History of iPhone 5: The biggest thing to happen to iPhone

Apple iPhone 5
Apple iPhone 5 (Image credit: iMore)

WWDC 2012 came and went without any new iPhone announcements, re-affirming that that 2011 hadn't be a fluke and that fall was the new summer. So it was that Apple announced another iPhone event for September 12, 2012. There, Apple senior vice president of worldwide marketing introduced the biggest thing to happen to the iPhone since the original iPhone. Big as in tall. Big as in light. Big as in LTE. Big as in the iPhone 5.

iPhone 5 is the most beautiful consumer device that we've ever created. We've packed an amazing amount of innovation and advanced technology into a thin and light, jewel-like device with a stunning 4-inch Retina display, blazing fast A6 chip, ultrafast wireless, even longer battery life; and we think customers are going to love it.

Loving it was easy

iPhone 5, codenamed N41/N42 and model number iPhone5,1, was the fourth major redesign and the second major improvement to the iPhone's display since the original. It was the fist time, however, Apple changed aspect ratios. All previous iPhones had been 3:2. The iPhone 5 was a more cinematic 16:9. It meant movies and TV could be shown with less or no letterboxing, and apps could take advantage of an extra row of content. That's because Apple had simply added pixels to take the iPhone from 3.5-inches to 4-inches, they'd kept the same 326ppi density and gone from 940x640 to 1136x640.

Apple also switched to in-cell technology, which let them combine the touch sensor and LCD into one layer. If the pixels of the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4s looked like they were painted beneath glass, the pixels on the iPhone 5 looked like they were painted inside the glass. It reduced reflections and made everything look better. There were some issues with rapid, changing, diagonal swiping, but overall Apple had succeeded in once again making the best, if not the biggest, display in the business.

Although the screen got bigger, paradoxically the iPhone 5 itself got smaller. 12% smaller by volume than its predecessor. That meant it was so light people picking it for the first time could mistake it for a hollow shell. It required a manufacturing process with precision and at scale never seen before. According to Apple senior vice president of design, Jony Ive, they now measured in microns.

Though the overall rounded-rectangle shape of the iPhone 5 stayed the same, Apple rebuilt the casing from the atoms on up. Instead of a glass back and stainless steel band, they went back to the aluminum of the original iPhone. This time, however, they made it a unibody that covered the back and sides and included diamond polished chamfered edges. Ceramic/pigmented glass was still used on the top and bottom for RF transparency, however, resulting in a two-tone effect. Apple offered both white and silver (Stormtrooper) and black and slate (Vader). The silver was clear-coated aluminum. The slate was anodized. Dark colors, especially black, are incredibly hard to anodize and that did cause some issues for Apple when it came to scratching and chipping.

The iPhone 5 also debuted Apple's first truly custom processor. Previous Apple A-series processors had been based on existing ARM reference platforms like Cortex A9. For the Apple A6, Apple licensed the ARM v7s instruction set and made their own design — a 32nm CMOS dual-core CPU that can run from between 800MHz and 1.2GHz and was codenamed Swift. They topped it off with a triple-core PowerVR SGX543MP3 GPU and 1GB of RAM. It was roughly twice as fast. Again. There was no new storage option, however, so 64GB remained the max. The battery did creep up to 1440mAh and that, along with new efficiencies, increased useful battery life.

The Apple A6 image signal processor (ISP) added spatial noise reduction as well as increased speed. Because of the 25% thinner body, Apple wasn't able to include a better physical camera (cameras love depth) but they somehow managed to squeeze a camera into the iPhone 5 that was just as good as the iPhone 4S. Re-branded under the old "iSight" name, Apple did add a new, dynamic low-light mode which they claimed was up to 2 f-stops better. Apple also claimed the 5-element lens has been aligned with even greater precision for even greater sharpness. Also, the surface of the iSight was switched to sapphire crystal to make it more scratch resistant. The front, FaceTime camera went 720p, becoming FaceTime HD.

