The Apple iPhone at 5: a potted history

Happy 5th birthday, iPhone! This is your life

The iPhone is five years old today. That's right: it was only five years ago that Steve Jobs turned the technology world upside down with his company's take on the smartphone. It feels like it's been around forever.

To celebrate the milestone, we've collected together your favourite memories of the iPhone. We also decided to put together a potted history of the best smartphone the world has seen. From the bombshell of the first iPhone to the commercial behemoth that is the iPhone 4S, from antennagate to the prototype leak scandal, here are the significant landmarks in the iPhone's amazing history.

9 January 2007: First-gen iPhone is unveiled

Speaking at the Macworld Conference in San Francisco, legendary Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in January 2007.

It was a classic piece of Jobs showmanship. "Today, we're introducing three revolutionary products," he said. "The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. The third is a breakthrough internet communications device.

"These are not three separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone. Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone."

It's fair to say that Apple generated a certain amount of excitement with the iPhone announcement. Some sections of the press christened the smartphone the 'Jesus phone'. But others were less impressed; columnist John C Dvorak pronounced: "Apple should pull the plug on the iPhone... [because it's just] going to be another phone in a crowded market." He's still justifying that call to this day.

29 June 2007: First-gen iPhone is launched

The original version of Apple's smartphone hit shops later in 2007: five years ago to the day, on 29 June. The UK had to wait until autumn for its own iPhone launch, however.

It was a serious success, with huge queues lining up at the flagship Apple Stores and widespread critical acclaim greeting the launch.

The first iPhone lacked many of the aspects that made more recent iPhone models great, such as 3G connectivity. But, like other great Apple products, the iPhone took ideas and technologies available elsewhere and combined them in one desirable, reliable product. By creating a good-looking and intuitive gadget that anyone could use as a mobile phone, web browser and MP3 player, Apple re-invigorated and redefined the mobile market.

Apple already had the mobile audio players market sewn up with the iPod, and moved its seamless music-playing ecosystem lock, stock and barrel from 'Pod to 'Phone. iPhone web browsing was a world beyond that experienced on other handsets, and the original iPhone introduced Visual Voicemail, multitouch gestures, HTML email, threaded text messaging and YouTube video. Indeed, even 'missing' functions such as cut and paste, push email and multimedia messages made it on to the iPhone after a couple of software updates.

And that's before we get to Apps. Apple's App Store is the home to a staggering array of software services, and it all started with this device.

Look around now and you'll see smartphones of all flavours that resemble the original iPhone. The principal innovation the iPhone brought to the world was its use of multitouch input. It's strange to recall that many sage observers at the time Steve Jobs announced the iPhone thought it couldn't succeed without a hardware keyboard. The iPhone had then, and retains now, only a handful of hardware buttons -- and now RIM is increasingly isolated in including qwerty keyboards on its BlackBerry mobile devices.

In our review at the time, we were surprisingly equivocal about what became an outstanding success. We didn't write it off, by any means, but expressed some reservations, mainly related to the contract pricing.

"There's plenty to love, and plenty to lament about Apple's new mobile. With its solid design and a beautiful, touch-sensitive 480 x 320-pixel screen the iPhone is beautiful to look at and a joy to use. Its browser, while not as versatile as the one on a desktop or laptop, is impressive and - at a stroke - has made all other mobile internet devices look antiquated and woeful. And of course, it works fine for making phone calls.

"But there is a dark side to the iPhone: activation requires signing up for an expensive 18-month service plan with O2, the UK's largest mobile service provider. Unlike most mobile phone deals you need to pay £269 for the phone as well as a top-tier monthly contract, and there is no mention of an upgrade offer when the contract finishes. To add insult to injury the 18-month contract may well outlast the usefulness of the sealed-in battery."

1 July 2007: Apple buys for a million bucks

A million dollars is nothing compared to Apple's iPhone revenues, and in July 2007 it was reported that the company had happily shelled out a cool million on the URL, which one Michael Kovatch had presciently - or luckily - registered in 1995. now redirects to Apple's iPhone page.

