At the end of June, the iPhone celebrated its sixth birthday. That's led many to ask, "What's changed?"
The original iPhone was just that - original. At the time, the full touch user interface broke new ground. Today, it's difficult to make a case for anything else . So with all competitors now offering touch screen smart-phones, where has Apple been innovating?
Guts of the original iPhones show innovation with standard parts
Teardowns of the 2007 iPhone revealed internal circuit design that was anything but revolutionary. Apple offered a new paradigm for the portable computer, but the internal hardware would have been equally at home in many competitors' products.
As the competition rushed to roll out near clones of the iPhone, Apple continued to innovate on the internal hardware to keep ahead of the pack.
The early iPhones deviated little from standard smartphone platforms. This was evident even in the design and layout of the logic board. This design has a lot to do with battery choice and fitting the two into the external shell design. The original "squarish" iPhone battery took up an equal share of the internal space along with a similarly square logic board.
Original iPhone Logic Board Photos Courtesy iFixit
Eventually, iPhone logic boards and batteries split the space, with one on each side of the long axis of the phone. The latest logic board designs are very slender, giving up more than half the interior volume to the battery for longer service between charges.
iPhone 5 Internal Photo Courtesy iFixit
While the very first iPhones contained chips bearing Apple markings, the designs were standard products re-branded specifically for Apple. For example, the original applications processor was a standard Samsung design although it bore an Apple logo.
It is difficult to say how much influence Apple may have had in the early designs of any of the chips it procured, but Apple certainly had sufficient leverage over suppliers to demand custom specifications not available to others.
Later iPhones demonstrate innovation at the board level
If Apple was demanding design tweaks from chip vendors, eventually this was not enough. Where the early iPhones contained standard products, by the time the iPhone 5 launched, the heart of the system was an applications processor designed by Apple.
The main storage device of the iPhone has come a long way too. The first smartphone from Cupertino employed an Intel flash. This early device was a so-called NOR device and was the workhorse of phones of the era. At the time, code storage depended on the faster NOR flash devices although much larger storage space was offered by NAND.
As smartphones became important imaging platforms and media devices, users demanded larger storage such that all devices – not just iPhone – migrated to the denser NAND flash devices. Today's iPhone 5 deploys an e-MMC device (embedded multi-media card) that includes NAND flash memory and an embedded microcontroller to provide a memory interface.
Unlike the change in philosophy for the applications processor at Apple, the changes in flash storage in the iPhone actually track the rest of the industry as the e-MMC flash is a de facto standard in smartphones as well as tablets.
In just a few years, we have witnessed the transition of the touchscreen device from a new smartphone platform to its current ubiquity as phone, media player and tablet computer. The internal technology powering the devices has changed significantly with every few generations of the iPhone. Externally, though, the platform has undergone nothing of the radical change brought on by the first iPhone.
To answer the question posed earlier, quite a lot has changed in six years; probably more than has stayed the same.