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Remembering my first iPhone

I've had every iPhone, but I'll always remember my first. Five years later, a look back.

Sarah Tew

Editor's note: The iPhone is 5 years old. Last year, I reflected on my very first iPhone, and what owning one was like before the smartphone landscape had utterly changed...before the App Store...before iPads. What I wrote last year is still true now, maybe even more so, although one important event has transpired since: Steve Jobs died October 5, 2011, less than four months later. What follows is what I wrote, along with photos of that iPhone that I still have kicking around, compared with the iPhone 4S. Looking at them side by side, it's amazing how little has changed in terms of form.

It was only 2007 when the iPhone debuted. It seems like longer. My first HDTV, my Wii, and my PlayStation 3 all existed before the first iPhone. Yet, in 2007, BlackBerrys were all the rage. The Motorola Q was an eye-catching phone. Android didn't exist.

On the left: my sticker-festooned original iPhone (2007). On the right: the iPhone 4S (2011). Sarah Tew/CNET

Also, my grandparents were still alive. I wasn't married. I didn't have a kid. I was freelance-writing a novel. My life was different then.

The iPhone lines were crazy, but if you picked the right time you could sneak into an Apple Store and buy one. That's because the first iPhone started at $499. No one knew yet whether the device was a smash hit. Apple didn't have a reservation system in place yet, or claim tickets. In the summer of 2007, the iPhone was a novelty.

I bought mine late at night on Fifth Avenue, not expecting them to be in stock. I opted for the 8GB version. I cringed when I paid over $600 after tax for a phone.

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A month later, I got married. The iPhone had already become a device that stuck around me and helped do last-minute Web-surfing research. Like a geek, I actually wrote my wedding speech on my iPhone on Notes, then e-mailed it to the hotel where I was staying at so I could print a copy.

I took my iPhone on my honeymoon, to Bali and Tokyo. I took the SIM card out and realized I could still Web surf on Wi-Fi, making the little gadget a pocket browser. In various hotels, it became our little life raft of information-gathering. I e-mailed my family with occasional pictures.

That's actually Donald Bell's pocket; I never took a pic of my own iPhone. CNET

I remember that friends and people we met overseas were excited and surprised by the iPhone like no other device I can remember before or since. Certain apps, like Maps, seemed truly like magic at the time -- forgive the hyperbole, but it's true. No other device offered that type of pinch-to-zoom touch control. The iPhone's capacitive screen was a revelation. And compared with my previous phone, a Motorola Q, the difference was extraordinary: a clean interface; no intrusions from AT&T or its content stores; a built-in music player that could replace my iPod.

What the iPhone didn't have back then were apps. I was stuck with the basic functions baked into the first version of iPhone OS: Maps, Phone, Stocks, Weather, Calculator, iPod, Mail, Safari, Camera. The iPhone could do lots of things, but it wasn't truly a multipurpose Swiss Army knife yet. I relied on text messaging a lot, since I had no Facebook or Twitter apps. Music had to be synced in advance, and iTunes on the iPhone didn't exist. Neither did games; I still used my Nintendo DS for that. I had a few bookmarked Web apps of simple Sudoku puzzles, but that was it.

My wedding speech. I still have it saved on my iPhone.
My wedding speech. I still have it saved on my iPhone. Scott Stein/CNET

I was stuck with slow EDGE service, too; 3G phones were pretty common, and while I could always use a Wi-Fi hot spot for faster browsing, I felt frustrated by how slow data was compared with how cool the rest of the phone performed. It was a compromise. Over the years, each generation of iPhone has had similar compromises, in exchange for ever-improving features and design.

Today, it's astonishing how much I now take my iPhone for granted. There are hundreds of thousands of apps for me to choose from, but none seems as magical as Maps did way back in 2007.

A subway ride is filled with touch-screen phones in everyone's hands. Apps and screens are everywhere. iPads, Android tablets, touch-screen game systems: they've all been influenced by the iPhone. In another five years, what technology that we consider magical now will become ubiquitous? Or will there really ever be a transition point as profound as the iPhone's effect on smartphones and mobile computing? While there will be many new products on the horizon that are bound to amaze, I'm not sure it'll be easy to top what the iPhone did. It made me open my laptop less, and still makes me rethink and redefine what computing means.

As for that first iPhone, I gave it to my wife. She upgraded in 2010, but it's still ticking, sitting in a drawer in my bedside table. At this point, I'm not getting rid of it.