The iPhone was, in effect, two inventions. The first was a smartphone that was easy to use – a revolution in itself, as all previous smartphones had been very user-hostile. Real ease of use was made possible by the capacitive touchscreen, a sheet of glass with an electrostatic field that is distorted by the touch of a finger. By fine-tuning this distortion, each touch becomes a fantastically precise control mechanism. There are only four mechanical controls on the iPhone. The machine is the screen.
The second invention was much more revolutionary. It was the “app”, short for application. When it was first launched, the iPhone was locked – it could not do any more than Apple intended. But, on 10 July 2008, Apple opened the App Store, which allowed users to download approved apps to their phones. To date there have been over 25 billion downloads of more than 700,000 apps.
The deflationary effect on software prices has been spectacular. When apps were known as applications, they were expensive and came on discs in boxes with fat and incomprehensible instruction manuals. Now they are either free or ludicrously cheap and they don’t need manuals. A wave of geek creativity has been unleashed and, largely thanks to the iPhone, people now expect their machines to do pretty much anything they want.