Last week’s anniversary a reminder that mobile internet was propelled by the iPhone


Ten year ago last Thursday Steve Jobs stood on a stage in San Francisco and told a thrilled audience the most famous of his “one more thing” lines. It was the iPhone. And it changed everything.

The world has never been the same again. The internet moved from our desktops to our pockets. It took on a centrality in our lives that we could never have imagined when we were thrilling at how voice calls and SMS had freed us from the office desk.

If you cast your mind back to 2007, the average cellphone was distinguished by how small it was. Nokia was the king of the voice-calling 2G era, selling two out of three phones in the world. Its 2-inch screen phones where the epitome of cool, and the handset of choice for Neo (Keanu Reeves) to escape from The Matrix, the groundbreaking film about the possibilities of what we now know as virtual reality (VR).

Back then the only (reliable and convenient) way to get your email on your cellphone was on a BlackBerry. The rudimentary wireless broadband was expensive and slow. Getting the internet on these tiny screens was both cumbersome and infuriating.

But the iPhone changed all of that by ditching the keypad as the interface. It was the singular innovation of having just one button – an obsession of the simplicity-obsessed Jobs – that was arguably the most striking break with tradition. That and the “huge” 3.5in/8.8cm screen, which seems comically small in relations to today’s average of 5- to 6-inch screens.

Because it used our fingers, the iPhone was something brand new. It revolutionised the mobile internet because it eschewed the previous touchscreen interface, which was that impossible-to-use stylus. Jobs pioneered not only using our fingers, but more than one. This is the often overlooked reason the iPhone’s interface was so extraordinary. Because it could handle so-called multitouch, it was possible to pinch-to-zoom: one of the iPhone’s great breakthroughs because it reduced websites designed for larger desktop screens to manageable and readable chunks.

The first iPhone was more orientated towards email than SMS, given the then market bias of the United States, and you couldn’t forward a SMS in the first iteration.

Although larger screens and other innovations would start to emerge from the Android camp in recent years, Apple would still break ground with innovations like the app store (with the iPhone 3GS in 2008, and now accounting for a significant revenue share), voice assistant Siri (iPhone 4s, 2011), the slim, reversible Lightning connector (iPhone 5, 2012), and fingerprint readers (iPhone 5s, 2013).

As Facebook reached 2bn users last week, it’s worth recognising that there is no way it could have reached such numbers without the smartphone revolution that the iPhone has led. Mobile has become the default device of our new data-intensive era, propelling other services to greater user numbers, including YouTube (which counts its 1.5bn monthly users as those logged into the service), Instagram (700m) and Twitter (328m). Chinese messaging giant WeChat has 938m monthly active users, and the new kid Shapchat has 166m daily users.

None of this would be possible without the trail blazed by the iPhone.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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