What makes the iPhone so special?

iphone 5s

In 2007, Apple released what the world called “The Jesus Phone”. If Steve Jobs wanted to “put a dent in the universe”, this was the product that really did it. No product before or since had as big impact on the consumer market as the iPhone did when it was released in 2007. Unlike everything else on the scene before, it had no buttons, except one. It had a multitouch display that worked incredibly well. It had a full web browser that was far more powerful and efficient than anything Windows Mobile, BlackBerry or Palm devices had. It had a great email app. It was unbelievable.

Since then, it’s been unable to shake off its Messiah complex.

Every generation swings by, and each generation brings in more sales, more revenue, and more profit for Apple. Until last year, there was a crazy statistic: Each and every generation of iPhone launches brought in more sales than all of the previous generation launches combined. That is – quite frankly – insane.

Samsung may be leading the way in terms of overall handset sales globally, and Android may have a much larger portion of the smartphone market, but there’s still no single flagship smartphone that outsells the iPhone. And Apple still rakes in the majority of the mobile industry’s profits.

“North Star”

If you listen to any interviews with Tim Cook from the past year or so, you’ll hear several mentions of Apple’s focus and drive. Its “North Star”. The company knows exactly where it’s heading with its hardware and software development. Probably for the next 5 years, if not more. It has a clear target, and it will not deviate from it. Market trends won’t push it off course, and certainly don’t affect its decisions or cause any knee-jerk reactions.

It hasn’t made a phablet yet, despite Samsung having had three generations of its popular Note series already. The iPhone still only has a 4-inch screen, which is tiny compared to almost every smartphone on the market nowadays. Do people complain? Not much. At least, not the general consumers. It’s all us tech-heads doing the complaining.

Will the iPhone have a bigger display eventually? Probably. But it won’t be a rushed product manufactured out of sheer panic that it’s losing market share. If Apple is going to release a bigger iPhone, it’s because it’s planned, developed, built and tested and found it to be a great experience. As much as I hanker after a bigger screen, I know my complaints, or anyone else’s, aren’t going to sway Apple.

But it’s more than that even. Cupertino’s designers, unlike most other smartphone makers, only have to focus on one new design every 1-2 years. Last year was the first time since 2009 that we got a brand new design 12 months after the previous one. Ive&Co. can take their time, considering each chamfered edge, the exact color of the glass panels or anodized finish on the back. It can perfect, hone and develop it with great attention to detail.

All in-house

Another element of Apple’s success with the iPhone is that it’s built entirely in-house. Software and hardware are designed together simultaneously to create an experience that’s refined. The fact that it can design its own processors, displays and connectors goes a long way to ensuring the all-round experience is first class. A small, but obvious, example is the Lightning connector. It’s durable, easy to use, and because it’s got an authentication chip built in, it’s hard to copy without the iPhone/iPad picking up that you’re using a fake/Chinese clone.

Being able to design the chips and the OS itself, means it can be streamlined to be efficient. Android devices – for example – now use Quad-Core processors to power them and make them super-fast. iPhone’s still on dual-core, and that’s predominantly because Siri requires one of those cores.

With software and hardware all being designed in-house, it’s a great device. But when you add those two elements to Apple’s amazing ecosystem of apps, movies, music and books through iTunes, you get something incredible. Any music in my iTunes library is on my phone, any movies I purchase on my Apple TV are viewable from my iPhone. Any apps on the App Store have to meet Apple’s guidelines, to ensure that not to much trash gets through.

Yes, it’s a “walled garden” some may feel to be too constricting. But, for most people using the device, they don’t notice the walls are even there because they’re too busy staring at all the flowers and plant-life. I mean, what’s better: a perfectly tendered garden with all kinds of wondrous beauty, or a completely free, wide-open public park covered in dog business, empty beer bottles and graffiti?

It’s so good, faults are major news

As far as I can remember, there’s not been one iPhone that’s been so bad as to get a mediocre or poor review. Each one is billed as the “top smartphone” by tech critics. Even the iPhone 5c has been well received. Almost every aspect works fantastically, and is in tune with the rest of the components and functions. So much so, that when a fault shows up, it makes the news.

If Apple’s Maps app starts making mistakes, or has poor data, it’s all over the web within a couple of days. If the antenna doesn’t pick up signal when you cover one of the gaps that helps it to work, it’s branded “Antennagate”. If there’s a purple lens flare when you point your camera directly at the sun, you’ve got “Purplegate”. If iMessage or iCloud goes down, the webosphere hurls itself in to a manic state of bewilderment.


Apple loves developers. And developers love Apple (mostly). Since its inception, the iPhone has only ever had two screen sizes. Between 2007 and 2010, it had one screen size with one resolution to develop for. Developers didn’t have to test for varying resolutions and form factors. iPhone 4 was released, with twice the resolution, but in the same size screen and the same ratio. Adapting apps for that was easy enough. iPhone 5 was launched, it had the same pixel density and the same width as the previous displays, but was slightly longer. Again, not too much trouble. And apps not optimized for iPhone 5 didn’t look too bad on its longer display.

