When Apple’s new iPhone burst onto the mobile market ten years ago this week, I was happily checking my email with a shiny new BlackBerry Bold that my editors at eWEEK had provided.
I’d watched the introduction of this new device and wondered why anyone would want to use a device where the only input method was an error-prone touch screen. Now I own an iPhone.
To say that things changed would be a massive understatement. To be sure, the iPhone wasn’t the only touch-screen device at that time, but what it had was an intuitive interface and a lot of applications that made the iPhone useful enough to be worth the price.
What the iPhone also had was a surprising amount of computing power in a handheld device and it was this computing power that had the most impact over the long run because it made the iPhone useful beyond email and phone calls. But it was also computing power that turned mobile phones into security threats.
In the case of the iPhone, the threat remained mostly just a threat. But it was in other devices that the threat became reality. Google’s Android, which was designed to compete with Apple’s iOS that ran the iPhone, became a channel for malware.
Meanwhile, both types of these devices and their challengers from Palm and Microsoft became a new conduit to move corporate data beyond the confines of corporate offices and subject it to loss or theft.
Initially, the only thing that made the iPhone more secure than Android devices was the fact that you could only download apps from Apple’s AppStore. Apple made it a point to police their store to discourage malware-tainted apps. With Android, however, you could download apps from anywhere, and for a while Google wasn’t being as careful as it should have been about screening apps for malware.
Meanwhile, the BlackBerry was dying. A series of missteps by the company management including the failure to recognize and respond to the competitive threat posed by the iPhone’s touch screen caused the longtime leader in smartphones to quickly lose its leadership position.
For a while, BlackBerry’s superior security kept it in play for government and some corporate users and that remains true to a limited extent. But that situation changed again Apple introduced encryption.
After a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif. in which 14 people died in late 2015 the iPhone made news when the FBI announced that it couldn’t crack Apple’s encryption. Clearly, Apple’s security was sufficient. But by then the iPhone had already become a corporate standard if not for the encryption, but because the iPhone had defined a new standard for mobile computing.
It’s this concept of a phone as a mobile computing platform that transformed business.
Over time, industry specific and custom mobile apps became the rule rather than the exception. In addition, web-based applications changed so that they would support mobile devices, whether they were iPhones or Android devices. Mobile and remote work became as productive as on-site work is supposed to be.
Those changes transformed business in ways few expected at the time. Companies could have a mobile workforce, which in turn put company representatives closer to the customers. But the mobile workforce also meant that managers no longer had visual proof that their employees were actually working at any given time.
New management styles came along which helped many managers to adapt to a remote workforce. When the Great Recession struck a couple of years later, this also enabled the remote workforce could become the freelance workforce, again transforming businesses.
While the iPhone certainly didn’t cause the recession and it didn’t cause the shift in employment that followed, it did make it easier to adapt to the prevailing conditions. An increasingly mobile work force meant that companies didn’t have to pay for office space or benefits for employees they no longer had. This improved the overall productivity of companies, but it effectively lowered workers wages.
Now, ten years later, we see a work landscape that’s dramatically changed with much of that change due to the iPhone and the devices it spawned directly or indirectly. Whole corporations that never could have existed without smartphones, including ride-sharing company Uber, have sprung into existence.
Something called the Gig Economy, which enables people to find at least temporary jobs as they come into existence and get new jobs when business conditions change, depends heavily on the smartphone.
And when is the last time you saw a free highway map in a gas station? The iPhone and its brethren brought about the wide availability of personal mapping and GPS location services. This has changed the way we travel, but it’s also changed the way companies keep tabs on their employees. Now you can see when your sales staff is on a call or on the golf course.
But realizing that no good deed goes unpunished, the iPhone and other smartphones have also brought about their share of mishaps and worse. Distracted driving and other distracted activities have created a whole new class of fatal accidents. Productivity drops as employees spend their time shopping or on social media during work hours. And of course, there’s always room inside that smartphone to squirrel away one more trade secret.
On the whole, smartphones as defined by the iPhone have done a lot to improve the business productivity and efficiency. But the blessings are mixed.