iPhone at 15: transforming industries

It’s sometimes hard to recollect just how different the phone market was back in 2007. According to Statista, Nokia had 37% market share that year, with Motorola and Samsung vying for a distant second place. We were gladly paying for ringtones and carrying around separate devices for listening to our MP3 collections. And it was in this space where Apple existed with the iPod.

But everything changed in June 2007, when Apple co-founder and CEO, Steve Jobs, announced the release of the iPhone. Critics were sceptical of Apple’s ability to penetrate this market and outgun well-placed giants such as Ericsson, Nokia and Blackberry. However, Jobs was confident that the project he had been working on for two years would be a game-changer. In his words, their new product would merge three devices, becoming: “…a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communicator.”

It did just that, and much more.

So, 15 years on, how can we define the impact of the iPhone, and are we still seeing its influence in consumer electronics and beyond?

Always on

The slick functionality of the touch screen grabbed many of the headlines during the first generation iPhone’s launch period, and rightly so. Jobs was dismissive of the styluses that competitors used and claimed the best pointing device ever invented was the human finger. While styluses or pens for electronic devices haven’t gone away (and Apple now uses them too), the iPhone’s touch screen, although it had been seen on other devices before, was more intuitive and changed the way people interacted with their devices.

But more than this, one of the most enduring consequences of the iPhone has been continuous internet access. Before its introduction, accessing the internet meant going through a web browser and finding a site. Now, continuous connection running in the background through apps enables users to be permanently online, and this has led to new business opportunities for app-based services (for example, Uber), developing more connected networks and accelerating the evolution of the Internet of Things. As the adoption of 5G capability expands, this trend will only continue upwards.

The heavy focus on internet accessibility also resulted in a striking shift from voice to data traffic for telecoms businesses, transforming their entire business model. Since then, carriers have needed to invest in faster, more far-reaching networks capable of dealing with the huge increase of data traffic.

Multifunctional sensors

Another aspect of the iPhone that delivered significant change was the implementation of sensor technology. Shipping with an accelerometer, proximity sensor, and ambient light sensor, the device’s capabilities were broadened into areas as yet untouched by rivals. As the iPhone was essentially a pocket computer with a phone attached, it was able to process the captured sensor data rapidly and offer useful additional functionality as a result. At an incredible speed, the iPhone, and all subsequent smartphones, became electronic Swiss Army knives, replacing the need for old analogue tools at the tap of an app download button.

Technological convergence

In the years since the iPhone was launched, we have witnessed an enormous amount of convergence. As previously described, voice and video calls are now just forms of data for telecoms companies. Over the course of several years, the iPhone also steadily replaced dedicated music-only iPods in people’s pockets. Smartphones have continued to assume responsibility for geolocation, photography, measuring distance, personal training, as well as being many people’s primary internet access point.

Technological convergence on a larger scale will continue to impact industries as digital transformation becomes more widespread. Manufacturing processes, and the products they are creating, are being swept along on a wave of change as efficiency, connectivity and control are enhanced by smarter systems. For example, electric vehicles are now often described as ‘iPhones on wheels’ due to their connectivity and AI capabilities. These customer experience features are now key selling points, firmly bringing cars into the IoT, and also making it less surprising that Apple and its suppliers are looking towards automotive for the next wave of growth.

In control of your manufacturing

The story of the iPhone cannot overlook just how different Apple was to many of its mobile phone competitors in the way the company championed vertical integration, overseeing and owning both iPhone hardware and software as much as possible. To emphasise this philosophy, Steve Jobs even used an old Alan Kay (computer scientist at Atari and Apple Fellow) quote during the iPhone launch: “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

This level of control assists Apple in their obsession over quality, both in terms of materials and finish, and also the reliability and functionality of the electronics. Achieving relentlessly high levels of quality requires using ever-faster, more efficient and smarter technology to make products that stand out from the competition, to differentiate through new forms, new materials and sheer manufacturing precision.

Using the latest touchscreen tech, thinner glass, and high resolution cameras doesn’t happen by simply plugging in a new chip. It requires high-value, high-precision manufacturing and pushes the boundaries of quality inspection to new levels of accuracy. These components are delicate and shiny, requiring the marriage of new laser and optical technologies for non-contact inspection, because even a tiny scratch or defect will affect performance and quickly subdue the customer’s unboxing delight. Also, spotting these defects at high speed cannot be achieved by people. It must be autonomous, and deep learning techniques are helping to spot quality issues by making sense of large volumes of production data that cannot be discerned by humans without the invaluable helping hand of machine learning. Robotic automation of both smartphone inspection and assembly will be a key focus for manufacturers as they seek to make efficiency gains and drive down costs.

Apple’s manufacturing partner, Foxconn has a similar operational structure to Apple, producing its own materials and manufacturing parts in-house. This gives Foxconn real flexibility and the ability to make decisions to enter new markets very quickly without the need to go through a sourcing process for new materials and components. This agility is now enabling the company to rapidly enter new sectors such as electric vehicles.

While adopting this type of structure is not suitable for all (or even most) businesses, these examples highlight the benefit of having control over manufacturing processes and supply chains alongside increasing operational agility.

An expert partner

Hexagon technology touches 85% of smartphones manufactured globally, and we put data to work through connected end-to-end digital solutions, improving efficiency, productivity and agility. Our expertise covers design, to production, to inspection (for example glass screens, housings, camera modules, Final Assembly Testing & Packaging), implementing the world’s most advanced software and cutting-edge equipment into manufacturing processes for efficiency gains at every stage.

Will it overheat and shut down in your pocket on your daily commute, or if exposed to the hot, humid climate of southern India? Will a new design survive the rigours of teenagers at school, or shatter the first time it is dropped. Consumer products must survive the infamous “drop test”, but ensuring durability for 1000s of drops with each new design iteration is only feasible using the power of virtual prototyping and simulation.

From the design and thermal analysis of PCBs and ICs, to optimising the production of semiconductors, to dimensional inspection and AI-assisted cosmetic defect detection, partnering with Hexagon enables smartphone producers to leverage world-leading expertise across multiple disciplines from a single source.

Fifteen years of transformation

Over the fifteen years since the iPhone was launched, we have seen the mobile phone sector transform completely as competitors pivoted to catch up with an innovative new entrant. The period that followed immediately after the launch will long be used by business educators as an object lesson in how not to react to a competitive game-changer.

Manufacturing smarter, with better-informed decisions based on data from the merging of real and virtual worlds, gives electronics manufacturers the opportunity to be responsive and agile while also taking an obsessive approach to quality.

Discover how smart manufacturing solutions can give you an end-to-end competitive edge here.


  • Dr Hanxue Zhao

    Dr Hanxue Zhao is the VP Global Electronics Practice Lead, at Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division. She has worked in several senior leadership positions in business development, sales, and marketing in MNCs across multiple industries based in the US, Europe, and Asia in R&D and across the front-end and back-end supply chain of the electronics Industry. Hanxue has two decades’ international experience in bridging cultures to achieve business success. She is passionate about building winning teams and helping business with diversification and transformation.

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