Almost 6 years after the App Store launched there are now over 1 million apps on the App Store, and a huge number of devoted developers. But it’s not just the quantity that’s impressive. iOS gives developers the platform to really build some fantastic programs that look and work great. And they don’t have to try a hundred different screens to optimize the app. With millions of people using the same iPhone screen, app developers can do some really great work, and know that the experience for every user is going to be exactly the same.

It’s hard to believe that third party apps weren’t available until the iPhone 3G. But deciding to launch the App Store was perhaps the greatest thing Apple ever did. For everyone.

Is it really special?

I think what I love about the iPhone is that it shows what a company can achieve by not panicking, and by staying true to its principles. It believes in great design, in simplicity, in making your life better through technology. It’s not just going to release a gigantic monstrosity capable of teleporting you to the moon, back in time and with a giant 4k screen a 16-core processor. Experience comes first.

Is it special still? Yes, I think so. I think we’re reaching a lull now that we always seem to reach when a design approaches the two year mark. I remember reading stories and comments about how old, and out of date the iPhone 4s was compared to competition in 2012. Then months later, iPhone 5 was announced, and suddenly Apple was back in the game (not that it was ever really out of it). ┬áiPhone 5s is about the potential of two key things: Touch ID and 64-bit processing. They may not be wowing us now, but in a couple of years time, when not having them both will seem unthinkable, we’ll look back at the iPhone 5s as the device that kick-started them.

When the iPhone originally launched in 2007, not many people bought it. Nowhere near as many as bought the 3G or 3GS in the following years. It was expensive, couldn’t send MMS, record video or download third party programs. Does that stop it from being a special device?

What do you think? Is the iPhone still special? Leave your thoughts below or tweet me: @TiP_Cam


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  • Jack

    Well said, Cam. I tell this exact same thing to Apple-haters. I explain to them how the hardware and software are made for each other, unlike Windows and Android. Very few will argue with me, and the die-hard haters will simply sneer and change the subject.

    • Christopher

      APPLE-Haters are self proclaimed smart people who have no idea what is going on at chip level.

  • Patrick

    there are actually one MILLION apps, not billion… nonetheless impressive

    • Cam Bunton

      Tru dat.. eek.

      • donnybee

        Great article Cam!

  • TBN27

    One thing that you forgot to mention is that the iPhone is well supported and long lasting. An iPhone user will get updates no matter which version owned up to what it is capable of running, and that same iPhone can last a long time without failure. Also if one invests in apple care, you have a worry free smartphone for 3 years. Ever since switching over from android, I have never been so satisfied and not in need of upgrading. This will also be the first smartphone I have owned that is well on its way to being around for two years. I would go for 3 but T-Mobile US is upgrading their network and the next iPhone I predict will have the new radio bands for the LTE Additions, and quite frankly I am digging Touch ID.

  • roopull

    Cam, I don’t think the lull you refer to is unique to the iPhone. The challenge in the market at this point is to do anything that has a substantive difference on user experience. I cannot fathom much that you could put in one of these devices that has not been done already – and done quite well. The iPhone still has a few things it can do, but they’ll only be firsts for the iPhone, not for the smartphone market as a whole.

    • RedGeminiPA

      You missed the whole moral of the article.

  • Enrike Montemayor

    That even with those “insane” sales, it’s loosing market share to Android, even in USA where there’s a lot of iSheeps… (That God complex of iSheeps is unbelievable)

    • Greg

      I don’t think thats a fair comparison. Yes, there are more devices running Android framework, but thats counting EVERYTHING running Android, not just phones. iPhone is just phones. Also there are 7 iPhones, and thousands of Androids. So if a company with 7 devices can even get close to competing with a company with hundreds, thats something worth noting.

      • Jack

        That’s what I try to tell people. An Apple iPhone with iOS 5, 6 or 7 pitted against how many phones with Android OS? LG, HTC, Lumia, Nokia, Samsung, Kyocera, etc. I say Apple’s doing pretty well against the competition.

  • devesh

    Just yesterday I was checking out s5 and m8 videos,,, these devices just don’t have the UNIFORMITY in their behavior!! ,, m8 is all jerky, and s5 is still a tad second slower in launching almost every other app,,, as Steve jobs had quoted,, if ur obsessed with your software,, better design your hardware!!!

