It's Apple rumor season—really, when is it not?—and that means it's also the season of mockups. But the next time you see an appealing iWatch mockup, keep in mind how deeply, deeply wrong most of us have been at guessing what the future of Apple might look like.
Apple bought the domain name iPhone.org in 1999—almost a full decade before it actually announced its first phone. And in the years in between, the rumors flew: A confluence of forces, including a boom in consumer technology writing on the internet and the ubiquity of Photoshop, conspired to create a fecund environment for speculation by armchair critics and designers. Was Jobs designing a flip phone? Maybe there'd be a slide-out keyboard! Perhaps it'd latch on to your existing iPod. Anything was possible.
Yesterday, NOVA editor Tim De Chant tweeted an early iPhone mockup and reminded us all to "Be wary of iWatch mockups. Remember what we thought the iPhone would look like in 2006?" Inspired, I dug through the digital refuse that remains of the 2005 and 2006 internet to find more. And boy, did I find more.
Let's start with the concept rendering De Chant linked to. It was designed by one "Nick C" in response to a competition Engadget held to imagine future Apple products in 2006.
"The best of two worlds," the mockup reads—presumably they're talking about the combination of an iPod and a phone, since this mockup looks like a hybrid of the two, with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and a form factor that looks much like an iPod Nano, with some random cellphone-ish buttons slapped on the edges. [Engadget]
An iPod-iPhone Hybrid
This mockup appeared on the now-defunct gadget blog Esato in September of 2006. It imagined the much-rumored iPhone as a flip-style attachment to the iPod—complete with a 2.2-inch screen and a 3-megapixel camera!
Many of these mockups were flip phones, and though that seems like a reflection of the style of the day, there was a pretty good reason to predict a flip phone: After all, Apple did patent one. [ESATO]
The iPhone as Blackberry?
So maybe the iPhone would be a flip phone. Or maybe, as this November 2006 concept imagined, it'd follow the lead of another big trend of the day: Slide-out keyboards. This mockup takes the beloved third generation iPod and chops it off to add a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, like a Sidekick or Blackberry.
But even the Russian gadget website that published it wasn't convinced: "[T]he device looks very uncomfortable and awkward, and the introduction of the touch screen and use it to dial a number - illogical. Especially for Apple." [Ferra.Ru]
An iPod Nano That Talks
This 2005 mockup of an "Apple iPhone R01" by Japanese designer Isamu Sanada imagined a brick-style phone that used a very similar form factor as the year's second generation iPod Nano. It's really not all that different from the cheaper phones of the day—except for the tell tale click wheel. [ AlZin]
Sanada was a prolific speculator—and he didn't just imagine iPhones, he did it all—so it's worth mentioning another one of his guesses for its sheer creativity. In this version, the iPhone was actually two distinct pieces of hardware, connected by a soft bending hinge that would clamp down to keep the phone closed. It's actually a pretty interesting solution to the design conundrum of the flip phone hinge. [Gizmodo]
An iPod With a Trackpad
In the end, this is the mockup that came closest to the thing Steve Jobs presented in January of 2007. This "leaked" rendering shows a device that looks roughly the size of an iPod Nano, with two major parts: A screen with UI prompts like a keyboard and iTunes interface, and a wide grey touchscreen—used to interact with the screen itself, presumably.
It's weird camel of a concept. But oddly, it's not far off the mark. The thing that set the first iPhone apart from all these mid-2000 mobile tropes was its touchscreen. Whomever made this knew that was the direction things were going—they just weren't putting too fine a point on it. [ MacDailyNews]
Now, About That iWatch...
In light of the fact that hindsight is 20/20, these concepts weren't laughably far off. Even in the zaniest cases, the designers simply took what they knew about the current trends in mobile tech—sliding keyboards! hinges!—and gave it a Snow White-style makeover.
But none of them could imagine the sea change the iPhone's touchscreen and internals would bring, those hardware innovations that actually did change everything. So next time you're reading about an iWatch that looks like an iPhone flattened into a bangle or duct-tape to a wrist, keep in mind: It's easier to imagine the shape of things to come than the guts inside of them.