Ten years ago on Thursday, June 29, the iPhone went on sale.
But the cultural effects are even more dramatic. With the iPhone (and Google’s imitator, Android), we became, for the first time, a society of people who were online continuously—wherever we went. Our communications blossomed from text messages to video calls, Snapchat, FaceTime, and Skype. Billion-dollar businesses like Uber, Snapchat, and Instagram sprang into existence. Distracted driving, distracted walking, distracted eating, distracted dating, and even distracted sex became things.
Steve Jobs had unveiled the iPhone onstage in January 2007, but the phone he displayed wasn’t anywhere near finished. His presentation followed a carefully scripted series of steps that had been programmed to work just for the demo. It took six more months for Apple to finish the phone—and to bring it to market on June 29.
By that point, the hype had grown to almost deafening levels. A thousand people stood in line around the block at the Apple Store in New York City, hoping to be the first.
I went into New York and persuaded the line-standers to participate in a parody music video called “I Want an iPhone,” to the tune of “I Did It My Way.” Remember this?
Only four people outside of Apple already had iPhones. They were the four tech writers Apple had chosen to review the phone: Steven Levy, then of Newsweek; Ed Baig, of USA Today; Walt Mossberg, then of The Wall Street Journal; and me, then of The New York Times.
For my “CBS Sunday Morning” story honoring the iPhone’s 10th anniversary, the four of us got together—for the first time ever on camera—at Yahoo’s New York office. To reminisce, to schmooze, and to reveal long-held secrets. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.
For your reference, here are the players:
Steven Levy (formerly Newsweek, later Wired, now editor-in-chief of Backchannel, which was recently bought by Condé Nast—as part of, once again, the Wired group. Here’s his reminiscence of the iPhone reviewing cycle.)
Ed Baig (then and now, personal tech columnist for USA Today).
Walt Mossberg (formerly Wall Street Journal, then cofounder of ReCode, then executive editor of The Verge—and as of today, retired.)
David Pogue (formerly New York Times, now tech critic for Yahoo Finance).
POGUE: We are assembled on the anniversary of a great event, the unveiling of the iPhone 10 years ago. Let’s start with the easy one. What have been the effects of the iPhone on society and culture?
BAIG: Well, for one thing, you can’t go anywhere without seeing somebody like this (mimes being hunched over the phone).
MOSSBERG: I think the effect is even broader. The smartphone is the personal computer now. The laptop, the desktops, are what we always think of when we hear “PC or Mac.” But really, the personal computer that people rely on, is the one that Steve Jobs introduced 10 years ago.
LEVY: It’s a universal prosthetic. It basically makes the computer part of who we are. It’s the way we get things done in the world. The way we communicate, how we call a car. How we do our our work, watch our entertainment. It’s like losing a limb to go out in the world without your smartphone.
POGUE: Were all four of us in the room when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone?
BAIG: I actually was not. I was at CES, Consumer Electronics Show.
POGUE: What’s wrong with you, man?
LEVY: Couldn’t you get a plane? (LAUGHTER)
BAIG: What was fascinating is I spent all this time in my hotel room writing about, guess what? The iPhone. My editor says, “So what have you seen at CES?” I said, “My hotel room!”
MOSSBERG: So Jobs unveils the iPhone six months before he’s gonna sell it. I get a call from the PR people, and they say, “Oh, we’re having an event.” And the date is right in the middle of the Consumer Electronics Show, which is a big deal if you’re a tech reporter. And I said, “Well, I don’t know if I can go to this.”
So five minutes later, the phone rings and it’s Steve Jobs. And he says, “Walt, you’ve gotta come.” And I said, “Steve, it’s the middle of CES—I’ve got all these appointments.” And he said, “You are gonna kick yourself if you don’t come to this.”
I go to the airport, and the 10 p.m. flight to San Francisco was filled with journalists and analysts who were going to the iPhone event.
POGUE: So Jobs took the stage, and he did that joke about, “we’re unveiling three different products today. A wide-screen iPod. A revolutionary phone. A cutting-edge internet communicator.” And then he said, “These are not three separate devices—this is one device!” What was your reaction?
LEVY: There were a lot of questions. I talked to him [Jobs] afterwards. I said, “Is this gonna be open to third-party developers?” He was arguing against that. Saying this is going to be like the iPod—you know, “we’ll build a few things in.” And if other people wanted to build things on the iPhone, they would build them on the web. They would be “web apps.”
POGUE: I’m sure Steve told all of you the same thing he told me as his rationale for not permitting other companies to write apps. He said, “It’s a security issue.” He always used this line, “We wouldn’t want some badly written app to take down the whole West Coast phone network.”
MOSSBERG: Of course, he caved the next year.
POGUE: There was a lot missing from this phone. People forget—it had no front camera. It didn’t have a flash for pictures.
MOSSBERG: It didn’t have cut and paste.
POGUE: It couldn’t record video. And you couldn’t even send a picture as a text message.
BAIG: And you couldn’t even stick certain headphones into the headphone jack without an adapter. We couldn’t do business email.
