The Least Important Part of the iPhone…

Image: Apple

The iPhone is now ten years old. There have been countless think-pieces and assessments and re-reviews of the original device. If the anniversary had taken place about a month ago, I would have joined in the cacophony of iPhone-takes, writing something for Gizmodo.

But I’m no longer a journalist by trade and I can’t access my personal websites’s backend because of some sort of database error that I don’t have the energy to deal with (I’ll figure it out soonish), so I’m doing what every other millennial who works at a tech company does: I’m blogging on Medium.

To me, the most interesting part of assessing the iPhone at 10 isn’t all the ways the device has revolutionized various industries or changed the way we communicate, it’s looking at the least-revolutionary part of the iPhone: The phone itself.

Oh, 2007!

If you asked 100 iPhone users what is the most-commonly used app they use on their iPhone, you might get a few dozen different answers (iMessage, Safari, a mail client, and Instagram would probably be the leaders), but you know what app you probably won’t hear about? The phone app.

Ten years on, the least important part of the iPhone is the phone itself.

Make no mistake, cellular connectivity is a huge part of the device (if it wasn’t, the iPod touch would still be frequently updated), but the “phone” part of the iPhone is one of its least important apps, and the app that I would argue is least consequential to the device and platform’s success.

Ten years on, the least important part of the iPhone is the phone itself.

In fact, when I think about the myriad of ways that the iPhone Changed Everything™, the thing it changed the least was the art of making phone calls.

I didn’t have an original iPhone (I was too poor and it didn’t have apps), but call quality over AT&T’s less-than-stellar 2G network wasn’t the greatest. Thinking back to those halcyon days of the summer of 2007, I remember talking on the phone to friends with an iPhone on my Razr or BlackBerry (I think I was back on a Razr then), marveling at just how bad the user sounded. (To be clear: I firmly blame AT&T’s 2G network and not Apple for that.)

The original iPhone was famously three things: “a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communications device.” That one device has phone in its name (and in its famous description), but if you look at Apple’s early marketing around the iPhone (the original “Hello” commercial aside), it focused on those other two areas, the widescreen iPod and the internet communications device.

Ten years ago, I made more personal phone calls than I do now. Sure, I most certainly sent text messages and IMs, but in a world where text messages cost money (remember those days?), you couldn’t have full-length conversations the same way you could today. And although keyboard phones were totally hot, plenty of people were still stuck on T9. So you got on the phone and talked to people.

How fucking archaic.

Moreover, the easy act of merging calls aside (which is still slick as hell, even in 2017), nothing about the way you made phone calls on the iPhone was demonstrably better than how you did it on a Razr or BlackBerry or Motorola Q. And ten years after the iPhone, UX changes aside, I can’t think of a feature on the iPhone itself that has changed less than the phone app.

By default, Apple still puts the Phone icon on the iOS dock, but I don’t know anyone (aside from maybe my mom) who keeps it there. And if I do make audio calls on my iPhone today, if I’m calling another iPhone user, I’d rather use FaceTime Audio, because the quality is better. Since iOS 10, users have even been able to use other VoIP apps as dialers in place of the actual phone app.

It’s funny, when I started reviewing smartphones in 2008 or 2009, I would often include a section on call quality. Somewhere around 2010 that went from being a paragraph to being a sentence or two at best; the phone call aspect simply didn’t matter to me or to my readers. It was only when reviewing wireless earbuds that I would do more strenuous call tests, and that was much more a reflection on the accessory, not the device itself.

The “phone” part of the iPhone matters less and less every day. There are apps. There are cool technologies like ARKit. Voice matters, but in the context of Siri, not Ma Bell. The iPhone’s lasting legacy is as a computer, not as a phone.

At some point, the “phone” moniker in “iPhone” is going to seem quaint, the same way the “i” moniker feels legacy now. In fact, in ten more years, when we’re using whatever the 2027 vision of the smartphone is, I bet the focus will be even less “phone” focused. The functionality (via VoIP or VoLTE or whatever the hell 2027 tech exists) will remain, I’m sure. But it won’t be important enough to earn the place in a name. Or on the home screen.