Apple iPhone
B. Wiskar POSTED ON 20 Feb 2015

What did the first iPhone user see?

Imagine it’s 2007, the 29th June to be specific: Boris Yeltsin has died, Madeleine McCann recently disappeared, Nicolas Sarkozy has become the 23rd President of France, smoking is banned from United Kingdom’s public places, Venus Williams and Roger Federer win Wimbledon, the first episode of “Mad Men” has debuted and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in the bestselling Harry Potter series is in the stores.


Oh and you are one of the very first people on the planet outside of staff at Apple Inc. to get your hands on a shiny new iPhone! Impressive isn’t it.


To refresh your memory, it looked like this…



I tell this story frequently when helping clients with their approach to mobile but I’ve modified the content (dates and markets) a little here to make it globally relevant. I’ve also added some theatrics to build the drama and set aside some of the nuanced evolution of Apple’s experiments with iTunes and association with the Motorola Rokr to allow an efficient setting of context.


With the benefit of hindsight it appears a little small but you’ve forgotten that we’d spent the previous decade trying to make our phones smaller and lighter.


All of us tend to forget what things were like at some point in the past. Be it 15 seconds or 7 years ago, our brains disregard subtle changes in an effort to keep us sane and not cloud our world with information that isn’t relevant to our existence (see study from Berkley).


“The brain has learned that the real world usually doesn’t change suddenly, and it applies that knowledge to make our visual experience more consistent from one moment to the next,” said Jason Fischer, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT


For example: we all use Facebook all the time but if you were to be transported back a few years you might not recognise the interface and tools you’d be confronted with regardless of how familiar you were with them at the time.


Zuck and the team have gradually slipped in so many features that our brains can’t really recall the order or time frame in which the new features arrived. As we can’t rollback our individual version of Facebook to an earlier format our brains realise that there’s no point trying to retain that information so they don’t.


Now, back to your new 1st generation iPhone. Since we’ve established you can’t actually recall specifically what it was like as by the present day (2015) you’re on your 5th smart phone and you fall into one of a few categories:


  1. iPhone loyalist (Apple tragic, fanboi)
  2. iPhone atheist (Android native)
  3. smart phone recalcitrant (Windows Mobile user) thumbing your nose at the world
  4. frivolous new thing adopter (you’ve tried everything)


Since you had this fictional 1st generation iPhone in 2007 you fall into either group 1 or group 4 from the list above.


So, either you hurriedly unwrapped the phone in front of the store for the local media to film you (extrovert), or you raced back to the safety of your apartment, car, a nearby cafe and your hands are shaking as your tear at the clear packaging to get to the sleek black box within. Once you’ve broken through this and it falls to the floor you attempt to slide the cover off the pristine black box but in your haste you force it and it starts to slide up slightly off axis and becomes jammed, leading you to use excessive force to finally get it apart and behold the phone of your dreams.


You dismiss the obvious absence of a meaningful manual or set of instructions and charge the phone, slip in a SIM card and away you go.


Let’s skip the bit where you figure out how to connect your phone to 3G data and Wi-Fi or get it to talk to your mail server so you can see your email and move on to the bit where you attempt to do things with it.


You use that little icon to access the App Store and download the various apps that you’re aware of from the promotional material and you start to thumb (or finger) through the categories of early apps that are available and delight in the function specific apps available to you and your early adopter friends. Once downloaded, you’ve been suitably delighted with the responsive nature of the native app experience and the rewarding pinch zoom touch interface and glorious graphics you decide that you should see how this baby responds to the internet.


In his keynote at the announcement of the iPhone, Jobs referred to the iPhone version of Safari “the first fully usable HTML browser on a phone”


Strap yourself in … we’re going online!


…and so to the original question “What did the first iPhone user see?”


The answer is not much.


When someone first clicked the Safari icon permanently anchored to the bottom row of the new smart phone and were connected to the web the web had just gone through a little more than 10 years of rapid evolution to develop a strong set of visual paradigms and online interface conventions. This made the entire thing borderline impossible for use on a small screen device. CRAP….what a tremendous oversight! Don’t feel bad, I was part of the industry that lead us there. Nobody on earth, well certainly no corporate or brand had what we now know as a mobile or responsive website.


You see the following experiences…


New York Times website as seen during Steve Jobs’ Keynote presentation at the launch of the iPhone


NY Times in landscape on iPhone at launch


Amazon site during Jobs’ iPhone launch Keynote


At the time Jobs said “It’s kind of a slow site… we’re loading over Wi-Fi right now.”


The world had not invested in optimizing or doing anything to prepare for what the iPhone would do to how we consume the web and thus there was not really much to see. The tool was literally (I don’t use that word lightly) ahead of its time.


There were very few tools available to web designers and developers (no Twitter Bootstrap) to produce sites that worked on mobile screens. Nobody had an “mdot” (m.) version of their site with stripped back content. Nobody knew that the utility of the handheld device would lead to a need for immediate contextual mobile access to goods, services, help, pricing and social validation from a brand.


Since none of the above was ready and accessible users needed content to justify their expensive phone and its glorious screen, Apple had to fill the gap…. fortunately* there was an app for that. *fortunate in this case was more like good planning and insight into the market shift and demand and less like ‘fortune’.


So we’ve answered our question about what the first iPhone user saw but the real question is “what does it mean now?”


Referring back to the 4 groups of smartphone users I listed earlier, although each group isn’t equally represented numerically in current western populations, 2 of the 4 groups are populated by people who didn’t have their entire web paradigm defined for them by Apple’s team at Cupertino, CA.


These people came to smart phones when the web had evolved further and there were powerful mobile web experiences, responsive and adaptive design sites and at worst mdot sites and thus they weren’t compelled to ‘get the app’. Alternatively they came to their chosen smartphone platform in a period where Android, Microsoft and Blackberry didn’t have market penetration that demanded brands service their user through an app on those platforms and thus corporates chose to service these groups with the web, i.e. browser based experiences. This meant when they opened their new HTC in 2010, they couldn’t get the pizza ordering app and instead used the browser version. This was far more compelling than talking to a teenager on the phone who couldn’t care less about your order. Since they probably were not aware of the Apple experience, or were already committed based on their expensive purchase, they became a mobile browser convert.


With brands seeing Android users making do with web experiences the pressure to build an app for the alternate platforms slowed, and at the same time the quality of the browser experience was undergoing a mini revolution of its own. By the time alternatives to Apple handsets had gained market share, brands weren’t compelled to build apps.


Now I believe apps are here to stay, but what’s interesting is the way iPhone users differ in their consumption of apps and the services that are offered through them when compared to all other smart phone platforms.


Through my own clients and others I know of in the industry from FMCG to financial services to tourism and entertainment it’s clear that 1000 iPhone users with your app installed will engage/open/consume/spend significantly more than 1000 Android users with your app installed.


This is the case even if the apps are directly comparable in terms of quality, experience, speed and utility.




Well, these users look the same, are interested in the same things, have the same kind of money and propensity to spend it, but more importantly, they grew up (smartphone speaking) in the era of mobile web not mobile apps.

Ready to advance your digital capabilities?



By continuing to use our site, you indicate your acceptance
of our Privacy Policy and Website Access Rules.