Image: Che Saitta-Zelterman

What Is the iPhone? 10 Years In, Its Creators and Chroniclers Explain

The iPhone, according to everyone who makes it possible.

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Jun 29 2017, 6:01pm

Image: Che Saitta-Zelterman

The iPhone is more than just a smartphone. Or an immensely profitable product. Or a hub for your apps. Or a beautiful piece of machinery, or the cause of suffering for miners and laborers the world over. The iPhone is the sum of all those parts and more; the zagging combination of ideas and imaginations, of design and labor, of progressions and exploitations.

What is the iPhone?

I did my best to begin to answer that question myself in the beginning of the week, but it remains a powerful and elusive question, despite its deceptive simplicity. I put that question to a host of people who may better help answer it with firsthand experience. I interviewed many of them over the course of researching my book about the one device—itself essentially an effort to answer the question. What do the iPhone's inventors, manufacturers, students, and historians make of the device that has transformed the world?

So, I asked them each one simple question: What is the iPhone?

Richard Williamson, iPhone inventor, creator of Safari, computer engineer
A computer. A device that connects to the internet wirelessly. A screen that reacts to touch with immediacy. A device that listens, and responds. A device that fits in your pocket and can be with you always... but, these statements of fact belie what is truly important about the iPhone. iPhone is nothing less than a bold evolutionary leap for mankind. Thanks to modern medicine, biological evolution for humans has been circumvented. We've beaten nature at her own game. That doesn't mean our species is standing still. We're accumulating knowledge and making discoveries at an ever faster pace. No one man, or woman, can now know all there is to know in any discipline. Advancement requires tools that augment our intelligence, tools that enable access to information at the tap of a finger, or a spoken request. As a species we are stronger when we work together. Collaboration, too, is necessary for advancement, and of course, fundamental to widening social interactions. Tools are required to facilitate interaction, to shrink the world and bind people together, far and wide. iPhone is such a tool, and more.

Greg Christie, former head of Apple's Human Interface Group, iPhone inventor
The first, best example of a truly converged meta-media.

Even as you broaden the definition of media to include news, information, communication, entertainment, etc.

But unpacking that with references to the ideas and literature would be a ton of work. The definition rotates around writers and technologists like McLuhan, Stewart Brand and Alan Kay.

Visually, the definition starts (or ends) with this:


Imran Chaudhri, user interface designer, iPhone pioneer
The iPhone is a stepping stone on the journey to the promised land of computing; the promise of ease, universality, trust and joy.

Joshua Strickon, input engineer who prototyped the iPhone
The iPhone is two-faced. On one hand, the technology was revolutionary; a fragile combination of a new input device, advanced processing and network access. Much like Neo in The Matrix, it has the ability to download apps, access knowledge, and teach new things. But all that is great about the iPhone comes at a cost that is equally as bad. It is a social disrupter, a child's pacifier, an ambience killer. Social communication has been relegated to people tapping at screens even while sitting at the same table. Never a look up. Unlimited data plans serve to stream YouTube and Netflix to unruly children whose parents drag them out to dinner. The children glued to their screens in a zombie-like stares. A cacophony of sounds emanate as mix of freemium video games and high pitched children's television programming. Glowing screens blind people at the movie theaters. It is a tool of shameless self promotion as users post endless nonsense about their lives to social media.

I believe I am in the minority as I look around when I am out with my own children. Given my background, I have always exposed my kids to technology. But I have always cultivated their interests through other activities, not just iDevices. I am not some anti screen time fanatic, but we do have a rule that rarely gets broken and that is no mobile devices at the dinner table. Luckily, they rarely request the iPhone and would rather build Lego or do an activity book, which we always seem to have with us when we go out. I worry about what the future may bring to those addicted to their screens. My work has always centered around the physical interactions people have with technology. I am most excited about the ways people can take the iPhone beyond its original use, using it as a tool to teach programming, robotics, machine learning and computer vision.

I never imagined a world of people addicted to their Candy Crush or stumbling into fountains, or erratically driving while distracted by their little one devices.

For that I am sorry.

Abigail Brody, former creative director at Apple during iPhone development
The iPhone—which is everything but a phone—is a fork in the road of humanity.

Since its existence, people have been joining into becoming part of one organism and one large, digital neuron.

This is beginning to make a dent in (our human) Universe. The iPhone is not just a digital assistant in our pocket, it shapes our environment: It drives about how we share rides, how we build cities, how we use energy, how we employ and pay people. The iPhone has been changing the face of the Earth in a way that has never happened before*.

*since the invention of fire.

A model of Alan Kay's never-realized DynaBook

Alan Kay, Xerox PARC alum, and father of mobile computing
Not nearly enough for what it needs to be, and very dangerous because of its mostly invisible shortfalls.

Frank Canova, inventor of the first smartphone
In basic terms, the iPhone is a smartphone with a revolutionary UI that makes communication simple. It seems every 10 years or so there's a wireless breakthrough.... Motorola's DynaTAC that made telephones portable (the "cell phone"), Simon that made information portable (the "smartphone"), and the iPhone that has created a mobile always-on world. I look forward to the next 10 years where AI will create further changes in how we "phone".

Li Qiang, founder, executive director of China Labor Watch , former Foxconn worker
iPhone is currently one of the most sexy technological inventions throughout human history. However, rendered invisible by its popularity and ordinariness, is the brutal industrial exploitation on the most powerless human workers.

Ai, iPhone assembler, Foxconn factory worker
Just my work. Nothing else.

