Defining the 21st Century

The iPhone is the best selling product ever, making Apple perhaps the best business ever. Because of the iPhone, Apple has managed to survive to a relatively old age. Not only did it build a device base well over 1 billion it engendered loyalty and satisfaction described only by superlatives.

To summarize I can offer two numbers:

1,162,796,000 iPhones sold (to end of March 2017).

$742,912,000,000 in revenues. $1 trillion will be reached in less than 18 months.

But more important than any of these quantifiable measures of success are the unquantified accomplishments. These are the changes we note only when flipping an A/B switch on a decade. The changes ushered by the iPhone have been as momentous as those of the Ford Model T. Or those of electricity, telegraph, radio or TV.

These are epoch-making technologies. They shape the fiber of society and the definition of quality of life. They obsolete entire economies and change the balance of political power. They shift the center of gravity of society.

To glimpse the change you only need to observe how we shifted how we spend our time. The fact that 2 billion people are using Facebook every day. That the device is looked at for 2 hours a day. That it’s unlocked 80 times a day. That it holds almost all our memories and our conversations and all our secrets. That it created new modes of communication and destroyed others, ancient and respected.

That it substituted communications, entertainment, and interaction. That swiping became the most used human gesture. That we communicate with photos and not with words. That, like the voice call, transportation now comes to us rather than we to it. That it can answer to our voice. That we can never be lost again. That it makes us all publishers.

That all this happened while the product itself was always perceived as fragile, vulnerable, copyable, doomed to early demise. That imitators outnumber it 10 to 1. That it somehow found ways to become better even though we exhaust what we can ask of it.

For all these reasons I believe that future historians will point to the iPhone as the technological product that defined the 21st century. Much will follow from it and it may become something altogether different but it set humanity on a new course.

  • Accent_Sweden

    The dawn is past, the sun high.
    Blazing us blind as we ignore the sky.

  • AAPL.To.Break.$155.Soon.>:-)

    Despite the overall growth of the iPhone, Apple is still deemed a company and stock on the way down with WS believing even Microsoft has more potential than Apple. There’s really something wrong with this picture. Apple certainly doesn’t belong with the unlimited potential FANG stocks which continue to climb without end. Apple has stalled again and can only depend on iPhone sales to move the share price up only a little bit.

    • jbelkin

      Not sure why people don’t get Apple – other than it’s the FIRST LARGEST CAP company that does not depend on a monopoly. Guess it scares WS that Apple earns its stripes EVERYDAY by delivering the best product for users. And now that Apple is 100% free of ransomware – maybe some of those idiot companies will stop using non-fire resistant cladding ANd switch to Macs.

      Microsoft? They are a fine enterprise company but still wastes BILLIONS chasing consumers (Xbox, $35 BILLION in the hole, Surface sales are already dropping) – or look at it this way, it’s been 20 YEARS since they’ve had a hit product with consumers – 20 YEARS and you’re still “touting” ther potential?

  • jbelkin

    Yep – Iphone – the AIR CONDITIONER of the 21st Century. SOCIETAL CHANGING.

    • PhillyG

      HD listed the Model T, electricity, telegraph, radio, and TV. He conveniently left out the telephone, the camera, and the internet. Fact is the telephone put the Phone in iPhone. Similarly, the internet put the i in iPhone, and the camera is the tail that now wags the dog

      • Joe90

        I note your not refuting anything HD said, in fact, what point, if any were you trying to make?

  • Fran_Kostella

    A powerful computer running a sophisticated operating system in your pocket, with a superior touch interface? I was working on touch systems then and they were universally poor. Yes, a century defining product! But for me the clincher, the thing that opened up the world in a new way and made it world changing, was Jobs breaking the horrible grip the carriers had on the web and the internet in general. Remember how you could “browse” the “web” back then? I could rarely get a non-trivial page to fully load or not crash, and my carrier limited the domains I could visit. Primarily it was set up to fill their coffers and force me to pay for their mediocre and unreliable services. The iPhone was the first mobile device where I could do just about any networking thing that I could do on a desktop and it was open! To me this was on the order of Tesla’s AC electrical system changing every home in the US.

