What each model of the iPhone added to the game

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What each model of the iPhone added to the game

It was 10 years ago today that Steve Jobs announced the long-rumored iPhone to a crowd of tech lovers excited to a fever pitch.

We’ve already looked at the history of the iPhone going back to the Newton, but 10 years of iPhone have brought us more than a dozen devices, each of which brought something new and important to the smartphone game. And while it must be said that Apple was only occasionally the first to bring a given feature to market, it was often the first to have them widely adopted.

Let’s go through them, shall we?


Original iPhone (2007): A true touchscreen interface

Okay, so you could actually say that the biggest feature of the original iPhone was “existing,” but that’s kind of a cop-out. What really set the device apart, though, and if you recall, what Steve Jobs spent most of his time showcasing, was a responsive and intuitive touch interface.

Until the iPhone, touchscreens (on phones and elsewhere) were mostly resistive, requiring a stylus, and were generally rather ugly — our standards were pretty low because phones at that point were still mainly phones. The iPhone changed the game entirely, showing us that our smartphones could be beautiful and a joy to touch.

Honorable mention: The stainless steel back developed a lovely patina over time.


iPhone 3G (2008): The App Store

Some of you may be too young to remember before there was an app store, but originally the iPhone came with a handful of apps and that’s all you got.

The App Store did a few things. First, it put to shame existing mobile software stores, which were generally carrier-locked things where you could buy another copy of Bejeweled or a ringtone. Second, it established the iPhone, and smartphones generally, as platforms that could be made to do far more than just what they shipped with. Third, it created a marketplace for developers that has become a global business of its own, launching many a game and app with its own enormous effects.

Technically this isn’t a hardware feature, but the move to 3G is what made it possible; without high-speed data, how could you expect news and social apps to work?

Honorable mention: GPS built in meant people could now rely entirely on their phone for getting around — a blessing and a curse.


iPhone 3GS (2009): The rhythm

The now-familiar rhythm of a new iPhone one year and then a better version of that phone the next year was introduced with the 3GS, which at the time was a pretty underwhelming offering after the advances offered by the 3G over the original.

But in retrospect, this was a smart move: even today it allows Apple to save up its big changes to drop all at once in a new numbered model, while also fixing (perfecting, they would say) a design that already exists.

Similar to Intel’s “tick-tock” schedule, it makes things predictable for consumers, who don’t have to waste worry on wondering what the next model will be like. If it’s an even year, new phone — if it’s an odd one, improved phone.


iPhone 4 (2010): Eye candy

The iPhone 4 focused on looks — and how! It’s a shame our first encounter with it was the infamous lost-in-a-bar unit, because the 4 really was an incredible jump in both quality of design and technology. It would have been exciting to have it revealed with Jobs’s showmanship.

At any rate, the most lasting improvement was, of course, the Retina screen. I certainly remember the first time I saw one in person, and it was also the first time I was actually tempted (as a die-hard Android user) to switch. The Retina screen allowed for vastly improved type and interfaces, and made games and apps far more compelling. Until the competition caught up… there really was no competition.

Now we all consider high-DPI screens standard, but at the time, the clarity provided by the iPhone 4 was remarkable — and marketable.

Honorable mention: The design of the phone itself is, I think, the best thing Apple has ever done. They refined it later, but the 4 represented the biggest gap in quality between previous iterations and competing devices that I can remember.


iPhone 4s (2011): Siri

Today we may have more voice-powered virtual assistants than we know what to do with, and if we’re honest, Siri is far from the best of them. But back when she made her debut, she was a big part of a major shift both in how we interact with our phones and what we expect them to do.

Voice controls were nothing new, but they tended to be more like spoken command line interfaces. Advances in natural language processing made Siri more flexible, since you could just ask a normal question: “Siri, how many cups are in a liter?” “Siri, what’s the address of the Natural History Museum?”

Siri’s use of contextual data also showed the trend, still in full swing, toward detecting context for user actions and adjusting the response appropriately. We were happy to feed Siri more data — our location, our calendar, our photos — as long as it made things more convenient.


iPhone 5 (2012): Lightning

For nearly a decade starting with 2003 iPod, Apple’s iDevices all used the same 30-pin connector — but all good things must come to an end.

In 2012 Apple showed once again that it was willing to move on, even if customers complained (this was also the year the Magsafe connector was revised). The Lightning connector, however, was a marked improvement over its predecessor: reversible, modern, durable (although my 30-pins still work), and compact.

