Ten years after the introduction of Apple’s iPhone, and the broader category of smartphones, it’s worth stepping back to see what we have learned. As with most major technological innovations, it’s brought a number of collateral surprises about the rest of our world.
First, we’ve learned that, even in this age of bits and bytes, materials innovation still matters. The iPhone is behind the scenes a triumph of mining science, with a wide variety of raw materials and about 34 billion kilograms (75 billion pounds) of mined rock as an input to date, as discussed by Brian Merchant in his new and excellent book “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone.” A single iPhone has behind it the production of 34 kilos of gold ore, with 20.5 grams (0.72 ounces) of cyanide used to extract the most valuable parts of the gold.
Especially impressive as a material is the smooth touch-screen, and the user’s ability to make things happen by sliding, swiping, zooming and pinching it – the “multitouch” function. That advance relied upon particular materials, as the screen is chemically strengthened, made scrape-resistant and embedded with sensitive sensors. Multitouch wasn’t new, but Apple understood how to build it into a highly useful product.
I am notoriously bad with gadgets, and even my microwave oven confuses me. But I more or less figured out all the essential operations of an iPhone the very first day I got it. Without an instruction manual. Wasn’t it bold of Apple to sell it that way?