Love rectangle

Apple’s iPhone, five years old next month, seduces us with the perpetual call of elsewhere. But do w

A man uses his iPhone, Washington DC.
A man uses his iPhone, Washington DC. Photograph: Getty Images

In the restaurant a young couple were staring downwards and apparently scratching the table with their right forefingers. You never saw people doing this before June 2007; now you see it all the time. Nor did you see people stopped in the street flicking at the small black (or sometimes white) rectangles held in their palms. And you certainly didn’t see anybody staring with something akin to love at a piece of glass.

“Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone.” That was Steve Jobs on 9 January 2007. He was speaking to an adoring and whooping crowd in San Francisco. Six months later, exactly five years ago, the iPhone appeared in the shops and more whoopers queued for hours, finally to emerge, dopamine (the reward neurotransmitter) squirting out of their ears. They were as much as $599 poorer but, for the moment, infinitely happier.

They didn’t all stay happy. In the cold light of day it was clear that the iPhone was expensive – on top of the very high purchase price were very tough contracts with monopoly networks, AT&T in the US and O2 in the UK – and, oddly enough, it was a lousy phone. Calls were dropped, sound quality was poor and reception capricious. There must have been dozens of better phones on the market. But Apple had spent at least $150m developing
the phone and Apple, under Jobs, did not make mistakes. Phone function apart, the iPhone worked like a dream and now Apple sells around 35 million phones across the world every quarter.

Competitors were stunned. Previously, mobile telephony had been all about the network; handsets were just cheap, gimmicky bits of plastic that lured you in. So, when the hype hit, companies such as Motorola and Nokia were baffled. And the hype was like nothing anybody had ever seen.

“In the last six months,” wrote David Pogue in the New York Times in June 2007, “Apple’s iPhone has been the subject of 11,000 print articles, and it turns up about 69 million hits on Google. Cultists are camping out in front of Apple stores; bloggers call it the ‘Jesus phone’. All of this before a single consumer has even touched the thing.”

Having been stunned, many of the competitors were all but destroyed. John Gapper of the Financial Times listed some of the companies seriously damaged by Apple, primarily by the iPhone – Microsoft, Sony, Nokia, BlackBerry’s maker RIM, Motorola and so on. Only Samsung, with its classy Android phones, now represents a proper competitor.

Of course, not all today’s scratchers, flickers and starers have iPhones. Many, perhaps more, would have Samsungs; a few would have Sony Ericssons or BlackBerries. But the point is they all now look and work like iPhones. There’s a picture on the internet showing about 50 pre-iPhone phones next to 20 post-iPhone phones. The old phones look like wild variations on some mutant alien-robot foetus theme; the new ones all look the same – simple, rectangular monoliths dominated by a screen.

And they all do a bewildering number of things from plain, old, vanilla internet browsing to real exotica such as identifying any tune you happen to hear (Shazam), locating other gay people nearby (Grindr) or making it easier to text when you’re drunk (iDrunkTxt). Jobs was right, he had reinvented the phone – not as a phone, but as a near-universal machine.

The iPhone was, in effect, two inventions. The first was a smartphone that was easy to use – a revolution in itself, as all previous smartphones had been very user-hostile. Real ease of use was made possible by the capacitive touchscreen, a sheet of glass with an electrostatic field that is distorted by the touch of a finger. By fine-tuning this distortion, each touch becomes a fantastically precise control mechanism. There are only four mechanical controls on the iPhone. The machine is the screen.

The second invention was much more revolutionary. It was the “app”, short for application. When it was first launched, the iPhone was locked – it could not do any more than Apple intended. But, on 10 July 2008, Apple opened the App Store, which allowed users to download approved apps to their phones. To date there have been over 25 billion downloads of more than 700,000 apps.

The deflationary effect on software prices has been spectacular. When apps were known as applications, they were expensive and came on discs in boxes with fat and incomprehensible instruction manuals. Now they are either free or ludicrously cheap and they don’t need manuals. A wave of geek creativity has been unleashed and, largely thanks to the iPhone, people now expect their machines to do pretty much anything they want.

There is, however, a downside to this. Apple is not a cause – though, listening to the swivel-eyed whoopers, you might think so – it is a company, the most valuable in the world. It is worth $550bn and its share price just keeps on rising. Investors expect this rise to continue and Apple must oblige. It must also compete with Google, Microsoft, Samsung and unknowable threats from assorted geeks in garages who want to change the world (which is how Apple began). So, too, must it sustain its bewilderingly high profit margins. To do this, it needs to lock in its customers – and that is exactly what the iPhone does.

“You come for the product,” says one analyst, “you stay for the ecosystem.” Once you have bought your iPhone, the easiest thing to do – and certainly the most seductive, thanks to Apple design – is to synch it with an Apple computer, buy books, music and movies from iTunes and apps from the in-house App Store. And you are further cemented into this system by the prayer meetings of the faithful at your local high street Apple Store, a retail chain that makes more money per square foot than any other in the world.

In this context, the iPhone can be seen as Apple’s primary and most effective weapon in the war to seize cyber real estate. Google’s equivalent weapon is Android, its mobile operating system. This is an entirely different approach. Android is free and used on many different phones. But it also has a lock-in effect because it draws people into the Google system, which makes money more indirectly than Apple. Google’s database is a marketing and advertising goldmine, and the people on it – you and me – are its product, not the phones. Happily, it is inaccurate. Recently I discovered that Google thinks I am much older than I am, which is why I keep getting ads for alarming medical goods.

Looking beyond corporate strategies, the wider issue is the effect that mobile communications and permanent connectivity have on the world. Apple did not invent either of these but it made them work. I know utter computer klutzes who could operate an iPhone within minutes. Furthermore, it is like a living thing. Martin Lindstrom, a branding expert, claims to have detected excitation of the “love circuits” in the brain while scanning the brains of people handling iPhones. Babies, alarmingly, have been found to become addicted to iPhones, and there’s an app called iGo Potty, which promotes Huggies training pants by calling the toddler when it’s time to go to the loo.

There is apparently no limit to the “livingness” of the iPhone. The latest iteration, the 4S, has Siri, which understands your commands and questions and answers in natural(ish) speech. Siri has a sense of humour and, for reasons unknown, a male voice in the UK and a female one in the US. He/she doesn’t yet work very well but it (much better) soon will and, as widely predicted, will probably become the control system for Apple television. Very soon we will be wrapped in robot voices.

Having made all this work, the iPhone poses the biggest question in the world: do we want this? That couple scratching at the table weren’t looking at each other and the people stopped in the street are not interacting with real people or the real world. Mobile connectivity perpetually seduces us with the call of elsewhere.

It takes us out of the moment.  “Is this a good thing?” I ask Siri. “OK,” he says, “checking my sources.” 

bryanappleyard.com