The question that every investor kept asking [in 2001] was ‘what’s the killer app for 3G?’ It turned out that the killer app for having the internet in your pocket was, well, having the internet in your pocket, but that was the wrong question.

Benedict Evans on predicting the iPhone.

I remember in circa 2001 I had a friend whose father worked for Optus.1 She had this clamshell Sony Ericsson phone with snap-on interchangeable covers, polyphonic ringtones, and the ability to “skin” the user interface. At the time, it was the most baller thing I’d ever seen. It also cost $900, or about $1,300 in today dollars, and had no apps or real internet capabilities. Because those weren’t things on $900 phones in Australia 2001. I mean, you could in theory open a browser but there was no wifi and data charges were exorbitant, assuming your phone plan even had them, which it probably didn’t. So, in other words, people in 2001 were literally forking out a thousand dollars a phone not for what we’d nowadays consider features, but for customization; colorful covers, ringtones,2 and wallpapers. Just think about that for a second.

I did eventually managed to get my own version of the SE phone,3 which I ended up owning until I bought the first available iPhone, the 3G, in 2008. In the interim, I’d also on-and-off used my then-boyfriend-now-husband’s hand-me-down PDA,4 mostly to play Bejeweled (it didn’t have internet either), as well as carried an early-gen Windows-based “smartphone” as part of an enterprise proof-of-concept trial. The Windows phone was the “shiniest” of all the devices at the time, basically because you could use it to get your corporate email and it was considered “trendier” than the BlackBerry. Again, they were about $1k a pop, and the cost of data meant basically no one except enterprises used them.

And then Apple announced the iPhone was coming to the country.

Suddenly, everyone wanted a smartphone, not just corporate users. I think it was Optus who saw the future, and was the first carrier to offer 3G data at “consumer level” (rather than “enterprise level”) price-points. These got bundled in as plans with the original iPhones–it took a while before you could get the same sorts of deals stand-alone–and they irreversibly changed the mobile phone landscape.

At work, we’d only just deployed our corporate mobile roll-out, and now suddenly we were having to deal with execs who wanted to throw away their brand-new BlackBerrys and Windows Phones, because those devices were toys compared to the iPhone.

Think about it. It’s 2008 and with your brand-spanking-new iPhone 3G you can:

  • customize the look, both outside (cases, ringtones) and “inside” (backgrounds)
  • get your corporate email
  • get your private email
  • get your contacts5 and calendar entries
  • replace your iPod
  • play Bejeweled
  • take notes and write stuff6
  • browse the freakin’ internet holy shit like, the whole goddamn internet, right there in your pocket whenever you wanted it what the everloving fuck
  • oh and like make calls and shit whatever I guess.

You can do all that, and the UI looks good, and the device feels nice in your hand. Prior to the iPhone, smartphones might’ve been expensive but they physically felt like shitty high-school graphing calculators, plastic and cheap. The iPhone actually felt like something you’d throw a thousand dollars at.

I picked up my iPhone 3G the day it came out–I left work at lunch time to go get it in another part of the city–and it was fascinating to watch people’s resistance to the idea of the thing fade when they actually saw it. There aren’t many times in a life when you get to witness a new technology cause such a wide-scale social change. Radio, landline phones, television… and the iPhone. Which isn’t even really a phone, and that was the key.

The iPhone is an internet-connected computer you keep in your pocket; that was the revolution. The fact that you can also make phonecalls on it is (almost) incidental.7

Once the iPhone was wild, everyone started playing catch-up. Ironically, it was another telco outsider that got into the ring second–that would be Google, with Android–basically by adopting the same model Microsoft had used against Apple back in the 1980s (i.e. licencing its OS to multiple hardware manufacturers). Microsoft kept its hand in, barely, and everyone else shriveled away.

Nowadays, the iPhone has so changed the way we interact with the world it’s hard to remember what life was like before it. International travel brings it home for me in particular. My parents, bless them, still fret about things like whether we have the addresses of hotels or guide books for how to get around. For me and my husband, however, it’s all about whether we’ll have data on our phones. With the phone, we can do everything from navigate foreign cities to find things to call for help if things go bad. I’ve traveled overseas in the pre-smartphone age, and there was always a sense of isolation, of fish-out-of-waterness to it. Nowadays, not so much. No matter how far you go, home is still there with you, carried in your pocket.

And that, right there? That’s the ultimate “killer app”.

  1. The second of the two big Australian telcos, for non-Aussies. []
  2. Yes, kids. Back In The Day people actually used to leave their ringtones on, basically so you could tell how expensive their phone was. []
  3. IIRC, I bought it with the salary I earnt at my first internship position. And, yes, this is how you can tell how old this story actually is: I got paid to do a four-week internship. []
  4. I’d also had one of my dad’s hand-me-down pre-PDA PDAs in the ’90s. I don’t even know what to call this thing nowadays, but it was basically like a graphing calculator except with a little keyboard, and it stored contacts and calendar entries. []
  5. Back in The Olden Days, your contacts could be stored on your SIM card. “Syncing” them with a computer was Fancy Advanced Magic mostly for corporate users. []
  6. In the 2009 NaNoWriMo I read a forum post from someone stating their intent to write their novel on their phone. I thought they were crazy. Nowadays, I write almost everything on my phone; most of Liesmith and all of Stormbringer were drafted on one. []
  7. Seriously. How often do you use the phone function of your smartphone compared to everything else? Personally, I make maybe three calls a week. Everything else–from group chats with my friends to writing fiction to reading books–is data. []