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Evolution of the iPhone

With the iPhone 8 and iPhone X launched, here’s a quick look at the incredible journey of a device that revolutionised an entire smartphone industry

Ah, the iPhone. Historically, almost always the world’s most popular phone. Even now in 2017, the iPhone 7 commands nearly a huge 6% market share by itself. Think about it! Out of every 100 smartphones in the world, from dozens and dozens of manufacturers, 6 of them are iPhone 7 s. Added to the fact that the number of active iOS devices crossed a billion in January, last year, it really puts into perspective just how many people own an iPhone. And it isn’t hard to see why. Just like every other Apple product out there, it’s built really well and the hardware is top of the line for most components. Not to mention the UI and OS are all pretty good, and almost all the apps are optimised.

The iPhone is a case study in brand loyalty like no other

Just a couple of months and a decade ago, June 28, 2007 to be precise, Apple released the iPhone, which inarguably, revolutionised the whole mobile computing world. Being able to use your finger to perform so many tasks and doing away with implements such as physical keyboards and stylus’ to have a (at that time) huge screen was truly an astounding thing. Looking back now, we can say for certain that the first iPhone is one of the major shaping forces of how technology grew from then.

Evolution of the iPhone

The first iPhone was touted as Apple ‘reinventing the phone’. And they did. The touchscreen display, with physics-based interactions such as the rubber band bounce when you scrolled to the end of a menu was a technological marvel, miles ahead of the rest of the competition. Apple as a company revolutionized the computing world with Macs, the music world with iPods and looked set to do the same to the mobile phone world with their first offering. The iPhone featured a predominantly aluminium construction with some plastic backing, a 3.5 inch screen with a resolution of 320×480, 128 MB of RAM and a whopping 1400 mAh battery. It ran on iPhone OS 1.0, Apple’s first attempt at the software that would slowly evolve into iOS.

iPhone vs iPhone 3G
Credit: Dan Taylor, London, UK CC BY 2.0

3G and 3GS

On June 9, 2008, Apple released the iPhone 3G. (it might come as a shock to some millennials that there was no iPhone 2) It was called the 3G because while it was pretty much identical to the original iPhone, it included several hardware upgrades like a GPS sensor and most importantly, a 3G Radio. It also had a hard plastic back instead of aluminium and featured iPhone OS 2.0 – whose SDK Apple released to let developers develop 3rd party applications for it.

The 3GS which was released almost exactly a year later, featured many upgrades from the 3G. The S stood for speed and it showed. The amount of RAM was doubled to 256 MB, the iPhone OS (the name changed to iOS with this generation) started maturing enough to get optimised, the processor was given a hefty upgrade and especially the camera was completely overhauled to now include a 3 megapixel camera unit.

4 and 4S

This marked the first major hardware change to the iPhone family so far. The iPhone 4 featured a stainless frame sandwiched between two panes of aluminosilicate glass. The steel wasn’t just for show either – it functioned as the phone’s antenna. The iPhone 4 also featured Apple’s now rapidly becoming famous Retina display – a display with a high enough resolution that you can’t tell individual pixels apart with the naked eye. It had a 960×640 resolution in the same 3.5 inch display. It also had the A4 SoC, Apple’s homegrown processor that resulted in a huge speed bump from the 3GS. It also had a front facing camera, the first ever iPhone to do so. The iPhone 4 had the longest product lifetime of any iPhone.

4 vs 4s: They pretty much looked the same
Credit: Zach Vega

Apple now set the tradition of releasing a design and improving it the next year, a sort of tick-tock product release cycle and released the iPhone 4s. The S this time stood for Siri. It featured the same exterior as the 4 but upgraded the SOC from A4 to A5 and the camera module got an update as well. The 4s shipped with iOS 5 but Siri, Apple’s voice activated digital assistant, among all the other new features, helped drive a lot of sales for the 4s, making it the best selling iPhone ever made. The 4s is also the first iPhone that supported 5 major versions of iOS.

5 , 5s and 5c

The iPhone 5 again featured a radical change from previous generations. Gone was the steel and glass sandwich. The new iPhone boasted an all aluminium frame, making the iPhone 5 lighter while increasing the screen size to 4 inches from the 3.5 that had been the norm. Apple also ditched the 30 pin connector and made the switch to a newer proprietary connector – Lightning. The reception was quite favourable but the iPhone 5 had the shortest lifetime of all iPhones at just 12 months.

