The first iPhone I bought was not for me, but for my mother whom I was living away from while in college — four and half hours from home. It was the first time we’d lived apart since immigrating to the United States together, which naturally meant there was a lot of calling to make sure I was doing okay in the cold, snowy hills of upstate New York.
My mom worked long hours as a restaurant chef so the only time she could call was after closing around 11PM, otherwise known as late-night cramming sessions, or prime collegiate party hour. There was a lot of guilty silencing her incoming calls. At the time my mom didn’t know how to type (and certainly not in English), so emails and texts weren’t exactly plan B. The more I prioritized life away from home, the more my mother and I lost touch.
It wasn’t until late 2009 that iPhones finally became somewhat affordable for me. As early adopters prepared for the fresh new iPhone 4, many secondhand iPhone 3 and 3GS devices became readily available. Giving my mom a smartphone meant she could finally reach me without going home to first login to Skype. A quick download of a Thai keyboard / translation tool also made it possible for us to speak in our native language, without ever actually speaking. As she slowly figured out how to type, she would send photos in place of text messages to more quickly let me know what she was up to, and I could respond without excusing myself from social settings. To this day, pictures are still the method of choice when my mom talks to me online. Instead of photographs taken with the iPhone camera, she now defaults to stickers and emoji.
And sure, all of this probably still would have happened had I waited and gotten her a Samsung Galaxy S. The truth is, most smartphone devices at the time were just difficult and intimidating to use. It was the iPhone that popularized the use of colorful, simple iconography and a capacitive touchscreen that made exploring a new piece of technology less intimidating for my mother’s generation. And if she screwed up or got confused, she could always hit the home button to start again. It’s probably why the iPhone was the first smartphone for many of our parents, and our parents’ parents. (The physical presence of an Apple Genius Bar that patiently taught them how to use the device surely didn’t hurt.)
The iPhone’s powerful, yet fun and toy-like aspects largely contributed to the way communications have evolved across generations. In America, it expanded on the instant messaging culture AIM made ubiquitous and made that accessible and interactive to use. Where my grandmother would wait for a handwritten letter from my mom, and my mom would wait for me to call her on the phone, we all now keep in touch in real time via group messages, complete with images and short videos.
When I reflect on the way the iPhone shaped and strengthened multigenerational communication, I’m often reminded that many see smartphones as the very things that keep us distracted from each other. But for my family, it’s the gadget that virtually connects us together. Maybe that’ll change when my mom learns how to download apps, but for now she seems occupied enough with sending me daily photos of the food she cooks to entice me back home for a visit.