Choosing Time Magazine’s invention of the year isn’t always an easy task — I know because I had to do it more than once. But this year, in my humble opinion, the decision was a no-brainer. Lev Grossman, who reviewed Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone for Time when it came out in June, edited the Inventions section and wrote the lead story, which I’ve reproduced in full below (Time is Fortune’s sister publication and Lev is a friend). To see the rest of the selections, you can go to TIME.com. Or you can buy the magazine.
Invention of the Year: The iPhone
By Lev Grossman
Stop. I mean, don’t stop reading this, but stop thinking what you’re about to think. Or, O.K., I’ll think it for you:
The thing is hard to type on. It’s too slow. It’s too big. It doesn’t have instant messaging. It’s too expensive. (Or, no, wait, it’s too cheap!) It doesn’t support my work e-mail. It’s locked to AT&T. Steve Jobs secretly hates puppies. And—all together now—we’re sick of hearing about it! Yes, there’s been a lot of hype written about the iPhone, and a lot of guff too. So much so that it seems weird to add more, after Danny Fanboy and Bobby McBlogger have had their day. But when that day is over, Apple’s iPhone is still the best thing invented this year. Why? Five reasons:
1. The iPhone is pretty
Most high-tech companies don’t take design seriously. They treat it as an afterthought. Window-dressing. But one of Jobs’ basic insights about technology is that good design is actually as important as good technology. All the cool features in the world won’t do you any good unless you can figure out how to use said features, and feel smart and attractive while doing it.
An example: look at what happens when you put the iPhone into “airplane” mode (i.e., no cell service, WiFi, etc.). A tiny little orange airplane zooms into the menu bar! Cute, you might say. But cute little touches like that are part of what makes the iPhone usable in a world of useless gadgets. It speaks your language. In the world of technology, surface really is depth.
2. It’s touchy-feely
Apple didn’t invent the touchscreen. Apple didn’t even reinvent it (Apple probably acquired its much hyped multitouch technology when it snapped up a company called Fingerworks in 2005). But Apple knew what to do with it. Apple’s engineers used the touchscreen to innovate past the graphical user interface (which Apple helped pioneer with the Macintosh in the 1980s) to create a whole new kind of interface, a tactile one that gives users the illusion of actually physically manipulating data with their hands—flipping through album covers, clicking links, stretching and shrinking photographs with their fingers.
This is, as engineers say, nontrivial. It’s part of a new way of relating to computers. Look at the success of the Nintendo Wii. Look at Microsoft’s new Surface Computing division. Look at how Apple has propagated its touchscreen interface to the iPod line with the iPod Touch. Can it be long before we get an iMac Touch? A TouchBook? Touching is the new seeing.
3. It will make other phones better
Jobs didn’t write the code inside the iPhone. These days he doesn’t dirty his fingers with 1’s and 0’s, if he ever really did. But he did negotiate the deal with AT&T to carry the iPhone. That’s important: one reason so many cell phones are lame is that cell-phone-service providers hobble developers with lame rules about what they can and can’t do. AT&T gave Apple unprecedented freedom to build the iPhone to its own specifications. Now other phone makers are jealous. They’re demanding the same freedoms. That means better, more innovative phones for all.
4. It’s not a phone, it’s a platform
When Apple made the iPhone, it didn’t throw together some cheap-o bare-bones firmware. It took OS X, its full-featured desktop operating system, and somehow squished it down to fit inside the iPhone’s elegant glass-and-stainless-steel case. That makes the iPhone more than just a gadget. It’s a genuine handheld, walk-around computer, the first device that really deserves the name. One of the big trends of 2007 was the idea that computing doesn’t belong just in cyberspace, it needs to happen here, in the real world, where actual stuff happens. The iPhone gets applications like Google Maps out onto the street, where we really need them.
And this is just the beginning. Platforms are for building on. Last month, after a lot of throat-clearing, Apple decided to open up the iPhone, so that you—meaning people other than Apple employees—will be able to develop software for it too. Ever notice all that black blank space on the iPhone’s desktop? It’s about to fill up with lots of tiny, pretty, useful icons.
5. It is but the ghost of iPhones yet to come
The iPhone has sold enough units—more than 1.4 million at press time—that it’ll be around for a while, and with all that room to develop and its infinitely updatable, all-software interface, the iPhone is built to evolve. Look at the iPod of six years ago. That monochrome interface! That clunky touchwheel! It looks like something a caveman whittled from a piece of flint using another piece of flint. Now imagine something that’s going to make the iPhone look that primitive. You’ll have one in a few years. It’ll be very cool. And it’ll be even cheaper.