The iPhone, which turns 10 years old today, is arguably one of the most transformative pieces of consumer technology ever created. It kicked off the smartphone boom by putting the first accessible and easy-to-use computer in our pockets, helped usher in entire software industries in just a few years’ time, and obviated the need for scores of single-purpose gadgets, from point-and-shoot cameras to GPS units to MP3 players.
Yet for all the benefits that the iPhone helped deliver, our current level of unprecedented digital connection has left quite a few critics dismayed and concerned over our screen addiction and our inability to go even a few minutes without unlocking our devices. The most surprising among this group happens to be the iPhone’s original creators.
In a talk at design studio IDEO’s Palo Alto headquarters Wednesday evening, former Apple employees Bas Ording, Brian Huppi, and Greg Christie discussed the ways in which the device they were instrumental in developing has impacted society. The conversation was led by One Device author and journalist Brian Merchant, and it more generally covered the earliest days of the iPhone’s creation, when the offbeat and wildly creative mixture of engineers and designers initially conceived of a more advanced touchscreen computer prototype using multitouch technology. However, in a Q&A following the discussion, a crowd member asked the three men to reflect on both the positive and negative effects of the smartphone boom.
“It terms of whether it’s net positive or net negative, I don’t think we know yet,” Christie, who led Apple’s human interface team and oversaw the team’s earliest multitouch demos, told the crowd. “I don’t feel good about the distraction. It’s certainly an unintended consequence.” Data backs up Christie’s concerns. One in three people around the world have trouble unplugging, even when they’re aware that it’s a healthier way to spend a vacation or time away from work, according to a 2017 study from GfK Global.
Christie says he notices every time he goes out for dinner with his family, when nearby tables of people will take their phones out after the meal is finished. “I think it’s a combination of factors,” he added. “The fact that it is so portable so it’s always with you, it’s radically easy to use compared with previous digital technology products, and it provides so much for you that the addiction actually, in retrospect, is not surprising.”
Ording, a revered user interface expert who helped pioneer the multitouch language we now converse in every day, feels the same. “The positive is that it’s easy to use, so a lot of people can use it,” Ording said. “The downside is too many people are staring at their phones. I probably do it, too.”
Huppi, one of the principal input engineers who developed the iPhone’s initial touchscreen foundation, fell back on a quote he remembers reading in Merchant’s book: “technology is morally neutral.” He said that anything as powerful as the smartphone will inevitably contain the capacity for both positive and negative effects on its users.
“I certainly am not excited about how much of a distraction it is in people’s lives,” Huppi said. “I’ve got to believe there’s just so many accidents on the road now from people looking at their phones.” But he added that it’s going to take us a while to fully come to terms with the modern smartphone, even 10 years since its inception. “I wonder if it’s not a bit like TV when it first came out,” he said. “Maybe eventually it finds its place in everyone’s lives and it’s not just this gadget everyone is enamored with.”
Christie still believes that transition will come. “This sort of thing happens every time there’s a major media transition, whether you’re talking about Gutenberg and the [printing] press, whether your talking about the emergence of radio, the emergence of television, the emergence of the internet,” he said. “People both individually and collectively as a society have to learn how to adjust to the new media reality that they find themselves in. Technology changes faster than people.”