    • handleym

      “Yes, a century defining product!”

      Let’s not get carried away. Decade-defining, sure. But it is more than silly to imagine that we’ll still be using smartphones in 2099. Even apart from the wilder possibilities (body/brain implants, rewired genetic code, etc) it is highly likely that wearables will vastly reshape our vision of computing, just like smartphones did.
      Already the smart glasses vision (in a variety of different forms, from Hololens to VR glasses to ARKit) is on the edge of becoming real — it will probably be the technology of the 2020s.
      Meanwhile a different, parallel, stream is the IoT vision, along with the ambient computing vision (basically that’s where Amazon is heading).

      Hopefully (yeah, right, because people are so rational about this…) the ONE thing that WILL have been established by 2025 or so i the utter idiocy of talking about the one universal computing device in a world where every person interacts with 50 different CPUs in 50 different form factors every day.

  • klahanas

    Waaaaay overstated. Now apply the same “metrics” of success to the internet itself and see that it’s “The Internet” that belongs in the comparison to electricity, etc.

    Heck, what would the iPhone be without the internet? Any Smartphone for that matter.

    • twoways

      Do you think the internet was “released” in the 21st century? Do you think it is a product?

      • klahanas

        “The changes ushered by the iPhone have been as momentous as those of the Ford Model T. Or those of electricity, telegraph, radio or TV.”

        The comparison of the iPhone to electricity, etc. is a historical standard, spanning centuries. The internet far exceeds the magnitude of the iPhone when looked at in that scale. In fact smartphones are far less useful without it.

        Without the internet a smartphone can:

        -Be a phone – Yes

        -Be a camera – Yes

        -Be a music player -Yes (more limited in the iPhones case, or any device without an exchangeable memory slot).

        -Be a limited video player. (storage restrictions)

        -Be a limited navigation system (storage restrictions)

        -No email

        -No Web

        -No Twiiter

        -No Facebook (you get the drift)

        -Word Processing and Spreadsheets – If you really cared….

        Is the internet a product? Yes it is! Most definitely. It consists of both hardware and software. Is the telegraph a product?

        I think that it’s rather arbitrary (and optimistic) this early in the 21st century to make such broad statements about the impact of the iPhone. Even Symbian and Windows phones in 2007, or even 1990s could do what the iPhone did at launch, and more. They just sucked at it. Form factor and design was the iPhone’s greatest influence.

        The publicly available internet is about 22-25 years old. That there happened to be a turn of the century in that aspect does not relegate it to 20th century tech, it too is evolving and vibrant. There were PDAs that did everything the iPhone can do, except make calls, in the 1990s.

        Anyway, this is a business site, and I’m looking at it with technical filters.

        Did I actually just read the iPhone getting credit for “The fact that 2 billion people are using Facebook every day.”? How many of those would access Facebook by other means? Granted, less than 2 billion, but certainly not the whole 2 billion. How many access Facebook on Android? PC? Mac? Do they not get any credit? Please!

        I assume the author is an analyst, and I find it amusing when the bookie is also a cheerleader. I guess it’s natural.

      • Space Gorilla

        Okay, one more reply just for fun.

        Without the smartphone the internet can:

        – Be a mobile phone: no
        – Be a mobile camera: no
        – Be a mobile/streaming music player: no
        – Be a mobile/streaming video player: no
        – Be a mobile real time navigation system: no
        – Provide email service on your person at all times: no
        – Provide the web on your person at all times: no
        – Access Twitter on the go: no
        – Access Facebook on the go: no
        – Word processing and spreadsheets anytime anywhere: no

      • klahanas

        A Compaq (later HP) iPAQ (pre-iPhone) with internet connectivity can be:

        -A mobile phone (VOIP) or cellular.
        -A mobile camera and an upload source for a dedicated camera.
        -Definitely a mobile/streaming music player and far less restricted.
        -Definitely a mobile/streaming video player and far less restricted
        -Definitely a real time navigation system.
        -Email at all times.
        -Web at all times.
        -Twitter at all times
        -Facebook at all times.
        -Word Proc and Spread same issues.
        PDAs also had memory slots so they weren’t as storage limited.
        All applicable to laptops, even better, as well. Oh, and we could tether out feature phones for models that didn’t have cellular. Still the internet is the vital element for most these functions.