MOSSBERG: ‘Cause you were on Exchange.
POGUE: All four us, for our respective publications, wrote these reviews [here’s mine]. And we all essentially said the same thing: it’s got a million flaws. But we all said, it’s clearly a new approach that nobody’s even taken before.
LEVY: Yeah, yeah. We understood that it could be transformational [Levy’s original review].
MOSSBERG: I think I called it a revolutionary hand-held computer. I wanted to make the point that it wasn’t just a phone. The core apps that Apple built in were pretty sophisticated for a phone. The weather app, the stock app. These things were colorful and fast for a phone. And I remember all of us said, “Wow, this screen is huge.” (LAUGHTER)
BAIG: I went back and read my review, too. And I said, “I thought I would miss that physical keyboard, but I really didn’t.” And that was one of the big breakthroughs of it.
MOSSBERG: I said, “After three days, I was ready to throw this thing out of the window for trying to type on glass.” It was just so hard. But all of a sudden, it sort of clicked in. And by the end of the test period, I was pretty happy typing on glass.
LEVY: You know, it’s 10 years later, and half the emails I get still have a little message underneath saying, “Typed on phone, forgive typos!”
MOSSBERG: The big Achilles’ heel for the first iPhone was AT&T. You had to be on AT&T.
BAIG: And it was their Edge network. The slowest!
LEVY: You would see that “E” [on the menu bar], meaning, you’re in the Edge network. You were in Molasses Town.
POGUE: It was so slow! I clocked it. It took a minute to pull up The New York Times webpage. Can you imagine someone today being patient enough to spend a minute for a website?
MOSSBERG: Right, so, this was Steve’s explanation: The chip sets for LTE [today’s fast cellular network, barely introduced in 2007] were too power hungry. And too physically large. They wouldn’t have had great battery life, and wouldn’t be able to fit in there.
MOSSBERG: Steve kind of made a deal with the devil. He did this very, very important thing: Apple was the first handset maker to be able to say to the carriers, “You have nothing to say about the design of our phone.”
POGUE: Yeah! In those days, Verizon or whoever would say, “Here’s what the menus have to look like.” And he said, “No. I have carte blanche, or no deal.”
MOSSBERG: Yeah, and he could do that ‘cause he had a brand, because of the iPod. He had a bigger brand than any of the carriers did. And AT&T was rebranding itself, and they needed something. They only saw drawings! He didn’t even show ‘em the phone before they signed the deal!
And so Apple was the first handset maker to get away with no carrier branding on the phone. No carrier input into those menus. No carrier input into the hardware. Nothing. But it was deal with the devil because for X number of years—
POGUE: It was four years.
MOSSBERG: —you could only get AT&T.
POGUE: So the deal with the devil was, “You give me carte blanche on design, and I give you, AT&T/Cingular, four years of an exclusive.” Would you say that that gave Google and Android their opening? Because they were able to come to the other carriers without that restriction?
BAIG: You can definitely make that case. It did provide an opening for them.
MOSSBERG: So we get the iPhone two weeks early. But we still have all these restrictions—
POGUE: We were not allowed to show it to anybody.
MOSSBERG: I’ll just tell you a story—
POGUE: And what did you go and do? You held up the phone in front of an audience!
VOICES: Yeah! (LAUGHTER)
MOSSBERG: I was giving what I thought was a closed talk. To who? To college presidents. And I thought, well, this is not a kind of blabby audience. So I just I held it up and, you know, waved it. And I was talking about it.
POGUE: You got in trouble for that!
MOSSBERG: I did. Yeah, he [Jobs] called and yelled at me.
BAIG: I was in my suburban New Jersey town. There was a town carnival or something. And people suspected that I had the phone. One very inquisitive neighbor comes up and says, “Let me see your pockets. Empty your pockets!” I said, “No, no. I can’t.” “I know it’s there. Empty your pockets!” I just walked away.
But I will say, we had two days between the time our reviews came out and the thing went on sale. I have never been more popular in my life. I wish I had this thing in high school, you know?
LEVY: My craziest story is, it was like the Friday morning. I did an interview outside the 59th-street Apple store. It was with FoxNews TV. Local news, not, like, you know, Sean Hannity. We were doing, you know, the interview. Someone went behind us. And I thought he was gonna grab the iPhone, but he grabbed the microphone from the Fox reporter and ran off with it. And they tackled him and arrested him!
MOSSBERG: Today it would be, like, saturating Twitter.
LEVY: But not the phone. They grabbed the wrong device!
POGUE: Well, I have my own story. I guess after 10 years, I can finally reveal this shameful experience.
During the two-week period where we had the iPhones and no one else did, I had a talk to give in Lake Como, Italy. It was a red-eye. I was exhausted. It was a long cab ride to the venue of the talk. And during that cab ride, I fell asleep and I slumped into the chair. And little did I know, but that iPhone, which was a slick little device, slipped out of my pocket.
MOSSBERG: You lost the loaner iPhone?!
LEVY: You lost 25% of the loaner iPhones in the world?
