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The real innovation behind iPhone

2017-07-02 06:11

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Kalle Lyytinen

When the iPhone emerged in 2007, it came with all the promise and pomp of a major announcement by Apple’s chief executive, Steve Jobs, who highlighted its user interface and slick design as key selling points. We know now that the iPhone transformed the mobile phone business, the internet economy and, in many ways, society as a whole. But technically, the iPhone was not very innovative. Its software and the interface idea were based on the iPod, which was already reinventing the digital music industry. Touchscreens had appeared on earlier phone and tablet models, including Apple’s Newton. And top-line Nokia phones had more memory, better cameras and faster mobile connectivity.

What made the iPhone transformative was the shift in concept underpinning the iPhone project: Its designers did not create a phone with some extra features, but rather, a full-fledged, hand-held computer that could also make calls and browse the internet.

In the 10 years since iPhone’s launch, much in commerce and culture have changed. In part it is because the iPhone, and the smartphone boom it spurred, created a portable personal technology infrastructure that is almost infinitely expandable. The iPhone changed the game not through its initial technology and cool user interface, but as a result of its creators’ imagination and courage.

Inventing mobile apps

As the iPhone took shape, its designers were torn between making a phone or a computer. Engineers and marketing executives worried that the new device would kill the iPod market, which had driven Apple’s resurgence for five years. Nokia, the biggest player in the cellphone market at the time, had similar technologies, and also feared outcompeting its successful mobile phone product lines, which used a simpler and more old-fashioned software platform than that on which iPhone was built.

Apple took the leap by installing a fully capable computer operating system on the iPhone, along with a few small applications. Some were phone-related, including a programme for making and receiving calls, a new way to display voicemail messages and a system that kept different contacts’ text messages separate. Others were more computer-like, including an email app and a web browser. Of course, the iPod’s music-playing features were included, linking the phone with Apple’s emerging music ecosystem.

Initially, that was it for apps. But skilled computer engineers and hackers knew they were holding a palm-sized computer and began writing their own software and getting it running on their iPhones. So began the now ubiquitous app. Within a year, these apps were so popular, and their potential so significant, that Apple’s second version of the iPhone operating system made it easy, and legal, for users to install apps on their phones.

Shifting priorities

The fully functional hand-held computer changed how users and manufacturers thought about mobile phones. For all phone companies, software became far more important than hardware. What apps a phone could run, and how quickly, mattered more than whether it had a slightly better camera; whether it slid open or was a bar-style; or whether it had a large or small keyboard. The iPhone’s keyboard was on-screen and software-generated, making a function that had required dedicated hardware into one running on generic hardware and dedicated software.

At the time of the iPhone launch, Nokia offered about 200 different phone styles to meet the needs of its millions of users. There was one iPhone model at first. Since then, there have been only 14 major styles – now in various colours, not just the original white and black. This is the power of software functionality and related simplicity.

The importance of software on a mobile phone shifted the industry’s economy. Money came not just from selling devices and phone services, but also from marketing and selling apps and in-app adverts. App developers must share revenue with the firms that control smartphones’ operating systems, providing serious earning power: Apple holds about 15% of the mobile phone market, but reaps 80% of global smartphone profits.

Whatever the next tech game-changer, it is likely to have some connection to the smartphone. Even today, exploring virtual reality requires only installing an app and connecting a bit more hardware to an existing phone. Smartphone interfaces and cameras already monitor automated homes. Even as devices are developed to operate all around us, many will point to the iPhone as a conceptual ancestor and inspiration.

Kalle Lyytinen is an Iris S Wolstein professor of management design at Case Western Reserve University in the US.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.

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