Making a camera that was as good if not slightly better than the iPhone 4S fit into a body as thin as the iPhone 5 was, no doubt, a miracle of engineering. However, it did raise questions about the need for ever-thinner iPhones. Could Apple not have left the depth the same and made the camera even better? Added even more battery? What was truly the most important — more functionality or less weight? Apple clearly believed the latter.

In their efforts to fit everything into the smaller-by-volume space, Apple once again went to a smaller SIM card. This time, the nanoSIM. Thanks to Qualcomm's MDM9615 and RTR8600 chipsets, they added 4G LTE support with a maximum theoretical speed of 100mbps. These were next generation chips at the time and, because Apple had waited to go to LTE until they were ready, the iPhone avoided all the battery life and bloating issues faced by earlier adopters.

Since LTE doesn't support simultaneous voice and data, the GSM iPhone 5 had to drop down to HSPA+ while making or taking calls. Since EVDO Rev. A also doesn't supported simultaneous voice and data either, the CMDA iPhone 5 had to drop data entirely. To be clear, this was and remains a Verizon and Sprint problem. They never rolled out EVDO Rev. B, which does support simultaneous voice and data, nor did they switch to HSPA, like their CDMA counterparts in Canada, Bell and TELUS, did.

That meant, in order for Apple to provide a "world phone", Apple has to include CDMA support in every iPhone. Not only was that a more complex radio model to solve, it was a more expensive one — Qualcomm owns CDMA and they take a hefty royalty for its use. And, again, to provide a world phone, that's a higher royalty Apple had to pay on every iPhone.

Apple could have worked around the simultaneous voice and data issue by adding a second voice radio to the iPhone 5, but while they were willing to pay more for every iPhone because of Verizon and Sprint's technological debt, they drew the line at increasing size and decreasing battery life. Verizon and Sprint customers would have to wait until their carriers went all-in on Voice over LTE (VoLTE).

For areas without LTE, Apple added DC-HSPA+, and it's still impressive theoretical 42mbps capacity. Wideband audio was also added for the few carriers that actually supported it. There was still no NFC, not even with Passbook along for the ride. Bluetooth was already maxed out at 4.0, but thanks to a Murata Wi-Fi module, which included the Broadcom BCM4334 chip, the iPhone 5 gained 802.11n on 5GHz as well.

Apple also added a 3rd mic for better noise cancellation and beamforming. Thanks to FaceTime, Siri, and other, newer technologies, we didn't just talk into our phones any more. We talked at them and from all around them.

The iPhone 5 was also a turning point in another major area. After 10 years of 30-pin Dock connector, Apple swapped it out for the smaller, more flexible, more advanced Lightning connector — 80% smaller and offering 8 all-digital signals to be precise. It caused a lot of pain for a lot of people who'd accumulated a lot of Dock connector-based accessories over the years, and Apple dropped the ball in a major way by not having their adapters on the shelves — never mind in boxes — in anything approaching a reasonable amount of time. It was a necessary and good change, however, and over time the conversion pain diminished.

The iconic earbuds were also updated for the iPhone 5, becoming EarPods. The shape of the EarPods was a significant divergence — instead of being uniformly round, the EarPods were asymmetrically shaped and, according to Apple, ergonomically designed to better fit a wider range of ears. EarPods also featured a new, multi-port design. The main EarPod speaker directed sound into your ear. The port on the back was tuned to mid-range frequencies and intended to improve consistency of experience. Ports in the stem were meant to improve bass. Air channels reduced pressure on the speaker so it could concentrate on providing greater low-frequency sound. They still weren't high-end and weren't meant to be, but for in-the-box headsets, they were an improvement.

Pricing was unchanged at $199, $299, and $399 on contract.

Bored all the way to the bank

The iPhone 5 launched in the US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and the UK on September 21, 2012. By the end of the year it was available in 100 countries on 240 carriers. Apple also launched iOS 6 with it. They sold 5 million the first weekend.

