On the 15th Anniversary of the Original iPhone's Release

The early 2000s were a wild time for cell phones. Just ask Mr. Mobile. Most of us had flip phones, like the Motorola RAZR, or candy bar phones, while business folks were emailing and calendaring on Blackberrys and Palm Treos. Nokia had some of the most out-there designs, like their taco-shaped gaming phone, the N-Gage and the 6800, a candy bar phone that flipped open to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard split across its two halves. I had one and it was so much easier to text on than those awful T9 keyboards the flip phones used.

And then, in January of 2007, Steve Jobs got on stage at Macworld Expo and delivered what has since become known as the greatest product announcement of all time. Whatever your opinion of the iPhone today, it is impossible to deny its influence on the rest of the world. And I’m not just talking about how it influenced the phone industry.

The iPhone turned our phones into permanent extensions of our hands. I cannot leave a room without my iPhone either clutched in my fingers or tucked into my pocket. I used to feel naked without a watch on my wrist each day, but now I feel like I’ve left half my body at home if I don’t have my phone on me. Heck, I can’t actually leave my home without it, as it’s become my GPS system while I drive and for a long time, it was my train ticket into New York every day.

That’s the thing about the iPhone–it didn’t just revolutionize the mobile phone industry. It changed–and eliminated–other industries entirely. Here’s a list of things I used to carry before the iPhone:

  • a cell phone
  • a GPS unit
  • a point-and-shoot camera
  • an iPod
  • a handheld game system

Five devices reduced to one.

I remember that keynote. I go back to it once a year on YouTube to try and recapture the excitement I felt when I first saw Jobs pick the aluminum and glass slab off the demo kiosk on the side of the stage. The moment he slid his finger across the screen to unlock it, I knew I had to have it. It truly looked like magic.

And so I spent the next five months saving up the five hundred dollars I needed to buy it, back when I was working for about $32,000 a year and paying rent with two other roommates in a pricey NJ apartment. It was the cause of many fights between me and my now-wife, but I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Only a year prior, I had been on T-Mobile using their Sidekick II “smartphone” and I loved it at first, but it wasn’t what I really wanted. The rubbery keyboard was hard to use for long periods of time and the interface was almost too bubbly. It was a toy disguised as a tool.

Soon after the Macworld keynote, I did everything I could to get out of my T-Mobile contract and onto AT&T, going so far as to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. That did the trick and after a short phone call in the hallway of my college’s main building, I was free. I hurried over to the nearest AT&T store and migrated everything over to a new account.

And then I waited. And waited. I put in for time off at work for the day of release–June 29, 2007–knowing I would be stuck in a line for at least 10 hours. Today, I see people wait on line for sneakers, or concert tickets, or some other big-ticket item and I chuckle. “I’d never do that again,” I think, but it’s not just that I’m fifteen years older than I was back then. It truly was a different time.

Apple was hot, but small. Everyone had an iPod and that’s where most people’s familiarity with the company started and stopped. The Mac wasn’t nearly as popular as it is today. I was rocking a 2006 Black MacBook at the time (my all-time favorite laptop to this day), but I was in the minority. Most of my classmates had Windows-based laptops and my wife, who was my fiancĂ©e back then, had been doing all her schoolwork on a Sony Vaio desktop.

The night before release day, I packed my messenger bag with everything I’d need for my excursion: my MacBook, a book to read, some classwork, my iPod and headphones, and some snacks. My wife woke up the next morning to find that her computer wasn’t working correctly. She needed something to do her classwork on and so, begrudgingly, I left my laptop behind for her to use. I was angry and worried that I’d be bored out of my skull all day as I stood outside the Apple Store at the Short Hills Mall, waiting for them to let me at the device I was convinced would make me the productivity powerhouse I knew I could be.

With one less thing to occupy myself, I jumped in my car and sped down to Short Hills, New Jersey, parked my car in the garage, and hoofed it over to the lower level where the Apple Store was located. I rounded the corner just past the Au Bon Pain and saw the glowing white Apple logo, illuminated like a beacon. I knew the iPhone was going to be big, but I didn’t know just how big until I got in line. I tilted my gaze down to see about thirty people already waiting.

It was 8:00 am.

But what followed is why I say it was a different time. Nobody sitting in that line, nor anyone who came in behind me, had an iPhone yet. Most had flip phones like me. This was going to be one hell of an upgrade. Others were getting rid of their BlackBerrys and Treos. A few had HP iPAQs, true “pocket PCs” running Windows Mobile. I had wanted one for ages and every time I’d enter a carrier store, I’d gravitate toward the display and poke around on them with their attached styluses.

Every one of us was in the same boat. Nobody had the inside scoop. Tech blogs didn’t post “leaks” the way they do today. Prototypes weren’t left in bars. None of us really knew anything beyond what we’d seen onstage five months prior. This was all new, as most tech was back then. It was a time when Nokia phones came in all shapes and sizes, a full year before the MacBook Air was released and influenced every single laptop going forward.

