Year 15 Of The iPhone: A Quick Recap
The smartphone that sculpted an industry
“There’s an app for that.”
With a touch-screen interface that put phones with keyboards to shame, the iPhone was nothing short of revolutionary back in 2007. While Steve Jobs’ vision had its fair share of critics, it’s nigh impossible to predict what smartphones would have looked like today without the iPhone. Not every iteration set the world ablaze but the iPhone’s legacy is undeniable.
Combining an iPod’s ability to play music with a smartphone’s connectivity set the stage for something far more compelling.
While Apple’s flagships had their share of flaws, bold choices and bolder price points changed the face of the smartphone industry. Here’s a look at the 15-year-long journey of the iPhone, from strength to strength:
iPhone (2007) [6 million sold]
The first iPhone felt like the future in the palm of your hand. Sure, it had a bulky frame and didn’t have an App Store. A 620 MHz processor, 4 GB of storage and 128 MB RAM don’t sound inspiring either. But using the first operating system built around a touchscreen felt like an invitation to become greater.
The iPhone was also the first phone that wasn’t controlled by wireless carriers. It was exclusive to AT&T ($199 on contract; $499 without) until the iPhone 4 arrived but Apple set the terms: no more poorly designed bloatware apps.
With the iPhone, Apple’s vision of putting computers in people’s hands took on a whole new meaning.
iPhone 3G (2008)
Apple’s second generation of the iPhone brought many noteworthy improvements to the table.
GPS and 3G connectivity rounded off the $599 smartphone’s toolset. The iPhone 3G switched the metal back of its predecessor with polycarbonate. It would take Apple another year to introduce staple features like multitasking and changing your home screen’s wallpaper.
Mind you, this was before in-app purchases existed.
iPhone 3GS (2009) [35 million sold]
The S in 3GS stood for speed.
Reportedly twice as fast as the iPhone 3, the iPhone 3GS sported a higher resolution camera and improved video performance. Voice control, a crude predecessor to Siri, also made its debut. 16GB of storage wasn’t great but it was twice as good as the iPhone 3.
The 3GS was also the first phone to feature an oleophobic coating, keeping fingerprints off its glass panel.
iPhone 4 (2010) [50 million sold]
The thinnest smartphone at the time (9.3 mm), the iPhone 4’s steel frame sandwiched between layers of glass remains an iconic piece of engineering.
Its design elements continue to influence the smartphone industry. The iPhone 4 introduced the world to the Retina Display, a notable leap in quality from its predecessor.
The iPhone 4 was also the first iPhone to feature a front-facing camera, making its debut alongside Apple’s FaceTime video chat feature. The phone was released alongside the iPad, the tablet that would spark yet another revolution.
Unfortunately, the iPhone 4 was infamous for its antenna issues, now known as Antennagate.
iPhone 4S (2011) [60 million sold]
I’ll never forget that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs lost his struggle against a pancreatic tumor the day after the iPhone 4S was revealed. His efforts pushed us into a new era of computing and the world will forever be indebted to him.
The $649 iPhone 4S added an S for Siri, Apple’s brand-new voice assistant. Bumping the processor to an A5 and the camera to an 8-megapixel lens with 1080p recording helped the iPhone 4S retain its flagship throne.
The 4S was the last iPhone that featured Apple’s 30-pin connector.
iPhone 5 (2012) [146 million sold]
The iPhone 5 replaced the aging 30-pin connector with the Lightning port, a core tenet of the modern iPhone.
While fans cried foul over having to purchase new accessories, it’s a decision that Apple has stuck with to this day. The 10-year-old port’s days are numbered though, with the EU pushing for USB-C adoption.
Its nearly 16:9 aspect ratio and a redesigned aluminum frame made for a striking appearance. The return to metal from the 4S’ glass back was a welcome one. LTE support was added to the iPhone 5, in addition to a faster A6 processor.
