With the incessant, rapid change we all deal with daily in order to work in this crazy, wonderful industry, it is sometimes hard to keep a clear perspective on just how big a change we have lived through in recent years.
Anniversaries, such as last week's 5th anniversary of the introduction of the iPhone, provide a great excuse for retrospection.
Just five years ago, in the pre-iPhone era, the mobile phone world was a very different place. The iPhone triggered a massive, seismic shift in the mobile phone landscape, from carrier-controlled phones with lousy software and pathetic web capabilities to the smartphones we enjoy today.
In the pre-iPhone world, carriers — the companies that provide cell service — held the cell-phone hardware and software universe in a death grip. Afraid of losing control and driven by goals of maximum monthly fees and minimum customer support requirements, carriers had minimal interest in making mobile devices into smartphones. Just getting an app installed on a phone required a tortuous, usually unsuccessful process of working first with the phone manufacturer, and then with the carriers.
Apple wrested control from the carriers by producing such a superior device that the carriers were forced to accept it on Apple's terms. The carriers' role was reduced to that of hardware distribution and wireless connectivity, leaving the device and software innovation to Apple.
We are now accustomed to thinking of the iPhone as a platform, but it wasn't always that way.
The early iPhones were catapulted to success by the already soaring popularity of the iPod, making the music player Apple's Trojan horse for attacking the phone market. The early iPhones were great music and video players, made phone-based web browsing an enjoyable experience for the first time, and, yes, they were decent phones too! It was a powerful combination that led Apple to sell 218 million iPhones in five years.
A year after the iPhone's launch, the App Store made its debut, creating the biggest software market ever, at least in terms of unit volume, and the emergence of the iPad in 2010 made iOS into a broader platform. Apple says it has more than 650,000 apps in the store and that more than 30 billion have been downloaded—that's more than 4 apps for every man, woman, and child on earth.
Google, which seemed reasonably aligned with Apple five years ago, has turned into an arch-competitor with the Android platform. While Microsoft has had little success in the phone and tablet space, Google is playing Microsoft's role as the owner of a platform that hundreds of vendors can build upon.
Devices running Android now make up a significantly larger market than iOS devices, but no single Android vendor approaches the revenue that Apple earns from iOS devices. Now Google is selling Android devices under its own brand, making the company even more of a direct challenger to Apple.
The complete reshaping of the mobile device ecosystem in the past five years, with most of the parties who were leaders at that time being reduced to near irrelevance today, is truly stunning.
Thanks to the tidal wave of change that the iPhone triggered five years ago, we now have the opportunity to extend the web from something used primarily on desktops, to being an intimate part of the fabric of nearly everyone's lives through devices that the majority of people now carry. It is an extraordinary time, and the next five years are all but certain to see equally great changes.
So far, all iPhones have the same screen size (despite different pixel densities). If the rumors can be believed, we'll soon see both larger iPhones and smaller iPads. In time, I hope we see larger iPads as well.
It is less clear how the behavior of the devices will change. With Siri, we see the beginnings of the phone acting as an automated personal assistant—a trend that is likely to continue. Remember the knowledge navigator? I think we're just about there.