      • But laptops of any type have never had the popularity of the iPhone. The point is that there are so many people using the iPhone to do stuff (including access the internet) that it has surpassed pretty much everything as a connection device.

      • klahanas

        Technical impact is not to be confused with popularity. I agreed elsewhere that PCs (and thus laptops) have been oversold, and the Smartphone is the main computer of the masses. No disagreement here. The Smartphone without the internet is NOT the computer for the masses, because the internet IS the computer for the masses.
        (Paraphrasing Bill Joy’s “The network is the computer”)

      • twoways

        I don’t even know where to begin in responding to this very long comment that completely misunderstands both what I wrote, and what was written in the original article.

    • Space Gorilla

      You’ve missed the point. The internet is very important, of course, but the modern smartphone (an era ushered in by the iPhone, only fools would argue otherwise) is what has unleashed the power of the internet and more. The smartphone has changed the pattern of our lives, shifted behaviours, and will continue to do so as it spreads to most of the world over the next two decades. The smartphone is the tool that makes internet access possible for many (water in the ground is far less useful without a pump). This device drives engagement and makes new services possible while revving up existing ones to incredible levels (Facebook, etc).

      The iPhone isn’t being compared directly to electricity. What is being compared is the impact on the patterns of our lives, and in that respect it is a good comparison, especially when you look two decades ahead at a world where much of humanity has a powerful computer in their pocket everywhere they go. The iPhone has changed the world, there’s no doubt about that.

      Cue the predictable response about Android market share which will only prove that you still don’t grok what Horace has said. I won’t waste my time replying to you.

      • klahanas

        Without the internet the impact of the patterns of our lives would be quite less. Still good, but less. And this is for smartphones in general, not just the iPhone. I laid out my reasoning in the post you didn’t respond to.
        Electricity’s impact on our lives far eclipses anything any smartphone did. Inserting the smartphone in that comparison of importance is simply laughable. But I’m not going to try to convince you of that.
        You and I have a history. Either I missed the point, or you did. My vote goes to “you did”.

      • pk_de_cville


        Electricity, Internet,… Wheel, Agriculture, Sailing Vessels, Metal, Swords, Guns, Banks, Religion.

        “Defining the 21st Century” – (You do know Android was relaunched on the day of Apple’s iPhone intro, yes? And you’ve seen the picture of what Android was until the day before iPhone launch?)

      • klahanas

        Android, Symbian, WP, and even feature phones were capable of the same functions, and more. Like I said though, they sucked. I’m not minimizing the elegance of the iPhone, but I’m sure not hyping it up to these stratospheric levels either…

      • Fran_Kostella

        I think one key difference about the use of the internet that smartphones ushered in was the near universal adoption of the internet beyond the most developed nations. There are now over 5B people with access and the majority of them see the internet through a smartphone and not via cables connecting desktops.

        I think the two work in tandem. Kinda like roads and cars, you can either one but the pair makes the 20th century work in a new way. Likewise, internet and smartphones put nearly all of the human race in a new place for the 21st century.

      • Space Gorilla

        Well said.

      • klahanas

        I agree on the accessibility provided by smartphones. Not everyone needs a PC either. They were oversold. But if you need a PC, the Smartphone is no substitute.

        My objections here are the overhyping of the Smartphone, with the iPhone being a case in point. Framing it in such a grandiose historical context was way over the top.

      • handleym

        Horace isn’t arguing that smartphones have, can, or will replace PCs. Read the article!

