iPhone anniversary

Apple CEO Steve Jobs was a visionary who wanted to put a computer – and a cool, easy-to-use one at that – not just into everyone’s home but into everyone’s pocket. Ten years ago, on 9 January 2007, he succeeded, launching his “magical” iPhone at MacWorld in San Francisco.

Everyone knew that Apple was ‘getting into the telecoms business’. But he did not just promise his audience “a revolutionary mobile phone”. He promised them two other new products: “a widescreen iPod with touch controls”, and “a breakthrough internet communications device”. It was only after a few moments that he made his audience realize that these were all the same device. “Today Apple is going to re-invent the phone,” he said. “It will revolutionize the industry.” And it did.

Apple stock soared. But I doubt that even the visionary Steve Jobs anticipated just how much his invention would change our lives. The iPhone did not just revolutionize the telecoms industry. It revolutionized the conduct of all industry. Take banking as an example: we now routinely move money and pay for our coffee with a tap of a finger or a phone. I can’t remember the last time I actually went into a bank or saw a paper statement: the retail banking industry has gone almost entirely digital, and increasingly, almost entirely mobile.

For five years now, smartphones have been outselling PCs. It is reckoned that 5 billion of the world’s 7 billion population have a mobile phone – pretty well everyone except the infants, in other words. And half of those are smartphones.

We each carry in our pockets an entire warehouse-full of useful tools: a phone, a camera, a movie camera, a map that tracks you (like in James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger), a calculator, a radio, a stopwatch, a timer, an alarm, an address book, a notepad, a health monitor, a music store, a complete set of train timetables, a torch, an itinerary to anywhere you want to go, and one that avoids traffic too, a credit card, a compass, a thing that wakes you up when you reach your station on the train… well, the list goes on and on.

As Apple’s ingenious marketing team noted, whatever you want to do, “there’s an app for that”. Indeed, it is estimated that there are 2 million iPhone apps, and perhaps 2.2 million apps for its Android competitors.

And remember, that all this is in the hands and pockets of over a third of the world’s population, while another third have something that looks more and more like it every day.

This is, truly, a miracle of capitalism.

I often wonder what might have happened if the telephone industry were still in state ownership, as it was here in the UK until Mrs Thatcher privatized them in 1984, and had decided to produce portable phones. I can’t believe that they would even now be any smaller than the brick that Sean Connery had in Doctor No (and just like the map, even that, at the time, was merely a figment of the director’s imagination).

And if, ten years ago, some government department or quango had been charged with developing applications for a smartphone, how many do you think there would be today? I would guess maybe six, with another fifteen in development. 

But we have millions of apps, precisely because their development is not centralized, but is spontaneous and competitive. Millions of people have good ideas and it is cheap to promote them as apps. If other people find them useful – or even just fun – they will gladly pay a dollar to have them. It’s the very essence of capitalism – except that you don’t necessarily need much capital, just vision and determination, to create a bestselling app.

I doubt that even we, ten years later, can anticipate just how much Steve Jobs’s invention, and its successors, will change our social and business lives over the next decade. But that’s capitalism for you – always surprising us with new wonders.