Celebrating the iPhone’s birthday: A look back at when Apple was exclusive to AT&T


This week, Apple celebrates the fifteenth anniversary of the iPhone, and it was originally with AT&T. Additionally, Steve Jobs is also posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As it is also the 4th of July weekend, it now seems like a time of celebration.

Today we’re going to look at the story of one tech giant overtaking another tech giant, and how that brought down wireless carriers. Although it may be the birthday of the iPhone, things could have turned out differently if the vendors, such as Verizon and AT&T, had gotten their way.

It was an incredible journey for the iPhone. The original featured a 2MP camera and was 11.6mm thick. For comparison, the iPhone 13 line is 7.65mm thick, which is actually a 7.4mm increase from the iPhone 12. In terms of cameras, one could go on all the day on what the new iPhone 14 will bring. However, those who remember it may remember it all too well. For five years, there was only one mobile provider offering Apple’s first flagship device.

Anniversary of the release of the first iPhone via AT&T

As people celebrate the birthday of the iPhone, things were a little different, especially with cell phone companies like AT&T. When the iPhone was first released, AT&T had a five-year contract for the exclusive rights to the device. The company had been working closely with Apple for over a year and a half before the release; both companies meet in secret to discuss the finer details. After negotiations, they reached an agreement. One that, at the time, seemed trivial. However, the point is, if you didn’t have AT&T, you didn’t have an iPhone.

This agreement was generally positive for Apple. By signing an exclusive five-year deal, Jobs had complete control over the iPhone. There were other things Cupertino had to trade, like ten percent of iPhone sales at an AT&T store and a bit of Apple’s iTunes revenue. In return, Jobs was able to convince AT&T to spend millions developing new technologies centered around the iPhone.

One thing Jobs was able to convince AT&T to spend millions on was a little thing called visual voicemail. Taking thousands of hours of work, visual voicemail would be the first time users would have random access to their voicemails.

Jobs also convinced AT&T to streamline in-store registration process for phones. Which, as anyone who’s done it, knows it took forever at the time. Jobs also kicked off a kicker with AT&T, where Apple collected $10 per month from each iPhone customer’s AT&T bill.

More importantly, Apple had complete control over the design, manufacture, and marketing of the iPhone.

here comes the storm

While AT&T users happily enjoyed their iPhones, those without a carrier were stuck with the cell phone their carrier would actually provide them. For those who had Verizon, one of AT&T’s biggest competitors at the time, they were left with few options.

As far as Verizon goes, BlackBerry was a mainstay of the proto-smartphone industry, and for good reason. BlackBerry was the standard for devices that went beyond a simple cell phone. Around this time, BlackBerry 8700 would probably be one of the most popular models. For Verizon, the company thought it had a surefire hit, one that would put the iPhone in its stride: the BlackBerry Storm.

Before entering the storm, it is important to state another way in which the iPhone has dominated the mobile phone industry. Before Apple, cellular services typically held cellphone manufacturers in the palm of their hand.

In a 2008 article for Wired, Fred Vogelstein breaks it down like that:

For decades, wireless carriers have treated manufacturers like serfs, using access to their networks as leverage to dictate which phones will be made, how much they will cost, and what features will be available on them. Handsets were widely seen as cheap, disposable decoys, heavily subsidized to trick subscribers into using carriers’ proprietary services. But the iPhone upsets this balance of power. Operators are learning that the right phone, even an expensive one, can win customers and generate revenue. Now, in pursuit of an Apple-like contract, every manufacturer is racing to create a phone that consumers will love, instead of one that carriers approve of.

With that in mind, Verizon got a little cocky when it came to the BlackBerry Storm. For Verizon, it was about showing that the company could maintain control of the mobile phone industry, that it could dictate who gets charged and how much. Verizon expected the BlackBerry Storm to be a strong iPhone rival, and with a $200 price tag, it at least got people interested. Unfortunately, the BlackBerry Storm would end up being an absolute disaster.

Future problems

Eventually, the BlackBerry Storm was released as RIM knew the device had many issues. For starters, the controversial screen garnered the most notoriety. The BlackBerry Storm featured a “SurePress” screen that basically served as a giant touch button. Rather than just touching the screen, users should touch the screen and click.

While it was somehow satisfying to click the giant button, it made typing a nightmare. Multitouch was impossible thanks to the original “one giant button” setup, and BlackBerry attempted to solve this in the BlackBerry Storm 2 by separating the screen into quadrants. In an article by Gizmodo from 2008, writer Matt Buchanan said“The only concern is that it looks like the chasm between the screen and the rest of the body is a nest of lint waiting to happen.”

More problems plagued the device. It was beyond buggy. In 2008, Bonnie Cha stated in an article for CNET“There were high expectations for the BlackBerry Storm to succeed. However, when the storm finally blew through the city, it was a real disappointment due to slow performance and phone bugs.

Cha would go on to say that the device became more stable after two firmware updates pushed by Verizon.

Not a storm but a moan

I know this story all too well, as I owned an original BlackBerry Storm. While trying to remember how awful the phone really was, the only thing I remember clearly was flipping through the BlackBerry Storm forums desperately waiting for a new beta to come out so I could randomly install it on my phone hoping it would work fine.

I was not alone in this problem, as many reviews at the time said the same thing. Those who worked for RIM called him “shit storm“The BlackBerry Storm was a colossal disappointment and failure. Ultimately, many would say the BlackBerry Storm is largely responsible for the dismantling of RIM as a business and BlackBerry as a cell phone. It was time for a new era of cellular devices.

iPhone forever presented by AT&T

Ultimately, Verizon would realize that smartphones were the future. As the company still tried to keep cellphone makers under its sway, signing a deal with Google to release the Motorola Droid would eventually find Verizon seeing its opponents as equals. It also helped that Verizon ended up I have iPhone 4.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, he said the phone had a “five-year gap” between it and any other smartphone. Although this is somewhat true, the Droid would see the light of day towards the end of 2008. Android arrived in less than a year, but in technical and financial terms, a year can make all the difference.

What if BlackBerry won? What if the BlackBerry Storm wasn’t a monstrosity, but an iPhone killer? Or, at the very least, what if Apple didn’t take over AT&T? In terms of the companies and the power they control, what if Verizon were successful and the cellphone providers had the upper hand over the smartphone makers? While Apple may have a spotty record with privacy, they’ve at least repeatedly proven they’re making an effort. It’s hard to think if Verizon or even AT&T would really do the same.

While this may be a story of one company dominating the other: the iPhone doing the incredibly fast work of a tech giant with years of experience, it’s also a story to remind users that technology has come a long way to get to where it is today. While many tech companies are probably spying on us and selling all of our information to everyone, somehow it could have been a lot worse.

What are your thoughts? Did you own an original iPhone? Have you been trapped with another carrier? Post your opinion in the comments.


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