Will the iPhone be as recognizable in 30 years as the Mac is today?

Will the iPhone be as recognizable in 30 years as the Mac is today?

Throughout the 30th anniversary of the Mac, one thing become clear — as much as many of us love and adore OS X, we're now living in the age of iOS. If the differences in worlds needed to made any more clear, Apple recently celebrated the anniversary of their epic 1984 Superbowl TV commercial by releasing the 1.24.14 video, shot entirely on the iPhone, and broadcast on the internet. However, that the Mac remains recognizable today, vibrant and important, leads me to wonder, in another 30 years, how recognizable will the iPhone be? Of what and on what will a 1.24.44 be "shot" and "broadcast"?

John Gruber, writing on Daring Fireball:

Amidst all the well-deserved accolades celebrating the 30th anniversary of the original Macintosh, what has struck me is how very Apple that product — and the team that made it — was.

For one thing, they sweated the details. The greatest testimony to their genius is just how much of that original design is recognizable in today’s Mac OS X 10.9. A Mac user from 1984 could sit down in front of an iMac or MacBook today and recognize it as a successor to that original machine. That’s simply amazing.

Emphasis mine. The opposite is also true. A Mac user today could sit down in front of the original Mac and not feel lost or alienated. That's because, for the end-user, the interface is the app and consistency is a feature. OS X Mavericks is very different than the original Mac OS, yet the windows are still there. The mouse still points and clicks. The File and Edit menus are right where they've always been. That's the human interface — the way a person experiences a machine. Change all the plumbing you want, from kernel to driver, and as long as the interface remains recognizable, the human remains comfortable. Leave the plumbing the same and change the way the interface works, and the human will be lost.

That's why the Mac endures so well — the elements that the human being sees and interacts with remain familar. It's also why iOS 7, despite its radical visual overhaul, remained usable — the icons were still in the same place on the Home screen, lists still scroll the same way, taps and swipes work the same way now as they did before. For all the changes, the way the human interacts with the machine remains largely unchanged.

The human interface for handhelds has been largely the same for a long time as well. Early personal digital assistants (PDAs) had grids of icons that, when pressed, launched apps. Smartphones too. The Treo and Windows Mobile. The iPhone, the late webOS, BrackBerry then and now, even Android in its drawer, have grids of icons. There's a reason for that. Icons are iconic. They're easy to recognize and differentiate at a glance. Windows Phone uses titles instead, which offer some increased informational capacity, but at the expense of consistency. But will that consistency endure for as long as the desktop has?

Benedict Evens:

So I have very little idea what precisely I would mean if, in 5 years, I were to say 'I installed an app on my smartphone'. Further, I'm pretty sure that if it's an Apple smartphone it will run an iteration of iOS but I'm rather less sure what Google will have done with Android and Chrome by then. And of course I might be running a fork of Android from Amazon or, perhaps, Microsoft.

If you'd asked me 30 years ago, when I first touched a Lisa or Mac, whether desktops would be largely the same now, today, I would have thought you mad. With visions of science-fiction dancing in my head, I would have thought — hoped — that they wouldn't last out the decade. But here they are.

When it comes to mobile, I likewise can't imagine picking up anything even resembling an iPhone or smartphone, iOS or Android, 10 years from now, much less 30, in anything resembling the same way, shape, or form. The velocity of mobile just seems so much faster than desktop. But maybe it just seems that way?

Natural language interfaces and sequentially inferring sensors like Siri and Google Now are always coming but never quite arriving. Yet the contextual awakening and internet of things is looming on the horizon. Slowly but surely, push interface is starting to appear. But will these lead to fundamental changes in human interaction, or simply a rounding out of the experience?

It's 2037 or 2044 and you want to get in touch with a loved one, will the device you reach for — if indeed you still need to reach — and will the apps and/or services you interact with be in any way be recognizable to an iPhone user today? Even harder to imagine: If Apple were to honor the iPhone then the way they have the Mac now, how would that honor be captured and broadcast?

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Will the iPhone be as recognizable in 30 years as the Mac is today?


We won't have to reach for anything or even walk. We will be on a wheel chair similar to the one in the movie Wall-E. Everything is done on the chair, eating, communication, transportation, etc.

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" ... in another 30 years, how recognizable will the iPhone be?"

It'll be like "Her." All the CPU and communication electronics in the earpiece, and the pocket-sized device is just a display with camera and possibly a mic. No more tapping icons to launch apps, no more tapping buttons to control apps. Little if any graphics left.

