Understanding Apple: John Gruber's review of the iPhone 3G revisited 5 years later

October 07, 2013

As a company, Apple gets more attention from the press that any other tech company in the planet. And as a very polarizing company, much of this attention translates into extremely harsh criticism, but also into unconditional, unreserved praise. This has been true for almost the entirety of Apple’s history, but with its meteoric rise in the past decade, the effect has magnified tremendously.

The thing is, it’s pretty easy to write a sensational piece about Apple. Virtually any event even remotely linked to the company can be grounds for an article, no matter whether it’s actually true or not. We’ve seen it time and time again and frankly, it’s tiresome. However, not all pundits are created equal, and time puts each and every one of them it their place. Like they say, the Internet never forgets. A couple of quick searches and you can find out just how full of bullshit our beloved “industry analysts” really are.

Fortunately, among the boatloads of stupidity and nonsense that get written about Apple every day, some professionals manage to stay true and keep their focus sharp. People like John Gruber, who is routinely disqualified as a “fanboy”, but who has a nearly spotless track-record when it comes to Apple. Of course, that is not to say he’s always right (“there’s no such thing as psychics”), but rather that he seems to understand Apple’s intentions and strategy at any given time better than anyone.

Case in point: I was recently browsing through the archives of Daring Fireball (which is a great way to kill off a couple hours of your time, by the way), when I ran into John’s review of the 2008 iPhone 3G.

This is a remarkable article, not for what it says about the iPhone 3G itself (there’s nothing particularly surprising there), but because it shows just how well John understands Apple as a company. 5 years after he wrote it (an eternity in this industry), many of his thoughts remain not only valid, but impressively spot-on. The article opens like this:

Let’s just say it up front: the iPhone is the greatest piece of consumer electronics that has ever been made.

Now, that’s how you start a review: no-bullshit, clear and to the point. John has never been one to sugar-coat his opinion, and I think we could all use a bit more of this attitude today. Besides, I have to agree, the iPhone is clearly the rock star of consumer electronics' history. Not even the iPad has been this revolutionary, though it’s a close call between the two.

John goes on to describe the impact that the iPhone has had in the world. Even though this is well known and almost universally accepted today, back in 2008 it was still a very controversial topic of discussion. During his exposition, John comes up with a very interesting thought:

Everything Apple as a company has ever stood for, good and bad, was to get to the point where they could make this. It’s a computer you can take with you everywhere, so small you wouldn’t really even want it much smaller, even if it were possible.

This is absolutely true. The iPhone is a device that embodies all of Apple’s core values like no other device has ever done, not even the original Macintosh. Regarding size, John’s comment is also accurate, as we’re clearly seeing now with the recent trend towards bigger screens. Even Apple eventually had to adjust its strategy and offer a bigger screen iPhone. But there’s more:

In another five years, one of today’s iPhones will be no more than a sentimental curiosity, painfully slow both in terms of networking and computation. The iPhone has significant and obvious shortcomings. But it is an order of magnitude better than anything that came before it.

Right again. And if you don’t believe me, try using an iPhone 3G today, in 2013. To me, this shows that John clearly gets Apple’s vision. He sees right through the marketing parlance and into the reality of a company we all feel very passionate about. His great gift is that he’s able to articulate that remarkable insight of his into clear and precise words for our benefit.

Perhaps the greatest example of this can be found at the end of the article. Here John perfectly captures the essence of Apple in just a few words:

_“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”_ — ANDY WARHOL So too with the iPhone. A billionaire can buy homes, cars, clothes that the rest of us cannot afford. But he cannot buy a better phone, at any price, than the iPhone that you can have in your pocket today.

That right there is what so many people don’t seem to understand about Apple. They’re not about creating luxury devices that only rich people can afford. Any such criticism of Apple misses the point completely.