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The evolution of the iPhone: Apple's journey to the iPhone 5

It now seems certain that on 12 September , at an event in San Francisco, Apple will launch the iPhone 5. It’s almost certain to be the biggest product launch this year. In fact, analysts from Wells Fargo are already calling it “the biggest product launch in consumer electronics history.”

Why? What is it about the idea of a new iPhone that causes such excessive levels of excitement and enthusiasm? What could be so revolutionary about an iPhone with a bigger screen, a better camera and a little more processing power? At the moment, we just don’t know. What we do know is that Apple changed the course of the consumer electronics industry with the iPhone, and that each new revision has – in some way – continued that work. The iPhone 5 might or might not be another game changer, but it’s the device that everyone will be looking closely at, and that every rival smartphone manufacturer will want to beat.

From rumours to reality: The iPhone

To see why the iPhone is important, we need to take a trip back in time to early 2007. It’s hard to remember now what smartphones looked like in the pre-iPhone era; big, clunky devices with clumsy user interfaces and low-resolution colour screens, running stripped-back Web browsers (if at all) and best left for texting and email. Cameras were actually getting pretty good, with 5 to 8-megapixel snappers on leading Nokia and Samsung models, but these weren’t the all-singing phone/media/computing devices we know today. Even devices we’d have considered state-of-the-art at the time – say, the Nokia N95 or the Sony Ericsson W950i – would seem incredibly awkward now.

Rumours of an Apple Smartphone had been circulating for years before Steve Jobs took the stage at the MacWorld Expo in January 2007. Pundits saw it as the natural extension of the iPod line, taking the media capabilities of the latest iPods, adding mobile phone functionality and producing something that could replace two devices in your pocket. As far back as 2002, Jobs had downplayed any ideas of an Apple PDA by stating that PDAs would eventually evolve into next-generation smartphones, implying that Apple was prepared to wait until the technology was there and the moment was right. Look back on the speculation and the artist’s impressions of the time, and it’s amazing how inaccurate predictions were. The iPhone so many envisaged was a slider phone, with an iPod screen sliding up to reveal a keypad underneath, or a soap-bar, featuring an iPod with a conventional mobile keypad bolted on. Nobody saw a stripped-back smartphone dominated by such a large, capacitive touchscreen coming.

Yet that was what we got. Famously Steve Jobs described the iPhone as “a revolutionary and magical product” that was “literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone.” Not everyone was convinced. Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer laughed at the iPhone on US TV, explaining that “It is the most expensive phone in the world and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good email machine.” Tom Smith, a researcher for Universal McCann, believed that there was no room for such a convergence device in the competitive consumer electronics world. “In the markets where multiple devices are affordable, the vast majority would prefer that to one device fits all.” Even respected columnist John Dvorak suggested that Apple was risking its reputation with the iPhone. “There is no likelihood that Apple can be successful in a business this competitive” he wrote in a March 2007 column, going on to add that “If it’s smart it will call the iPhone a ‘reference design’ and pass it on to some suckers to build with someone else’s marketing budget.”

In truth the iPhone wasn’t completely magical. The user-interface was unparalleled – compared to Heaven in a now infamous memo by Samsung mobile boss JK Shin – and the media functionality without equal, but the limited camera, lack of video capture and GPS and slower EDGE connection held it back. Not much, of course. The iPhone sold one million units with 74 days, instantly establishing Apple as a major player in a smartphone market – and that at an extortionate $499 plus contract. When the iPhone launched in the UK in November 2007, exclusively on O2, it was still a whacking £269 plus contract. Did this stop it selling like hot cakes? No.

It’s easy now to underestimate the historical importance of the iPhone, but without it we would not have had Android, the iPad or the tablet computers we are seeing now. The iPhone paved the way for the ubiquity of touch controls, as now seen in everything from the PlayStation Vita to the latest cutting-edge digital cameras, and for touch-friendly operating systems like Windows 8. The iPhone didn’t just change the course of smartphone development, but the course of computing as well.

The successor: The iPhone 3G

Apple’s success with the iPhone has always come down to three things: its mastery of the power of hype, its ability to respond to the needs and desires of customers (which may differ from those of tech journalists) and its ability to anticipate where technology and the marketplace are going. You can see all three at work in the run-up to the launch of the iPhone 3G in June 2008. Sure, the 3G dealt with many criticisms aimed at the iPhone, subtly adjusting the design, adding a choice of black or white colour options and – most importantly – implementing 3G connectivity.

However, the most revolutionary thing that the iPhone brought us in 2008 was the launch of the iTunes App Store. Now the idea of apps might be ubiquitous, but at the time the idea of downloading and installing cheap, simple, highly focused programs was revolutionary. In December 2009 the Financial Times’ Joseph Menn argued that the App Store will prove to be Apple’s most important invention ever. Given the power it has given Apple over its smartphone platform and the financial rewards it has delivered, it’s hard to disagree.

The App Store transformed iOS from an operating system for pocket computers into a viable, fully-fledged platform, and the accompanying SDK created a new bedroom coding industry almost overnight. Apps continue to play a part in making the iPhone the success it is today. While some of us might not like to admit it, iOS is still the place where the most exciting apps happen first.

Advantage, Apple: The iPhone 3GS

Announced on the 8th June 2009 and launched 11 days later, the iPhone 3GS proved how canny Apple could be at observing and then building on the ways its customers were using its technology. Again, the iPhone 3GS fixed issues of the preceding models. The 3-megapixel camera, while not competing with Samsung, Sony-Ericsson and Nokia’s latest snappers, was a big improvement, and enhanced auto-exposure and auto-white balance capabilities, not to mention tap to focus, made it a decent point-and-shoot device. Video capture and MMS messaging were finally in place, and the magnetic compass made a big difference in navigation software and Google Maps.

