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Definition: iPhone from Collins English Dictionary


1 trademark a type of mobile phone which includes a music player and internet browser

Summary Article: iPhones
From The SAGE Encyclopedia of the Internet

Once defined in terms of predominately communicative dimensions, mobile communication has largely become synonymous with online media. By 2007, many countries started to experience the movement toward smartphones. For many Western countries, this migration was symbolized by the iPhone—a device that evoked and delivered both media convergence and personalization. This entry discusses how the iPhone differed from other devices when it was introduced and looks at some of its sociocultural, economic, and perceptual effects.

On the initial release of the iPhone in 2007, Joel Mace and Michael West identified three major differences that distinguished it from competing mobile phone products: (1) the large capacitive touchscreen and keyboard, (2) integration into the already existing iTunes store (as a “high-end” model of the iPod with phone capability), and (3) the inclusion within the device of Apple's web browser, Safari. In 2008, Apple also released the software development kit, soon to be followed by the opening of an online App Store one day before the iPhone 3G became available. As West and Mace (2010) document, “In the first six months, the store attracted more than 15,000 applications and 500 million downloads … [by] November 2009, the figures reached 100,000 and 2 billion” (p. 280).

Early on, the most popular apps were customized interfaces for existing websites (eBay, Myspace), locative web-enabled services, and stand-alone applications (especially games). As other developers quickly appropriated Apple's strategy and design innovations, the global market share of smartphone handsets and operating systems has been split between a number of major players, dominated most notably by Samsung (with the Galaxy series) and Google (Android OS and Google Play).

The combination of touchscreen, App Store, and web browser heralded a new type of mobile phone experience: the adaptation of a mobile device to the Internet, with an application marketplace that brought with it the affordances of both networked computing and location awareness. As West and Mace point out in their analysis of the iPhone's market success, the increase in mobile Internet use was the result of an important shift in thinking: from the provision of an Internet tailored to mobile screens (e.g., evidenced by microbrowsers and provider portals) to the provision of the “real Internet” on the mobile device, initiated with the iPhone.

Prior to the iPhone, providers and handset makers sought to create a tailored Internet specifically designed for mobile devices. Apple's strategy focused instead on developing a device adapted to the existing wired web. By late 2007, the iPhone became the most common mobile browsing device on Google. The iPhone's design and marketing strategy enabling users to customize and personalize the device, its content, and apps, along with its responsive touchscreen and app-based media ecology, led to an escalation in the popularity of mobile social media, games, and location-based services. As a result, the iPhone contributed greatly to the merging of the online and the off-line, the physical and the digital experience.

To date, the iPhone has been the focus of scholarly analyses across media and communication studies, Internet studies, and game studies, among other disciplines. Studying the iPhone gives media analysts and researchers a vehicle for understanding the role of new media within everyday life and allows them to explore the tensions between newness and obsolescence within everyday mobile media. By late 2015, Apple had released 10 versions of the iPhone, from the original iPhone to the iPhone 6S, with cycles of consumption and production geared toward normalizing accelerated adaptation. Scholars have also critiqued Apple's exploitative labor and production practices in China, highlighting contemporary manifestations of uneven global economies playing out in and around the consumption of new media.

Since the release of the first iPhone, much has been written on the sociocultural, economic, and perceptual effects of the iPhone and its many emulators and clones. In the introduction to their 2012 edited collection, Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Media, Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau sought to identify the sociocultural impact of the iPhone, suggesting that it demonstrated like no other mobile phone “the extent to which mobile technology shapes and alters media culture” (p. 10).

Scholars have investigated the iPhone as a significant platform, prototype, and part of contemporary “media life” and explicitly situated it within historical and comparative perspectives. Francesco Casetti and Sara Sampietro, for example, have explored the way in which the iPhone has changed the experience of film through the integration of YouTube. Nanna Verhoeff traced how the iPhone has transformed cartographic screen practices, collapsing mapmaking and navigating into a dynamic performative act.

The iPhone's design and Apple's careful attention to users’ experience have drawn the attention of scholars such as Lev Manovich, who characterized the iPhone as exhibiting friendliness, play, aesthetic and perceptual pleasure, emotional satisfaction, and fashionability. Mark Deuze and The Janissary Collective (2012) situated the iPhone at the forefront of an “increasingly seamless integration among human beings, nature and technology” (p. 296), arguing that we now live in rather than with media, as mobile interfaces simultaneously enable our retreat into personalized information spaces and thorough immersion in “a fully mediated space of global existence” (p. 304).

