Five years ago, you probably had what we now call a feature phone; Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, and a whole slew of smaller players served the market with an insanely varied set of products. If you were a business user, or just generally into computing, you were maybe using a BlackBerry, PalmOS, Windows Mobile, or Symbian smartphone.
The mobile phone market was saturated, thanks to companies like Nokia who built incredibly high-quality hardware at low prices, ensuring that the mobile phone penetrated every part of the world. From the pockets of rich people shopping in the P.C. Hooftstraat to a farmer working his fields somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa; the technology was accessible to almost everyone. As a technology enthusiast, I find the development and rapid spread of the mobile phone one of the biggest success stories of the industry, almost on par with the advent and spread of the web.
Smartphones, however, had seen harder times. They were more or less a continuation of the PDA, popularised by Palm, and kind of grew from there. I liked both Windows PocketPC Mobile Second Edition CE Embedded Compact Standard and PalmOS, and still own numerous devices running these two operating systems, but I'll readily admit they required a certain upfront investment in time to be able to use them properly. The biggest hindrance wasn't the stylus - everyone who picked up any one of my PDAs in those days had zero issues using one - no, it was input. Both pickboards and handwriting recognition sucked balls.
Furthermore, and maybe even more so, you couldn't really do anything with these things. Mobile browsing was in its infancy, Facebook and Twitter didn't exist yet, and applications for the two platforms focused mostly on business needs, not consumer needs. If you were a regular guy or girl, there was little value in moving on up to a smartphone over a feature phone.
The iPhone changed all that. If you look at the iPhone without starry eyes or company-infused loyalty, it was barely more than a feature phone at launch. No applications, very limited feature set, and to make matters worse, insanely expensive. For someone like me, who was used to PalmOS and Windows Mobile, it felt like nothing more than a polished continuation of those two platforms. Something for the Apple faithful and people without much interest in technology. Of course, that was kind of the point.
In my view, there's two things that formed the basis of the iPhone's success. First, the perfect storm of the mobile web. Apple understood the importance of a top-notch mobile browser, and it showed: mobile Safari wasn't just better than its competition - it was lightyears ahead of everything else. I'd argue that even today, five years down the line, it still has en edge over the competition - even compared to Chrome for Android. It just feels that minute bit more fluent. Add to this superb mobile browser the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking stuff, and suddenly, average guys and girls actually had a reason to buy a smartphone instead of a feature phone.
The second reason for the iPhone's success is a bit more esoteric, but I think we can all agree on its importance: attention to detail, implementation, and user experience. Earlier smartphones were clearly meant to be tools - get the job done, even if it's not easy or intuitive. Apple realised that in order to increase the market potential of their smartphone, they had to focus on just a few things, and make sure these few things were easy and intuitive. Whether you like Apple or not, they undeniably succeeded.
The iPhone ignited the smartphone wars, and while that has had several disastrous consequences - patent trolling and mafia-practices - it has had many, many positive effects as well. We're seeing a renewed interest in computing, we have an open source operating system serving the industry, and lots of choice regarding device type and price. I would've loved to have seen more successful platforms, but alas, we can't have it all.
We're five years down the line, and the iPhone is still going strong. Apple's phone may not be my cup of tea, but I'm still raising my coffee to what it's done for the industry.