POGUE: I did! I got out of the cab. And I said [patting pockets]—“NOOOOOOO!!!”
Fortunately, I had the receipt. I gave it to the organizer, who spoke Italian. She called the driver. The guy brought it back. I emptied my wallet to him. But he was livid at having had to come back. He didn’t know what it was.
MOSSBERG: He had no idea.
POGUE: (Italian accent) “Here’s your stupid device!” (LAUGHTER) I dodged a bullet this big!
MOSSBERG: So we’re all doofuses.
POGUE: I’m sure we won’t use that in this story.
MOSSBERG: If you keep my college presidents in, you have to keep that Italy thing in. (LAUGHTER)
POGUE: So. Now iPhone sales, for the first time in 10 years, have reached a peak and are dipping down. What is that about?
LEVY: Well, I think on one hand, they’re waiting for iPhone 8. Apple has a cadence of coming up with improvements that sort of force us to upgrade. If you’re holding a phone that’s two years old, you know, wow, it’s time for something new.
BAIG: I mean, the fact is, they’re good phones. Yeah, we all may want a feature here or there or a tweak here or there. But they’re good enough to use for a very long time.
MOSSBERG: And it’s not to say if they bring out a spectacular 10th anniversary phone later this year, that they won’t see a spike. I mean, look, as recently as the last Christmas holiday quarter, they sold, I wanna say, 75 million iPhones. [Apple sold 78.3 million iPhones that quarter.]
POGUE: It seems like Apple, for many years, was basically a machine to execute Steve Jobs’ ideas. It’s a really rare thing for the CEO to be the chief product guy. And a lot of people say, since Steve Jobs died six years ago, Apple doesn’t have this idea man anymore. Is Apple’s sun setting now? Are they done with innovation?
BAIG: Well, I do think they’re a victim of their own success. How often can you come out with something that changes the world? I mean, we’re all unfair in the media sometimes. “Oh, they haven’t had a hit lately.” Well, who else had a hit lately? It’s not an easy thing to do.
LEVY: I think we’re gonna look back on the Apple developer conference a couple weeks ago and say, “that’s when Apple really started talking about virtual reality and augmented reality.”
MOSSBERG: Apple has thousands of people working on augmented reality. And the first fruits of that were, they didn’t bring out an augmented reality app. They didn’t bring out an augmented reality phone, which is what Google did. They brought out a foundational augmented reality system in their operating system, with a developer’s kit.
POGUE: They’re saying, “We’re not gonna make it—you developers make the apps.”
MOSSBERG: They claimed that overnight, when this comes out which in the fall, it’s gonna be backward compatible with hundreds of millions of iPhones. So overnight, it will be the biggest augmented reality platform.
BAIG: And they’re also going into the speaker market with the Homepod.
POGUE: That’s right. But I think we’d all agree Siri has some catching up to do.
MOSSBERG: They blew a big lead this year.
POGUE: We just have a couple minutes left. I’d love your closing statements. Ten years in, what’s the impact of the iPhone? Is it what we predicted?
LEVY: I was dazzled by it. I felt, wow, this is really going to change the way I work. But I would be lying to say I understood how big a deal it really would be 10 years later, how much it would change everything.
MOSSBERG: We don’t have Steve Jobs around to ask, but I don’t even think he foresaw the hugeness of it. I don’t think anybody did.
BAIG: In my original review, I wrote, “It’s a child prodigy that still needs some growing up.” And I think they grew up. Does that mean it’s perfect? Of course not. But think they grew up from that prodigy into something that was bigger than any of us or Apple could’ve expected.
MOSSBERG: I think there’ve been three big inflection points since the PC era started in around 1977. And Apple was involved in them all in one way or another. One is the popularization of the personal computer. Second was the web. And Apple didn’t invent the web, but they saved the Mac by calling the iMac an internet computer. And then, of course, the third big things was smartphones. Which is the thing that if you forgot it, you would turn around and drive home if you were driving.
POGUE: It’s my impression that all the tech news these days is not about gadgets anymore. It’s fields. It’s artificial intelligence and machine learning and computer vision. Are we past the era where one product can change the world like that?
MOSSBERG: For anyone who cares, I’m about to retire. So I had to write a big column. And I took a few weeks to do it. And I talked about this there.
It’s a very funny period right now. There’s this giant boiler room going in these labs. At all of these big companies: Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, biotech stuff. All this stuff is going on. But it’s not hitting the consumer market yet. And it probably won’t in its fullness for another 10 years. Right now, there’s this lull in the consumer market, cause all the energy is being spent on development.
BAIG: A lot of this stuff coming out is gonna be invisible, too. It’s gonna be in the wall. It’s gonna be in the ceiling.
LEVY: I don’t think they’ll ever be a moment like this where a place picks four reviewers and says, “this is it.” All three of you have spent the next decade doing great product reviews. But to me, this is the peak of technology product reviewing there. We were up in the Himalayas there. And there will be no similar experience.
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David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, is the author of “macOS Sierra: The Missing Manual.” He welcomes nontoxic comments in the comments section below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email.