Five Years Ago, Apple Launched the iPhone And Everyone Thought the Buttons Were Too Small

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 27 2012 2:31 PM

Five Years Ago, Everyone Was Worried That the iPhone’s Buttons Were Too Small

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Former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon shows off the iPhone's tiny buttons at a government meeting in December 2007.

Photo by Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

The iPhone is the iconic device of the 21st century. As Business Insider points out, it has singlehandedly destroyed three large companies, and it brings in more revenue for Apple than all of Microsoft and earns more profit than all of Google.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Those facts make it easy to forget that its success wasn’t a foregone conclusion when it hit the market five years ago, on June 29, 2007. Sure, people were excited—but they also harbored some reservations. For instance: Those touch-screen buttons were too damn small.

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“Tapping the skinny little virtual keys on the screen is frustrating, especially at first,” wrote the New York Times’ David Pogue two days before the launch. In an otherwise glowing review, the difficulty of text entry prompted Pogue to venture what seemed like a safe prediction: “The BlackBerry won’t be going away anytime soon.

The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg called the virtual keyboard “a nonissue,” though he griped that he had trouble finding the comma. As with Pogue, his biggest complaint was one that still resonates today: AT&T’s laughably inadequate wireless coverage. (This was echoed by Reihan Salam, whose Slate review was headlined, “My iPhone Doesn't Work, but I Love It Anyway.”) AT&T has in fact been playing catch-up ever since, and there were sighs of relief when Apple finally brought Verizon on board in 2010.

Other minor quibbles have long since been addressed or rendered obsolete. Making a call on the phone used to take several steps. You couldn’t cut, copy, or paste text. There was no memory card slot. Oh, and the cheapest one cost $499.

At least as striking as the complaints, in retrospect, are some of the things people loved most about the new device. Salam noted that it relieved him of the need to stuff his pockets with three devices—his cell phone, office Blackberry, and iPod. I had entirely forgotten that dilemma, once so severe that it drove me to wear cargo pants on a regular basis.

And almost universally, tech journalists were wowed by Apple’s “visual voicemail.” Paul Boutin, in Slate:

In a far more impressive tech industry breakthrough, Jobs arm-twisted Cingular to change the data structure of their voice-mail system so iPhone users will be able to pick and choose messages rather than having to listen to all of them in order. If your time is money, that's probably worth the $499 entry price alone.

The fact that I can’t remember the last time I struggled with voicemail is a testament to the iPhone’s triumph. It wasn’t so much that visual voicemail solved the problem—it’s that the ease of the iPhone’s other features, from email to text messaging, have rendered voicemail all but irrelevant to my life.

While the iPhone’s first reviewers may not have anticipated all the ways it would change our lives, most of them were fundamentally right in hailing it as a major breakthrough. (Salam’s three-word summary, “intuitive and rad,” was perfect.) One big exception was here on Slate, where, as Thomas Hazlett recalls today in the WSJ, Columbia law professor Tim Wu dubbed the device “iPhony.” Because of its closed platform and exclusive AT&T deal, Wu said, the iPhone “isn’t yet a revolutionary device.”

Wu’s point may have had philosophical merit, but from a business perspective, Steve Jobs was wise to ignore his critics. Jobs once said that people often don’t know what they want until you show it to them. A look back at the iPhone’s birth reveals that sometimes they don’t know what they want even after they’ve got it.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.