The phone is dead. The iPhone killed it.
It’s hard to say when exactly the inflection point came. Was there was a single point in time that the devices in our pockets became computers first and phones as a distant second? Was it the original iPhone, released 10 years ago today? Perhaps it was the iPhone 3G, which added faster internet, or the iPhone 5, which supported LTE. Or maybe it was iPhone OS 2, which opened up the App Store for developers to create their own communication platforms outside of SMS and voice calls.
Whether it was a slow transition or a single device, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the iPhone has forever changed how people communicate by putting the internet at the forefront.
Looking back to the original announcement of the iPhone on June 29th, 2007, it’s easy to see how most people would not have predicted that the “phone” part was the least important aspect of this new device. During the keynote, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs famously faked out the audience by claiming that he would be announcing three revolutionary products, which he quickly revealed to be a single device. The first was “a widescreen iPod with touch controls,” the second “a revolutionary mobile phone” (emphasis mine), and the third “a breakthrough internet communicator.”
If you watch the video, you can see the first two so-called products get wild applause, while the third — the internet communicator — gets more muted clapping when compared to the long-rumored touchscreen iPod and Apple-produced phone. It almost seems as if the third “product” was added in simply so Jobs could have one more thing to neatly round out the list.
The original iPhone barely lived up to its internet-connected claim, anyway. There were no third-party apps and data was slow and limited to AT&T’s Edge network. Even the iPhone version of Safari, while miles better than any competitor’s internet browser at the time, was still a far cry from the barely indistinguishable mobile internet we have today. Outside of email, the iPhone was just a very good-looking phone.
But somewhere along the way, Apple managed to build out the iPhone from both a hardware and a software standpoint, to the point where Jobs’ prediction of the iPhone being a breakthrough internet communicator has become a reality. In fact, the idea of communication through internet, whether it be social networking or messaging apps, has taken over the iPhone much so that it’s come to completely subsume the music and calling aspects of the original announcement.
The numbers back this up, too. Data topped cellular voice service as a source of revenue for carriers back in 2014. Nielsen data from 2010 notes that voice calls have been steady on a decline since 2008 — right after the release of the iPhone in 2007 — across demographics, except for adults over the age of 54. The VOIP Report said last year that roughly a quarter of smartphone owners don’t even average a single call a week.
Now to be fair, the iPhone didn’t accomplish this alone: the incredible success of Android put smartphones in the hands of millions across the globe. But it was the iPhone that started the trend, that was the first device to truly put the internet into a mobile device for mainstream users. I may be on the younger side of the staff, but I remember memorizing phone numbers to call friends on my family’s landline. I also recall the moment of panic when I accidentally hit the “internet” button on my Motorola Razr. In just a few short years, the internet has gone from something that was technically possible to have on a phone if you were willing to put in time, effort, and money to get a poor facsimile of the web to load into the core feature.
The actual ability to place phone calls isn’t the central component of the iPhone (or really, any smartphone) today. If the Galaxy S8 or iPhone 7 in your pocket magically lost the ability to make cellular calls overnight, would you even notice? Would it dramatically affect your interactions with family and friends? I can say for me that it wouldn’t. Apps like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram get dozens of times more use than the “phone” feature on my iPhone. And apps like Facebook Messenger or Apple’s own FaceTime service have brought calls via the internet. Even the dynamic of what we think of as cell service has changed. Before the iPhone and the modern smartphone, whether or not you had an EDGE icon on your screen didn’t matter at all, so long as you had bars for texting and calling. Today, if there’s no LTE, we basically consider the devices completely useless.
Looking back, it’s amazing to see how much things have changed in terms of the way we use our devices in the short decade from the original iPhone to now. And while it’s hard to say what the next decade holds for how communication will evolve, it’s fascinating to think about how foreign it may seem compared to how ubiquitous phone calling was 10 years ago.