Last week the tech internet lit up with a collective nostalgia around the 10-year anniversary of the launch of Apple’s iPhone. The iPhone dramatically changed a lot of things, least of all the way we use phones. It changed the way we use apps and maps and cameras and social media. To call it transformative is an understatement, despite how glitchy the original product actually was.
But I think the more important iPhone launch was the launch of the iPhone 4S on October 4th, 2011. With the iPhone 4S came three features that were arguably more monumental than anything else we’ve seen in smartphones: iCloud on iOS 5; Siri, Apple’s personified artificial intelligence; and much better camera capabilities, including an eight-megapixel rear camera and 1080p HD video capturing.
iCloud had actually been announced in June 2011, but didn’t become available until later that year with the launch of iOS 5 on iPhone 4S. iCloud in its previous form, then called MobileMe, was by all accounts a disaster. Walt Mossberg said it was too flawed to be reliable, and Steve Jobs reportedly lambasted the MobileMe team for a botched rollout. With iCloud, Apple was once again trying its hand at wirelessly syncing an absurd amount of data across iPhones, iPads, and Macs. And it was a good move. iCloud is still far from perfect — at the moment I’m trying to figure out why the heck my iMessages are coming in out of order — but the cloud has essentially become the backbone of everything we do on our computing devices.
The iPhone 4S also ushered in the era of Siri. Siri was the butt of many early jokes, and five years later, Apple is in serious danger of being leapfrogged by newer AI entrants from Google and Amazon. But Siri was one of the earliest voice-controlled virtual assistants that worked well on a consumer product (Google rolled out voice actions on Android phones the year before, in August 2010, but Siri was meant to be an assistant).
It took a little while before the iPhone 4S’s new and improved camera, and all of its smartphone competitors, had a serious impact on the digital camera industry. But eventually it happened. In 2013 The Wall Street Journal reported that global shipments of compact digital cameras were down 42 percent in the first five months of the year, and that the global market was predicted to shrink to 102 million unit sales, compared with 144 million units in 2010. Flip video cameras, once a pocketable darling of the video-capturing world, were toast; Cisco had shut down Flip a couple years after its ill-fated $590 million purchase of the company, because who needed a handheld HD video camera when smartphones could do the job?
(Anecdotally, the iPhone 4 and 4S also changed my job: at the time I was a video producer on The Wall Street Journal’s live-streaming web shows, and we couldn’t get the phones into the hands of reporters fast enough, so they could send us high-quality video or Skype from remote locations around the world.)
The iPhone 4S wasn’t without its own problems. There were early reports of battery issues, and some users complained that there was no audio on outgoing calls. But the 4S managed to evade the Antennagate-grade fiasco that plagued the iPhone 4.
The 4S is no longer made or supported. It was, in the minds of a lot of people, just another iterative product in a decade-long series of products, an “S” year in a timeline when numeral changes signify something much more. But it was the gadget that planted the seeds of what we now all accept as common knowledge: that a smartphone really isn’t just a phone.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said Siri was one of the earliest voice-controlled virtual assistants and the first one you could carry in your pocket. It has been updated to reflect that Google had introduced voice control on Android devices a year earlier.