With over two million pre-orders in 24 hours, the iPhone 5 built on Apple’s ability to smash sales records. It was also one of two iPhones (alongside the 4S) that offered users five major iOS updates.
iPhone 5S and 5C (2013) [164 million sold]
Sure, the first 64-bit processor in a smartphone sounds impressive. Its M7 motion co-processor now tracked fitness activity. But the iPhone 5S’ real gift to the world was Touch ID, a fingerprint recognition system that changed smartphone security as we know it.
On the other hand, the $549 iPhone 5C was effectively an iPhone 5 in a colorful polycarbonate frame. Some consider it a predecessor to the iPhone SE and XR.
Apple also launched the EarPods, wired earphones included with the iPhone 5S at no cost. The iPhone 5S and 5C launched with iOS 7, a divisive update that traded the timeless skeuomorphic look of earlier iterations for flat and vivid elements. iOS 7 also brought with it AirDrop, a WiFi sharing tool that remains a core part of the Apple ecosystem.
The iPhone 5S had incredible staying power thanks to six major iOS updates.
iPhone 6 and 6 Plus (2014) [224 million sold]
Apple’s eight-generation iPhones took aim at the success of Samsung’s Note series.
With larger 4.7 and 5.5 inch displays (a jump from 4 inches), the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were no longer minuscule. The rest of the spec sheet received modest boosts too, with speedier processors, better cameras and a new NFC-based payment system.
The Retina Display began to show its age, especially with sharper displays offered by the iPhone’s rivals. Its svelte frame was prone to bending, dubbed “Bendgate” by critics. But that didn’t stop the iPhone 6 and 6S from becoming the most successful iPhones to date in terms of sales.
10 million over a launch weekend remains an incredible feat.
iPhone 6S and 6S Plus (2015) [174 million sold]
The first course of action for Apple’s new iPhones was to adopt a stronger aluminum alloy to evade “Bendgate.”
In addition to the regular host of improvements, the 6S and 6S Plus showed off 3D Touch, a new pressure-sensitive input system. While the feature made its way to Macbooks later, 3D Touch was eventually dropped from Apple’s iPhones.
Seven major software updates meant that the 6S and 6S Plus were in for a long ride. Its mediocre battery life didn’t hold it back from garnering widespread appeal. 13 million devices flew off virtual shelves during the 6S and 6S Plus’ launch weekend.
A small portion of iPhone 6S users experienced faulty batteries, an issue that Apple quickly remedied with free battery replacements.
iPhone SE, 7 and 7 Plus (2016) [160 million sold]
Apple’s tenth set of iPhones dropped something integral to the iPhone experience: the Home button. Sure, a static home button is better than no home button. But 3D Touch couldn’t revive the tactile feel of its predecessors.
And that’s in addition to an even bigger change: the lack of a 3.5 mm headphone jack. While a Lightning-to-3.5-mm adaptor alleviated the wound, the decision would cause ripples across both consumers and manufacturers. Case in point, the wireless Bluetooth earbuds Apple launched alongside the iPhone 7: the AirPods.
The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus brought home the usual bunch of improvements along with optical image stabilization and a telephoto lens exclusive to the 7 Plus. Water and dust resistance was a nice touch, one the industry was quick to borrow.
The iPhone lineup now started with 32 GB of storage instead of 16 GB. But the $649 7 and $769 7 Plus weren’t the only phones in Apple’s lineup. The affordable iPhone SE was effectively an iPhone 6S in a 5S body. And yes, this $249 phone retained the headphone jack.
iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, X (2017) [124+63 million sold]
The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus were minor iterations, only adding a glass back and wireless charging in addition to the now-standard improvements in performance. They were also the last iPhones to feature the Home button, if only a static one.
The iPhone 6’s design was getting old in the tooth so Apple did what it did best. It created an even more premium and divisive device: the iPhone X. Celebrating the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, the iPhone X featured a stainless steel body and drastically reduced bezels. The first OLED display in an iPhone also featured the now-instantly recognizable notch that housed the sensors necessary for Face ID, Apple’s new facial recognition tech.
The lack of a home button and a screen with minimal bezels led to a new gesture-based navigation system. Its $999 price tag for the base 64 GB variant was hard to swallow but Apple was just getting started. The iPhone X didn’t sell as well as traditional iPhones but it didn’t need to. It sent a message, that innovation always had a home at Apple.
iPhone XR, XS and XS Max (2018) [151 million sold]
Dual-SIM support, finally.
