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A visual history of the Apple iPhone, tech’s most iconic gadget

The biggest design moments in the history of Apple iPhones. With over 15 models, the device has evolved a lot—and it’s not going anywhere.

Photo illustration by Jean Lorenzo. Image courtesy Apple.

Profile picture of Sneha Mehta

12.4.2023

4 min read

Apple’s first iPhone released to the public over 15 years ago, on June 29, 2007. The first-of-its-kind product would combine the iPod, a phone and the internet (gasp!) all in one hand-held device. Hopefuls waited in lines for hours on the first day of sales. The atmosphere—if this clip of a fictionalized Elizabeth Homes vying for one in The Dropout gives you any indication—was frenzied, to say the least.


In its evolution so far, the iPhone has consistently pushed the limits of what smartphones can do. It is a technological and cultural juggernaut that influences not only its competitors but also the functioning of industries globally. And loyal fans await each new product launch with the kind of fervor usually reserved for pop stars and superhero movies.


We’re not getting into the detail of every iPhone model here; consider this article a highlight reel. Here, we’ve rounded up some of the most revolutionary moments in the history of Apple iPhones, with a focus on the large-scale changes each set in motion.


Five models of the iPhone 15 in varying colors, positioned upright and in a row.

Apple's latest iPhone model, the iPhone 15. Image courtesy Apple.



1. Launch


The iPhone was the smartphone that changed the world. In January 2007, Steve Jobs unveiled the first-ever Apple iPhone, with a 3.5-inch screen and 2-megapixel camera, calling it “revolutionary,” and a “breakthrough Internet communications device.” It wasn’t the first smartphone, but it was definitely the most groundbreaking—its sleek, multi-touch display and futuristic, intuitively-designed user interface put design firmly at the forefront of Apple’s product ethos, and revolutionized how people would use their devices.


Video of the big reveal of the first-ever iPhone in Apple history.



2. App Store


For all its technical brilliance, the iPhone as we know it today would be nothing without the Apple App Store, the innovation that arguably redefined the course of personal computing.


Launched with the iPhone 3G in 2008, the App Store became a hub where users could download apps from third-party developers to do everything from playing games, scrolling through social media to calling a taxi. In its first weekend, it reached 10 million downloads; the numbers today exceed over 50 billion downloads. This was a major moment in the history of the Apple iPhone: the App Store transformed the way software was designed, used, and distributed.


The announcement of the app store.



3. Advanced camera & retina display


Apple’s popular “Shot with iPhone” ad campaign owes its roots to the iPhone 4, launched in 2010. This phone came with Apple’s most powerful camera, its first front-facing camera, and its now-signature Retina Display screen with higher pixel density than traditional screens, features that made high-quality yet extremely simple smartphone photography a part of everyday life and turned every iPhone user into a photographer. (Apple just ran a “shot with iPhone” campaign for pop star Olivia Rodrigo’s “Get Him Back!” video, shot with iPhone 15.)


Coupled with these innovations in camera technology and screen resolution came FaceTime and HD video recording—and the near-obsoletion of digital cameras.


Apple's most recent "Shot on iPhone" ad campaign, for the iPhone 15.



4. Siri


Apple introduced Siri, its smartphone voice assistant, in 2011 with the iPhone 4S. With a simple “Hey, Siri,” the voice assistant can be summoned to search the internet, set reminders, identify songs or tell a joke—a manifestation of the fantasy that one day we’d be able to talk to technology. While Siri has been criticized for sometimes being clunky, it was radical at the time of launch—The Verge called it “probably one of the most novel applications Apple has ever produced”—and set the ground for competitors like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant.


Siri enters the chat.



5. Skeuomorphism to flat design

Early iPhones featured expressive, three-dimensional textures and designs that mimicked real-life objects (remember the pinewood iBooks shelf?) known in the design world as skeuomorphism. But in 2013, with the launch of iOS 7, Apple introduced a new visual language: flat design. Not only was this a major moment in the history of Apple’s iphone, it was a major moment in design history. This new style was simple, two-dimensional, and evoked the modernity of Swiss design—the primary typeface was Helvetica Neue Ultra Light—and would go on to define the next decade of user interface design.


Apple introduced flat design with iOS 7, changing their design style and, soon, everyone else's.



6. Face ID


The iPhone X replaced the fingerprint scan-based Touch ID and home button with Face ID, a facial recognition system used to access and unlock the phone, in 2017. Through Apple's TrueDepth camera system, the iPhone creates a three-dimensional map of the user’s face, which is then used to not only unlock the phone but also create animated Animoji and Memoji characters. Apple has also modified its Face ID technology to recognize users while they are wearing face masks, a design relic of the pandemic era.


Apple introduced Face ID with iPhone X in 2017.



7. Augmented Reality


Apple claims to have the world’s largest AR platform, positioning the company and its newest model, the iPhone 15, as the platform of choice for the slew of AR apps on the market. This capability has led to a spate of AR-enabled iOS apps like AR spaces, and IKEA Place, which lets you virtually place true-to-scale 3D models in visualizations of your spaces. A combination of Apple’s lidar-based 3D scanning, innovations in tools for capturing realistic visuals, and the AirPod Pro’s spatial audio technology could indicate future uses of the iPhone as a world-building powerhouse.


A screenshot if the viral Pokemon Go game.

AR in Pokémon Go. Image courtesy The Pokémon Company International.



8. Virtual reality


Of course the biggest news when it comes to Apple and new tech doesn’t really have to do with the iPhone, it’s the Apple Vision Pro—the company’s splashy, wearable AR/VR device to be released next year. In the history of Apple iPhones, though, this is still major–it shows that the iPhone, as a concept and as the company’s original smart device—could really evolve to be just about anything.


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