However, what the 3GS really displayed was that Apple had noticed that iOS was suddenly a games platform. The iPhone 3G and the iPod Touch were building a decent library of titles, and Apple’s TV marketing campaigns were increasingly focussing on showcase games. The iPhone 3GS was built partly to capitalise on this. The handset itself didn’t look much different, but by moving from 90nm to 60nm manufacturing and switching from a 400MHz ARM 11 processor to a 600MHZ ARM A8 with a PowerVR SGX 535 GPU, the iPhone 3GS could offer up to four times the speed of the iPhone 3G in Open GL ES games. It was this that opened the way for Epic’s port of the Unreal Engine 3 to iOS, so taking us from Rolando to Infinity Blade within the space of just two years.

Like all iPhones, the iPhone 3GS had some issues. Battery life wasn’t great, and reports of overheating were rife. Apple suggested that users operate the iPhone 3GS only at temperature of between 0 and 35 degrees, and that it shouldn’t be left in parked cars. Yet, needless to say, the iPhone 3GS was the most successful iPhone yet, selling a million units within its first weekend.

Staring down the competition: The iPhone 4

By June 2010 the iPhone was no longer on its own at the top of the smartphone market. Android was rapidly becoming a credible alternative to iOS, and with the Nexus One, the HTC Desire and the Samsung Galaxy S it had handsets that could compete feature-for-feature with the iPhone, and surpass it in screen size, processing power and camera resolution. If Apple was to continue to dominate the smartphone market, it couldn’t afford to rest on its laurels.

The iPhone 4 was the response it needed. The flat-backed, stainless-steel frame design was stunning, while the 5-megapixel camera and A4 processor saw photography and gaming get another boost. The killer feature of the iPhone 4 was, however, without doubt its retina display. By going from a 320 x 240 resolution LCD to a 960 x 640 IPS display, the iPhone 4 gave us the sharpest and most beautiful screen of any mobile device on the planet. With the addition of a front-facing camera, FaceTime video calls and multitasking in iOS4, it was practically irresistible. The iPhone 4 was – and still is – a great phone, a great gaming device and an excellent media player. It sold three million units within three weeks, cementing Apple’s position at the top of the tree.

Good news for Apple, but there was a fly in the ointment. Within days of the iPhone 4 going on sale reports circulated of signal issues with the new iPhone, caused by changes to the handset design. In practice, it wasn’t quite as easy to get the so-called ‘death grip’ as some suggested, and Apple blamed the problem partly on an over-sensitive signal bar display. However, the company felt the need to provide customers with free bumper cases, which alleviated the problems, and offer a full refund for any customer left unsatisfied.

More power: The iPhone 4S

Still, the iPhone couldn’t stand still. By October 2011 it was facing a new wave of rivals, including the Samsung Galaxy S II, the HTC Sensation and the LG Optimus 3D. Dual-core processors and stronger mobile GPUs meant that the iPhone 4 couldn’t claim to be the fastest or most advanced smartphone in town, and the 5-megapixel camera was looking distinctly mid-range.

Announced on 4 October 2011, the iPhone 4S followed the design of the iPhone 4, but pushed forwards in three key areas. First, the dual core A5 processor, as used in the second-generation iPad, meant a dramatic improvement in performance, with a claimed sevenfold increase in GPU speeds. Second, a new 8-megapixel camera with a CMOS back-illuminated sensor and a fast f/2.4 lens made the iPhone 4S a viable photographic tool, a fact backed up by legendary portrait photographer Annie Liebovitz’s description of it on US TV as “the snapshot camera of today.”

Finally, Apple added something new for that trademark ‘magic’. Nearly one year on it’s hard to understand the excitement around Siri – particularly with its much-discussed failings with local content in the UK – but at the time the idea of natural language communications with a smartphone seemed incredible, and it’s arguably still a pointer to the way things will one day go.

Has the iPhone 4S been successful? You bet. Over a million units were pre-ordered within the first 24 hours, and it sold four million within three days of launch. Sales might have been surpassed by the Samsung Galaxy S3 in the US during the last month, and Samsung’s handset has also become the best-selling handset of 2012 for the UK’s Phones 4U, but overall the iPhone 4S is still the one to beat, with 20 per cent of smartphone sales in June.

Can Apple do it again? The iPhone 5

If the success of the Samsung Galaxy S3 shows anything, it’s that Apple’s leadership of the smartphone sector will not go unquestioned. Samsung wants it, Microsoft and Nokia want it and Google, Sony and HTC are also aiming for the same goal. This makes the iPhone 5 a particularly crucial release. It needs to demonstrate that the iPhone is still on the cutting edge.

We already know or suspect many things, including a bigger widescreen-format display, a new camera, a new processor and a new dock connector to supersede the ageing 30-pin port that the iPhone inherited from the iPod line. We know that iOS6 will bring us an enhanced version of Siri, plus NFC, improved social network integration and Apple’s own Maps app, with turn-by-turn navigation and a 3D Flyover view.

But it’s what we don’t know that should excite us. In the past, Apple’s best devices have bought in some new feature that promises to change the way things are done, or take the iPhone out to a whole new audience. If the iPhone 5 can’t do the same, then it’s going to be a major disappointment. Only on 12 September will we know if this is just another iPhone, or a device that could turn things upside down all over again.

Stuart also recounts the history of tablet computing in our Road to the iPad mini feature.