It’s not just the best-selling gadget ever created: It’s probably the most influential one too. Since Steve Jobs announced the iPhone in 2007, Apple has sold close to 1.5 billion of them, creating giant businesses for app developers and accessory makers, and reimagining the way we live. Millions of people use an iPhone as their only computer. And their only camera, GPS device, music player, communicator, trip planner, sex finder, and payment tool. It put the world in our pockets.
Before the iPhone, smartphones mostly copied the BlackBerry. After the iPhone, they all copied Apple: Most phones now have big screens, beautiful designs, and ever-improving cameras. They even have “notches,” or, cut-outs at the top of their edge-to-edge displays, where the phone’s front-facing camera lives.
And the iPhone Effect goes far beyond smartphones. In order to make so many phones, Apple and its competitors set up huge, whirling supply chains all over the world. Those same manufacturers now make the same parts to power drones, smart-home gadgets, wearables, and self-driving cars. They don’t look like your phone, but they might not be here without it.
FUN FACT: The iPhone was nowhere near finished when Jobs announced it. The phone Jobs used in the iPhone introduction was basically one of a kind, and the prototypes Apple was making at the time were so fragile, they couldn’t even be shipped from Asia.
Thanks to the iPhone and the apps developed for it, the world has reorganized itself around the smartphone, and a few people have started to wonder what the iPhone hath wrought. They worry that we spend too much time buried in our phones, heads down, ignoring the people and the world around us.
Social media, in particular, is being questioned. We always always knew that there was an exchange, that if we were using free apps, we were giving up something in return; but now there are concerns about where exactly all that data ends up. We’re becoming accustomed to a sense of undefinable stress, the feeling like there’s always too much going on and you can never get away even if you want to. The smartphone is one of the portals into this sometimes-dystopian data vortex.
But at the same time, there’s no denying that the iPhone has utterly transformed our lives—and that anything truly transformational will both solve existing problems and introduce new ones.
The Invention of the iPhone
Jobs announced the iPhone on January 9, 2007, on stage at the Macworld conference. He spent nearly an hour explaining the device, extolling the virtues of everything from a touch interface to a huge, desktop-sized version of The New York Times’ website that you could pan around. He even made a phone call (how quaint!) and placed what has to be the largest Starbucks order in history to an apparently real barista at an apparently real Starbucks. The whole event stands as a remarkable piece of tech-industry history, and you can still watch it all (on your phone) on YouTube.
The phone didn’t come out until six months after that initial reveal, during which time Apple frantically scrambled to turn Jobs’ demo into a mass-market gadget. When it finally hit stores in June, people lined up outside stores to buy one. Apple sold 270,000 iPhones the first weekend it was available, hit 1 million by Labor Day, and instantly captured the imagination of phone owners everywhere.
FUN FACT: There were two factions within Apple fighting over what the iPhone should be. One side favored the touch-friendly device we know now. Another, led by Tony Fadell, thought the iPhone should be just an iPod that made phone calls. Clickwheel and all.
The iPhone 3G, which came out a year later, may have been an even bigger deal. Apple’s 2008 iPhone included support for 3G networks, which offered much faster access to email and web pages, and it came at a much lower price. Most important, it added the App Store, which gave developers a way to build and sell software to millions of smartphone owners. The App Store will almost certainly stand as Apple’s most important contribution to both the tech industry and society in general, even more than the phone itself. Developers immediately began building apps and games that changed the way we communicate, work, eat, and play. The App Store made way for Instagram, Uber, and Tinder, and it turned the iPhone into the pocket computer it was always meant to be.
FUN FACT: It’s been 10 years since the first iPhone, but there have been 16 iPhones, if you include the Plus models, the SE, and the 5C. Which, we’d understand if you didn’t count the 5C.
From there, the iPhone’s story is one of evolution, not revolution. Each year, Apple made the phone bigger and faster, refining the product without changing the basic form factor or its most beloved features. It became more popular every time. From the beginning, Apple seemed to know the camera could be a smartphone’s best feature: The iPhone 4, with its selfie camera and HD video recording, was the biggest thing in cameras since Kodak. Ever since, Apple’s cameras have been among the best in their class.