5 September 2007: iPod touch is launched

Targeting more budget-minded gadget fans and those who were wowed by the iPhone's apps, touchscreen display and interface without needing the phone functionality, Apple launched the iPod touch later that year. It would go on to become a vital element in the iOS ecosystem: a sort of gateway drug that would introduce dabblers to the many pleasures of iOS - still referred to in those days, and indeed until June 2010, as iPhone OS - and downloadable apps.

Steve Jobs once referred to the iPod touch as "training wheels for the iPhone".

10 September 2007: One millionth iPhone is sold

It took Apple 74 days to sell a million units of the first iPhone: a great and by no means universally predicted success, but one that would be continually outshone by later iOS devices.

9 June 2008: Apple unveils the iPhone 3G

In 2008 Steve Jobs established the tradition of announcing an update to the iPhone at WWDC, also held in San Francisco. As the name suggested, the new model differed most significantly from the first-gen iPhone in offering a 3G data connection for faster downloads. But it also saw external modifications, with a tapered-edge, grip-friendly chassis, a plastic back and black and white colour options.

11 July 2008: The iPhone 3G is launched

It was with the iPhone 3G that Apple also established its now traditional rapid turnaround from unveiling to launch, an approach that depends on the company's legendary secrecy. Barely a month elapsed between the 3G being announced and hitting the shops, in a multinational launch across 22 countries.

"If you've been cautious and waited a year for the second generation of iPhone, your patience will be rewarded," was our iPhone 3G verdict. "The iPhone 3G improves on the original iPhone's audio quality, offers access to a faster data network, and sports built-in GPS functionality. You'll also be getting in on the ground floor of the exciting new world of third-party software written for the iPhone."

8 June 2009: iPhone 3GS is announced

The 3GS - which is the earliest iPhone to remain available today, and remains popular - was launched with the promise of faster software processing. "The S stands for speed," said Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, at the unveiling event at WWDC.

19 June: iPhone 3GS is launched

Apple by this point had got its iPhone turnaround down to 11 days, although this time the initial launch encompassed only 9 countries: here in the UK we had to wait until 26 June.

In a follow-up iPhone 3GS review we wrote a little after the initial excitement had died down, we wrote: "The general consensus is that this time Apple has "nailed it". Despite concerns over heating, battery life, pricing and upgrade options, the iPhone 3GS has sold out in all territories.

"The iPhone 3GS is an amazing gadget. It's a portable computer with the world's most vibrant development base (65,000 independent applications covering every imaginable need, and more being made every day.) It's also an astonishing mobile internet device. Even with the absence of Flash it offers the best mobile internet experience around; and it's the best means of accessing email on the move that we know of. On top of all that it's the best music and video player on the market; with iPlayer web access, built-in YouTube, not to mention a host of radio and video applications it's a stunning portable entertainment system. It even has a really good built-in speaker. It's really not hard to see why Apple is sewing up this market."

The iPhone 3GS reportedly sold a million units in its first weekend on sale.

19 April: The iPhone 4 leak

The iPhone 4 launch saw the most significant break-down in Apple's normally airtight control of information. A clear seven weeks before Apple was ready to tell us about the next iPhone update, tech site Gizmodo spilled the beans on the iPhone 4, after having reportedly bought a prototype for $5,000. Apple had apparently lost the prototype.

What could have been a journalistic triumph for Gizmodo took a turn for the alarming when California police raided the home of the reviewer responsible (Jason Chen) and seized his computers, a response that was felt by many to be excessive. Gizmodo returned the prototype to Apple and charges against the site were dropped; the finders and sellers of the prototype, however, faced misdemeanour charges.

In any case a second prototype emerged in May, details of which were published on a Vietnamese website. Both prototypes were similar to the eventually unveiled iPhone 4.

Publicly at least, Steve Jobs took the leaks in good spirit, eventually introducing the iPhone 4's design with the words "Now, some of you have already seen this", to loud applause and laughter. But one would assume that it was a different matter behind closed doors at Apple; the next iPhone update would be notable for the combination of overwhelming hype and information hunger with total secrecy.

7 June 2010: iPhone 4 is announced

As was traditional by this point, the 4th version of the iPhone was announced in June at San Francisco's WWDC. This time around Apple completely reworked the physical design, introducing a flat back and stainless steel frame, and slimmed it down to 9.4mm thick, compared to the 3GS's 12mm.