This was still a time when people didn’t use their phones for everything. Younger folks may not remember, but the mobile internet wasn’t really a thing before the iPhone. Sure, it existed in a rudimentary “why would anyone use this?” kind of way, but it wasn’t until after the iPhone came out when the mobile web really saw significant development. And there was no Candy Crush, no Fortnite–no “app for everything.” It was a simpler time.

That’s why I look back on 2007 and the time before with such fondness. It wasn’t that people spent less time on their phones, it’s that technology was still figuring itself out. Everything was in a state of flux and discovery. Today, laptops, phones, tablets, and every connected device is basically an appliance. In fact, we buy computers with less consideration than we do refrigerators or washing machines. Our devices are more like soda brands: we know what we like and we keep buying more of the same.

That’s due in large part to the iPhone.

So, I sat on the cold, marble floor of the Short Hills Mall as hundreds of people filtered in throughout the morning. I spoke to businessmen, dads, moms, teenagers playing hooky, and just about anyone sitting around me. Conversations floated around to whomever wanted to join in. There was no “iPhone vs Android” or even Mac vs PC here. We were all excited tech enthusiasts simply waiting to kick off the next revolution.

The Starbucks in the mall brought everyone small coffees and snacks to enjoy as we waited. A local news crew showed up to interview people waiting in line. If anyone had to go to the bathroom, the rest of us held their spot for them until they got back. And anyone who tried to cut ahead was damn near beheaded until they found their rightful spot at the back of the line.

Finally, just after 6:00 pm, the doors opened. They took us in about 10 at a time, asking us which model we were purchasing. I was nervous. I stood there hoping I didn’t arrive too late. I’d waited an entire day and if I was going to be sent home without an iPhone I, an impetuous 22 year-old, might have burned the place down.

But I didn’t have to worry. There were plenty of units to go around. After fifteen minutes or so, it was my turn. The person at the door welcomed me and asked me what I was there to buy and I nervously told them a 4GB iPhone. They whisked me over to a counter where someone took my payment and handed me a black gift bag with my brand new iPhone inside. And then they applauded.

I’ll say this right now: applauding people dropping $500+ on a new phone was never–and will never be–a good idea. It’s gross. It was the only part of the experience I hated and the fact that they still do it makes me glad I buy my phones online for home delivery nowadays.

With the bag’s handles firmly grasped in my hand, I hurried back to my car and drove back to my apartment. Nobody was there when I walked in. I pulled the box out of the bag, placed it gingerly on the dining table, and removed the outer plastic.

The top of the box slid off slowly. I remember the smell of cardboard and aluminum. I remember carefully prying the device from its cradle inside the box, followed by the satisfying pull of the plastic screen protector from the untouched glass. I remember holding down the power button for the first time and watching the Apple logo appear onscreen, like I had startled it awake.

And I remember the slide, the drag of my index finger across the smooth, glass screen to unlock it as I watched the UI react with such fluidity. No other phone could do this. It really was just as magical at it had looked half a year earlier.

That was the start of my fifteen year love affair with the iPhone. Other devices have tempted me (I REALLY want a foldable, or at least I want Apple to build one), but nothing has pulled me away from the quality and stability of their flagship phone.

My son is seven now. He has only known a world in which the internet is always available. His main computing device is an iPad, which is constantly tucked into the crook of his arm like a stuffed animal. He can watch whatever TV show he chooses whenever he chooses. He’s never had to wait for someone to get off the phone before going online. He’s never had to wait a year and a half for a movie to leave theaters before it was released on home video. He’ll probably never buy physical media in his lifetime and he’ll never know the struggle of standing in the aisle at Best Buy and comparing the placards between two similar laptops.

For him, the internet and iPhones are as common as water and oxygen.

Though technology has advanced considerably in the last fifteen years, the decisions we make around that technology have gotten simpler. People buy what they know. Most phones do the same things–it all comes down to which operating system they prefer (or how locked in they are). But aside from the iPad, I cannot think of a single product that has changed the way we interact with the world–or each other–since the iPhone’s release on June 29, 2007.

I feel bad for the people who weren’t alive or old enough to experience the change, but not in a “things were better back then” way. It’s more that the wonder seems to be gone in today’s jaded, fast-moving tech world. No one waits for the latest phone anymore. They’re commodities. Companies like Microsoft and BlackBerry thought the iPhone would fail even before it came out. They said no one would pay that much for a phone unsubsidized. They thought the demos were fake, that no company–especially little ol’ Apple–could create something so seamless, so joyful in its expression.

But they did, and they turned the world upside down with it. Once the door was opened, other companies started coming out with their supposed “iPhone killers.” And many performed well, but nothing actually killed the iPhone. The iPhone is more than a device. It’s an idea, a paradigm. It cannot be killed. Even if the iPhone disappeared tomorrow, it would still go down in history as the phone that started it all–and I was there to witness it firsthand.

I don’t remember anyone I waited in line with that day. We didn’t exchange numbers and we didn’t keep in touch. It wasn’t that kind of experience. It was just a moment. A single, fleeting, intimate, 10-hour moment between three hundred people waiting to touch the future.

And there will never be anything like it ever again.