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What the wireless industry owes to Steve Jobs


05/10/2011

In the 11 years I’ve covered the wireless industry, I’ve assumed an unofficial advisory role among my friends on all matters mobile. Those friends tend to be decidedly non-technical—writers, editors, lawyers, teachers, etc.—and every time a contract ran out, a phone was lost or broken, I’d invariably hear the question “what’s is the best phone?”

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Of course, I would start talking 2G versus 3G, the virtues of various mobile browsers, Java apps versus Palm or Symbian. Invariably my friend would roll his or her eyes, cut me off and ask “I meant which one makes the best phone calls? Why on earth would I want to surf the Web on my phone?”

That all changed in the summer of 2007. With the launch of the first iPhone, my friends’ smart-ass rhetorical questions suddenly turned earnest: “Why wouldn’t I want to surf the Web on my phone.” Mobile data was suddenly demystified, crossing the boundary from the technical to the creative and professional classes and continued its journey until it was embraced by users of all sorts. The mobile app became king. For the first time, the phone was no longer viewed as vehicle primarily for making phone calls.

Apple, under the leadership of Steve Jobs, singlehandedly started the mobile broadband revolution.

What’s even more shocking is that Apple and Jobs succeeded where an entirely industry had failed.

People who started following the fortunes of the wireless industry since the introduction of the iPhone don’t have the perspective of history. They fail to realize that the realize that the wireless industry—made up of some of the most powerful and innovative carriers, vendors and software developers in the world—tried desperately to kick-start the mobile broadband revolution for the seven years prior to the iPhone launch and were largely unsuccessful.

Carriers had built 3G networks, but couldn’t fill them. The big Web properties like Facebook, Google and eBay had made their first forays into mobile, but they couldn’t even have imagined the huge shifts in traffic away from the PC screen to the phone screen we’re seeing today. While there was a mobile browser on practically every phone, navigating the Web via mobile was always the option of last resort—until the iPhone’s Safari browser came along. The proof is in the operator’s quarterly reports: until the iPhone was born, mobile data revenue growth was driven primarily by SMS.

I don’t want to minimize the accomplishments of the wireless industry or be accused of gross exaggeration. The truth is the wireless industry for years had been laying the infrastructure and service groundwork onto which the iPhone latched. A lot of other things were going on in 2007 that could just have easily sparked that revolution: 3G networks were being upgraded to support faster data speeds, more Web content was being optimized for the mobile browser, cellphone hardware was becoming much more sophisticated. If the iPhone never was, mobile data would have continued to grow, creeping gradually into the mainstream consciousness and bettering our daily lives. But that hardly equates a revolution. In fact, the iPhone was successful even though Jobs snubbed many of those industry advancements, most notably the initial lack of 3G connectivity. Apple kicked off a mobile broadband revolution with a device that couldn’t even access a mobile broadband network.

Steve Jobs was no mere carpetbagger, appearing at just the right time to market his miracle smartphone cure-all. Its sounds corny, but he and the design staff at Apple truly had a vision. They realized that mobile data wasn’t about technology or phone specs. A lot of people credit the iPhone’s success to design, but the device’s sleek housing was a minor accomplishment to what was embedded within. There have been some cool looking phones produced in this industry and none of them have had the life of the iPhone. It was the intuitive user interface and the reduction of mobile services to a simple concept – the App – that caused the iPhone to fundamentally alter the mobile industry. Its learning curve was practically flat. Suddenly the smartphone was no longer a byzantine device to the average user. With the iPhone’s launch, the layer of technical noise that separated mobile data from the masses suddenly evaporated. And right about that time, the questions from my friends about what phone to buy suddenly stopped.

Other companies have followed in Apple’s footsteps and seen just as much success. Even if the iPhone eventually fades, Google and any number of other companies will keep the endless drive toward a connected mobile world going—they might even accelerate it.

But the mobile data revolution required an initial push, otherwise none of what we’re experiencing today would have even been possible. That push was supplied by Steve Jobs.



 

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