No. 6: iPhone

Seen it. Bought it. Want it … again.

Apple already had something “magical and revolutionary” up its sleeve with the iPad, so its fourth swipe at the iPhone seemed almost, well, excessive in these lean consumer times.

By now, the company knows that any shiny object from its dream factory will get followers queuing up. What could another iPhone iteration — still tethered to AT&T service — possibly offer, except to toy with loyalists’ affections? Besides, wasn’t CEO and cult leader Steve Jobs — pulled from the brink of a health crisis — too busy establishing a legacy, like saving the future of news? Yet early word of an upcoming iPhone 4 had fanboys and fangirls agog, as did rumors that Apple would start hooking up with other operators, like Verizon and Sprint.

So an engineer walks out of a bar …
Then a strange thing happened on the way to the long summer lines. A tippling Apple engineer, celebrating his birthday, inadvertently left behind a prototype at the Gourmet Haus Staudt. And when in a Silicon Valley bar, the natural thing to do with a lost phone is to sell it to blogs for dissection.

The leak became a minor mystery (how could notoriously tight-lipped Apple lose a prototype?), a cautionary tale of limited customer service (attempts to return the phone were allegedly rewarded with a ticket number), an ethical dilemma (Gizmodo paid $5,000 for what might be considered stolen property, and an editor’s home was later raided), and a story of betrayal (iPhone finder Brian Hogan’s roommate ratted him out) and a near escape (engineer Gray Powell apparently still works at Apple).

The future is now
Crime or not, that sneak peek into the phone’s features was enough to trigger a new degree of online scrutiny. Jobs’s introduction of the iPhone 4 at the summer Worldwide Developers Conference was almost perfunctory. Its leaps-and-bounds features like video calls, HD recording, and the so-called retina display were at once otherworldly and taken for granted.

Jaded reactions to iPhone 4G spurred Salon to muse about Future Fatigue, a mindset proposed by “Neuromancer” author William Gibson, in which youngsters weaned on tech miracles “inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory.” In other words, smart phone is as smart phone does. Naturally, not everyone was so blase — presumably not those who bought an estimated million-plus on day one.

IPhone losing its grip?
So, some might have experienced a little malicious glee — and relief — to discover that the iPhone 4 was imperfect after all. A design flaw — namely, lost reception depending on how one held the phone — led people to search the Web for “death grip iphone.”

People followed the back and forth, which included the staid Consumer Reports declining to recommend the fourth generation. In turn, Apple declared regretfully that it had overstated the phone’s signal strength all along (which almost sounded like bragging). More condemnation and a class-action lawsuit seemed to threaten Apple’s stock price. After a few weeks, the media fuss (summed up in a YouTube video, “The iPhone Antenna Song“) was finally settled with free bumper cases for all.

Droid wars: This time, it’s personal
The antenna fuss hid a far more seething battle. Google’s Android rose up as a legitimate contender in the smart phone market. Consumers researched the merits of “iphone vs. droid,” and the latter’s popularity possibly accelerated Apple’s hustle to get a deal with Verizon.

The New York Times, though, read something much more “personal” going on between CEOs Jobs and Eric Schmidt, a clash that “offers an unusually vivid display of enmity and ambition.” If Jobs’ potty-mouthed call-out of his competitor’s mantra wasn’t a seven-letter clue already, then look to Apple’s patent infringement lawsuit against HTC, the purchase of Quattro Wireless (a competitor to AdMob, bought by Google in 2009), and Apple’s backing of Microsoft’s Bing as the default iPad search engine.

Android wasn’t the only rival that Jobs threw jabs at in 2010. During an October earnings call, his fighting words pointed out that Apple had passed up RIM, described the Android as “very, very fragmented,” and predicted that tablet challengers would be “dead on arrival.” With an in-your-face attitude like that, no wonder Jobs emerged as the year’s most followed CEO online.

The i’s have it
Apple also freshened up a posse of other products in 2010: iPod, iTunes, Apple TV, and MacBook Air. Only the iPad came close to the iPhone in generating rapturous anticipation for its Zen template of possibility.

The one thing people have still been clamoring for (besides the “verizon wireless iphone”) is the white iPhone, as elusive as a unicorn. The date, Apple announced apologetically, will come sometime in spring 2011.

–Vera H-C Chan