Timeline: What Was New in Every iPhone
Jobs always said Apple had a five-year lead with the first iPhone. That turned out to be conservative—it took six or seven years for Samsung and others to make truly competitive phones like the Galaxy S and the HTC One. Then, after successfully copying the iPhone, they found their own niches. Samsung bet on pen input and big screens; Google fine-tuned Android and starting shipping its own hardware running optimized versions of the software; and other companies made great phones for a fraction of the iPhone’s price. The iPhone was the only best choice for so long, but others finally caught up.
FUN FACT: Everyone likes to argue about which iPhone was the best, but we know the answer: The iPhone 4 was the first time the iPhone felt like a precious object, a piece of jewelry. It had a killer screen and a camera so good it changed the photo-taking game forever.
In 2017, the 10th anniversary of that Macworld speech, Apple determined it was time to shake things up a bit with the iPhone. It released the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, solid but unsurprising updates on the same theme that was already established. But it also tried something different, with the launch of the the iPhone X.
Apple ditched the home button in order to make the phone nearly all screen and bet on facial recognition as the key to both your phone and a whole new set of apps and features. (Again: cameras are everything.) It also tried to bring augmented reality into mainstream existence while making your phone and data more secure than ever. And, as a bonus, the iPhone X had the craziest emoji features anyone had ever seen up to that point. The company’s approach was radical, but also, extremely Apple: It was attempting to usher its customers into a new technological world, but it would do it while emphasizing privacy, security, and features that keep you completely locked into Apple.
Despite its high price tag and speculation that the iPhone X’s later ship date would impact sales, it sold respectably well. In the spring of 2018, Apple CEO Tim Cook said the X was the company’s most popular device sold every week since its launch in November 2017. But the iPhone X was short-lived as far as smartphones go, because Apple pushed it to the background as soon as the iPhone XS was announced in September 2018.
The current crop of iPhones are, for the most part, iterations. The iPhone XS is the natural successor to the iPhone X. The iPhone XS Max has almost the same footprint as the iPhone 8 Plus, but is equipped with an edge-to-edge display (and, like the other newer iPhones, has no home button or headphone jack).
The new iPhone XR, which shipped a bit later this fall, is Apple’s attempt to appease customers who aren’t happy that the iPhone’s price keeps creeping upwards. The XR’s display technology isn’t as great, and its camera isn’t quite as fancy, but it also costs a couple hundred dollars less than the starting price of the iPhone XS.
Perhaps most notably, all three new iPhone models this year shipped with a new Apple-made mobile processor that’s pushing the boundaries of what mobile processors can be (and do). The A12 Bionic was the first chip available for the mass market with an ultra-efficient 7-nanometer design, and it’s the kind of technology that turns real-time machine learning processes and insanely sophisticated computer vision applications from a concept into reality, right on your pocket computer.
It’s part of a larger attempt by Apple—and the others who have been working on these kinds of mobile chips—to make smartphones smarter. The glass slabs, they’re all starting to look alike. It’s what’s inside them that will set them apart over the next decade.
Where We Go Next
Apple’s in a funny spot right now. Thanks to the huge, insane, impossible success of the iPhone—which accounts for more than half of the company’s revenue—Apple is quite often considered the most valuable company in the world (although Amazon and Microsoft have been vying for this position as well). Of course, it’s not like Apple’s in any danger as long as it’s sitting on hundreds of billions in cash reserves.
But there are plenty of questions about the long-term value of the iPhone, especially since Apple’s annual unit sales of the phone were effectively the same this year as they were last year. Apple has even said that it no longer plans to break out hardware sales by product category, since it’s not representative of the strength of the business. That may be true, but some have interpreted this as Apple trying to cloak what eventually may be a real softness in sales.
All of this just means that if Apple is going to stay on top, it needs to extract more value out of existing iPhone lovers—a strategy it has been aggressively pursuing. It has always billed the Apple Watch as something of a spiritual successor to the iPhone: It’s even more accessible, even more personalized, and could take over some of your smartphone’s basic functionality. Plus, it’s now a legitimate health tracker.
Same goes for AirPods, which are clearly destined to be more than just a pair of wireless ear dongles that come in a dental-floss case. A follow-up is rumored to be in the works for 2019.
