Happy Birthday, iPhone -- Your Days Are Numbered

The iPhone was revealed five years ago today, although it would be another six months before it was made available to the public. That’s a very unApple way to do things. Typically, the company keeps its cards very close to its vest, right up until a product is ready to ship, or very nearly ready. In this case, Apple apparently figured the months-long FCC approval process was going to lead to leaks anyway. So why not tell everybody exactly what was up, then make them wait for it?

At the time of the big reveal, RIM was caught flat-footed:

The BlackBerry maker is now known to have held multiple all-hands meetings on January 10 that year, a day after the iPhone was on stage, and to have made outlandish claims about its features. Apple was effectively accused of lying as it was supposedly impossible that a device could have such a large touchscreen but still get a usable lifespan away from a power outlet.

The iPhone “couldn’t do what [Apple was] demonstrating without an insanely power hungry processor, it must have terrible battery life.”

Word is, the folks in Redmond thought the same thing at the time.

So here we are five years later, and pretty much every smartphone looks and works like an iPhone. The only significant changes to the original iPhone were the additions of GPS and the App Store. The former is a very nice convenience. The latter changed the way we use our phones, buy our software, and think about computing. iOS has gotten some lovely upgrades over the years, but nothing to really compare with the two biggies I just mentioned.

No, the iPhone screen hasn’t gotten any bigger or smaller. Nor is it likely to. If Apple thought a bigger (or smaller) screen worked better, then that would be the size they’d make. (Same goes for the 9.7″ screen on the iPad.) The form factor has hardly changed at all. In fact, the iPhone 4 and 4S aren’t merely indistinguishable, they look more like the iPhone 1 than the iPhone 3 & 3GS did. Materials determine the form, and for the moment, there’s nothing better out there than machined aluminum and Gorilla glass. When that changes, so will the phone.

In other words, Apple scored a home-run in its first at-bat in an industry filled with entrenched incumbents — who spent the next two years trying to copy Apple’s success. And they did it by copying Apple’s… everything else. Today, there is a report that by 2013, each Android phone sold could earn Apple $10 bucks a pop, due to copyright infringements and licensing fees.

As I’ve said before: Google makes Android, but Apple makes money.

The unanswerable question is: What comes next?

Apple believes — I won’t say “at its core” — in demolishing its own platforms. Steve Jobs famously said, “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.” Apple introduced the iPhone at a time when iPods accounted for nearly half the company’s profits. And yet, iPhone included “the world’s best iPod” on it — for free. Just another feature of the phone. iPod sales have been in decline almost since. Meanwhile, Microsoft was launching the ill-fated Zune to compete with the iPod, while Apple was destroying the iPod from within.

So what does come next? How will Apple upend — I won’t say “its own applecart” — the iPhone? It hardly seems possible, but the platform is five years old now. That’s how old the iPod was when the iPhone was revealed.

Something tells me change is coming yet again, sooner rather than later. I don’t know exactly when. I certainly don’t know what. But I fully expect to be amazed and delighted by the magic of something insanely great.