Funky colors were a hit on iPods, not so much on iPhones
Credit: Craighton Miller, CC BY 2.0

The reason for such a short lifetime is the iPhone 5c which was launched along with the 5s in 2016. The 5c was basically just a rebadged iPhone 5 with a colorful hard plastic shell instead of aluminium and sold as a budget option. This has been widely regarded as a terrible move as the price differential between the 5c and the new and much improved 5s was not too large to be very significant, especially on contract. The 5s had a lot going for it – newer processors, better cameras and a fingerprint scanner on the home button supporting Touch ID. The 5s was the first smartphone ever to use a 64 bit processor which delivered up to twice the performance of it’s predecessor in CPU and Graphically intensive tasks. The fingerprint scanner also drew people in droves, with it being the first major ‘mainstream’ phone to feature one. Here’s a bit of trivia you might not know: the very first fingerprint scanners were on a couple of Toshiba phones way back in 2007, so there’s that.
The 5s was generally well praised and regarded as one of the best phones in the market when it launched.

6, 6s and SE

As usual, the next generation of iPhones promised more radical design changes. This time, there were two models of the iPhone released together – the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus. They featured similar specs but differed in their screens and cameras. The 6 was a 4.7 inch screen with a resolution of 1334×750 and Apple’s iSight camera while the 6 Plus used a 5.5 inch screen with a 1920×1080 resolution and a much improved camera with a Sony EXMOR sensor. The bigger 6 Plus also had a much larger battery to go along with it. Both the phones featured an aluminium unibody design with the front pane of glass over the screen curving to meet it at the side, allowing for a nice, sleek, slab of metal+glass look. Apple sold 4 million units of these within 24 hours of pre-order availability, the most ever it has accomplished till date.

The 6s and the 6s Plus, which released a little less than a year later, featured the same externals but slightly bumped up internals. The chassis was strengthened (due to a design flaw in the 6 and 6s, some units underwent bending when kept in tight pant pockets – which was quickly nicknamed ‘bendgate’), the camera and processors improved and Apple’s newest feature, 3D Touch, was included. 3D Touch allowed people to apply varying amounts of pressure on the screen to get different results (more in Chapter 11 ahead). It also doubled the RAM from a single GB of the 6 and 6 Plus, to now have 2 GB in the 6s and 6s Plus.

The iPhone SE was also launched alongside the 6s and 6s Plus featuring pretty much the same exterior as the iPhone 5s but with most of the internals from the iPhone 6s. It was marketed as the budget option of iPhones and for those who’d prefer the smaller 4 inch screen size.

7 and 7 Plus

The first time that a new generation of iPhones did not feature any major design changes from the previous generation. The 7 and the 7 Plus share a similar externals to the 6s and 6s Plus but have some feature upgrades like dust and water resistance, a new home “button” which in reality is just a pressure activated sensor, and no 3.5 mm headphone jack. There is also the customary processor and camera upgrades, especially on the iPhone 7 Plus, which features a dual camera setup. The iPhone 7 Plus also has an extra gigabyte of RAM, pushing the total upto 3.

This took “courage”. Yeah, right.
Credit: Kārlis Dambrāns, Latvia, CC BY 2.0

What’s Next?

iPhone’s generally enjoy a strong brand loyalty and people even buy them just as a status symbol, so a new iPhone model inevitably ends up selling. Once people are entrenched in the ecosystem, everything just works and clicks together, they develop a kind of inertia and would much rather stick to the same ecosystem. The level of connectivity between your iPhone and a Mac is unparalleled. Other people just want a no frills reliable phone that does everything they want and does it well. Although the latest iPhone 7 received some flak, for using the same design and build for the third year running and garnered a lot of controversy for removing the headphone jack, it did sell well relatively. Sales report seem to suggest that the buying has become sluggish lately, perhaps by the fact that the people are waiting for the next iPhone.

There is indeed a lot of ‘hype’ for the next iPhone. It’s rumoured to break away from the tick-tock scheme and therefore won’t be a 7s or a merely improved version of the existing 7. Since this year also marks the 10 year anniversary of the iPhone, people are expecting great things from the new one. The list of features it’s rumoured to have includes a bezeless display, a home button that’s integrated into the screen itself, wireless charging and much more. It is indeed exciting to wait for a new product with such bated breath. As we draw close to the product launch, only time will tell whether Apple will shake up the industry again as they did a decade ago? Or has their time passed? Here’s a look at everything we know so far about the launch tomorrow and the new iPhones.

Main image credit: Yutaka Tsutano CC BY 2.0


This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of Fast Track which is part of the Digit magazine package. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Prithvi Sudhan

Prithvi Sudhan