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Apple gets too much and too little credit for the iPhone

Apple gets too much and too little credit for the iPhone

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Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

In the binary world of online communications, companies like Apple and Google are either valorized for their highly influential products and actions or vilified for the same reasons. Take the iPhone, which turns 10 years old this week, as the most obvious and polarizing example. You can either think of it as Apple’s revolutionary gadget that redefined an industry and most of our lives, or you can deem it to be the overhyped foam atop the more democratic and important Google Android wave. I think there’s truth to both perspectives, but more interesting to me are the nuances and shades of gray in between the extremes.

Apps, apps, apps

For a great many people, the iPhone has served as the physical conduit of a revelatory technological experience. My first taste of that came in 2009 when I first used Google Maps (then known as just Maps) and Safari on the iPhone 3GS. The fluidity of scrolling and navigating in both was so far ahead of any other phone I’d tried up to that point that I had to question why we even bothered to review other phones.

Ask others about their most memorable, pleasant, or addictive phone experience and you’ll hear many familiar names: Angry Birds and Clash of Clans, Instagram and Instapaper, WhatsApp and Snapchat, Netflix and Spotify, Infinity Blade and Monument Valley, and, of course, Twitter and Facebook. The iPhone played a pivotal role in either giving those apps a start or popularizing them, but all of those are third-party apps. Apple made the App Store, but didn’t make the app revolution. Tweetie gave the world the pull-to-refresh action, Instagram taught us to love squares, Foursquare made us neurotic about "checking in," and Google engineers made YouTube as addictive on mobile devices as on the web.

When I look at the iPhone as a phenomenon and an influence of my life, what stands out are not the glints of sunlight reflecting off its chamfered metal edges, but the glorious apps running on it. It’s those late-night Telegram messages from a distant friend, or the unfinished digital copy of Robinson Crusoe in my Kindle library that I nibble at on commutes into town. If the iPhone had been just a great slice of hardware, a beautifully arranged sculpture made of silicon, aluminum, and glass, it’d have been pretty, but it wouldn’t have mattered anywhere near as much as it does. The iPhone has defined the best practices in mobile computing — and even influenced much of modern thinking about desktop software design — because of the software that has been created to make the most of its capabilities.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help

The other reason why we can’t simply crown Apple as the omnipotent creator of everything good about the iPhone is that this device is the indirect product of many other companies’ successes and failures. The iPhone’s camera involves a lot of Apple’s own engineering ingenuity, but it also builds on the work of others who came before it, and it’s now literally being worked on by Nokia’s former camera experts.

Without ARM, the company responsible for the blueprints of almost all mobile processors, could the iPhone have been as efficient as it is today? Without Imagination Technologies doing the graphics, could Apple’s phone have been as smooth and responsive? How about without Samsung memory and LG displays? Apple is working to eliminate its reliance on external suppliers and technology providers as much as it possibly can, but the iPhone’s grand history simply couldn’t have happened without those relationships.

Apple is famously regarded as being slow to embrace new technologies, which some attribute to arrogance and others to an abundance of caution. Whatever the case, that leaves plenty of room for less circumspect rivals to rush in and suffer the trials of releasing technology early. Whether it’s Samsung’s Galaxy Round, HTC’s EVO 3D, Sony’s 4K Xperia Z5, or LG’s modular G5, whenever Apple has needed someone to test-drive a new innovation on the real-world consumer market, there’s been an Android competitor willing to try. The iPhone’s success is built, in part, on all the little and large failures of Apple’s competitors (which it has also, no doubt, contributed to as well).

I note all of this simply to illustrate that no success is ever the outcome of just one person or company’s efforts. As a linguistic shortcut, we may call Andy Rubin the creator of Android, but we must always remain aware that there were many others who built up that operating system, both within Google and outside of it. And so it is with the iPhone: I consider it the single most influential device of my generation, but I do not ascribe 100 percent of the credit for it to Apple. I see a creative and technological environment that has made it possible for the iPhone to turn from an idea into a reality, and I’m glad for it.

Credit where it’s due

Apple’s uniqueness isn’t in making absolutely everything good and right about the iPhone, but in creating the circumstances in which those good things could come to be. Like a state with a successful business-friendly agenda, Apple has stimulated and enticed developers to do all the hard work of seeding, diversifying, and expanding its software ecosystem.

It’s true that Apple has authored only a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million (at last count) App Store apps, but it’s no accident that those apps are there and not in, say, Palm’s Software Store. Apple had the advantage of already enjoying the loyalty of a vibrant creative community that had embraced the Mac as its development platform of choice, so when the iPhone’s App Store was launched there were plenty of curious and capable helpers on hand. Apple then provided them with great tools and an extremely consistent hardware platform to code for, which made development for iOS a lot more predictable and frictionless than on competing platforms.

Silicon, aluminum, and glass are materials you’ll find scattered throughout your kitchen; they’re abundant and there’s nothing exceptional about them. But Apple took those everyday materials and crafted beautiful objects of desire from them — long before the broader mobile industry woke up to the importance of materials and design. If you loved your iPhone in 2007 or in 2010 or the one in your pocket today, you can thank Apple for truly leading the way in industrial design.

The start of my career as a technology journalist coincides with probably the most competitive time in the mobile industry. Back in 2009, Palm, Microsoft, BlackBerry, and Nokia were all major players, and Apple and Google still had everything to prove. I look back on that time, and I see the same (or even greater) opportunities open to the incumbents as were open to the incoming contenders from Cupertino and Mountain View.

The fact that Apple succeeded in nurturing an app store into an App Store and turning an iPhone into just iPhone, no article required, is to Apple’s own enduring credit.

I still recall my friend and former colleague Joanna Stern recounting the tale of her mother praising the iPhone for having a calendar, which had been a common feature on Nokia phones since forever, but it was Apple’s device that exposed that functionality most readily. Then there’s the stickiness of iMessage, an Apple app that does something there’s no shortage of options for, but does it well enough to keep people glued to their iPhones.

The Apple difference is about doing things differently, not doing different things. As such, Apple invariably competes and interacts with, learns and benefits from, and collaborates with many others. The iPhone revolution belongs to Apple, but not just to Apple.