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iPhone at 10 – Design genius that brought us under Steve Jobs’s spell

Apple’s mysterious blank slate was technology at its best – indistinguishable from magic

Apple chief executive Steve Jobs unveils the iPhone in 2016, during the Macworld Conference keyword in San Francisco, California, to an unsuspecting world. Photograph: Tony Avelar/AFP/Getty

Science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke once famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

That quote gets tossed around a lot in the tech industry. But these days, we are so inundated with technology – with everyday miracles like computers and the internet a quotidian norm – that it is rare to ever experience that sharp intake of breath, an inner voice marvelling, “How is this possibly doing that?”

Especially if it is your job to examine the products that the tech industry produces. I have covered technology now for two decades and, in that time, have been amazed by many machines, devices and tech services.

But only once have I been so absolutely astonished by a product, that the border between magic and technology palpably, cognitively, blurred.

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That was in 2007, when I held the first release of the iPhone in my hands.

Ten years on from the week when this extraordinary device was first announced, the magic has modulated into the mundane. We – rightly – use the iPhone – or the many similarly designed phones it inspired – as a relatively unremarkable tool.

But the iPhone utterly changed the way we viewed, and interacted with, a phone, and – as Apple co-founder and chief executive Steve Jobs correctly predicted in his 2007 keynote introducing the device – marked the point at which the smartphone actually became smart, because its complexities became intuitively easy, even trivial, to use.

This, of course, was the hallmark of the very best Apple products and the genius of Jobs, who had the rare talent of being able to see what people would want even if it was something so groundbreaking that we’d have to rethink our concept of the product category.

If, just months before, you’d placed an iPhone handset in front of someone, they’d surely have had no idea what it was to be used for. A smooth, rectangular brick of glass and metal (was that a screen?), with one small button on the front at the bottom.

Momentous keynote

Watching Jobs deliver that keynote, you can sense how he is relishing every moment, anticipating introducing each feature.

The most dumbfounding thing about that handset for those of us who’d been using mobiles for years and considered certain design elements to be set in stone (or at least, plastic) was that smooth casing – all those keypad buttons were gone. Just . . . gone.

It initially made no sense at all. How were you even going to make calls? It was all very disconcerting.

Jobs had the challenge of showing that first audience how just a screen, and no buttons, would work. As he said, he was going to demonstrate how to do “the kind of things you would find on a typical phone, but in a very untypical way.”

Fast forward many months, and Apple loaned me an iPhone to try.

It was just . . . magical. That big bright screen, the lack of buttons yet the ease of accessing so many features. The many ways to use touch on the screen, with just fingertips rather than an unwieldy stylus. The text messaging – so much easier than using the number keypad or even a tiny Blackberry Qwerty keyboard, and displayed in such an easy to follow way. The smooth integration of contacts and calls. The photo app – editing by touch, sending photos, receiving them – all so easy.

When I used it, strangers would come over and ask if it was an iPhone, and want to see how it worked. “Try it,” I’d say.

Here is what always happened. They’d ask how to turn it on. I’d say, try and see. They’d figure that out and get the opening screen. Then they’d figure out that you swiped to unlock it. Then they’d figure out how to use the little screen icons. And they’d just marvel. Children as well. Children just got it right away.

Eliciting curiosity

I’ve never since had any device that elicited such curiosity, delight, and awe – or drawn strangers across a room.

The iPhone went on to create further revolutions. For example, it transformed journalism – and citizen journalism – because suddenly, every reporter, any person, could take photos, make easily-edited digital recordings and videos, and send them.

It made music even more accessible, because now you didn’t need a separate device. Apple’s willingness to cannibalise its own lucrative iPod still stuns, but Jobs could see where the market would go.

Thanks to the iPhone, we began to create, interact with and share photos and videos with an ease we never had before, setting the stage for a social media boom.

But for me the pure magic was, and remains, this: the iPhone was a blank slate – not figuratively, but an actual blank, rectangular slate. An object that seemed to be anything, and nothing. Yet turn the screen on, and anyone could, simply by playing with it, figure out this deceptively, deliberately simple, but highly complex device.

At that moment, a decade ago, truly indistinguishable from magic.