The iPhone lends itself to particular kinds of game play and game cultures that are different from other handheld or haptic game consoles. Game theorist Mia Consalvo (2012) claimed that the iPhone “put a gaming platform in the hands of millions of people who had never considered (and likely will never consider) themselves gamers” (p. 184), effectively incorporating play into our everyday lives. Other researchers have discussed how the iPhone has changed reading practices and how it has given users access to vast amounts of data and the distributed dynamic intelligence of online networks. Researchers have also studied the iPhone in terms of its effects on sociocultural practice in particular parts of the world, its effects on media practices, and how it has contributed to the reconfiguration of divides between what is considered public and what is considered private.

As touchscreen mobile devices and their operating systems have developed and proliferated, scholarship has turned to the affordances and effects of smartphones and mobile media interfaces (e.g., iPads and other tablets) more generally. Indeed, most conceptual analyses of mobile media, ethnographic projects, and research-based interventions into everyday use are now deployed across devices and platforms, irrespective of handset or operating system, to accommodate an increasingly diverse user experience and the variable practices of research participants. There is no doubt, however, that in significant ways the iPhone and its modes of distribution became the template on which subsequent smartphones and their services were modelled.

The iPhone can not only be contextualized within broader debates about mobile communication, but it can also be understood as a moment in the longer and highly contested history of computer culture. The iPhone, its operating system, and its app ecology have been vehicles for framing a particular experience of the Internet. Moreover, two interrelated and paradoxical phenomena have been fostered through mobile media apps—the quantified self-movement and big data. The deployment of smartphones and now wearable technology for self and corporate surveillance has grown, creating new tensions between empowerment and exploitation. In these overlapping contexts, the iPhone has been a paradigmatic interface and a symbol of contemporary digital culture.

See also Mobile Internet; Smartphone Apps; Smartphones; Wearable Technologies

Further Readings
  • Casetti, F.; Sampietro, S. (2012). With eyes, with hands: The relocation of cinema into the iPhone. In P. Snickars; P. Vonderau (Eds.), Moving data: The iPhone and the future of media (pp. 19-32). Columbia University Press New York NY.
  • Chun, W. H. K. (2016). Updating to remain the same. MIT Press Cambridge.
  • Consalvo, M. (2012). Slingshot to victory: Games, play and the iPhone. In P. Snickars; P. Vonderau (Eds.), Moving data: The iPhone and the future of media (pp. 184-193). Columbia University Press New York NY.
  • Deuze, M., & The Janissary Collective. (2012). Mobile media life. In P. Snickars; P. Vonderau (Eds.), Moving data: The iPhone and the future of media (pp. 296-308). Columbia University Press New York NY.
  • Goggin, G. (2009). Adapting the mobile phone: The iPhone and its consumption. Continuum, 23(2), 231-244.
  • Goggin, G.; Hjorth, L. (Eds.). (2009). Mobile technologies: From telecommunications to media. Routledge New York NY.
  • Goggin, G.; Hjorth, L. (Eds.). (2015). The Routledge companion to mobile media. Routledge New York NY.
  • Hjorth, L.; Burgess, J.; Richardson, I. (Eds.). (2012). Studying mobile media: Cultural technologies, mobile communication, and the iPhone. Routledge New York NY.
  • Koskinen, I. (2007). Mobile multimedia in action. Transaction New York NY.
  • Lasén, A.; Gómez-Cruz, E. (2009). Digital photography and picture sharing: Redefining the public/private divide. Knowledge, Technology & Politics, 22, 205-215.
  • Manovich, L. (2012). The back of our devices look better than the front of anyone else's: On Apple and interface design. In P. Snickers; P. Vonderau (Eds.), Moving data: The iPhone and the future of media (pp. 278-286). Columbia University Press New York NY.
  • McQuire, S. (2008). The media city: Media, architecture and urban space. Sage London UK.
  • Qiu, J. L. (2009). Working-class network society: Communication technology and the information have-less in urban China. MIT Press Cambridge MA.
  • Snickars, P.; Vonderau, P. (Eds.). (2012). Moving data: The iPhone and the future of media. Columbia University Press New York NY.
  • Verhoeff, N. (2012). Navigating screenspace: Towards performative cartography. In P. Snickars; P. Vonderau (Eds.), Moving data: The iPhone and the future of media (pp. 33-49). Columbia University Press New York NY.
  • West, J.; Mace, M. (2008). Value creation in the mobile Internet: The impact of Apple's iPhone. Retrieved from
  • West, J.; Mace, M. (2010). Browsing as the killer app: Explaining the rapid success of Apple's iPhone. Telecommunications Policy, 34(5-6), 270-286.
  • Larissa Hjorth
    Ingrid Richardson
    © SAGE Publications Ltd 2018

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