Splatf just reminded us that the iPhone is 5 years old and that Jobs said at its announcement that it was 5 years ahead of its competitors. He took this benchmark to assess if anyone has caught up to the first iPhone or today’s.
I agree that it is still ahead by many metrics, but I disagree with the interpretation of Jobs’ hyperbole to mean “nobody else can make this for 5 years”. He said:
…today, we’re going to show you a software breakthrough. Software that’s at least 5 years ahead of what’s on any other phone. [Keynote slide: Breakthrough, 5 years ahead]
The point is that the iPhone was a device from the future in 2007, a disrupter that leaped ahead and pulled mobile with it, accelerating the industry in a way it was not poised to do on its own.
Back to the future
When Steve Jobs said they were 5 years ahead of the market, he was extrapolating the future. Smartphones sucked in 2007. He showed Nokias & Blackeberries with their buttons, small screens, and moving parts, and most importantly, terrible software. The smartphones were phones with email, certainly not computers the size of phones. Then took a device from 5 years in the future out of his pocket.
Look at the 2007 or 2002 smartphones (and PDAs!), and you can easily see the roadmap they were following. Add a feature per year, make it minor but sell is has major, and move on to the next. Scroll wheel, scroll ball, color (just a few, then a few more)… Left to their own, sorry, devices for 5 years, Jobs insinuated, maybe, just maybe, they might have arrived at something resembling the iPhone. Apple got into the Delorian, grabbed that 2012 device and made it a 2007 reality (I’m glad they didn’t meet their future selves or fade from the family photo).
With his projection of the trajectory of smartphones, and the release of a phone from the future, Jobs and the wonderteam at Apple disrupted the plotted course of history and moved us all forward 5 years. Every smartphone since the announcement of the iPhone, Android phones in particular, benefited from that glimpse of the future. From the cost of components to the straight knock-off UIs, every device has lept ahead on the springboard of the iPhone.
Fast followers & multiple discovery
No disruptive invention occurs in a vacuum—the environment of technologies were primed for an iPhonesque device to manifest. One might say that Android was on the cusp at the time of the Apple announcement and that if the iPhone hadn’t come out Android would have done so. That argument doesn’t dispute Jobs’ “5 years ahead” statement, nor does it recall that the HTC Hero, the early multitouch Android device, was released in 2009, and was a major leap forward from the first Android devices. Even with the iPhone as a blueprint, it took the fastest Android follower 2 years to get close.
The Palm Pre, in my limited experience with it, was itself a formidible effort, and deserves credit for its use of gestures. It, too, was a 2009 release and also brought some talk of patent infrignement.
Can’t touch this
There are some things that can’t be copied, apparently. For many reasons, nobody matches the finesse of the iPhone. Having designed interfaces for Android devices, I can say that it’s possible to create something decent but it is difficult. Even looking at the sexy, new Android Design site (also via Splatf), you can see the core Android screens just aren’t cohesive or elegant (this is some vision).
The future from here is an interesting one. Apple has a massive advantage over the competition: money. They charge enough for their products that they can out R&D the rest. The question is, then, who will push for the next disruption? Can someone envision 2018 and make that make that happen in 2013? Does that someone have to be Apple?