Tuesday 20 February 2018

How the birth of the iPhone changed the world forever

It has taken just 10 years for a five-inch screen to take over almost every aspect of our lives, writes Adrian Weckler

Late Apple CEO Steve Jobs talks about the iPhone at the Apple Developers Conference in San Francisco in June 2007. Photo: AP
Late Apple CEO Steve Jobs talks about the iPhone at the Apple Developers Conference in San Francisco in June 2007. Photo: AP
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It controls us. Look around any bus, restaurant or public space. Look into any sitting room, or through the windows of stopped cars at traffic lights.

Anytime, anywhere - almost everyone is now looking down at a small, five-inch screen.

We stare and stare, the occasional grin or grimace thrown in.

The touchscreen gizmo that the late Steve Jobs introduced 10 years ago is now our phone, computer, camera, social life, TV, radio and news service all squished into one device.

In Ireland, it is now hard to function in basic daily life without an iPhone or one of the devices made in its image. Schools and parents' groups now communicate information over (smartphone-only) Whatsapp. Grandparents increasingly depend on Facebook to keep in touch with what relatives are doing. Airlines and travel companies are starting to emphasise phone boarding passes rather than paper ones.

Little wonder that survey after survey shows the smartphone as the only indispensable item in our daily routine.

The most recent official figures from Ireland's telecoms regulator confirm what we already know - that phones are now used far more for things like Whatsapp, Facebook and Snapchat than they are for traditional voice calls or SMS texts.

Separate figures from Ipsos MRBI also show that the vast majority of us - young and old - now have some sort of modern social media account to use on our phones.

Basically, the iPhone has achieved what the doomed computer game 'Second Life' never could: it has created a virtual, parallel universe where most of us want to return as often as possible throughout the day.

Is this a step forward in civilisation, or the gateway to a dystopian future?

Those complaining about modern ways are often characterised as cranky, middle-aged luddites.

"Why can't people chat to one another as they used to in the old days?" they tell radio shows and each other in doctors' waiting rooms. "The smartphone is killing human interaction."

Shy, isolated or lonely people may not see it this way. For them, the iPhone has been transformational.

They can now talk to people without many of the usual stigmas and pressures.

As phone networks and broadband services gradually improve, they can access a wider range of news and services without having to travel miles.

They can now feel part of the same society they felt excluded from before.

On the other hand, a small screen dictating everything from our language and physical looks to our political opinions has arguably given rise to new forms of narcissism, group-think and social pressure. In a world where photos are effectively the new text, image is more important than ever.

None of this is why Apple invented the iPhone in the first place. It did it to make money. And it has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.

Conservatively, Apple has made over €150bn in profit from the gadget to date, probably the biggest return from any single invention in history in such a short timeframe.

When looked at with competitors' fortunes, its cash haul from this one device is even more astonishing. Even though the iPhone spawned countless copies, only a small handful of competitors - Samsung, Huawei and one or two others - are actually making any significant money out of phones. The rest, including big name rivals such as Sony and HTC, are either losing money or barely scraping a living out of it.

Along its 10-year journey, the iPhone has killed as many industries as it has given birth to.

It's not easy to find a shop selling alarm clocks or home stereos anymore. The compact camera business, for obvious reasons, has collapsed.

CDs, already endangered in 2007, are dead too. DVDs are just about to expire, but not because of people watching on PCs. It is the larger screens on phones that is sustaining the huge growth in video streaming. Netflix, the biggest online movie company, says that the majority of its usage in countries like India now comes on phones.

Professional sports bodies such as the English Premier League or the National Basketball Association say that most of their opportunity (and piracy threat) comes from phones, not laptops.

Other industries are caught up in a fight for relevancy too. Broadcast news media is currently shifting dramatically from big screens to small ones, while other media - including newspapers - are having to find some way to deliver their product on the devices people now use most.

And yet more businesses look set to follow. When Amazon is done getting us to shop on phones, is hard to envisage anything like the same number of physical shops for clothes and other items on Irish streets. (This is already happening, even as the Irish economy booms.)

Meanwhile, Apple has just announced what it calls its next big platform: augmented reality. Think of Pokemon at a far more advanced level.

The iPhone is the single most influential product of the last decade. It could well remain the single most influential for the next.

Irish Independent

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