Meanwhile Apple is hell-bent on replacing your laptop with an iPad, sticking an Apple TV under your flatscreen, and making sure you’re all-in on Siri and iCloud. It finally released an update to the MacBook Air this year, and while no single component in the new laptop was groundbreaking, it’s something that was almost certainly designed to keep Apple laptop lovers happy. And, Apple is reportedly working on software for self-driving cars and has said repeatedly that augmented reality is the next big thing; perhaps some type of heads-up display is in the works.
As it develops new products, Apple is also looking at ways to help users reset their relationship with their gadgets. It made the iPhone ridiculously enticing; now, it’s actually rolling out software tools so that people can better manage the time spent on their phones and maybe not wind up so addicted. The Screen Time dashboard in iOS isn’t a panacea, but it’s a start.
Whatever the next thing might be, Apple appears uniquely qualified to take advantage. Over the past decade, to keep the iPhone ahead of the curve, Apple has invested billions in building its own chips. Its mastery of its supply chain is unrivaled—it’s simply able to build more and better things than anyone else.
FUN FACT: In 2016, TIME magazine called the iPhone “the most influential gadget of all time.” Apple actually had three of the top 10, with the Macintosh and the iPod.
Apple’s smashing success proved to other big tech companies that the best products come when you make both the hardware and the software. Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon have all done the same in recent years, building huge gadget businesses on top of their software. The hardware space was once a teeming mass of startups, people raising money on Kickstarter or going to China to build their dreams into a product. Now the business runs mostly through five companies, all of whom learned how to make hardware by watching Apple.
The iPhone didn’t just make Apple a metric crap-ton of money: it reoriented the entire tech landscape, helping change the way we work and play. It helped create a new class of mega-corporation, started the world thinking about how everything else might change when it, too, was connected to the internet. Next, Apple has to figure out how the iPhone can improve a user’s life instead of consuming it, all while it works on the next crazy design that’ll change everything all over again.
Reviewing the First iPhone in a Hype Typhoon
WIRED’s own Steven Levy was one of just four journalists to review the original iPhone ahead of its launch. For the device’s 10th anniversary, he looked back at how important the device was, considered how outrageously excited people were to get one—and remembered all the phone calls from Steve Jobs, wondering how the review was going.
Inside Apple’s 6-Month Race to Make the First iPhone a Reality
When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone in January of 2007, he wasn’t exactly honest about the state of the thing. The phone Jobs demoed on stage barely worked, and there weren’t many others to speak of. For the next 24 weeks, three days, and three hours, Jobs and his team worked desperately to turn the iPhone into a real product for real people. This is the story of that crazy time.
1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?
The iPhone didn’t just change the lives of its users. It helped reshape the entire world’s manufacturing process, and not always in good ways. In 2011, we sent a reporter to China to meet the people who make your iPhones, and find out how Apple’s phone changed their lives, too.
The Hot New Hip-Hop Producer Who Does Everything on His iPhone
Steve Lacy made a track on Kendrick Lamar’s album, “DAMN,” and he did it all on his iPhone. We hung out with Lacy in a weed-clouded studio in Los Angeles, and watched him work in the same way as an entire generation of smartphone-owners: not with knobs and buttons, but with a touchscreen.
Review: Apple iPhone XS and XS Max
Our review of the latest model, the iPhone XS and XS Max. They’re not the most exciting iPhones ever made, but they’re definitely the best ones. If you look carefully, you can even see glimpses of the future.
Review: the iPhone XR
When it was announced in September 2018, the iPhone XR was the device that drew the most attention. Sure, the XS was the new shiny hotness, but at $999, maybe it was a little too precious. The XR on the other hand is a device that looks and works like a modern iPhone, but costs $250 less than the top model. So of course people were intrigued. It lacks some of the marquee features of the XS, but it’s still a damn great phone for the price.
The Shape of Things to Come
From The New Yorker, a profile of Jony Ive (sorry, Sir Jony Ive), Apple’s head of design and one of the people most responsible for how the iPhone looks and works.
Plus! The iPhone X and more WIRED iPhone news.
This guide was last updated on March 13, 2018.
Enjoyed this deep dive? Check out more WIRED Guides.