"You gotta see this thing in person," said Steve Jobs. "One of the most beautiful designs we've ever seen. Glass on front and back, stainless steel around the edge. Precision on this thing... its closest kin is like a beautiful old Leica camera."

24 June 2010: iPhone 4 is launched

In an iPhone 4 video review, my predecessor as editor of iPad & iPhone User, Andy Penfold, commented that: "If you've had an iPhone before, the first thing you'll notice about the iPhone 4 is its Retina display. Apple has crammed four times as many pixels into the same size screen, and the result is really striking. Text is much better defined, and images look much sharper too."

But there was trouble in paradise. The biggest criticism of the iPhone 4 concerned the antenna, which had an apparent tendency to lose signal and drop calls if the phone was held in a particular way. Apple fans spent a few weeks complaining about this, until...

15 July 2010: Apple addresses 'antennagate'

Apple tackled the problem head on, holding a press conference where it argued that

a) Not many users were affected: "0.55% of all iPhone customers have called AppleCare with an antenna issue. The data leads you to the conclusion that it's been blown so out of proportion, it's incredible."

b) It was a problem that was common to all smartphones: "Phones aren't perfect, and it's a challenge for the entire industry. This happens to all phones. We haven't found a way around the laws of physics... yet." (Can I just add that this may be the most gloriously cheeky use of the word 'yet' in history?)

c) But Apple was taking the situation seriously: "We want to find out what the real problem is before starting to work on solutions. So we've been working our butts off to come up with real solutions. And today we want to share with you what we've learned."

d) One 'solution' was to change the algorithm that controlled the signal bar display, which Steve Jobs claimed was making users think there was a problem when there actually wasn't: "We had incorrect bars, so when it did drop, the drop looked far more catastrophic than it really was. We've released iOS 4.0.1, which fixes the wrong formula for bars."

e) But most importantly, the antenna problem (where it really did exist) could be alleviated, if not entirely fixed, by the use of a 'bumper' case. And Apple would give these away for free, or refund anyone who had paid for one already. And if people still weren't satisfied, they could return their iPhones for a refund.

Despite the aggressive tackling of the problem, the iPhone 4 is still remembered as the antennagate iPhone. But an exceptionally popular phone for all that. Apple pointed out at the press conference that it had sold well over 3 million iPhone 4s since it launched 3 weeks previously.

4 October 2011: iPhone 4S is announced

June came and went with no word on the next iPhone, and speculation went through the roof about what many of us assumed would be called the 'iPhone 5'. (It now seems unlikely we'll ever see a product with that name, if Apple's policy with the third-gen iPad is any indication.)

Eventually a press conference was called, the first iPhone event to be compered by Tim Cook, who had taken over from Steve Jobs after his health-related resignation.

The 4S was physically almost identical to the iPhone 4, but saw extensive incremental updates internally.

The new A5 processor was far faster and allowed for vastly improved graphics and gaming. (Apple claimed it allowed the 4S to process graphics seven times faster.) The rear-facing camera was significantly improved to an impressive 8Mp (although some were saddened that the front-facing camera remained a weedy 0.3Mp) and Apple added Siri, a voice-activated 'personal assistant' feature that turned out to be odd, quirkily humorous and not always practical - especially in this country, where local business search was among the features that didn't work. But it also caught the imagination and struck many users as something that would blossom in the future.

Inevitably, the launch was overshadowed by the death the following day of Steve Jobs.

7 October: iPhone 4S is launched

Just three days later the 4S went on sale in the UK and six other countries. It proved to be a curious combination: a disappointment to many hardcore fans (almost inevitably, after the degree of hype that preceded its launch) but a colossal commercial success.

Carrier AT&T reported that it saw more than 200,000 pre-orders within 12 hours of release. A few days later Apple said that over a million iPhone 4S units were pre-ordered in the first 24 hours. Compare that to the 74 days it took the first iPhone to sell a million, which seemed pretty good at the time.

"Following the launch the reaction to the iPhone 4S was less than impressed, with some analysis suggesting the new iPhone was a disappointment," we wrote at the end of the year. "However, any negative feedback proved unfounded as the iPhone 4S sold four million in the first three days following the launch."

Additional reporting by Matt Egan

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David Price

Macworld U.K.
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