Today in Apple history: Apple buys ‘iPhone’ web domain

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December 14, 1999: Apple acquires the domain name, prompting years of speculation that Cupertino is considering building a cellphone.

While the news generates interest, some take it as a warning sign. Apple only recently abandoned the kind of non-computer projects like games consoles, PDAs and digital cameras that proved to be dead ends earlier in the decade.

An Apple phone could never be a thing, right?

As we see weekly with Apple patents, just because the company shows an interest in a technology doesn’t mean it necessarily plans to proceed with the idea. This was certainly the case with the iPhone.

The journey from filing for a domain name to launching a product took the best part of a decade. (Apple showed off the iPhone for the first time in 2007.)

iPhone: Another doomed invention?

There was good reason to be skeptical. While some people bought into the false narrative that Apple failed to innovate after Steve Jobs left the company in the mid-1980s, in fact, the opposite is true. Apple continued experimenting throughout his 11-year absence.

Apple rolled out expandable Macs, revolutionary personal data assistant the MessagePad, videogame console the Pippin, the QuickTake digital camera and other products. Cupertino even entertained a proposal for a Planet Hollywood-style string of Apple restaurants.

With the arguable exception of the Mac (which nonetheless lost market share during the 1990s), none of these products captured the public’s imagination. They failed despite often being good products — far better than what other companies offered, in many cases.

As a result, Jobs scrapped many of them when he returned to Apple in the late 1990s. Apple’s track record with non-computer gear was mixed at best.

iPhone web domain and the Cisco battle

The name “iPhone” is now synonymous with Apple. However, “iPhone” was a 2000-era copyright owned by Cisco Systems.

The networking hardware maker acquired the name after buying a company called Infogear. Cisco used the name “iPhone” for its dual-mode cordless VoIP network phones. The name actually dated back as far as 1996, before Apple’s use of the “i” prefix for the iMac G3.

When Apple finally launched its smartphone, it went ahead and used the name “iPhone” for its new device. That prompted Cisco to threaten litigation. Eventually, the two parties settled the case. Apple got to keep the name, and the two companies went on to work together. (This wasn’t the first time Apple paid for a name: Cupertino shelled out cash to use “Macintosh” as well.) And, when Apple later wanted to use the term “iOS” — which Cisco also owned — the companies reached a second deal.

The official iPhone history

The official version of Apple’s iPhone history, as told in books like Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, starts around 2005. There’s good reason for this. With iPod sales skyrocketing, this is when the iPhone became a real research project. That year, Apple teamed with Motorola to release the Rokr E1, the grandfather of the iPhone and the first Apple-sanctioned cellphone to run iTunes.

Jobs’ unhappiness with the results of that collaboration — and the fact that he went along with it in the first place — suggests that the dream of an Apple-manufactured phone did not solidify in his mind until well after the 1999 date commemorated today.

Nonetheless, Jobs made several comments in later years that suggested he was busy connecting the dots about what a smartphone might involve. In 2002, for example, he said Apple had decided against building another PDA because PDAs would eventually turn into one feature in a cellphone, rather than standalone devices.

Meanwhile, he told The International Herald Tribune that “one never knows,” when asked directly if Apple would build an iPhone. All the time, Apple continued applying for trademarks in places like Singapore and the United Kingdom.

When did you first hear rumors about an Apple cellphone? And (be honest!) what was your first reaction? Leave your comments below.

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