The First iPhone Was and Wasn’t What You Think
Eight years ago today, I stood in the underground expanse of Apple’s Fifth Avenue flagship store. It had been open barely a year, a glass cube parked in the middle of Manhattan, home to a colorful array of iPod Nanos and plasticky white MacBooks. I was there to watch the very first sales of the very first iPhones.
The line had snaked along several blocks, the ratio of Apple devotees to scalpers the inverse of what you find today. People had waited for days, unshowered but enthralled. Krispy Kreme had handed out donuts. FAO Schwarz, the Apple Store’s iconic neighbor, gave out gift bags to the first 100 (there were so many people, you could divide by hundreds) soon-to-be customers.
I wasn’t one of them. To buy an iPhone, I thought, you’d have to be crazy.
It was a transitional summer. The Sopranos had cut to black just a few weeks prior, followed days later by the premiere of the first Michael Bay Transformers movie. Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani were the odds-on favorites in their respective presidential primaries, though Obama and McCain had been closing ground. I don’t remember the exact temperature that day, probably because it was so average; hovering in the 70s with the occasional drizzle, according to the National Climatic Data Center.
I do, though, remember why I was at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store that afternoon (the first iPhone went on sale at 6 p.m., rather than the early bird bonanzas we have now). I was a business reporter for a Japanese newspaper at the time, the Yomiuri Shimbun, and I had come to survey the scene.
In some ways the assignment felt almost anthropological. The iPhone had already been announced, after all, the previous January, features and functionality laid bare in a keynote that had lasted well over an hour. Besides, it would be another year before any iPhone, the 3GS, found an official release in Japan, where it was met with a frosty reception.
Sure, there was some small mystery left about the phone itself; what it would look like in person, how it would feel to hold. But in the five intervening months between reveal and retail, the iPhone had been so thoroughly discussed and dissected that the most interesting thing about it on June 29 was the people who were willing to spend so much time and money to acquire one. It’s the latter that convinced me that these people were mad.
So much has been said about the first iPhone’s so-called deficiencies that we can just tick them off quickly here. It had no App Store. It was only available on ATT, whose network was ill-equipped to handle the onslaught, especially given that it was limited to the achingly slow Edge (2G) network. The display caught fingerprints like Jerry Rice caught touchdown passes. It had no copy/paste function. You couldn’t change the wallpaper. The list of grievances goes on and on.
That first day, though? Most of those limitations barely registered, or if they did were rightly outshone by the simple miracles of how the iPhone handled input and how it browsed the web. There had been touchscreen phones before, sure. IBM developed one all the way back in 1992. They were outliers, though, in large part because they were clumsy and bad. There were also plenty of internet-equipped phones in the world; the first Windows Mobile device had hit seven years prior. But the iPhone—in part because ditching the physical keys provided more display real estate—gave a full online experience, rather than a stunted simulacrum.
The one accusation you could rightly level at that first iPhone was its objectionable price. The options: $499 for a 4GB model, or $599 for an 8GB model. Eight years doesn’t feel all that long ago, but adjusting for inflation still means that the top-end iPhone cost the equivalent of $687 today, plus a two year ATT contract (this was, after all, before the popularization of smartphone subsidies). It was literally twice as expensive as its closest competitors from BlackBerry and Palm, which were no iPhones but weren’t bad. And remember, without an App Store or the dozens of other features that would be stapled on through the years, the first iPhone wasn’t really an iPhone either. At least not in the way we think of it today.
(You might at this point be thinking that I just don’t get it, but I assure you that I do! So did Apple; it took less than three months for the company to cut the 8GB model price by $200, to $399, and to drop the 4GB option altogether).
And that was the crowd on that first day of iPhone sale: scores of humans willing to over-wait and overpay. Cheering Apple Store associates, beleaguered (as a state of being) tech reporters. Including one, a 26-year-old business reporter from the New York bureau of a Japanese newspaper, who had no idea what all these people were thinking.
We were both right and both wrong. Did they pay more than a reasonable human should for a phone? Sure! In the process, though, they also bought—and arguably became—a small part of history. Was that first iPhone deficient? Absolutely, in so many ways. Not nearly as much as we frame it today, though. Besides, it was still the foundation for future devices that inarguably, profoundly, inextricably changed the world. First drafts always suck; just ask Raymond Carver.
The further we get from history, the more we mold it fit into our narratives. We sharpen muddled edges, let inconvenient facts fall and elevate the rest. There was so much wrong with the first iPhone. The first iPhone represents a societal shift. Both of these things are mostly true, but also a little not. The people who were there that day, though, won’t ever forget it.
So much has changed in the eight years since the first iPhone went on sale, and so much hasn’t. Hillary Clinton leads the polls again; FAO Schwarz is leaving New York City. I eventually bought an iPhone; now I have an increasingly flaky Moto X. I might go back this fall. If I do, it’ll come with the smallest bit of nostalgia for 2007, the implicit understanding that the closest I’ll come to the shared experience of that day is tracking my shipment—one of millions hurtling to destinations around the globe—online.
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