Om Malik is a partner at True Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based early-stage venture capital group. Prior to joining True, he was the founder of Gigaom, a pioneering technology blog and media company.
In the late 1990s, when mobile chip behemoth Qualcomm still qualified as an upstart, I started writing about the mobile Internet. I dreamed of a mobile broadband revolution. It was when Japan and the now-forgotten iMode service enthralled the world. Imagining the future, I wrote enthusiastically about everyone — Ricochet, Nokia, Blackberry (when it only made pagers), Treo, Palm, and Windows CE devices.)
Intuitively, I knew that much like how when the (landline) phone network was decoupled from fixed connections, the always-on Internet, too, when set free from the fixed network, could profoundly impact society and its people. However, it was at the introduction of the iPhone launch in January 2007, it slowly dawned on me the world had changed. The future had arrived quietly, amidst a lot of skepticism. The magnitude of change was enough for me to overlook the launch of the Apple TV or dismiss the transition to the Intel processors. iPhone was all that was on my mind and how it would change the mobile landscape. It wasn’t until six months later, at the WWDC, I finally came to grips with what Apple had unleased. Here is what I blogged:
- A true web applications platform for the mobile
- Break the Wireless Walled Gardens
- Shift of control to the customers
- Slow demise of subsidized, boring phones filled with bloat ware
- Keep it simple or else
Looking back, the iPhone delivered on all those fronts, and in the process, has changed the mobile landscape.
The applications — essentially web services sliced and diced in special wrappers — have become the dominant form of our interactions with the modern Internet. A generation of mobile natives who have never dealt with flip phones and other devices sold by large phone companies don’t quite realize how terrible the mobile experience used to be before the iPhone showed up in our hands.
These were wireless walled gardens crammed with absolutely rotten apps, games, and everything from mobile backgrounds to ringtones. They were an opportunity for carriers to nickel-and-dime their customers and extracted mafia-like fees from startups.
Today, we take the “app store” for granted, but getting whatever app you want, whenever you want, wasn’t the case. And despite Apple’s draconian and confusing policies around the App Store, we as end customers are free to download pretty much whatever apps we want.
“iPhone changed in the industry in two fundamental ways – decoupling applications from the network (operators) and the user interface (ease of use),” points out Chetan Sharma, a mobile industry veteran who runs an eponymously named consulting group. Today, Apple and its 30-percent cut of the Apple store comes under criticism and legal challenges, but let’s not forget what life used to be before the iPhone came along.
Think about it this way, before iPhone, almost 90 percent of the industry revenue used to go to the telecom operators because they pretty much controlled every aspect of the ecosystem layers. From spectrum to network to applications to devices. — everything was controlled by the carriers.
In the US, for example, Verizon, Sprint, or AT&T decided what networking protocol — GSM or CDMA would be the dominant protocol. They decided what OS and phones could be sold to their network customers and available applications. And oh, everything was billed through their billing systems. That decoupling has reduced the carrier cut to somewhere between “20-30% depending on the geography,” Sharma points out.
In an article for the FastCompany magazine, I pointed out that iPhone (and its smartphone brethren) were part of an enormous change and brought a new Victorian age.
And this age was catalyzed by the iPhone and what it brought to our fingertips. As I wrote in an earlier article:
Fifteen years later, we have forgotten to appreciate how much the user interface and its simplicity changed the game and allowed application creativity to thrive and bring many billions of dollars to application developers. In a world controlled by carriers and their walled gardens, every single application and service you use daily wouldn’t either exist or thrive.
Instagram, Uber, DoorDash, Dropbox, and Facebook are all beneficiaries of the device initially dismissed by everyone from Nokia to Blackberry to Palm executives. For me, it was love at first byte, and it still is the phone I am happy to use — warts and all.
For once, Steve was under hyping what was to come!