The iPhone just turned 10 years, time for a musing on a piece of hardware that has probably transformed the way we work the most since … the PC. Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone at MacWorld 2007 as (notice the sequence) a “wide screen iPod with touch controls, as a revolutionary mobile phone and a breakthrough internet communications device”.

So, let’s look what the iPhone ‘parents’ got right, and what concerns me for its next decade:

What Apple Got Right

Smartphones are Status Symbols – If there was one thing Steve Jobs got right, it was realizing that smartphones had the potential to be status symbols. For most of the life of the iPhone – first having an iPhone and then having the latest versions was a huge status symbol. Transferring the mobile phone / smartphone from a work utility (that was the then dominant Blackberry) to a status symbol that was new and innovative – is still fueling the Apple iPhone business today.

People wanted a full browser – Remember the ‘mobile web sites’? People never like them and another thing that Jobs got right was to realize that users wanted to have a full-fledged browser, with the same user experience like on a PC. Didn’t matter that the Telcos did not allow for that, Jobs and Apple managed to ‘break the rules’ with Cingular. And users did not mind the slow speed of Edge originally. They still flocked to the full website, preferring those to the mobile optimized ones.

Touch beat the keyboard – Jobs also bet on touch and allowing a larger screen, better form factor than the keyboard based competition of the time. And while it certainly provided a very appealing design – it cratered productivity. Doing email – once a key driver for a smartphone, took a back seat. Even on the Apple 10 year press release, Apple SVP of Worldwide Marketing cites 11 capabilities … before email (and then mentions 8 more) (see here). Millions of “Crackberry” users with a “Blackberry thumb” became “lurkers” on their email (glance on mobile device, answer later PC), creating a texting boom as an informal outlet for previously working email communication.

Almost a PC replacement – And the iPhone almost became the PC replacement. Many users stating that the iPhone is the new PC. Apple tried to address form fact concerns with the iPad. But only ‘almost’ – as the Microsoft Surface has shown – most people still need a keyboard to function at work and at home – even if their smartphone / iPhone doesn’t have one.

It’s a camera, a media player, a game console ... and then a phone – Apple got (and probably still gets) the camera right, pushing resolution and capabilities of the camera. It never hurt the iPhone that for the longest time it could not take pictures in the dark. The form factor also makes for a great display for consuming video and playing games… basic phone functions taking a back seat. But that was the key secret about the iPhone – it is / was so much more than a mobile phone.

Innovation & Convenience are a powerful combo – The final gamble that Apple and Jobs took was that while being very innovative in the first half of the iPhone’s life – it needed a convenience factor, effectively creating the walled garden. And for the most of it, users have been happy. But it is easier to be happy when your smartphone is the object of envy with your friends and colleagues, then when it lacks behind in regards of what we think today are critical capabilities (e.g. speech). To some iPhone users the walled garden looks now less than a garden, but a closed encampment, if not worse. But creating the stickiness will keep iPhone users on the platform longer. Longer than e.g. Blackberry had the luxury to keep users because of e.g. media stickiness. 
Holger Mueller Apple Constellation Research iPhone SmartPhone
10 years of iPhones (from here)

Concerns for the next 10 years

Here is what worries me for the next decade of the iPhone, looking at what the parent (Apple) can or cannot do for the next 10 years.

Voice is the new UI – As much as Jobs / Apple got it right that users will take a keyboard free phone, as much they missed the trend to voice. And to a certain point it is tragic – as Apple lead the space of voice recognition with Siri. But then Siri lost out to pretty much all other players, lacking extensibility (released last) and most importantly, neural network power to understand users. Probably closes related to the next worry.

The parent has no cloud – It is possible that Apple will go down in the history books as the most profitable, most cash rich firm that missed the all transforming trend of cloud infrastructure. It equals to a parent in real life that severely limits the further development of the child at age 10. Reckless abandonment comes to mind. Buying cloud capacity (as we learnt this year) from AWS and GCP is not a solution. But a modern, efficient cloud infrastructure is needed to run several modern services efficiently – e.g. voice recognition, AI etc.

The parent is behind on AI – Along the same lines as cloud, Google is behind in AI. Yes, a first paper has been published – but compare that to e.g. IBM and Google and you know the iPhone is in trouble because the parents missed an important, maybe game changing moment. No surprise – you need a cloud infrastructure to really run this efficiently. Apple makes the point that it can do things locally – but that has a direct cost and will be subpar to a cloud based AI offer.

The parent is behind on AR / VR – It’s like a parent who doesn’t have Internet at home but wants their kid to do well in school… not sure how Apple missed the trend, given the strength in display, owning the whole stack from the CPU upwards … should have been a home run. And the space is important as next are holographic interfaces, that make the small smartphone screen a shared experience. Content / platforms build today by ‘parents’ in the industry put their ‘kids’ on a spot for … high school and college.

The parent struggles with the enterprise – If the iPhone would not have seen success in the enterprise, it is doubtful it would have had the impact that it had. Consumerization of IT became a trend that is real in many other areas of IT. But today it looks like the one time shot that Apple had in the enterprise. iPads started strong but have since then started to fizzle. MacBooks never appealed to most enterprises. So, for the parent to remain relevant – it needs another enterprise success.

Unlimited plans change the handset spec – The rise of unlimited data plans, with all you can eat video, have changed the way what amounts of data can be consumed on mobile devices. Video calling, messaging, real time broadcasting all are setup for faster and continuous connectivity. All areas that a high price handset may not be required for, assuming improvements in compression algorithms. But probably the lowest concern for the iPhone parents at the moment.

The parent has run out of ideas – This one is the biggest concern. The Watch has underdelivered. Rumors of new goggles have spread – but others have tired (and so far, failed), I don’t’ see what Apple may do radically different. As a daily glasses wearer, I see the value add must be substantial for a non-glasses wearer (most of us) to adopt glasses. The bar can’t be much higher than sun glasses. For a 10 year, old that is … the parents have tried to get the kid motivated – but to no luck, and the world around them thinks they have given up.

Software beats beautiful hardware design – Andreesen said it – Software eats the world. When other vendor’s software gets too superior (think voice, AI, AR / VR etc.) a beautiful designed iPhone may no longer make the cut. Software trumps hardware design. Apple must ramp up its software skills and delivery results, as well as it quality efforts. Think for a historic perspective the Apple Maps false start, for recent the defect in Safari uncovered by the Consumer Reports (which basically is sloppy QA).



The iPhone is one of the most fundamental pieces of hardware and software that we have seen in our lifetime. Most readers won’t remember the time before PCs. The iPhone has made the smartphone as we know it popular – with great resolution, great camera, good media play, but bad battery life and mostly worse phone qualities than its predecessors.

The forces that worked for the rise of the iPhone are not as powerful as they used to be. Disruptors lurk, e.g. with voice. Apple’s stand on privacy is heroic, but I cannot help that it’s also a position out of weakness: That Apple has not been able to create its own cloud infrastructure. This may hurt Apple not only for AI, AR & VR, Cars and speech – but even more beyond.

The kid had a great 10 years, but the next 10 years don’t look so promising. Time for the grandparents (the Apple Board), the god parent (friends of Apple) to take the parents on the side, who are certainly trying hard to make the 10-year-old future look good, but don’t have a good track record for the last few years. And for now – from what we know – don’t seem to have an inspirational plan for the next 10 years. Let’s start with the next 2-3 years. Rome wasn’t built in one day either, and only what has not happened, can still happen. We will be watching.

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