        All he is saying is that smartphones have changed the world substantially over the past decade. Just like PCs changed the world substantially over the 80s and 90s. And mainframes changed the world substantially through the 60s and 70s. (Slogan of the 1968 generation “Human being: do not fold, spindle or mutilate”.)

      • klahanas

        Smartphones have become the means for most of humanity to access the internet, a position previously held by desktops and laptops. If all you want is internet, the PC is overkill.
        Dediu hyped the crap out of it, almost giving Facebook’s success to the iPhone, while disregarding other means of accessing Facebook.

      • Space Gorilla

        “most of humanity to access the internet, a position previously held by desktops and laptops”

        Incorrect. Some of humanity use desktops and laptops to access the internet (especially in the first world). The smartphone (following the iPhone model) is the device that allows “most of humanity to access the internet”. This will become even more clear over the next two decades.

        Desktops and laptops have never been and never will be “the means for most of humanity to access the internet”, so you cannot say “a position previously held by desktops and laptops”. Most of humanity being able to access the internet is an entirely new “position” held by an entirely different kind of device.

      • klahanas

        I have no idea what you’re smoking, but how did they access the internet in the 90s and early 2000s, mostly? Feature phones?

      • Space Gorilla

        You don’t seem to understand the distinction. Some of humanity had access to the internet in the 90s and 2000s, through desktops, laptops, and a few crappy feature phones. The iPhone model is what has made it possible for most of humanity to have access to the internet, people who will never own a desktop or laptop. Surely you understand the difference between *some* and *most*.

      • klahanas

        Then we agree…
        Smartphones have replaced the bulk of internet access previously done by PCs…

      • Space Gorilla

        Not at all. Smartphones have brought internet access to people who would never have had access via PCs. It isn’t a question of simply replacing the same usage that existed in other devices. The smartphone (again, following the iPhone model) has given (and will give) internet access to an order of magnitude more people.

        With PCs only *some* of humanity had access to the internet. With smartphones we then move on to “most” of humanity being able to access the internet (this is still happening of course and will take a couple decades to fully play out).

        I suppose using your line of thinking you might understand it better if you think of it as replacing and extending access. But make no mistake, desktops and laptops were never going to be able to extend internet access to “most of humanity” (your words).

      • klahanas

        How does that change what I said? If the pie grew though smartphone use, which I left as understood, my statement is 100% accurate. The “some” of humanity that previously accessed through PCs (the majority of users at the time) now has “most” of humanity through the smartphone (the majority of users now).

      • Space Gorilla

        Here’s what you wrote: “Smartphones have become the means for most of humanity to access the internet, a position previously held by desktops and laptops.”

        That glosses over the importance of how much smartphones (following the iPhone model) have increased access. It would have been more accurate to write:

        Smartphones have become the means for most of humanity to access the internet, where previously desktops and laptops allowed only some of humanity in more privileged positions to access the internet and could never have enabled most of humanity to access the internet.

      • klahanas

        Gloss schmoss. It was accurate. I’ve long maintained, even on this thread, that PCs were oversold. If all you wanted from a computer was internet access, then a PC does not make sense.

      • Space Gorilla

        That’s a different topic, and you’ll be proven wrong on that one as smartphone capabilities grow and people’s use cases grow to match those capabilities. The smartphone is about much more than just internet access. It will be the engine that powers a personal hub of computing over the next couple decades and perhaps longer. Mobility is the key.

      • klahanas

        It might be the hub, or it might be the lock on the gate.
        Mobility is good, but it’s not everything. Do you really like to type a report on your smartphone?

      • Space Gorilla

        Where’s your imagination? Read what I wrote again, “the engine that powers a personal hub of computing”. See if you can figure it out. I gotta go.

      • klahanas


      • handleym

        And without printing there’d be no electricity.
        And without writing there’d be no books.
        And without fire there’d be no writing.
        You can always go backwards, and if your only metric for importance is “does A utilize B” then the only thing we can say for certain is that matter and energy are the ONLY important things in the history of humanity.

