The Curious Case of iPhone 3.0

By  |  Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 4:10 pm

Scott ForstallCall it the Benjamin Button school of software development. When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone at Macworld Expo San Francisco 2007, it already sported a user interface so highly-evolved that it hardly felt like a 1.0 release–it looked more like the result of years of refinement. But for all of the iPhone OS’s initial maturity, it was missing a laundry list of basic features that other handheld platforms usually have pretty much from birth. Stuff like cut and paste, MMS, search tools. and the ability to handle at least some tasks in the background. Oh, and the ability to run third-party applications at all.

Last year’s iPhone 2.0 update was mostly about supporting third party apps. And today’s iPhone 3.0–which, incidentally, I guest-blogged about for Laptop in a post about the biggest new features–is largely about the baby steps that other platforms would have taken at inception. In other words, the iPhone’s operating system is doing something I can’t remember any software doing: It’s aging backwards.

(Okay, the Benjamin Button metaphor only goes so far–for one thing, the next step after those baby steps for the iPhone’s OS isn’t death. With any luck, it’ll be a really nifty version 4.0.)

If you boiled the new features in iPhone 3.0 down to a terse, dispassionate list and didn’t know they were on the way for the iPhone, almost none of them would make anyone’s heart beat faster. Actually, most of them were prosaic standard equipment on the AT&T Tilt I used immediately before I bought an iPhone 3G.

But it looks like the upgrade will get the iPhone platform to where you’d want it to be by version 3.0: It’s got the most sophisticated interface ever put on a gadget you can stick in your pocket, an application library that’s 25,000 programs strong, and most of the features it needs to be an exceptionally well-rounded, useful device. If it lives up to its promise when it shows up this summer, it removes most of the “Yes, but…” disclaimers which have been mandatory when judging the phone until now.

(Well, not all of them: As long as Apple is the sole authorized distributor of iPhone apps, some prospective customers will be fundamentally disgruntled. Even if it gets better at approving third-party software swiftly and smoothly, as it says it’s doing.)

In a strange way, this is an upgrade that reminds me of the old rule about Microsoft products: It takes until version 3.0 until they’re fully baked.

All we know about Apple’s master plan for the iPhone is what company executives have said in public events like today’s presentation, and neither Steve Jobs nor his colleagues are the type to tip their hand or spill their guts. So I’m not sure it was part of the company’s strategy all along to get the sweeping, innovative, eye-popping things right first and then backfill in the mundane stuff over the course of a couple of years.

But consider this alternate-universe scenario: What if the iPhone that Jobs brandished back in January 2007 had included all the unglamorous-but-valuable features that Apple announced today, but had lacked multi-touch, desktop-like browsing, high-end audio and video playback, and a look and feel that had been polished to a fare-the-well? Would a first-generation iPhone that had been more useful and less strikingly innovative have had anywhere near as much impact? Would it have sold as well? Would as many developers have jumped on the bandwagon so quickly? Would the rest of the industry have rushed to clone it so thoroughly?

I’m guessing the answer to all these questions would have been no, absolutely not. Apple’s development-in-reverse process, whether intentional, subconscious, or accidental, has been utterly key to making the iPhone into…well, the iPhone.


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7 Comments For This Post

  1. spoon Says:

    Interesting take. But I don’t think Apple would have released a phone that didn’t wow. Otherwise, why bother to enter what was a hypercompetitive market even back then?

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    My point exactly–I think they knew that it was important to get the sizzle right before the steak…

  3. Lava Says:

    Wow, an actually insightful analysis! So tired of all the inane comments scattered across the blogosphere about how iPhone is a loser because it can’t do copy and paste. How about not seeing the forest for the trees, hmmm? iPhone would have been nothing without multi-touch and the app support while these “trivial” features, if they had pushed back the release of things like the App Store, would have certainly made the iPhone seem like a “me too” phone. Something 99% of the vacuous blogosphere can’t understand.

    I also found it interesting that Apple was willing to drop everything and rearchitect Push Notifications from scratch after realizing the original model would collapse under the demand. Kinda puts efforts like WinMo 6.5 in perspective.

  4. tom Says:

    I believe you’re right. I also believe that Apple had to release the first iPhone before it was completely ready due to other touch-screen phones like the LG Prada popping up. I believe if the Prada hadn’t been released when it was, the iPhone would have stayed in development longer, and then would have included these basic features when it was finally released.

  5. jmmx Says:


    It is exactly what I have been thinking, and you say it so well.

    (See my comment in:
    begins: “Look y’all” )

    We just have to realize that there are a lot of people who – for some crazy reason or other – just hate Apple with a passion. Well – at least they have some passion. 🙂

  6. Kontra Says:

    The chattering class has a fetishistic indulgence with smartphones bordering on techno-porn.
    While analysts and competitors were busy making feature-level comparisons (of mostly hardware), Apple consolidated its platform lead and laid the foundations of a new growth engine the likes of which the mobile industry has neither yet seen nor fully comprehends.
    While [the iPhone OS 3.0] garnered a collective yawn from the features-fetishists, barring a product introduction disaster, the iPhone OS 3.0 will do to iPhone-killers what it did do to iPod-killers half a decade ago. Apple consolidated its gains, marked its territory of 30M users+25K apps+800M downloads and built a very deep and wide moat around it. A moat so formidable that there’s not a single smartphone player capable of overcoming it.
    By the end of 2009, we expect the virtuous cycle to kick in and the moat strategy to reveal just how difficult it will be to compete with Apple’s touch platform, thereby ushering in consolidation in the rest of the smartphone industry.

    iPhone OS 3: The moat strategy vs. features-fetishism

  7. Rui Ferreira Says:


    Well, as a developer I can give an answer to why Apple didn’t released a 3.0 in the 1.0

    Because its just too hard! Look, to design just a breaktrough device and not focus on Core Features on day 1 and instead spread your resources thin all over the map is just another way to say “Samsung”; “Nokia”, and all the other lower-than-average companies out there.

    This version has over 1.000 APIs! You have no idea what it takes to make such an endeavour on software development. A thing called “Cut/Copy/Paste” can be daunting from a design and implementation details perspective. Imagine to actually suppport that all over the place and make that work with ALL OTHER relevant APIs out there, and make actually software requirements aspects there to create functions and bindings to this system.

    You just don’t place a feature on a screen and be done with it. Thats the 20% of the 80% iceberg under the water…

    Its hard folks, if it was easy we would not have issues with Microsoft….

    Apple is King, because they make the hard… simple.

    And, yes… Even their APIs are beautiful!

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