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The history and evolution of iOS, from the original iPhone to iOS 9

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 9:12PM EST
iOS History

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When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in January of 2007, he remarked that phones at the time fell into one of two categories; On one hand you had phones that were powerful but extremely complicated to use, and on the other, you had phones that were easy to use but were rather feature limited. With the iPhone, Apple set out to turn the phone industry on its head with a product that was not only extremely easy to use, but also more powerful and capable than anything else on the market.

And looking back, it’s abundantly clear that Apple did just that. The iPhone undeniably ushered in the modern smartphone era, forever changing the way we use and interact with technology. Even if you’re beholden to Android, there’s no getting around the fact that Android as we know it today wouldn’t exist without the work Apple did on the original iPhone. Hardly a controversial statement, even Google engineers have said that Jobs’ iPhone unveiling prompted Google’s Android team to “start over” and reimagine the smartphone experience altogether.

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Of course, the driving force behind the iPhone has always been iOS. Truth be told, early iPhone hardware wasn’t anywhere close to being the best on the market. Still, the utility of and ease of use associated with iOS was so great that it more than made up for early iPhone hardware shortcomings.

Over the past eight years, iOS has changed and evolved tremendously. Today, Apple’s mobile OS is not only eons more advanced than it was even a few years ago, but the look and feel of the OS itself has changed quite a bit as well. Sure, the grid system of icons with rounded corners hasn’t gone anywhere, but that’s about all iOS 1 shares in common with iOS 9.

That being the case, we thought it’d be interesting to take a look back at the myriad of ways in which iOS has morphed, not only from a limited mobile OS into a multi-talented and advanced operating system, but visually as well. As will become quickly evident below, iOS has been defined by consistent iteration. Rather than piling on features endlessly, Apple’s approach with iOS has largely been slow and methodical, with each subsequent release building upon its predecessor and refining the entirety of the user experience.

By today’s standards, early versions of iOS seem practically ancient. Support for third-party apps was non-existent, and even basic features we now take for granted – features like multitasking and cut, copy, and paste – were nowhere to be found.

Flash forward to 2016 and the iOS landscape is markedly different. There are now more apps available than one can download in a lifetime. It’s now possible to unlock the iPhone with your fingerprint. Google Maps and YouTube no longer come standard on new iPhones. The skeuomorphism that touched all aspects of early iOS releases has largely been eradicated. What’s more, even one of the cornerstone apps of iOS 1 – the iPod – has effectively transformed into a gateway app for music streaming.

Needless to say, a lot has changed in the 9 years since Steve Jobs introduced iOS to the world. Here’s how we got to where we are today.

iOS 1

The granddaddy of them all, iOS 1 was an instant game changer. Though not a new technology, the original iPhone introduced multitouch to the masses and forever changed the way we interact with electronic devices.

As you can tell from the photo above, the basics of the iOS UI hasn’t changed much at all. There’s still a grid system of icons, with a dock of frequently used icons populating the bottom of the display. While it perhaps seems crazy today, note that two of the original iOS icons weren’t Apple apps, but gateways to Google. Of course, I’m talking about YouTube and Google Maps.

iOS 2

When Apple released iOS 2 with the iPhone 3G back in July of 2008, mobile apps would never be the same. With iOS 2, Apple introduced its brand new App Store, a digital storefront that allowed anyone with a computer, an idea, and coding skills to put together an app and sell it for a price point of their choosing. While it all seems like common sense now, remember that the quality of mobile apps back in 2008 was abysmal, with no room for small-time developers to even participate.

Today, the App Store has grown beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, currently boasting more than 1.5 million apps and generating billions in profits for both Apple and developers. As of January 2016, the App Store has generated approximately $40 billion for developers. Apple has also said that the creation of the App Store is responsible for creating more than 1.9 million jobs in the U.S. alone. If we factor in Europe and China, Apple claims that the total number of App Store related jobs rises to about 4.5 million.

iOS 3

With iOS 3, Apple finally introduced a number of software features that were conspicuously missing from previous versions, namely support for cut, copy, and paste. iOS 3 also introduced support for MMS, tethering, spotlight search functionality, and support for in-app purchases. It’s also worth noting that the home screen with iOS 3 was slightly altered and came with two new home screen apps, a “Voice Memos” app and a “Compass” app.

Remember this old gem?

Additionally, Apple with iOS 3 finally changed the name of its “SMS” app to Messages and added the “Find My iPhone” feature.