Liang, former Foxconn factory worker
iPhone for me is A. networking tool; B. money-making tool; C. a phone brand; D. a way to show off one's status.

Carolyn Marvin, historian of technology, University of Pennsylvania, author of When Old Technologies Were New
The emblematic E-age device known as the IPhone stokes expectations of unfettered personal agency for those who can afford one. These are not the effects we must reckon with. Locally and globally, long and short term, handheld smartphones reinforce existing social, political and economic inequalities and foster far-reaching new ones. They do this by making practices of inequality convenient, rewarding, and aspirational.

This, despite the droplets of leveling to which smartphone apologists endlessly point while promising that interconnectivity will bring inequality to light as never before. The special affordances of E-age devices are precisely those of keeping three-dimensional suffering at a comforting distance while facilitating showy, self-absolving and, in the end, wholly feckless displays of outrage. Whoever clings to the propaganda of Otherwise must be judged incurious or complicit or both.

Bent Stumpe. Image: CERN

Bent Stumpe, multitouch pioneer and former CERN engineer
Today the iPhone is basically a electronic device allowing direct, oral, and visual communication between persons independent of the distance separating these persons. The possibility to use the iPhone as a camera and exploit the possibility of visual communication too, is extensively used. The networks' improved speed performances open up for new applications.

However the iPhone is much more:

Every person, when using the iPhone, is developing his own dependency of the device, strongly pushed by the manufacturers and telephone companies commercial interests. The use of the iPhone is been integrated into our daily lives to an extent where we are slowly changing our personal behaviors and behaviors towards other people leading to constant cultural changes to our lives.

For most persons this is not (yet) a problem, but for some persons the developed addiction can already cause mental disorder or even breakdown if access to the iPhone is taken away for a relatively short time.

I believe that any educational system should incorporate lessons on the immense possibilities the iPhone offers. Updated information about potential risks, when using it, should therefore be integrated into any educational system.

Adrienne LaFrance, technology media critic, staff writer, The Atlantic
One of the things that remains most dazzling to me about the iPhone is the fact that it is this little, glowing printing press that you can carry around in your pocket. Which means the device and its imitators, coupled with a host of user-friendly platforms and an internet connection, has turned billions of people into publishers. Think about that for a second! In the United States, the right to free press was—for so, so long—really only available to a the people who could afford clunky, expensive printing machines or broadcast equipment.

That was the case for more than 200 years, counting from when the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, so the vast majority of the nation's existence. The internet and the mobile web changed all that. The iPhone ushered in an era of ubiquitous computing, yes, but also an age of ubiquitous publishing. Ten years on, this is still so exciting to me, in part because we're only just beginning to unpack the implications of what the democratization of publishing power means. For better and for worse, it's awe-inspiring.

David Michaud, mining consultant, founder of 911 Metallurgy, and iPhone pulverizer
I think iPhones and "smartphones" have turned a complete generation into zombies unable to be present wherever they are & unable to be with whomever they are. Millions of tons of dirt is mined from the ground and endless quantities of toxic chemicals are used to make those pretty iPhones everyone is so in love with.

Adam Minter, e-waste expert and author of Junkyard Planet
I recently visited a Vermont electronics recycling company, and wandered through a warehouse packed with obsolete, difficult-to-recycle devices: electric typewriters, video game consoles, reel-to-reel tape decks, guitar amplifiers, television, spectrometers, stereo speakers, and even some medical imaging consoles. I thought the mashup was interesting, so I took a picture with my iPhone and tweeted it. A few minutes later, Nathaniel Bullard, a renewable energy analyst (and friend), tweeted back at me: "How many of those single-function boxes are now just a module in a smartphone, I wonder?"

Most, I thought. But surely not the air conditioning unit-sized oscilloscope at the front of the picture? A device that large and specialized must remain that way, no? Wrong: a few minutes later Bullard tweeted a link to an oscilloscope app on the App Store.

Almost from the moment the iPhone was released, environmentalists and sustainable designers have criticized the device—and its breakneck upgrade cycle—as fundamentally unsustainable. And they have a point. Despite Apple's considerable efforts at promoting its recycling programs, most of the iPhone remains impossible to recycle. But since that tweeted conversation with Nat, I've begun to think that there's a more interesting way to look at the iPhone's environmental profile.

If, a decade ago, the world's most creative product designers had gathered to design a single object to reduce and even eliminate consumption of difficult-to-recycle, resource intensive devices like stereos, flashlights, televisions, typewriters, and even oscilloscopes, I don't think they could have come up with anything better than the iPhone and the smartphone models that followed and imitated it.

There's no data on how much copper, gold, steel, and other raw materials have been saved by opting for a (frequently upgraded) iPhone for a closet full of older generation electric and electronic devices. But I know (because I measured) it's possible to fit more than 100 iPhone 6's in that oscilloscope sitting in a Vermont recycling warehouse—and each of those iPhone 6 handsets can do far more than an oscilloscope. Of course, the cocktail of materials—copper, gold, rare earth elements, steel, glass and plastic—will be different. But each app installed into an iPhone is—in many cases—one less scoop of ore being refined into a separate device.

Is the iPhone sustainable? I guess it depends on how you define "sustainable." But especially for emerging market consumers in places like India, China, and across Africa, it's certainly more sustainable to buy a smartphone than the bevy of devices bought and eventually tossed aside by previous generations of consumers in developed countries. What is the iPhone? From an environmental standpoint, it's unexpected progress.

Motherboard staff is exploring the cultural, political, and social influence of the iPhone for the 10th anniversary of its release. Follow along .