
Fast-forward to today, and the tech world is buzzing about what’s expected to be a similar moment in Apple’s history. The company will reportedly introduce its first mixed reality headset on June 5, which Bloomberg says will have apps and software features that span gaming, communication, fitness and more. Apple has a reputation for popularizing devices like the smartphone, tablet and smartwatch, so the expectation is that it will do so again for headsets.
That may very well be true. But making head-mounted computers as ubiquitous as the iPhone is a tough task, even for Apple. Once again, it will all come down to timing. From smartwatches to earbuds, tablets to smart speakers, there are plenty of gadgets in our lives designed to fulfill different needs — many more than when the first iPhone launched.
American households owned an average of 16 connected devices as of 2022, according to research firm Parks Associates. A Pew Research survey from 2021 found that 31% of US adults said they’re constantly online. A Reviews.org survey, the results of which were published this month, found that 56.9% of Americans said they’re addicted to their smartphone.
A gadget like Apple’s virtual reality headset, which will cost around $3,000 according to Bloomberg, will have to be very compelling to demand attention in a world already oversaturated with screens and sensors.
The iPhone may have revolutionized the way we communicate and use the internet. But we’re now in an era in which people are looking to disconnect from their phones more easily, and that shows in the new tech products from the last decade.
What do smartwatches, wireless earbuds and smart speakers have in common? They all allow us to access the internet without reaching for our phones, whether it’s skipping to the next track on your Spotify playlist, asking a virtual assistant for today’s weather forecast or getting a text message on your wrist. A mixed reality headset would seemingly do the opposite by further plunging you into whatever content you’re experiencing at the moment.
Even the developments in generative artificial intelligence, or AI, that can create content based on prompts, are designed to help us spend less time buried in screens. Google, for example, recently showed off a new Gmail feature called Help Me Write that can draft messages for you based on a quick prompt. Tools like these could shorten the amount of time we spend replying to emails and other communications, and could arguably be more impactful than new hardware. (In fact, if you’ve been following tech headlines in 2023, AI is apparently in the midst of its own “iPhone moment.”)
The slow-burn effect
In recent years, it’s taken longer for new Apple gadgets to establish a role in our lives, and the Apple Watch is the strongest example of this. When introducing it back in 2014, Apple initially positioned it as a personal timepiece by highlighting its stylish design and time-telling accuracy, before mentioning health and fitness.
But as the gadget matured and became more popular, Apple leaned more fully into health. It added ECG functionality in 2018 with the Series 4 model, enabling the watch to provide more data about cardiac health and signaling a turning point for the device. In 2019, Apple CEO Tim Cook told CNBC that Apple’s “greatest contribution to mankind” will be about health. Roughly three years after the first Apple Watch arrived, it became clear that health, fitness and wellness tracking would be the its most important purpose. The iPhone may not have been in everyone’s pockets right away, but its role as a handheld computer, MP3 player and phone was apparent from the start.
Is it the right time for Apple’s rumored headset? I don’t have the answer, and I’m not sure if Apple does either. But one thing is for certain: If the headset is a hit, its success will look a lot different than that of the first iPhone. We might not understand the headset’s role in our lives until years after its release, if the Apple Watch’s trajectory is any indication. That wouldn’t deem it a failure, it’s just a sign of the times.
The so-called “iPhone moment” may be behind us for good. Or maybe it’s just changed.