My Observercolumn on the tenth anniversary of the iPhone:
The iPhone made Apple the world’s most valuable company (with a market capitalisation of $771.44bn when I last checked) but, in a way, that’s the least interesting thing about it. What’s more significant is that it sparked off the smartphone revolution that changed the way people accessed the internet. Steve Jobs’s seminal insight was that a mobile phone could be a powerful, networked handheld device which could also be used to make voice calls. Turning that insight into a marketable reality was a remarkable achievement – commemorated last week by the Computer History Museum in a fascinating two-hour series of recorded conversations with the engineers who built the phone.
The result of this revolution is a world in which most people carry their internet connection around in their bags and pockets. It’s a world of ubiquitous connectivity in which people are never offline and are increasingly addicted to their devices. It’s got to the point where someone has coined a new term – smombies (zombies on smartphones) – to describe pedestrians who walk into obstacles because they are looking at screens rather than at where they’re going…
Like many others, I’ve been reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the iPhone. The Computer History Museum ran a fascinating two-hour show in which John Markoff talked to some of the people who designed and built the first phone. Tyler Cowen also devoted his latest Bloomberg column to it and, as usual, he’s come up with an angle that I hadn’t thought about much:
First, we’ve learned that, even in this age of bits and bytes, materials innovation still matters. The iPhone is behind the scenes a triumph of mining science, with a wide variety of raw materials and about 34 billion kilograms (75 billion pounds) of mined rock as an input to date, as discussed by Brian Merchant in his new and excellent book “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone”. A single iPhone has behind it the production of 34 kilos of gold ore, with 20.5 grams (0.72 ounces) of cyanide used to extract the most valuable parts of the gold.
Especially impressive as a material is the smooth touch-screen, and the user’s ability to make things happen by sliding, swiping, zooming and pinching it — the “multitouch” function. That advance relied upon particular materials, as the screen is chemically strengthened, made scrape-resistant and embedded with sensitive sensors. Multitouch wasn’t new, but Apple understood how to build it into a highly useful product.
Imagine putting together a production system that could make 1.2 billion of these devices.
Ten years ago today, the first iPhone went on sale. Is it the most successful product of all time? Probably not. But it’s definitely one of the most influential, in that it was the first real smartphone and thereby kicked off the technology that has shaped the way the Internet — and society — has evolved ever since. And of course it also made Apple the most valuable company in the world.
My eye was caught by a headline in the Register, an invaluable online source of tech news and opinion. “Clearance sale shows Apple’s iPad is over. It’s done,” it read. This was a quotation from a piece by Volker Weber on the latest product announcements from Apple. “iPad is the biggest news,” he wrote, “and it says: the iPad is done. Apple is just refining the components, but there isn’t much they can do these days to make yet another super-duper Earth-shattering innovation here.”
Since I was reading this on my iPad Pro, which is probably the most useful electronic device I have ever owned, it came as a bit of a shock. But in fact Volker was really just articulating a truth about digital hardware, which is that the evolution of all such products (and a good deal else besides) follows a sigmoid curve.
It’s interesting how particular years acquire historical significance: 1789 (the French Revolution); 1914 (outbreak of the first world war); 1917 (the Russian revolution); 1929 (the Wall Street crash); 1983 (switching on of the internet); 1993 (the Mosaic Web browser, which started the metamorphosis of the internet from geek sandpit to the nervous system of the planet). And of course 2016, the year of Brexit and Trump, the implications of which are, as yet, unknown.
But what about 2007? That was the year when Slovenia adopted the euro, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, Kurt Vonnegut died, smoking in enclosed public places was banned in the UK, a student shot 32 people dead and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech, Luciano Pavarotti died and Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Oh – and it was also the year that Steve Jobs launched the Apple iPhone.
And that, I suspect, is the main – perhaps the only – reason that 2007 will be counted as a pivotal year, because it was the moment that determined how the internet would evolve…
It’s that time of year again. Apple has released its results for the fiscal quarter ended 24 September 2016 and we are immediately plunged into “Has Apple peaked?” speculation. How come? Well, the company posted quarterly revenue of $46.9bn and net income of $9bn. Not bad, eh? Ah, yes, but not if you’re a Wall Street analyst, because these numbers compare to revenue of $51.5bn and net income of $11.1bn in the same quarter the year before. And – shock, horror! – the company’s gross margin was only 38% compared to 39.9% a year ago. The numbers are down, in other words.
Cue fevered speculation about the fate of the company. The numbers, burbled one analyst, show “the danger of being a one-trick pony when everyone already owns a pony. The company’s reliance on the smartphone, which is now a mature and saturated market in the developed world, is starting to create a growth problem for Apple. Breaking through will be a challenge, reminding investors Apple’s fundamentals and stock price have peaked.”
Pause for a reality check: Apple has cash reserves of $237.6bn, up $32bn from last year. At $622bn (at 26 October 2016), it is the most valuable company in the world…
According to IDC’s most recent data, Apple Watch shipments declined by 71.6 percent in the past quarter compared to the same period last year. It’s the second consecutive quarter of high double-digit sales declines for Apple’s smartwatch, indicating that demand is quickly fading after a decent start. As our chart illustrates, the Apple Watch’s early sales figures were as good as the iPad’s and much better than the iPhone’s were in 2007. However, it took the iPhone nine years and the iPad three years to see their first year-over-year sales decline. Apple Watch sales started going downhill after just one year on the market.
Frankly, I’m not surprised. Although I continue to wear my Apple watch most days (especially on busy days when I’m expecting urgent emails or messages), I find it more or less useless for everything else. I’ve given up bringing it with me on overnight trips — can’t be bothered lugging a charger and cable. And of course at home it sits in its charging dock every night. Leading-edge uselessness, methinks.
On top of the discovery that Apple has 800 engineers working just on the iPhone camera comes Marc Andreessen’s claim that Amazon’s Echo project occupied 1500 engineers for four years. If true, these are staggering numbers which indicate the scale of dominance of the companies.