Has the iPhone changed the world? Perhaps not, and I'm certainly not an Apple fanboy. But the iPhone brought innovations that have infected the rest of the tech world. There's no denying that where Apple treads first, the rest of the world follows.
So here are the top five things the iPhone has given us in the years since the first version was released.
1. The App Store
To play off of what Nicole Kidman's character says in "To Die For," you're not anybody nowadays unless you have an app store.
Every mobile phone platform has one, and even browsers are getting in on the act, with Mozilla and Google adding app stores for Firefox and Chrome respectively. The venerable Mac OS X operating system will get one in the New Year and, as history has continually proved, Windows will surely follow (there are already rumors that Windows 8 will have one).
The iPhone App Store did a clever thing: It made software cool. Somehow Steve Jobs' Reality Distortion Field was strong enough to make us believe that a new utopia had been created. Nobody wants to install boring shareware, but now everybody wants to install apps. And let's be honest--shareware and apps are the same old thing.
The App Store is little more than a rebranding exercise. But it's been perfectly implemented, and only Apple could have pulled it off.
2. Touchscreens That Work
How easily we forget.
Before the iPhone popularized capacitive touchscreens, any device branded as "touch capable" usually came with a stylus--a pen without ink that was used to write on the screen. These were small and easily lost, leading to expired ballpoints often being used as replacements, or even household keys.
Ouch! It was a less than perfect situation, and is probably why touchscreens never found much use beyond specialized hardware, such as Palm PDAs.
Prior to the iPhone, most touch-sensitive devices used resistive touchscreens. These rely on two or more conductive films sandwiched together that respond to finger or stylus pressure--and the amount of pressure required is the issue. Resistive screens simply aren't that sensitive--usually not enough for fingers, or gestures, at least. Cheap touch phones still use them.
Ever keen to eradicate unnecessary buttons and keys, Apple used a capacitive screen for the iPhone, whereby the screen is covered in a conductive material. Finger pressure doesn't matter, and styluses don't work on capacitive screens because they rely on the fact human that skin is conductive.
Thus, Apple proved it was possible to articulately operate a cell phone using your fingertips. They even introduced gestures, such as pinching your fingers together to zoom into or out of photographs.
Pundits have spent millions of words pondering why Apple is so keen on AT&T. Many users hate the evil symbiosis. Along with the fact it took the iPhone a while to launch overseas, shortly after its release hackers set out to crack the tight controls Apple put in place to limit the iPhone to just one vendor.
It didn't take long--a week, in fact. Pretty soon the iPhone could be used with just about any provider in any country, and it became possible to install apps on the phone without going through the App Store.
The resulting practice became known as jailbreaking, and every subsequent iPhone, iPad, and iOS release has been given the same treatment. At one point jailbreaking became as simple as visiting a Website with your iPhone and clicking a link.
Jailbreaking has spread to the rest of the tech world. Now the term has the general meaning of adapting a device's software to remove any technical lockdown that's been put in place. Tablets can be jailbroken too, as can eBook readers.
It also indicates what an odd world we live in where users battle manufacturers to use their purchases however they please. Apple patches a hole denying jailbreaks. Hackers find a new one. Repeat forever. Hackers will never give up. Will Apple?
The cherry on the cake is that jailbreaking is legal, due to an exception in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 2010. Apple still doesn't like it though, and says that it'll void your warranty. However, other manufacturers have started to either cast a blind eye, or even embrace the practice.The Google CR-48 laptop even has a switch built into the case that jailbreaks the device.
4. Web Pages That Look Like They Should
Webkit is the open source technology underlying the Safari Web browser. It came from the KDE desktop used in Linux, although Apple did a lot of adaptation work.
Webkit was first used in Mac OS X, but it's on the iPhone it really proved its mettle. We forget that before the iPhone, Web browsing on cell phones was dreadful. No real attempt was made to render pages as the designers intended them to appear. Instead, phone browsers usually tried to adapt them.
Webkit could be made small and flexible--perfect for the limited memory of mobile phones--and it allowed Web pages to be viewed as they appear on desktop computers, more or less. The comparatively large screen sizes of iPhones helped, of course.
Webkit spread to other mobile phones. It's at the heart of Google's Android Web browser. Nokia uses it on its phones too, as do Palm and BlackBerry. It's all because of Apple and, perhaps more importantly, the open source spirit of sharing.
5. The Cell Phone as More Than a Phone
In addition to making shareware trendy, the App Store did something much more important: It turned the cell phone into a computing platform.
Suddenly, cell phones could do just about anything, even if that usually equates to playing games. As Apple advertised, if you can find a task, there's likely "an app for that."
Again, this wasn't entirely new. Significant amounts of money and time had been invested in making it possible to run Java applications on phones for years. However, Apple shifted the focus in a way only it can.
Suddenly, people used their phones as GPS devices in their cars. They browsed the Web on them. They tweeted, blogged, and "Facebooked." They listened to music,played games, watched movies, and viewed photographs.
It became easier to list the things a cell phone couldn't do, than list the things that it could. Limited physical dimensions meant a phone would never replace a laptop or desktop, but when out and about the iPhone proved that it could be the next best thing.
Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.