Ten years ago today, Apple's former CEO Steve Jobs walked onto a stage at MacWorld in San Francisco and told the audience that they were going to make history that day. He wasn’t lying. At that presentation, Jobs unveiled the iPhone—an all-in-one device combining an iPod music player, fully-functional web browser, email communication device, camera and a cell phone. Slim and sleek, Apple fans went wild over the device, but not everyone saw it as a game changer. In fact, reviews at the time were decidedly mixed, with some prognosticators saying the phone would flop.
The ideas behind the iPhone weren’t new at the time—digital music players had been around for a while and cell phones were ubiquitous. Internet-enabled cell phones, like the Blackberry, were also already an important part of American business culture (President Obama, for one, was a devotee of his Blackberry). The iPhone, however, was the first to combine all those functions.
But that kind of pocket-computing power meant the little machine came at a big cost, ranging in price from $499 to $599. Competitors wondered if anyone beyond the business community really wanted to check email on the go.
Veteran tech writer John C. Dvorak wrote at MarketWatch that the phone was all hype and iPhone excitement was only kept alive by Apple loyalists. The problem, said Dvorak, was that the phone business was already mature and too competitive for a new company to break into. Even if the iPhone was successful, he wrote, phone customers were fickle and the phone “will be passé within three months.”
“There is no likelihood that Apple can be successful in a business this competitive…What Apple risks here is its reputation as a hot company that can do no wrong. If it's smart it will call the iPhone a ‘reference design’ and pass it to some suckers to build with someone else’s marketing budget. Then it can wash its hands of any marketplace failures.”
Steve Balmer, CEO of Microsoft—Apple’s main competitor in the computing and digital music player segments—was also dismissive of the newly announced device. “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share,” he said in an interview with David Lieberman at USA Today. “No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60 percent or 70 percent or 80 percent of them, than I would to have two percent or three percent, which is what Apple might get.”
New York Times tech writer David Pogue didn’t even think Apple's phone would make it to the prototype stage. He wrote in 2006 “Everyone's always asking me when Apple will come out with a cell phone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.’”
In a 2012 Scientific American article, Pogue ranks that statement as one of the worst tech predictions of all time, but defends his logic.
“I knew that Steve Jobs would never tolerate the micromanagement that the carriers (Verizon, AT&T and so on) then exercised on every aspect of every phone they carried. ‘I cannot imagine Apple giving veto power to anyone over its software design. It just ain’t gonna happen,’ I wrote.
What I didn't realize, of course, is that Jobs planned an end-run—a deal that Cingular ultimately accepted, which ran like this: ‘You let us design our phone without your input, and I'll give you a five-year exclusive.’ And the rest is history.”
Jemima Kiss at The Guardian also had a solid reason to doubt that the device would take off when it finally went on sale in late June 2007. In an article titled “iPhone Set to Struggle,” she writes that customers would likely reject the phone because it did not offer a fast 3G connection. She also cited a survey from the media agency Universal McCann that showed there wasn't a high demand for “converged devices” that combine media players, internet communications and cell service. According to that survey, only 31 percent of Americans said they were interested. The report concluded: The fact that 60 percent of people already owned individual devices that fulfilled all these needs meant demand would be low and Apple’s target of selling 10 million iPhones would be difficult to achieve.
Once media reviewers got their hands on the phones, however, the tone quickly changed. Pogue at The New York Times, for one, was a fan (with criticisms).
“As it turns out, much of the hype and some of the criticisms are justified. The iPhone is revolutionary; it’s flawed. It’s substance; it’s style. It does things no phone has ever done before; it lacks features found even on the most basic phones… But even in version 1.0, the iPhone is still the most sophisticated, outlook-changing piece of electronics to come along in years. It does so many things so well, and so pleasurably, that you tend to forgive its foibles.
In other words, maybe all the iPhone hype isn’t hype at all. As the ball player Dizzy Dean once said, 'It ain’t bragging if you done it.'”
Ellen Lee, reporting for the San Francisco Gate was probably the most prescient in understanding the potential for the new phone. “Looking back, the iPhone could mark a tipping point, encouraging the masses to look at their cell phone as more than a cell phone and prompting profound changes in everything from privacy to citizen journalism,” she writes. “It could—assuming the iPhone succeeds—help introduce a new age of mobile living.”
There’s no disputing that the iPhone and the smartphones that followed, including Android-powered Samsung products and Google’s Nexus and Pixel phones, along with a whole range of tablets, have brought the mobile society to fruition in the last decade. And while sales of the iPhone are beginning to stagnate for the first time since it was introduced, patents filed by Apple show that the top tech of 2007 might have a few more revolutionary products up its sleeve in the coming years.