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What the first iPhone tells us about tech's future

NEW YORK — In my review of the first iPhone 10 years ago, I called it a “glitzy wunderkind” and a “prodigy.” The thing about prodigies, no matter how gifted, is they often flame out. For all the hype that surrounded Apple’s prized new device, there was no guarantee in 2007 that it, too, wouldn’t burn out before it really took off.

The opposite happened, of course. Not only have more than 1 billion iPhones been sold, but, fueled by its enormous success, Apple became the biggest disrupter in tech for a time, and the most valuable company on the planet.

But what does a look back at that original iPhone and its successors suggest about what tech might look like 10 years from now, or, for that matter, which companies will be in front of the pack?

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The iPhone famously put the Internet in our pockets — despite limits, the browser was the closest thing to the real-deal Internet that I’d seen on such a device. I expect we’ll all still carry these super-intelligent computers in our pockets well into the future.

But I also believe that many, if not most, of the sensor-driven products we’ll come to rely on will be so small, that they’ll be hidden inside walls, ceilings, furniture, maybe even our own bodies. It plays into the still evolving Internet of Things trend, and what technology watchers sometimes refer to as ambient computing.

Sounds far-fetched? Consider where we were a decade ago when the original iPhone surfaced. It’s hard to fathom now, but the idea that a smartphone would remove a physical dialing pad and Qwerty-style keyboard was remarkable.

Steve Jobs was making what was at the time an extraordinarily chancy wager. Nowadays, of course, smartphones with physical keyboards are the exception rather than the rule.

That Jobs’ bet paid off big time should serve as a lesson to the current and future leaders of tech. While those leaders shouldn’t make rash or reckless decisions, those who do prevail will likely have to take bold risks and alter the status quo.

We all experienced a bit of a learning curve adapting to the virtual keyboards that took the place of physical keys on that first iPhone, but most of us adapted soon enough. Before long, we marveled at how that these virtual keyboards morphed into something different depending on what we were doing on the phone. For example, the keyboard for browsing the Web differed from the one that showed inside the Mail app. It makes all the sense in the world now but it was novel in 2007.

We also learned back then to tap, flick and pinch. And gosh — we could make pictures and websites on the display expand and retract, just by spreading our fingers or pinching. Smart sensors made it so that if you rotated the iPhone sideways, photos and web pages automatically switched from portrait mode to landscape. All that was considered neat stuff; now we take such actions for granted.

The same goes for another fresh feature on the original iPhone: visual voicemail. You no longer had to listen to voice messages in the order in which they arrived. Instead, you could prioritize the messages you heard first — those from your spouse or boss, say.

Simple, practical.

What will be the simple, practical features and solutions driving the next wave of innovation? One of those drivers already has a head start: voice.

In 2007, Siri was still about three years away from making its debut on the iPhone (initially as a standalone third-party app), and you couldn’t even use your voice to dial on Apple’s original handset. Eventually we started using our voices to communicate with powerful but still maturing AI-infused digital assistants like Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and yes, Siri — and have them talk back. As such assistants get even smarter, this increasingly routine behavior will become even more so.

Beyond the absence of voice on the first iPhone, there were other limitations. While Apple pointed out back then that the iPhone could be upgraded through software, the App Store itself had yet to be introduced, and you couldn’t even play what were then referred to as iPod games. No, there wasn’t an app for that, at least not yet.

Apps will continue to be important moving forward, but so much of the future for Apple will be intertwined with services like iTunes, Apple Music, Apple Pay and iCloud. And Apple has major plans for HomeKit, which via your iPhone (and other devices) will let you control door locks, lights, thermostats and other products throughout the home.

An increased reliance on augmented reality, through the recently announced ARKit for developers that is part of iOS 11, should lead to some entertaining, new gee-whizzy experiences.

The iPhone is now a mature product used for business purposes as much as for personal use. So its easy to forget that many companies took a cautious approach with Apple’s new device. Many employers, including USA TODAY, didn’t trust the security in the phones enough to permit corporate email in the early days.

Battery life on the first device was so-so, and even given the vast improvements made over the decade since on the iPhone and on rival devices, you still hear frequent complaints today that phones run out of juice too soon and at the most inopportune times. The iPhone itself still lags rival devices in offering fast charging and wireless charging features. Expect that to change when the tenth anniversary iPhone turns up. Meanwhile, keep an eye out over the coming years as the industry continues to experiment with truly untethered power solutions.

The early iPhone also suffered from another issue folks still fret about today: spotty network coverage. Yes, network coverage has gotten a lot better through the years, but still it is not perfect. I can often predict on my morning commute when I’m likely to lose streaming audio for a brief spell.

AT&T was the sole U.S. wireless carrier for the iPhone until 2011 when Verizon finally came out with a model. And AT&T’s Edge network back on the original device was so poky that we frequently felt as if we were falling off an Edge. Wi-Fi, where available, was the phone’s saving grace.

Consumers had to wait a year for the second-generation iPhone that was able to tap into what was then state of the art 3G networks. All the major wireless companies, and several smaller ones carry the iPhone nowadays, of course, and the talk moving forward is of blazing wireless 5G networks. Commercial mainstream viability is still some years away.

As a prodigy, the iPhone has more than lived up to most of its youthful promise. But there’s always some growing up to do.

Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter.

Baig is the co-author of iPhone For Dummies, an independent work published by Wiley.

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What the first iPhone tells us about tech's future

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