Five years ago, after waiting in line at the Apple Store for much of the day, I finally got my hands on the first iPhone. I rushed home, plugged it into iTunes, signed my life away to Apple, and activated service with AT&T. As I swiped and multi-touched over the next few hours, I felt the modern world come into focus.
During my first day with Apple’s magic phone, I had two thoughts. First, that it would shake up the phone business. The iPhone’s capabilities—its speed, ease of use, beauty, and breakthrough, touchscreen interface—would make every other smartphone obsolete. The BlackBerry and its ilk looked dead in the water.
My second reaction was disappointment. A few months before its release, Steve Jobs had locked down the device, ensuring that only Apple would be able to create programs that ran natively on the phone. After using it for a bit, that decision seemed short-sighed. The iPhone didn’t look like a computer, but it felt like one. This was a general-purpose device—a phone, a music player, a Web browser, and a personal assistant—whose capabilities should have been endlessly expandable by third-party developers. The more I used it, the more I wanted to use it: I wanted games, streaming movies and music, Skype. Most of all, I wanted things I didn’t even know were possible.
In other words, the iPhone felt full of promise, but it wasn’t yet clear what the payoff would be. In 2008, when Apple did open the device up to third-party apps, the phone made good on that promise. Thanks to the App Store, it could do anything, and it quickly began to gobble up the rest of the tech industry. Now every other phone on the market looks and works like the iPhone. And it’s not just every phone: Apple’s phone inspired the iPad, which is roiling the PC market and has become the source of our computers’ best innovations (both the Mac OS and Windows now borrow many of their newest features from touch devices). For all this, thank the iPhone.
And yet the iPhone sure has become boring, hasn’t it? I find it difficult to get worked up, anymore, about Apple’s signature mobile device. Last month, I yawned through the company’s announcements at its developer conference. As Scott Forstall, Apple’s iOS chief, enthused about new features in the mobile OS, I wondered, Is that all there is? Apple’s mobile platform used to be unquestionably the best smartphone operating system on the planet. Now it feels just as good as everything else. For any other company, that’s perfectly acceptable. For Apple, it isn’t good enough.
The problem is not that Apple has slipped. The iPhone 4S, Apple’s current model, is a fantastic device, and presumably the next iPhone will be just as wonderful. But the iPhone is a mature product, a gadget that has maximized its potential. There are no longer any obvious shortcomings for Apple to address, and many of the features that the company has added over the last couple years—FaceTime, iCloud, Siri, and now a better version of the Maps app—haven’t been revolutionary.
The competition has also caught up to the iPhone. I still prefer iOS to Google’s Android, and I think Windows and iOS are more or less tied, but reasonable people can disagree. That’s because none of the three mobile platforms is that far ahead of the others. Their functions differ only at the margins. Mostly, all three do the same things, in the same way. Three years ago, if you picked any smartphone other than the iPhone, you were dooming yourself to a lesser device. Not anymore.
If you have an irrational loyalty to Apple, you might well demand, What more do you want out of the iPhone? It’s a legitimate question, and I’ll concede that it’s a bit churlish to ding a gadget because it’s already so great that I can’t imagine how it can become any better. The iPhone, like all computers, will get faster and lighter, and it might get longer battery life. Perhaps it will acquire the ability to let you pay for stuff through a near-field communication chip. Meanwhile, Siri will get better, turning from what seems like a marketing gimmick into a truly useful, perhaps transformative way to interact with your phone. Perhaps Apple will make good on Steve Jobs’ promise to make FaceTime an open standard, so that in time, it will work everywhere, not just on Apple devices. (But I bet not.) So if all that happens—if Apple continues to improve the iPhone incrementally—will that be enough for me?
I’m still yawning a little. Consider that every other phone maker is also improving its devices at a breakneck pace. Google’s version of Siri works just as well as Apple’s. Google Now, Android’s artificial-intelligence-based assistant, isn’t matched by anything in the iPhone. Meanwhile Windows Phone’s “live tiles”—the home-screen icons that passively update you on everything going on with your friends and in the rest of your life—offer a better, easier way to navigate your phone than anything Apple has cooked up.
So, sure, Apple’s phone will get better. But as everything else gets better, too, the iPhone will remain with the pack unless Apple does something radically different. What should it do?
At Google’s developer conference last week, the search company spent a lot of time talking up Glass, its still-in-development digital goggles. The device lets you do pretty much everything you can do on your phone—browse your texts and email, take photos, look at your calendar—through a display built into your glasses. It’s a digital feed superimposed upon the real world, sort of like the Terminator’s heads-up display.
While everyone on Twitter made fun of the goggles—does Google really think people will wear those geeky things?—the journalists who got an in-depth briefing (myself included) came away enthusiastic. After speaking to people at Google who are working on the project—and after getting to try on Sergey Brin’s own pair for about 20 seconds—I couldn’t contain myself. Google’s goggles offer the most captivating new digital interface since the iPhone. Google Glass will allow people to experience the digital world without becoming distracted from the real world—you can interact with your digital friends while maintaining eye contact with your real friends. Because you’ll be able to access digital information faster than you can on a cellphone, and then quickly return to the offline world, I have high hopes that these glasses will save us from our tech-addled selves.
I’m not asking for Apple to create augmented-reality glasses. But I do hope that it’s working on something just as ambitious as Google’s spectacles, a product that represents the next wave of mobile computing. I don’t know what that thing should be. But it’s not my job to know. It’s Apple’s—this is a company that has repeatedly wowed us by inventing the future we didn’t know we wanted. The iPhone might have changed everything, but now it’s five years old. It’s time for something new.
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