On a sunny Sunday 10 years ago, I was strolling down Broadway in the Flatiron district of New York, listening to music on my phone. The song was suddenly interrupted by a call. A familiar voice barreled into the earbuds.
“What do you think?”
It was Steve Jobs, asking for my opinion on the yet-to-be-released iPhone, which I had been using for about a week. I was one of four reviewers who received early units, and it turned out that Jobs pestered each one of us. (A couple of days earlier I had gotten a warning that Steve might call, “just to say hi.”) Though Jobs would never admit it—Hey, just a friendly call, buddy!—Apple was under pressure for what might have been the riskiest product launch in its history.
Steven Levy is the Editor in Chief of Backchannel.
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But the pressure was on me and my three colleagues as well. This was arguably the most hyped product of all time—a New York magazine cover was declaring the product “The Jesus Phone,” not as an endorsement but a statement of how this as yet-unvetted slab of glass and aluminum had become a repository of all our hopes and dreams. What if one of us was an outlier—either positive or negative—and his take (yes, we were all guys) proved disastrously wrong?
Like it or not, we were involved in the Hale-Bopp Comet of tech product reviewing. The iPhone was such a phenomenon that even the humble journalists chosen for an early look were thrust into a spotlight. As we celebrate 10 years of the product that reshaped the tech world–and guaranteed that no teenager would ever again look his or her family in the face during dinner–it’s instructive to revisit this moment. There hasn’t been a moment in tech journalism like it since.
What made the days leading up to the iPhone launch even crazier was that Apple had pulled off the greatest disappearing act in tech promotion history. In January 2007, Jobs announced the long-awaited iPhone. But somewhere that winter, the iPhone vanished. “We called it the going dark period, and that was by design,” senior VP of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller later told me. “The response to the launch of the iPhone was so profound and universally positive that we knew that if we did too much, all we could do is wreck it. We couldn’t make it any better, so we were better to do nothing than to do more.” In the process the iPhone’s virginity had been restored—and the public frenzy to learn about it intensified.
As launch approached, the anticipation reached a madness-of-crowds level. So when Apple chose only four judges to give the first verdicts on the product—our reviews were to appear two days before the public would have a chance to buy iPhones—each of us knew that these would be the most scrutinized reports in our career.
In mid-June, Apple came to my Newsweek office to set up my review unit, with warnings that I had to be discreet in my public usage, as the veil of secrecy was still under effect. A couple of days later, I went on a day trip to Pittsburgh. Because I wasn’t planning to stay overnight, I didn’t take my laptop—just the phone. But a thunderstorm canceled all the evening flights, and I was stuck in Western Pennsylvania. But I had my iPhone! For 24 hours, I was able to dispatch the essential tasks of my digital life with this pocket-size computer. And I had the lede for my review.
Our reviews came out on Wednesday, June 27. From that point on, we reviewers were free to discuss the iPhone publicly. I spent the next two days doing media interviews. In those days, while its business model was afloat, Newsweek paid its journalists a small sum for each television or radio appearance. My paycheck for that week was fattened by several thousand dollars, as I appeared on everything from Charlie Rose to Glenn Beck. (A gadget freak, it turns out.)
The craziest moment came when I was doing a live Fox News interview on launch day, June 29, in front of Apple’s 59th Street store, where the line circled the block. The camera had barely starting rolling when someone slipped behind us, reached in and grabbed…not the iPhone, but the reporter’s microphone. The culprit dashed off, but a soundman tackled him, holding him down until the cops arrived. All of this was broadcast live, and, for all the viewers knew, total bedlam had broken out on Fifth Avenue. Fox cut the feed and returned to the studio, where two hosts tried to make sense of what they had seen. After a couple of minutes, we regrouped and resumed the interview. A year later I ran into the reporter and she told me, citing a junior version of PTSD, that she still couldn’t bring herself to buy an iPhone.
At 6 p.m. on the night of the iPhone launch, the focus shifted from the reviewers to actual customers. The phone no longer belonged to us four. We went on with our careers—the other three have been actively reviewing products for the last decade, though Walt Mossberg, then of the Wall Street Journal and now with Recode, is retiring this month. But as we gathered for a roundtable to be broadcast on CBS Sunday Morning, we all agreed that the iPhone situation was unprecedented and unlikely to be repeated.
I’ll go further. In the early 1980s, reviews were fairly technical, and directed at the aficionados and hobbyists who were early adopters of the products. As technology became more mainstream, however, product reviews sometimes became news themselves. The iPhone experience was the apex of that trajectory. No product will ever be as hyped, and no tiny group of reviewers will ever get such weight dumped on them. Clearly, the company was confident that its creation would win our favor—but those not-so-casual phone calls from Steve Jobs exposed the doubt that comes when even the strongest case reaches a jury.
Since the iPhone, the most transformative products have not been gadgets but services. Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat have changed lives, but they didn’t launch to massive fanfare. They were switched on to small groups, showing only glimmers of the eventual power they would gain when networks grew up around them.
So while we celebrate a decade of the iPhone, let’s also acknowledge a footnote to that signal event in tech history: the peak of the mass-market product review.
Oh, and with 10 years of hindsight, how did we reviewers do in that Come-to-Jesus-Phone moment? Each one of us horsemen was overwhelmingly positive—we universally cited the massive hype and judged, with some astonishment, that the iPhone had lived up to it. (My biggest cavil was that Apple was limiting the ecosystem of apps that ran directly on the OS. “I think the best way to make [the iPhone] more valuable would be to encourage outside developers to create more uses for it,” I wrote. It took Apple about a year, but it finally did just that.)
But though we reviewers didn’t embarrass ourselves, none of us came close to predicting how big the iPhone would be. Our only consolation was that Apple didn’t see it, either.