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Phones

Opinion: Like it or not, the iPhone 4 is much more than 'just a phone'

The iPhone is 'just a phone' in the same way that the Mini is 'just a car', the Doc Marten is 'just a shoe', and the Polaroid is 'just a camera'. It's an icon of our time.

Last week saw us locked in the eye of the iPhone 4 storm. Many's the time we've had to remind ourselves -- and been reminded by sneering cynics -- that it's just a phone. Except it isn't.

The iPhone is 'just a phone' in the same way that the Mini Cooper is 'just a car', the Doc Marten 1460 is 'just a shoe', the Polaroid SX-70 is 'just a camera'. The Mini is more than a method of getting from A to B, the Doc Marten has helped defined youth subculture for 50 years, the Polaroid camera democratised photography. They each tell us something about the time they came from, and they're bound up with a cultural meaning that for many people defines a time, and a way of life.

Close your eyes and think of the Mini. Sure, from a product-design perspective, it tells us that people wanted a car for towns and cities, cheap and economical, easy to park. But that's not what you're thinking about: it's impossible to think of the Mini without thinking of the Swinging Sixties -- and vice versa. The Mini's cheeky styling epitomises the moment post-war Britain realised economy didn't have to mean austerity, and the monochrome 1950s burst into the technicolour, youthful 1960s. It's as quintessential a British icon as miniskirts, the Beatles and Michael Caine.

The iPhone hasn't reached Mini status yet -- the Mini's retro appeal is part of its longevity -- but media frenzy ensures its ubiquity. It will be remembered. The iPhone epitomises our moment in its own way: if the 20th century was about production, the 21st century is about information. Nothing epitomises the always-connected, socially voyeuristic/exhibitionist information age like the smart phone, and the fact is the iPhone has captured the zeitgeist more than the Google Nexus One or HTC Desire ever could.

Whether you like Apple and its phone or detest both, the iPhone is a cultural artefact, an icon of our time -- whether that's a good thing or not is up to you. Many feel the information age is an impersonal, confusing, rushed time, and the iPhone symbolises that just as much as it does the liberation of knowledge, and the ability to contact anyone, anywhere, at any time. But whatever the iPhone says about us and our world, we wouldn't want to be any other time or place.