Ten years after the introduction of Apple’s iPhone, and the broader category of smartphones, it’s worth stepping back to see what we have learned. As with most major technological innovations, it’s brought a number of collateral surprises about the rest of our world.
First, we’ve learned that, even in this age of bits and bytes, materials innovation still matters. The iPhone is behind the scenes a triumph of mining science, with a wide variety of raw materials and about 34 billion kilograms (75 billion pounds) of mined rock as an input to date, as discussed by Brian Merchant in his new and excellent book “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone.” A single iPhone has behind it the production of 34 kilos of gold ore, with 20.5 grams (0.72 ounces) of cyanide used to extract the most valuable parts of the gold.
Especially impressive as a material is the smooth touch-screen, and the user’s ability to make things happen by sliding, swiping, zooming and pinching it – the “multitouch” function. That advance relied upon particular materials, as the screen is chemically strengthened, made scrape-resistant and embedded with sensitive sensors. Multitouch wasn’t new, but Apple understood how to build it into a highly useful product.
I am notoriously bad with gadgets, and even my microwave oven confuses me. But I more or less figured out all the essential operations of an iPhone the very first day I got it. Without an instruction manual. Wasn’t it bold of Apple to sell it that way?
The iPhone also shows that China is a major innovator and has been for some time. Don’t be fooled by the common take that the US did all the creative design and concept work, and the factories of southern China simply perform assembly and lay on the finishing touches. The iPhone is possible only because China brought speed and scale to the production process in an unprecedented way. One of its innovations was building a technological and labor-market ecosystem where so many talented and hardworking engineers can be hired so quickly. If you don’t think that’s a major and novel accomplishment, try doing it in some other country.
For me, the most depressing lesson of the iPhone is that most people don’t care about the quality of their cultural inputs as much as I used to think. They do, however, care greatly about sharing culture with their friends (and strangers), and they value the convenience of consuming their culture, arguably to the point of addiction.
A few decades ago, who would have thought that the world’s major technological innovation would lower the average sound quality of the music people listen to? Yet that has been the result of smartphones, and plenty of listeners don’t even use earbuds. People don’t seem to mind the quality, because their phones make listening to music much more convenient. You can also share music more easily with friends, say by building a Spotify list or putting a song on your Facebook page.
How about watching a movie on a small (or, some would say, tiny) iPhone screen? A whole generation seems to think that’s fine, or maybe preferable. And to think I used to complain that even a large television couldn’t do justice to the works of such magisterial directors as Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and Francis Ford Coppola. That now sounds like the rantings of an out of touch, bitter old man.
And so many people read not only bestsellers but also literary classics on their iPhone screens, perhaps while riding the subway. No matter how you use your iPhone, waiting around just isn’t that bad any more.
The day the iPhone came out, June 29, 2007, I boasted to my wife that it would be one of the most important cultural events of our lifetimes, maybe the most important. I compared my purchase of one, which I wanted to justify, to going to see a “Don Giovanni” premiere in 1787. Perhaps I was right in my broader assessment, but I hadn’t realized that so many users would opt for a rather extreme bundle of convenience, sharing abilities and product quality degradations.
Finally, names can be deceiving. The iPhone isn’t fundamentally a phone, even though Steve Jobs himself thought that phone service was the killer app for the product. Instead, it’s an all-purpose communications device, music player, recorder, camera, map, adviser, software distributor and dating-enabler rolled into one. When Siri gets better it will be a companion too. As iPhones and other smartphones became more widespread, the number of phone calls I received declined. No other device has done more to make the phone less necessary. I’ll get your text or email right away.
Maybe that’s what I like about it most of all.