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Commentary

6 Ways the iPhone Changed Everything

Jun 28, 2017

The iPhone turns 10 years old this year, and it's a landmark that can feel a little surreal. Somehow, it seems like the device has existed forever, yet that image of Steve Jobs standing on a San Francisco stage and bequeathing the iPhone unto the masses feels as vivid as ever. The iPhone has changed so much, so seamlessly, in such a short amount of time, it's hard to grapple with the full scale of its impact.

There are a few things that most commonly get cited when we talk about the iPhone and its imprint on the world—its apps, how it accelerated mass connectivity (and its nefarious alter-ego, constant distraction), or its sleek industrial design. But there are a host of others shifts the iPhone ushered in that are equally, if not more, revolutionary.

Multi-touch for the masses

It’s a little remarkable that we don’t spend more time talking about multi-touch, the technology that allows us to fluently speak to computers with our fingers. Many hundreds of millions more people use smartphones than traditional PCs; we transmit information by touch, on screens. The iPhone was the first mass-market consumer product to feature a multi-touch-capable screen that really sung.

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a phone or a tablet that doesn’t have a multi-touch-powered screen. When we approach a smart screen without a keyboard attached, we naturally assume we’ll be able to swipe, pinch, zoom, and drag pixels around at our whim—that’s entirely thanks to the iPhone.

Playful user interface

“I never got why software had to be boring,” former Apple user interface designer and early iPhone architect Bas Ording told me. As recently as the turn of the century, user interface design was as deadly dull as it sounds. It was “all knobs and dials,” Greg Christie, head of Apple’s Human Interface Group, told me. The software design team that engendered the iPhone would change that forever. Ording, inspired by early video games, baked pleasant little touches—the “rubber banding” effect when you scroll to the end of a list, jiggling icons, and stylish-looking apps—into the iPhone operating system.

Maximum-efficiency supply chains

Companies were outsourcing manufacturing long before Apple sped the rise of device megafactories in China—in fact, Apple proudly manufactured its products in the U.S. much longer than most of its competitors did—but the iPhone drove the practice to perfection. When he was head of operations, Tim Cook coiled Apple’s tangled cluster of component factories into loaded spring, manned by hundreds of thousands of laborers, that could be unleashed to meet demand. By grouping suppliers together in close proximity so that they could rapidly collaborate to address changes in hardware or design, and demanding new untold levels of efficiency from the workforce, he set the stage for the modern model of device manufacturing—and the human rights woes that accompany it.

The sensor boom

From day one, the iPhone made use of a wide array of sensors, from an accelerometer to a proximity sensor, to make it feel more like magic—the screen would go dark so you wouldn’t touch buttons with your ear, or it’d seamlessly switch into landscape mode. An elegant marriage of software and hardware, the iPhone both set the standard for a smart device, and set off the sensor boom. Today, these early tools share space with a gyroscope, fingerprint scanner, and other enhancements—many of the iPhone’s most influential games and apps would be powerless without them.

The intelligent personal assistant

Siri may have been more of a novelty than a powerful interface at first, and it was widely derided upon launch. But as the first mainstream, user-facing artificially intelligent assistant, it blazed a clear trail for a voice-operated user interface. Even though critics argue that Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant have surpassed Siri in terms of power and usefulness, there’s little doubt who ushered in the boom.

A brand new economy

We still may not quite have internalized the sheer scale of the app economy that Apple spawned. It is, as a top Apple and technology industry analyst has argued, bigger than Hollywood.

Apps make up just a small, almost invisible sliver of Apple’s revenue—which is still dominated by iPhone sales. Just a decade after its creation, the iPhone is bigger than too many Hollywoods to count.

Brian Merchant is author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone and an editor at Motherboard, Vice's science and technology site.

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