15 Ways Smartphones Have Changed Our Lives
As the iPhone nears its 15th anniversary, influence has been (mostly) positive
June will mark 15 years since the first iPhone went on sale.
As one of only four tech reviewers who got to test it ahead of release, I likened Apple’s prized new smartphone to a “prodigy” and “glitzy wunderkind” in USA Today. The thing about prodigies is that no matter how gifted, many flame out, I later wrote.
Spoiler alert: The iPhone didn’t flame out. And neither collectively did the class of smartphones based on the rival Android operating system, which began to surface in September 2008 with the first-to-ship HTC Dream, also known as the T-Mobile G1.
Few people in those early years predicted just how disruptive these powerful pocket computers would become. Or how they would profoundly touch every aspect of society and the way folks tend to day-to-day affairs. Smartphones affect the way we shop, handle finances, socialize, travel, consume news and experience entertainment.
“The key thing that the iPhone delivered is a pocketable platform for creating all types of innovative functions and services,” says veteran technology consultant Tim Bajarin, chairman of Creative Strategies in San Jose, California.
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Some features didn’t happen overnight
For all the praise — and hype — heaped on it in 2007, the iPhone wasn’t perfect at the start. It lacked several features that people would eventually take for granted. Ditto for Androids.
Apple’s App Store was still a year away, which also meant the iPhone contained nothing but what Apple included. The famous “there’s an app for that” slogan hadn’t entered our consciousness.
At the outset, you didn’t have Siri to take verbal requests. It was released as a stand-alone app in 2010 before Apple acquired it and folded it into iOS. Google Assistant didn’t come to Android handsets until many years later.
The original iPhone’s rear camera lacked a flash, and the front had no camera at all. Not until the iPhone 4’s front camera, which debuted in 2010, did “selfie” come into common usage.
And back then, a single U.S. wireless provider, AT&T, supported the iPhone on a network that was rather poky. Now all major U.S. and foreign carriers embrace iPhones and myriad Android smartphones, and they have begun offering speedier service on emerging 5G networks.
The dawn of instant everything
As the iPhone’s 15th anniversary approaches, what follows are 15 ways Apple’s phone and its Android rivals have altered our lives — mostly, but not always — for the better.
1. Information that’s immediate. Want to settle a bar bet, fact-check something on the spot or merely stay on top of the news? The phone in your pocket is like carrying an encyclopedia. And depending on your tolerance for notifications, it can keep you in the loop in real time. Indeed, many of you are now perusing articles on the device, giving up newspapers and paper-based magazines and reading digital versions on your laptop computers less frequently.
2. Convenient cameras. It’s become a cliché: The best camera is the one that’s always with you since you never know when a perfect photo op will present itself. You can snap with abandon, and smartphone cameras have improved drastically through the years, especially on premium models. For the most part, stand-alone digital cameras are for photo buffs and professional photographers.
With variations by model, you can zoom in on distant subjects and objects, capture fine shots in near darkness sans flash, take portrait shots with the main subject in focus and the background blurred, and use fancy filters. Your ever-ready shooter also indirectly sired photo-centric Instagram.
3. Demise of the camcorder. Modern smartphones have retired many stand-alone consumer video cameras. Some let you go beyond high definition to capture ultra-high definition 4K videos. You can also employ slow-motion and time-lapse features and apply other cinematic and special effects. And if you love wildly popular TikTok videos, thank the modern smartphone.
Transportation, er, transported
4. Digital directions. Remember when you relied on paper maps or asking someone for directions when you were lost? You would have to remember the gas station attendant’s instructions to “go two blocks, make a right on Main Street and take a left at the stop sign.” These days, you find your way through Apple Maps, Google Maps, Waze and other location-capable apps, all of them free.
You can even go beyond the navigational smarts once reserved for expensive in-dashboard GPS systems. Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto have widespread compatibility across recent model year vehicles. Audible turn-by-turn directions and, in some cases, crowdsourced traffic data can steer you to a faster route. Never wonder where to find a gas station, hotel, landmark or restaurant again.
5. Private-car taxis. When was the last time you hailed a cab? Nowadays you can arrange for a taxi to meet you or schedule a ride in advance via Lyft, Uber or other ride-hailing apps that wouldn’t exist without the phone.
6. New travel routines. Paper boarding passes printed at home or an airport kiosk or home, like paper airline tickets, are becoming relics of a time before smartphones. Now you can show the pass to a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent on your phone screen. What’s more, the TSA may soon accept a digital driver’s license as proof of identification.
You probably booked your flight and the rest of your itinerary through your phone without making a call. The phone screen is also where you’ll see delay and gate change information. When you get to your hotel, you might even use your phone as a room key.
Entertainment on your schedule
7. Books in your pocket. The phone doubles as an e-book reader, sparing you from schlepping a stack of back-breaking books and other reading materials. You can purchase and download books right from the handset or borrow them from your local public library through an app.
8. Music libraries transformed. In some respects, the smartphone is the modern equivalent of the transistor radio of yesteryear, but with far superior sound and the capability of tapping into local stations and listening to content from around the world. Beyond radio stations you might get through an app, typically for free, you can hear almost any song you want whenever you want to hear it, at least if you subscribe to services such as Amazon Music, Apple Music and Spotify.
You can also listen to podcasts on virtually any subject imaginable at no cost.
9. Health and fitness tracking. Smartphones count our steps, calories burned and other fitness metrics. But we also bolster our well-being in other ways. You may be taking advantage of telehealth visits with your doctors, which took off during the pandemic but are almost certainly here to stay. The phone is also a repository for digital health records.
A financial evolution
10. The decline of cash. The use of coins and bills may be on borrowed time, along with your physical wallet. Through Apple Pay and Google Pay, you can purchase products by holding your smartphone near a payment terminal in a physical store or use the services online, too.
In lieu of cash or checks, you may use peer-to-peer payment apps such as Cash App, Venmo and Zelle to pay, say, your piano teacher or the kid who mows your lawn. While such apps are simple and convenient, keep in mind that they lack the same protections you get by paying with a credit card, should a crook scam you into parting with your money.
11. Money management in general. It’s not just paying bills. We check our spending, transfer money across bank accounts, get stock quotes and manage investment portfolios on our devices.
Social media, for better and worse
12. Social media. We use our thumbs to access Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, among other social media outlets, to catch up with colleagues, family and friends. But social media is too often a place where misinformation spreads, controversial views are shared and discourse is anything but civil.
13. Video calling. The next best thing to being there is the sheer joy of seeing loved ones and coworkers on a smartphone screen — and having them see you in return. That was never more evident than during a pandemic when most of us were stuck at home and often isolated. FaceTime, Google Duo, Messenger, Skype, WhatsApp and Zoom, among other services, have mostly made video calling seamless.
14. Home phones’ decline. We sometimes forget these handsets make and receive phone calls. As of June 2021, more than two-thirds of households said they ditched their landlines, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. What’s more, because we routinely make calls by tapping someone’s name on a phone screen or by asking Siri or Google Assistant to dial, we may not remember most phone numbers.
15. Digital addiction. Maybe the biggest downside of the modern smartphone is our own inability to resist gazing at the screen 24/7.
The good: “We are connected to the world through our phones,” says Stacey Cahn, an executive producer at Tampa-based Time in a Bottle Video Productions. The bad: “We need to unplug, look up and around. You can’t smell fresh air through a phone ... yet.”
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.