Clayton M. Christensen

What the iPhone wrought

July 3, 2012: 6:48 AM ET

To celebrate the device's fifth birthday, John Gruber puts his finger on what it disrupted

Steve Jobs unveils the iPhone. Photo: CNN

FORTUNE -- Clay Christensen, the father of disruption theory, was famously wrong about Apple's (AAPL) iPhone, telling an interviewer five years ago that the probability of its success was "limited."

"Being a low-end guy," Larissa MacFarquhar wrote in the New Yorker last month, "Christiansen saw it as a fancy cell phone; it was only later that he realized that it was also disruptive to laptops."

Daring Fireball's John Gruber uses the Christensen incident as the starting point of an essay posted Monday to celebrate the release of the first iPhone five years ago.

Christensen was not the only one, he writes, who underestimated the iPhone:

The iPod's success fooled almost everyone (including me) into thinking that Apple's entry into the phone market would be similar. The iPod was the world's best portable media player; the "iPhone", thus, would likely be the world's best cell phone.

But that's not what it was. It was the world's best portable computer. Best not in the sense of being the most powerful, or the fastest, or the most-efficient to use. The thing couldn't even do copy-and-paste. It was the best because it was always there, always on, always just a button-push away. The disruption was not that we now finally had a nice phone; it was that, for better or for worse, we would now never again be without a computer or the Internet...

What's happened over the last five years shows not that Apple disrupted the phone handset industry, but rather that Apple destroyed the handset industry — by disrupting the computer industry. Today, cell phones are apps, not devices. The companies that were the most successful at selling cell phones pre-iPhone are now dead or dying.

All this, Gruber concludes, because of the iPhone.

It's the best anniversary piece I've read. You can get it here.

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