Apple’s twelfth-generation iPhones all shared the iPhone X’s recognizable notch alongside the expected bunch of improvements.
Like the iPhone 5C, the new $749 iPhone XR came in a variety of colors. This time, it featured the same processor as the XS and XS Max. But the XR didn’t step up to an OLED display and stuck to the old LCD Retina Display of yore.
The $999 iPhone XS (now starting at 64 GB of storage) and $1099 XS Max had their fair share of flaws.
Known as “Chargegate,” the first complaint referred to the new phones unable to charge when the screen was turned off. Users also faced LTE and WiFi connectivity problems until they were resolved with an iOS update. The phone’s cameras also performed erratically at times, resulting in skin being smoothed over, dubbed “Beautygate.”
iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max (2019) [159 million sold]
While the new phones from the Cupertino giant didn’t look too different this time (minus a few neat colors), the iPhone 11 lineup received some powerful upgrades under the hood.
For instance, the incredible A13 Bionic chip and ultra-wide cameras. The 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max were the first iPhones to feature the Pro moniker. They featured a new tri-lens camera system and a frosted matte glass finish.
While the notch still served a purpose, critics began comparing it to the punch-hole cameras that were becoming commonplace. The $999 entry point was becoming a bitter pill to swallow.
iPhone 12, 12 Mini, 12 Pro, 12 Pro Max, and SE 2nd gen (2020)
Apple was quick to appeal to fans who wanted smaller and affordable iPhones. The iPhone $699 12 Mini and $399 SE 2nd gen (iPhone 11 in an iPhone 8 body) were efforts in that direction.
The new iPhones finally shook things up in the design department with flat edges, a callback to Apple’s earlier iPhones. While the bezels were shrunk even further, it would take another year for Apple to cut down on the size of the notch. Apple also paid attention to durability, with ceramic-hardened front glass in addition to the existing Dual-Ion Exchange strengthened glass at the back.
The 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max added a LiDAR sensor and the ability to capture photos in the lossless ProRAW format. The Pro models also stepped up to 128 GB storage as the minimum. All iPhone 12 models featured the first ARM-based 5 nm processor, the A14 Bionic.
Apple also introduced MagSafe, a magnetic connector for accessories like chargers and cases. The iPhone 12 also had access to 5G communication.
The iPhone 12 lineup was the first set of iPhones that ditched the power adapter and EarPods. They now came bundled with only a USB-C to Lightning cable. Adding insult to injury was “OLED-gate,” an issue where the iPhone’s black pixels didn’t shut off completely while displaying black hues.
iPhone 13, 13 Mini, 13 Pro, 13 Pro Max, and SE 3rd gen(2021/2022)
The fifteenth generation of iPhones did little to build over their predecessors besides a smaller notch. Surprisingly, the $429 iPhone SE (3rd gen) that launched a few months after the iPhone 13 borrowed its A15 Bionic processor.
The iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max now had 120 Hz displays, a feature now common among rival smartphones. Bigger batteries coupled with adaptive refresh rates helped the Pro models achieve even better battery life. While a higher refresh rate isn’t the best way to segregate the iPhone lineup, it certainly boosted sales of the Pro variants.
While the impact Apple’s phones have had on the industry is irrefutable, some fans are skeptical of the Cupertino giant’s ability to innovate.
iPhone 14? (2022)
With an EU mandate on USB-C looming, it’s only a matter of time before Apple drops the reliable Lightning port standard.
And with smartphones getting better cameras and processors all the time, Apple needs something different for its 15-year anniversary. Something divisive like the iPhone X. While the iPhone X’s notch was ridiculed at launch, it’s a recognizable design element proudly shown off by millions today.
Is a phone with a flexible display too much to ask for?
Here’s to more surprises from the company that shaped a generation of smartphones and phone users. Despite being critical of their pricing, I appreciate Apple’s attention to detail and its dedication to delivering the very best. Industries need companies like Apple to push the baseline forward.
Here’s to Apple being different.