And the Winner Is…Apple

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

With that quote in mind, I recently carried out a small thought experiment: “What if I could go back in time 50 years to 1960? And what if, in an attempt to impress the citizens of the day, I could take one and only one example of current consumer electronic equipment with me? Further, what if, despite the technological limits of 1960, that device worked back in 1960 the same way it works today. In other words, a Garmin GPS device would work just fine in 1960 even though there were no positioning satellites in the sky. My chosen device could be as small as an iPod shuffle or as big as a 70” flat-screen television. No limits. Except one: the device had to have first been created in this decade.”

With all of that in place, what device would I pick? It took me almost no time to come up with the answer: an iPhone. For me, the iPhone unquestionably and undeniably emerges as the device of the decade. Nothing else comes close.

Checking online for “gadget of the decade” lists, I found one from The Business Insider that reached the same conclusion. And for much the same major reason. The iPhone combines the features of many of the competing items that show up lower down on the list — and puts them all in the palm of your hand. The iPhone is an iPod of course, a better one in fact that any of Apple’s other iPods except for perhaps the iPhone’s sibling, the iPod touch. The iPhone 3GS is both a digital still camera and video camera. It’s an excellent GPS device (especially so when combined with an app such as Navigon’s MobileNavigator). It’s a super game machine, with more great games available than any other handheld platform. It’s even a computer, with a full-featured Web browser and email client. Did I mention it’s also a superb phone (complaints about AT&T’s coverage aside)?

At a personal level, I can attest that the iPhone has changed my daily routine more than any other device of this decade. Actually, the only people I imagine for whom this is not true are people who don’t yet own an iPhone. From checking tweets and email on the go, getting the latest news, finding out the tomorrow’s weather or today’s stock results, mapping a route, confirming movie times, taking photos to send to friends, reading a book, browsing YouTube, listening to music or just playing games — it often seems that an hour does not go by without me pulling the iPhone out of my pocket for something.

Given my time-travel criteria, the iPhone takes an even greater lead over other contenders. Can you imagine anything else that would do a better job of amazing the population of 1960? Compared to the iPhone, Star Trek’s tricorder is a primitive kludge. Even here in the present, as 2010 approaches, the iPhone can seem magical — as I typically discover when I demo an iPhone to people still unfamiliar with it.

For starters, using the Google app, I can speak the name of a restaurant into the iPhone’s microphone and, within a few seconds, the address and phone number of the establishment appears. With a tap or two, I can get directions or call the restaurant to make a reservation. At no point do I even need to call up the iPhone’s keyboard.

I can use Map’s Street View to “see” almost any location — and rotate the view for a 360 degree look. With RedLaser, I can barcode scan almost any product in a store and quickly find where I can get that item for the best price. With the TiVo app, I can set my home TiVo (another “gadget of the decade” nominee) to record a show from wherever in the world I am. With other apps, I can listen live to any NPR station in the country — or call up any specific NPR program on demand. True, some of this can also be done via the Web using a desktop or laptop computer; but these devices don’t fit in your pocket.

And, as any iPhone user knows, this doesn’t even begin to exhaust the list of magic tricks the iPhone can do.

iPod vs. iPhone

Another “gadget of the decade” list, this one from Paste Magazine, came to a different conclusion. The iPhone came in only at number 7. Given that the Amazon Kindle and the Vodafone 3G Datacard scored higher, it’s hard for me to take this list too seriously. Still, what’s most interesting is what made it to number 1: Apple’s iPod. The logic here (echoing a conversation I had on Twitter) is apparently that the iPod has been around longer (since 2001) and formed the basis of the iPhone. Without the groundwork laid by the iPod, there would likely have been no iPhone this decade. There’s no denying that the iPod has permeated our culture in a way that was unimaginable in 2000. Regardless, I can’t see giving the award to a device whose range of features (unless you count the iPod touch) is just a small subset of what the iPhone can do.

In the end, this debate can be sort of like deciding between “tastes great vs. less filling.” An argument can be made for either position. For Apple, it hardly matters. They wind up the winner either way. Throw in the success of this decade’s iMacs, MacBooks, iTunes Store and Apple’s retail stores — and there’s no doubt that this has been Apple’s decade. Congratulations to Steve and company for a job superbly done.

I can hardly wait to see what Apple has in store for the next decade.