        But this type of analysis is not especially interesting — all it does is repeat what we already knew, ie the time sequencing of what came before what…

        What’s of interest, therefore, is not whether A builds on B, but whether A opens up a whole new set of vistas way beyond what was possible (and even imagined) back when B was new.

        I HAD access to the internet in 1989 (pre WWW). And believe me, I wasn’t imagining the ability to carry it in my pocket, to use it to order up cars, to use it to check on video cameras around my house, etc etc; and neither was anyone else I knew or read.
        And it’s not enough to say “Well this Science Fiction writer, and that TV show, imagined blah”. There’s something of a gap between fantasizing about something and making it happen… (If there isn’t, well then, show me your working Star Trek Transporter beam…)

      • klahanas

        My metric is impact upon humanity. See what I wrote above…
        For most of humanity, the internet IS the computer, the smartphone the most popular, but one way, to access it.
        Yes printing, wires, and fire and the wheel are more important than the smartphone. Still.
        Making money is a separate matter.

    • TimT9999

      Let’s not compare apples and oranges. The writer is talking about a product and about a 21st Century product. Electricity is a force of nature that is used to drive products, more like kerosene or gasoline. The internet isn’t a product, we don’t go to the store and buy it. It is a communications platform.

      • klahanas

        It’s not a consumer product. On the consumer level it’s more a service, but the internet moves billions upon billions of hardware. Still more on software. Surgical tables are not consumer products either, but they are products.

    • Sacto_Joe

      Waaaay overblown defense by you, klahanas, of a statement that was never made by Horace. The internet was a 20th century develoment, not a 21st century one. And as others have said, the develoment by Apple of a truly functional pocket computer was not limited to accessing the internet.

      One must wonder why it is you feel that you have to defend your false narrative so vociferously….

      • klahanas

        Even Symbian had several App Stores, so did Palm and Windows phone so I don’t know what you’re referring to.

        As I said in previous posts, the internet is still evolving, it’s not just 20th century, but 21st as well. Anyway, it’s entirely arbitrary to put a line in 2000. And while we’re at it the iPhone is being compared by Dediu, to monumental technologies over centuries of history. Sorry, it doesn’t belong in that comparison.

        “The changes ushered by the iPhone have been as momentous as those of the Ford Model T. Or those of electricity, telegraph, radio or TV.” – Dediu
        My take… That’s BS and flat out shameless spin. Smartphones, including the iPhone, introduced no new capability that didn’t exist before it. It may have performed better at some things, worse at others, but there was nothing new. I say this from a technical perspective, not a business one.

        The iPhone’s main innovation, as well as the LG Prada, was using a full screen and have that be the keyboard. Nice, very nice, not nice enough to be on the same level as electricity, the telegraph, radio, TV, etc. I submit to you that the Internet belongs in that comparison.

  • obarthelemy

    Aren’t you overlooking that
    1- most of whatever is being done on mobiles (FB !) is done on Androids, not iPhone?
    2- most of what the iPhone brought to US audiences (Web, pictures, music, eventually apps, Maps, payments….) was already available to non-US audiences a few years before the iPhone, and would certainly still be even w/o an iPhone ?

    Attributing everything mobile to Apple like so many do is mostly wrong even with a limited, US-centric outlook, and utterly wrong when taking a global view. Apple deserve huge credit for making IT easy and sexy, but they did not invent, nor pioneer, any of the technologies nor features.

    • klahanas

      What you say is likely correct on business grounds, but to put the iPhone in particular (let me add the smartphone in general) in the Pantheon of human technologies at the topmost level bordered on the offensive.

      To make a smartphone you generally need:
      CPU + RAM + Display + GPS + Camera + Battery + OS
      Market forces, not technical ones, introduce “ecosystem”

      Companies basically compete on their excellence on those components and how they are integrated and utilized. Apple did not usher in any of these first, nor did they market the smartphone first. They did design better using already established tech.

