A visit from the ghost of dumb phones past

Smartphones were only just taking off a decade ago, but today they shape most of our lives.


December 23, 2019

Wouldn’t it be interesting to travel back in time to the distant, pre-smartphone days of 2010 and see how we survived using separate devices for listening to music, navigating, and taking pictures?

Sure, it would… but it would also be terribly inconvenient. 

So the WSJ’s Joanna Stern took the plunge and used nothing but 2010-era technology so you don’t have to. Here are a few things she learned:

Today’s phones are convenient as h*ll

In 2010, it was still common to carry around digital cameras to take pictures, Garmins to navigate via GPS, and mp3 players to listen to music.

But in the past decade, smartphones consolidated those and other devices into a single device — and are hoping consumers will start paying closer to $2k than $200 for cell phones.

Smartphones killed old industries

As feature-rich smartphones became ubiquitous, they pushed a number of industries to the brink of extinction. 

  • An example: Cameras. There were 100.4m sold in 2007, the year iPhones launched — and just 24.2m in 2016.

In other cases, the smartphone didn’t completely kill off companies, but it forced them to shift their entire business models. 

  • An example: Garmin, which pivoted away from in-car GPS hardware to wearable GPS watches.

Smartphones also birthed new businesses

At the start of 2010, it wasn’t even possible to post a selfie on Instagram.

Instagram launched 3 years after the iPhone, and its growth wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the booming popularity of smartphones that made it easy to take and share photos.

But social media wasn’t the only industry turned upside down — smartphones also changed the way people watch TV, listen to music, and get around.

Here are some other things that Americans couldn’t do at the beginning of 2010 that are now part of our everyday lives, in part, to smartphones:

  • Order an Uber (“UberCab” launched in SF in June 2010)
  • Listen to a Spotify playlist (Spotify launched in America in 2011)
  • Stream a Netflix original (Netflix’s first original, “House of Cards,” didn’t debut until 2013)
  • Watch a TikTok video (TikTok didn’t launch until 2017)

So, even if you’re pissed off that the 2010s are ending and you still don’t own a flying car, just remember… we’ve come a long way.

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