The OS will appear to do everything for the user, but will actually use 3rd party apps as services. Ask Siri for the weather in Bora Bora, she'll consult the Yahoo Weather app, and she'll tell you. Ask Siri for the best price on 100TB optical Thunderbolt 4 flash drives (from reputable e-tailers), tell her to buy one for you, and she'll order it. No need to tap a TouchID sensor, because your iPhone will have authenticated you by detecting your EEG (aka brain waves). And your instantiation of Siri will talk to other peoples' instantiations of Siri, filter out unimportant stuff, and act as a concierge.

Apple has already eliminated most of that old-school Photoshopped skeuomorphism in iOS 7. iOS 8 might clean things up even further. Eventually Apple could wean users off graphics-heavy, rigidly-navigated graphical UIs entirely.

The iPhone "earpiece" would use display screens of all sizes, from iPod nano-sized to pocket-sized to desktop Mac-sized to living room TV-sized. And it won't take 30 years for all of this to happen. Maybe 10.

I don't think either the Mac/PC or iPhone/cell phone will be in the same form in 30 years. Apple took the computer to the phone form with the iPhone, then flattened it out to a larger screen with the iPad. Display is really the key to erasing all borders. Once you see more ubiquitous displays that easily morph to the current function rather than dedicated devices with dedicated displays then the form changes again...dramatically. Imagine displays that are applied like wallpaper that can be accessed by any device, that device being networked (locally and globally) to provider services for personal business, communication and multimedia. Heads up displays will fill in the gap where flat-enough surfaces are insufficient. If your entire wall is a screen, any wall, or HUDs are available anywhere you go then your device is just your personal access point, means of ID, and e-comerce fob. The device could be your jacket, your watch or even your shoe (think Maxwell Smart), but likely some clip-on, wearable device that responds to just you (heartbeat, DNA, brainwaves, etc).

All the basics to make this happen exist now but are just not refined enough for mass production. Ok, perhaps some things are still deep in the labs, but the proof of concept exists for most of the components and the acceleration of invention and manufacturing could actually make this happen over the next 30 years.

Your argument works the same for Windows. Sit down in front of a Windows 3.1 machine and it's pretty easy to get around. The PC interface hasn't really changed that much whether cmd line or gui. Hell PC architecture itself is relatively unchanged. Even your mobile devices are partitioned similar to PCs underneath it all. A lot has changed, of course, but the fundamental concepts and core building blocks (specifically for interface) are all the same.

I suspect in 30 years you could pull out any old smartphone from a drawer, show it to a kid who'd ask "is that an old iPhone?".

"No" you'd say back. "It's an Android based Motorola 4g Droid Nexus Ultra 7-niner... nevermind... yes, it's an old iPhone. Cool, right?"

And I don't like iPhones...

People still read printed books.
Yeah, there'll always be a need for something to hold & get visual feedback from because I have no intention of going cyborg.

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Unless people don't need to talk, type or see the form will likely stay the same. The UI may change some, the ability to sense may the world around may improve but there will always be the. We'd to see pictures/video, talk to others and type messages when talking just isn't right.

30 years is a long time - it depends on if they treat the present as inspiration or dogma. Slavish adherence to the past in part forced design and engineering choices that painted Apple into such a dark corner they were fortunate a competitor gave them a cash infusion to get the DoJ off their back.

Since that near-death experience, of course, Apple has done an unparalleled job of creating products that echo past conventions rather than be strictly beholden to them. If the keep on that path, it will be a great next 30 years; if they allow their thinking to ossify again, there may not be a monopoly available to bail them out.

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Yeah, the Mac endures with 7% market share. Microsoft has practically gone out of their way to make Windows 8 as antagonizing and different as possible and yet no iOS can even make it to 10% market share, and no, I don't believe in the "PC is dead" crap. Show me a company apart from Apple that earns their living exclusively with an iPad. PC earns people their livelihood, the iPad is just for playing and porn, and that's just fine, you can make billions with those two markets.

The iPhone will hold the same curious regard as old IBM machines do now. They'll be recognized as the point where phone designs started changing but even what the iPhone becomes will be a footnote in a design book somewhere 30 years from now..

Phone designs -- UI or hardware -- did not start "changing" at some point at around the iPhone 1. They have been changing constantly, non-stop, for the past 20 years. If there ever was a culmination point, it was with some Nokia releases in the 1990s, after which the whole world started changing their view on consumer electroncis, UIs, and how people and technology interact. The industry that had got stagnated post 1980s and the Commodores, Amigas, etc, got into motion again.