It also signaled Apple reasserting its intellectual property over the army of third-party manufacturers of iDevice accessories and cables. Only Apple (at first, anyway) could make Lightning cables. Were they being perfectionist, or merely devious? Yes.


iPhone 5s (2013): Touch ID

Admit it, you were skeptical of Touch ID when it was first announced. Our PINs were engraved in muscle memory, they were plenty secure and who really wants their fingerprints stored on their devices?

A couple of years later this is a standard feature across most high-end phones, and I find myself ineffectually thumbing my third-generation iPad’s button and wondering why it hasn’t woken up.

The question with fingerprint scanners was whether they could be made to “just work” the way Apple likes things to. Previous devices from competitors struggled with this, and Apple took the time to wait and bring it out only when it was fully baked. Now it’s hard to imagine a flagship device without one.


iPhone 5C (2013): A lesson in humility

Okay, so humility isn’t really a feature. But the 5C was a costly experiment for Apple, and while it’s hard to say it was truly a failure — they sold a bunch, and people liked them for what they were — it was a powerful corrective to Apple, which learned that it simply doesn’t know how to reach the budget and mid-range market.

It hadn’t even tried for years, and the 5C was a clumsy attempt indeed. It hid its compromises on power and storage inside a plastic shell that was itself a compromise. What Apple learned was that while some people may buy a cheaper iPhone, it was nothing to be proud of — and the company’s entire philosophy is about building hardware worth putting on a pedestal.


iPhone 6 and 6 Plus (2014): Large at last

Pressure had been building on Apple for years to embiggen its phones, the diminutive size of which many considered a holdover from a bygone age. The role of smartphones had changed since 2007; who wants to watch Netflix or play Angry Birds on a 4-inch screen?

So Apple at last paid tribute to the Phablet gods, and put out the comparatively enormous 6 and 6 Plus. The company had had to surrender a bit of its dignity and originality, but it was handsomely paid: the phones sold like hotcakes.


iPhone 6s and 6s Plus (2015): 3D touch, maybe? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Okay, so not every year can be a humdinger. The 6s really just bumped the specs of the 6 and added the rarely used 3D touch feature. They still sold really well, though, possibly because everyone bent their original 6 over the previous year.


iPhone 7 and 7 Plus (2016): Goodbye headphone jack

The dual camera thing was an interesting addition, but the truth is it wasn’t a new idea and doesn’t really change how people take pictures. On the other hand, Apple’s decision to remove the 3.5mm headphone port from the iPhone 7 represented a major shift — one few were happy about.

Apple presented the decision as being born out of “courage,” for which they were roundly and rightly mocked, as many commentators regarded the move as cynically self-interested. Putting all inputs and outputs under Apple-governed (and Apple-licensed) ports seemed to many to represent the company shoring up the gaps in its walled garden.

Considering the equally unpopular choice to remove many still-used ports from the MacBook and Pro line of notebooks, this milestone is rather a grim one. But like Apple’s other restrictive measures, everyone will just have to get used to it.


iPhone SE (2016): Mighty mite

We don’t have to end this little slideshow on a down note, though. The iPhone SE was a pleasant and popular surprise for the die-hard fans who thought Apple sold out when it went big and round.

The SE hit the mid-range hard, with specs that hadn’t been watered down and a design that had been proven for years. In fact, you might consider the SE a sort of tacit admission that the design started with the 4 is still in many ways the best. And since it’s the exact same dimensions as the 5 and 5s, and retains the headphone jack, it works perfectly with accessories going back years.

Was the SE a clever ploy to placate the critics who Apple knew would disapprove of the 7, or just a great phone? Yes.


The next ten years

What’s next for the iPhone and its family? Well, since this is an odd-numbered year, you can expect a predictable update to the 7 in September. But after that things get interesting.

The latest rumors suggest the iPhone 8 is the biggest redesign since the 6 or maybe the 4; supposedly we can expect a curved OLED screen covering the whole front of the display, among other space-age goodies.

And if the latest iOS update for iPad is any indication, Apple is looking to further blur the lines between desktop, notebook, tablet, phone, and maybe even HomePod. But as with the iPhone, change comes gradually — punctuated equilibrium is the word. So expect isolated announcements here and there, then a major update in a few years that wraps it all together. Don’t worry, we’ll be there to cover it.