Tim Cook, via Apple:

Demand for iPhone 5 has been incredible and we are working hard to get an iPhone 5 into the hands of every customer who wants one as quickly as possible. While we have sold out of our initial supply, stores continue to receive iPhone 5 shipments regularly and customers can continue to order online and receive an estimated delivery date. We appreciate everyone's patience and are working hard to build enough iPhone 5s for everyone.

The iPhone 5 was a completely new design with a completely new manufacturing process, but thanks to the familiar silhouette button layout, especially the iconic Home button, some people and pundits called it uninspired. They called it boring. It made no sense to people who understood what went into making it. It made no sense to anyone familiar with all the other iterative designs from all the other manufacturers.

But perception is reality, and manufacturers disregard it at their peril. Add in the extremely troubled iOS 6 Maps launch that came with it, and gripes abounded. Still, reviews were positive.

Tim Stevens of Engadget:

The iPhone 5 is a significant improvement over the iPhone 4S in nearly every regard, and in those areas that didn't see an upgrade over its predecessor -- camera, storage capacity -- one could make a strong case that the iPhone 4S was already ahead of the curve. Every area, that is, except for the OS. If anything, it's the operating system here that's beginning to feel a bit dated and beginning to show its age.Still, the iPhone 5 absolutely shines. Pick your benchmark and you'll find Apple's thin new weapon sitting at or near the top. Will it convince you to give up your Android or Windows Phone ways and join the iOS side? Maybe, maybe not. Will it wow you? Hold it in your hand -- you might be surprised. For the iOS faithful this is a no-brainer upgrade. This is without a doubt the best iPhone yet. This is a hallmark of design. This is the one you've been waiting for.

Jim Dalrymple of The Loop:

My experience with the iPhone 5, iOS and the EarPods has been great. The iPhone is everything Apple said it would be and with iOS 6 built-in, it's clear to me that Apple has another winner on its hands.I can't think of any good reason why anyone wouldn't upgrade or purchase the iPhone 5.

Yours truly for iMore:

The danger of being overly focused is that you lose sight of the periphery. The key is to be fixed but not fixated. It can be a razor-fine line, and one Apple often seems to cascade down with reckless abandon. [...] One day Apple will come to the end of this iPhone line and they'll have to re-imagine or replace the iPhone the way they have the iPod. But it won't be this day or this iPhone.Taller, thinner, faster, lighter, brighter; the iPhone 5 represents nothing more nor less than the latest, relentless iteration on the Platonic ideal Apple has been striving towards for almost a decade. Redesigned in every way but shape, compromised but true to its purpose, the iPhone 5 is once again the best iPhone Apple has ever made, and one of the best phones ever made. Period.

It felt the closest yet to the original Project Purple concept Jony Ive had been working on since 2005. It felt like the pinnacle of that hardware line.

The competition

Microsoft had launched Windows Phone 7 and then called a mulligan and launched the similar looking but not binary compatible Windows Phone 8. It did, finally, unite Microsoft's platforms under the NT kernel, however, so it was an improvement. Nokia, the principle Windows Phone manufacturer started to make noise about Android and even started to launch low-end Android phones under the Nokia X label. They'd been so devalued under the leadership of former Microsoft executive and current Nokia CEO Stephen Elop that Microsoft decided to simply buy Nokia and get into the hardware business Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer had previously said made no sense to them. Ballmer, however, was already on his way out. He resigned and left the future of Microsoft in mobile to his successor, Satya Nadella.

BlackBerry had ditched their dual CEOs and replaced them with Thorstein Heins, and finally launched BlackBerry 10. It had some interesting ideas but was too late to market for new customers and too different for existing ones. Neither the full screen Z10 nor the hardware keyboard Q10 could find much traction.

Samsung and Motorola remained in litigation with Apple, the former leading in marketshare and rapidly gaining in profit share, the latter taking the first careful steps towards a Google phone. Competition from Android had never been more fierce. Some in the media and in the markets began to run with the Apple is doomed meme, and Apple's ability to innovate and excite was called into question.

Six years later

At WWDC 2013, Apple began to strike back. iOS 7 — a radical reconceptualizing of what it meant to be mobile software — was coming. But what would come with it?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.