We can recognise a numbe rof important development:
1. 1980s, personal computer, graphical UIs
2. 1990s, Nokia mobile technology influence: consumer-orientation, technology as a fashion item, new, easier user interfaces for mobile devices.
3. 2000, Apple's iPod, iTunes --> online and digital media
4. 2010, iPad, Microsoft's tablet computer reinvigorated with a more mature and less ambitious technology base, so as to make it work well for a select set of tasks rtaher than everything.
5. 201X... Google's ubiquitous, cloud-based, and wearable technology? Android becomes inevitably the standard for everything?
6. The most underreported development already taking place today grows gradually, as the Linux kernel eventually runs all things from power grids to servers, to smart watches to tablets, to phones to TVs, cars... and open source inherits the world. Or has it already done that?

The most disappointing piece I have yet read from Rene. Anyone who thinks that the fact that the UI has not progressed in 30 years is a good thing, must be a... I, well, better not to say it. That kind of lack of development is pathetic.

By the way, I do not think the Mac is very iconic today, or recognisable. For one, I do not know a single person here in Europe amongst my acquaintances who would even know that Mac the computer still exist. Secondly, I have never used one or ever come across one live. I do not even know where I could buy one if I wanted -- Apple online store, perhaps? It has a 3% market share, so go figure. I see iPads everywhere, though.

The way we contact each other in 2037 or 2044 will not be a 4 or 5 inch long stick that we hold to our ear or a large earpiece connected to said stick. As this is one of the most dynamic areas of tech change at the moment, we can't imagine what the right answer is going to be.

Wasn't there a lot of grief from Mac users regarding the look and feel when OSX was released? I remember some heralding it and other seeing it as the end of the Mac.

Would a user of the 1st gen iPod feel comfortable with the 5th gen iPod Touch? I don't think so.

It would be a failure if the phone UI was as similar as it is now in 30 years. Just because the desktop stagnated for so long doesn't mean that mobile will as well.

I don't believe it will look the same. I think we will not have devices per se, I think it will just connect through voice recognition.

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Depends on its future relevance. Motorola has been a leader in making some of the most iconic mobile phones in the history of mobile phones. They introduced the first commercially available cell phone. That big phone the size of alarm clock the Dynatac8000x . The first phone with a flip out receiver. The startac, the first Motorola razr flip phone. The vader was so small it could almost fit in your wallet. These guys developed the walkie talkie, Neil Armstrong spoke from the moon on a Motorola radio. Lest we forget the Motorola droid, basically launched the android platform. Motorola has done far more for mobile technology then blackberry or apple or palm . Yet look at it, barely talked about slowly fading away. Apple has had its share of troubles it's lucky to be with us today. No one knows the future it can be iconic or a memory in 30 years, the speculation makes for interesting conversation though.

By reading this article no one would ever guess that the original Mac was a flop, quickly eclipsed by the PC, went from that to worse, so bad Apple had to buy NeXt to get a decent OS, and three decades later it enjoys a respectable 7% of the market, and that is 7% of machines connected to the web, forget those hundreds of thousands of offline machines running different versions of Windows or Linux on industrial, scientific, commerce and business applications. Some Apple pundits went so far as to predict that Apple would get out of the personal computer business and would be concentrating on mobile.

Mind you that this hard earned 7% mostly came in the wake of the iPhone and the iPad, and not on the success of the Mac per se, since its up from the historical average 3% of the last two decades, so I think that in this context, words like "epic" and "important" are a little out of place.

If we're still using anything that's even somewhat reminiscent of a smartphone or tablet in 2037, that means that something has gone seriously wrong. I can't see as many people using smartphones in 2017, much less 2027 or 2037. Unless someone nukes Silicon Valley, or the US power gird goes down, or the world ends, we'll be well beyond smartphones and tablets by 2037. I think people will look at today's smartphones and laugh at their specs and prices, much like I laugh at the 15 pound weight and $6,000+ ($13,000 in today's money, adjusted for inflation) price tag of the Macintosh Portable.

By 2037, a 100TB hard drive will probably be considered small (what? People could get by on 8GB of space on a smartphone?), as will 10TB of RAM. (What the heck? You could play SimCity 5 on 4GB of RAM? SimCity 8 requires 5TB!) As illustrated by my last 2037-person impression, app sizes will definitely get much larger (although maybe not 5TB big).

If the desktop dies, there better be something I can play powerful games on. Or else heads will roll. ;D