    • Greg

      This is the problem with comments I saw a video and it was shaky and s5 is a sec slower. Lame comment. I have a galaxy note gt-n7000 nearly 3 years old now. Not 1 problem. I went to our telco and actually used a htc m8 for 30mins connected to wi fi. I’m buying it and upgrading. I didn’t watch a video I didn’t read comments. I personally went out and tried it. Sense I will get used to. I do things I want to do in life I don’t awatch videos and slam something i haven’t tried. I also like useing something every tom dick and harry has, I have never followed the crowd, and I’m so glad I did this years ago as I’m not scared to try new tecnology. Can’t say the same for most people who just can’t get past 2007

      • devesh

        Sorry for the “LAME COMMENT” but video was all I could watch until the phone comes in hands,, I ain’t some ass watching videos and commenting, my first cell was galaxy ace followed by note 1 , then s4 and last note 3′, I use note 3 simultaneously with iPhone 5s ,, I’m speaking by experience, for now s5 seems to be same as note 3 and s4 in stutters here and there

      • devesh

        And seriously who on this earth with normal human reflexes didn’t notice the freezes on note1 and it’s subsequent death with each update,, the last jellybean nearly killed the device!!! If u didn’t have a problem with note 1 in 3 years ,,,, I’m sorry for you,,

  • donnybee

    In all respects, I feel Android users are following the crowd more at this point than iPhone users are. iPhone has quality: Build quality, app quality, and guaranteed support in the future. So why WOULDN’T someone choose iPhone?

    It’s because it’s cool to hate Apple now. We have a new herd of sheep in town and they’re all carrying Samsung, HTC, ZTE, LG, Sony, etc etc etc.

    I love the reference to the open park full of garbage. Essentially, that’s what Android is. I’ve gone back and forth and iPhone always comes out ahead. The ecosystem is more stable for devs too.. Do you realize how EASY it is to pirate an app on Android? If I was a developer, I wouldn’t ever develop an app for Android, unless it had only in-app purchases. Android phones are a dime-a-dozen and sure perform like they are too.

    • Anon

      No one wants to pay $700 for a new iPhone every year. People have androids because you can get them for $100 and they basically do the same thing. Cool to hate iphones? I think you mean it’s cool and in style to have an iphone.

  • Rick Rudge

    Another good posting, Cam. I remember when Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone. He said that he would be happy with 5 percent of the mobile phone market. I think that the iPhone exceeded all expectations. As far as the Apple-Haters, they’ve been with us for a long time, and I happily try to ignore them. I noticed in sales ads for Android phones that they seem to have different versions of Android OS for each phone. Does this mean that this is the version of Android that comes with the phone, or are you only able to update to that version of Android OS on this phone? It’s kind of confusing. I have an older iPhone and am amazed that I can still upgrade to the latest iOS. If people are happy with Android, that’s fine with me, but it seems like many of them just have to put down iPhone users, for some strange reason.

  • Tyler

    iDevices are so overrated… Apple just cookie cuts every device they make. I love their computers and os but god all mighty I utterly hate the i-series because
    – for example the iphone 6 is coming soon and the specs are just sad. All they really did was make it larger. I expeded a nice phone with a 18mp camera and a 2k screen but no, boring 720p retina.
    – they make a big deal about being lighter and the size of the phone.
    – An android or windows phone can do all of the things an iphone can do. Hell, I could put iOS on an Android if I felt like it.
    – they honestly are just posh excesories… Rubbish.

  • ClubDoug

    I’ve been using a 5s for a year now, and to be perfectly honest, it is the only mobile I have ever hated! Before this I had an Android for 2 years (only 1 Android) and proprietry OS’s before that (I only ever update my phone every 2 years). I have missed so many calls, messages, emails on IOS, it seems to only notify you of some things and not others, so I constantly have to go into my email app, messenger app, etc etc to actually see what I have missed! (even though I have every notification option turned on). Missing timely email notifications alone has cost me far more than this phone is worth. The volume is also either so quiet that I can’t hear the phone ring, or I believe it actually just decides not to audibly ring sometimes to piss me off. The brightness also seems to have a mind of it’s own. The interface, despite what everyone says, I find to be ridiculously slow and laggy. Yes it’s smooth, but it’s like there is no “buffer”, ie if I press ahead of what the screen has caught up to, my presses are just lost, unlike the Android phone I previously had, where yes the phone wasn’t the smoothest, but at least I could press a series/sequence of positions on the screen that I had gotten used to, and knew for sure that even if the screen hadn’t caught up to me, that they would register. Plus the phone seems to have a mind of its own in terms of how it responds to certain things you try to use it for (ie literally every day there’ll be something mundane I’m trying to do with it and then it responds with something to me that is totally random and I’m thinking why the f*** would you think that that’s what I wanted to do!) The build quality also seems far inferior – damages easily (aluminium body) and sounds cheap (flick the screen with your fingernail and it just sounds plasticy and hollow, not solid). Don’t drop it or it’s game over! This one phone has put me off Apple forever sorry (as this is the only Apple product I have ever purchased). I wasn’t an “Apple hater” before buying this as it’s my first Apple product. I’m still not an “Apple hater”, but am certainly an iphone hater now!

  • jazmine

    what do you think about I phones?

  • jazmine

    what do you think about i phones

  • Sipho van de Merwe

    I always tell apple-haters that, you wot understand until you own one..