      To give the author (presumed Dediu) some credit, they were referring to the enabling aspects of the iPhone. The “putting a computer in your pocket”. It did put a computer in your pocket, but so did the high end feature phones of the day. What was unique about the iPhone is that it established an improved usage pattern.

      It’s “The Internet” belongs up there with “Guttenberg”, not the iPhone.

      • obarthelemy

        I think a point could be made that the internet’s impact improved dramatically with mobility and apps. A wired-only internet, or an internet limited to the Web + chat, would be less useful/impactful by an order of magnitude or more.

        Maybe we’re more in a roads / cars analogy, or copper wire / phones, rather than a printing press / books one ?

      • Kenji

        The credit does indeed rightly go to the iPhone for the reasons Horace mentioned. Here is why:

        Apple, and only Apple, had the vision to create something that created a paradigm shift in how people live their lives. Apple did this by leveraging a collection of some -separate- existing technologies, engineering some new ones, and architecting innovative software to bind all things together. That’s the genius of Apple.

        All others were simply incapable of connecting the dots. For instance, when FingerWorks created MULTI-TOUCH in the early 2000s, no one on Earth imagined that it could be the foundation of a never-before-seen computer interface. (Let’s not be naive in comparing that to TOUCH-SCREEN tech that has been around since the 60s; BIG difference.) Only Apple saw that potential and built it in the iPhone in 2007. Compare that to Google’s Android, it had trackball and cursor, and naturally NO multi-touch. It took Google till late in 2008 to copy a rudimentary version of multi-touch.

        In a macro perspective, the iPhone is the sum of a vision that only Apple was capable of piecing together, and that others could only follow.

      • obarthelemy

        Except the iPhone didn’t bring everything together:
        – no appstore (to borrow your words, it took Apple until 2008 to introduce an appstore that Android had from the get-go, and other phones long before that)
        – mediocre camera
        – mediocre data
        – mediocre storage
        – no support for old media (TV and radio)

        The iPhone did 2 important things
        – Introduce the US market to smartphones
        – Make smartphones easy + sexy
        Features-wise the 2 things it brought to the table were a fat OS and multitouch w/ a sensible multitouch UI (esp. compared to MS’s horrendous at the time phone UI).

        That’s important, actually that’s key, but it’s not *everything*. Features/capabilities-wise, the original iPhone was very retrograde, and remained so for 2 iterations – and in some aspects still is. There’s a reason why the iPhone initially didn’t take off in markets that already had other smartphones available.
        And the copying certainly went both ways.

  • Don D.

    I had Fortran on punch cards in high school, used time-share BASIC on a 30-baud teletype with punched paper tape storage in my first job, bought the first hand-held calculator TI made, bought my first computer in 1980, used email in the 80s,did contract programming of PCs in the 90s, saw the PC explosion which resulted once MS finally managed a (relatively) stable GUI, worked for an SAS dot-com in the naughties, and used cell phones for 24×7 monitoring of our site. I’ve lived through and participated in the entire genesis and evolution of the computer age.

    Unlike many here, I value the importance of design and Its interface with (and influence on) human behavior, and I recognize the significance of ecosystems. I agree with the author. The iPhone was revolutionary – one only has to review the consternation of the Blackberry engineers when they disassembled it. All cell phone manufacturers were forced to copy it, and all that power and connectivity in your pocket has changed the way we live, from a decibel meter, tuner and tone generator on my belt to banking services in remote parts of Africa which lack conventional infrastructure. We’re still developing applications, and technology will continue to evolve, but you have to be short-sighted to not realize that the iPhone catalyzed a paradigm shift in human behavior.

    • klahanas

      The mobile phone itself, yes the dumb kind, had a more profound impact on people’s lives than the state of affairs before it existed. Before the smartphone you carried a laptop and a cellphone. No new technical capability came with the smartphone, only access, but access is not technical ability.