By Nick Yates
The 10th anniversary of the iPhone will be marked with the launch of a hotly anticipated new model on Tuesday.
By putting a phone that was also a versatile computer in your pocket, Apple ushered in the era of smartphones with its first iPhone in 2007 and secured itself cult status around the world. Six generations of iPhone have followed, with each one being more rapturously received than the last (More than 201 million units were sold worldwide in 2016, up from 1.4 million in 2007, according to researchers Statista).
Over the past decade, smartphones have become an integral part of people's daily lives. They are used to do everything from book taxis to rent bikes to check social media – and occasionally make phone calls. The iPhone arguably has given birth to this modern way of life.
The pace of technological – and with it, social – change has been alarmingly quick. Each new generation of phone has seen an enormous leap in hardware and software, so smartphones released just five years ago – or certainly 10 years ago – can now seem ridiculously outmoded. Older models struggle to perform many of the functions we now take for granted.
With the 10th anniversary approaching, I got to wondering how old iPhones would fare in 2017. Apple and other tech firms have been criticized for "planned obsolescence": Deliberately making products with short life spans so consumers quickly find them obsolete and resort to buying the latest model.
More than 337,000 people have signed a petition created by consumer group SumOfUs last summer urging Apple against this practice.
Just how bad is it? How impractical would an old phone be today? The only way to find out would be to try to use one.
Despite being something of a Luddite, I still rely on my phone for route-finding with its map function and GPS. Living in China, WeChat is essential to stay in touch with friends and contacts, and I instinctively delve into my pocket in idle moments to flick through apps and follow a little routine: Check emails and posts, check the level of air pollution, ogle the bike rides and runs my sporty friends have been doing, catch up on Donald Trump's tweets and the Chinese foreign ministry's latest pronouncements in the news.
How much of this could I do on an old handset?
Original iPhone owner Meiping with her current smartphone. Can you tell if this image was taken with the original iPhone or the superior camera on a later model?
A casting call around CGTN's Beijing office found a colleague with an original iPhone sitting in a drawer at home. Meiping got the phone in 2008, but she only used it for two months before switching to a Nokia. Now her iPhone was ready to dust off for my time-travel experiment.
First things first, turning it on. Meiping said she had no idea if it would. But plugging it into a power source… bingo, the battery charging meter appeared and gradually filled up. The familiar icons filled the screen as it was turned on, and with a spare SIM card placed in the phone, we had service in place. I was going to get to return to 2007.
The first affirmation that all was not so convenient in this dim, distant land came with the painfully slow 2G Internet and lack of an App Store. Yes, 2007 was before the mass adoption of 3G, and the original iPhone had no access to third-party apps. So that means no WeChat, no air quality readers, no Alipay – basically none of the customization and functionality that makes smartphones so awesome.
Trying to browse the internet was met with regular error messages.
The ability to download apps came with later operating systems (OS) than the one pre-installed on the first iPhone. I tried to download one of these but was met with a series of error messages that made me want to knock either my head or Meiping's phone against the wall.
Even if I could have downloaded a newer OS, I knew that it would probably have been too much for the capacity of the phone and would have made it run even more stubbornly slowly.
Here lies the root of planned obsolescence. Apple designs new operating systems for new iPhones, which take up more space and require more computing power. As a result, they don't work well on older iPhones. Yet you need an up-to-date OS to do the things expected of an up-to-date smartphone. Many frustrated users plump for a new handset, plumping up Apple's profits.
Determined to see through my experiment, I set aside my regular smartphone and tried to get by with its replacement for the evening. Cycling between appointments, I turned as usual to my phone screen to find my way around. The map kept crashing, however. Even stepping into a cafe to switch from data to wifi, the service was barely any faster. The map turned into a patchy gray mess with lots of gaps, and very soon my brain did too.
Back home, I found I had dozens of new WeChat messages waiting for a reply. But the message I got most clearly from this experience was about the futility to trying to get by with an out-of-date phone. It seems we may have to get used to planned obsolescence.