One final tidbit is that iOS 3 increased the number of supported home screen pages from 9 to 11.

iOS 4

iOS 4 marked huge step forward for Apple’s mobile OS. The update, which was released in June of 2010, was chock full of compelling and exciting new features. Of course, one of flagship features of iOS 4 – and the iPhone 4 – was support for FaceTime video chatting.

iOS 4 also saw the introduction of system-wide multitasking support, the ability to put apps into folders, the rollout of iBooks and GameCenter, enhanced search functionality, and last but not least, the ability to zoom in when taking photos. Note that the dock design in iOS 4 was slightly altered as well.

multitasking, custom wall papers, unified inbox, ability to search messages.. AirPlay was in subsequent upgrades to iOS 4.

iOS 5

By the time iOS 5 was released in 2011, it was abundantly clear that Apple was facing some stiff competition from any number of ambitious handset manufacturers. With that in mind, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that iOS 5 was an incredibly ambitious release that packed in more than 200 new features.

In addition to a new notification center, iOS 5 saw the birth of iMessage, effectively enabling iPhone users to text via data as opposed to running up needlessly exorbitant texting bills. iOS 5 also saw the arrival of to new iOS stock apps, Reminders and Newsstand. Other notable iOS 5 features included Twitter integration, wireless syncing capabilities, and at long last, the ability to access the camera from the lock screen.

Over and above that, the flagship feature of iOS 5 was Siri, Apple’s take on an intelligent virtual assistant. Much like Apple Maps, the first incarnation of Siri was intriguing but ultimately left a lot to be desired.

iOS 6

With iOS 6, Apple officially kicked Google Maps to the curb and replaced it with Apple Maps. Famously, the rollout of Apple Maps was marked by frustrating bugs, erroneous directions, Salvador Dali inspired satellite photos, and even misplaced landmarks.

Still, the release of Apple Maps marked the first time that iOS users could take advantage of turn by turn directions as the iOS version of Google Maps frustratingly did not include that feature.

Another notable addition to iOS 6 was a new app called Passbook. Later renamed to Wallet, Passbook was, not too surprisingly, a virtual wallet that let users store airline tickets, coupons, movie tickets, and a few other items.

Other notable iOS 6 features included a redesigned App Store, the ability to reply to a call with a text message, a dedicated Podcasts app, panoramic photos, the ability to FaceTime over a cellular connection, and much improved Siri functionality. And seeing as how iOS 6 was released alongside the larger iPhone 6, the number of icons per row was increased from four to five.

Looking at the iOS 6 homescreen, you might also have noticed the conspicuous absence of the YouTube app.

iOS 7

iOS 7. Where does one even begin? iOS 7 represented a sea change not only for iOS, but also for Apple’s executive lineup. If you recall, Scott Forstall, the man responsible for every iteration of iOS up until iOS 6, was unceremoniously dismissed from the company in October of 2012 for refusing to take ownership of Apple’s Mapping problems. In his place, Tim Cook put Jony Ive in charge of the look and feel of Apple’s mobile OS.

With Ive at the helm, iOS 7 came with an entirely new look and feel, forgoing Forstall’s affinity for skeumorphic design with a flatter aesthetic. The green felt and leather stitchings that seemed to dominate some of Apple’s stock apps were completely redesigned.

But a new look and feel wasn’t all Apple had to offer. iOS 7 introduced us to the Control Center, a convenient way to quickly toggle a number of commonly used settings. Other new features introduced with iOS 7 included a revamped multitasking pane, the rollout of iTunes Radio, AirDrop, photo filters, burst photo mode, and new camera modes for fast switching between video and various photo modes.

iOS 8

By the time iOS 8 came along, most people had gotten used to iOS’ new design aesthetic championed by Jony Ive. As a result, Apple with iOS 8 was able to focus on adding a plethora of new features instead of spending time working on a UI redesign.

iOS 8 may not have had any killer features, so to speak, but it did add a number of small and nifty enhancements, including predictive keyboard typing with QuickType, the ability to send audio and video messages within iMessage, more advanced notifications, and more photo editing tools. iOS 8 also saw the introduction of both iCloud Drive and HealthKit.

Other notable features included time-lapse video, the ability to check battery usage by app, a camera timer, and more enhanced Spotlight functionality,

iOS 9

Apple came at iOS 9 with an entirely different strategy. Instead of lopping in as many features as possible, Apple’s iOS team worked on a smaller number of features and instead devoted more resources than usual towards improving the overall stability of the mobile OS.

Some of the more notable iOS 9 features included transit directions in Maps, a completely revamped Notes app, a nifty low-power mode for longer battery life, and always-on Siri functionality thanks to the iPhone 6s’ M9 motion coprocessor. iOS 9 also saw the introduction of a new systemwide font, San Francisco.

Also noteworthy is that the Passbook app was renamed to wallet and given a new icon, an appropriate change given the arrival of Apple Pay, Other new, albeit minor changes to the iOS home screen included a new Music app and a brand new News app.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.