The Incredible Story of How the iPhone Came to Be

The best thing I’ve read today is this fascinating New York Times Magazine piece on how the iPhone was developed. From concept to prototype to Steve Jobs’s unveiling of the revolutionary device, this piece has it all. It is so much better than the section devoted to the iPhone in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Absolutely a must-read.

On how incredibly secretive Steve Jobs tried to keep the announcement of the iPhone:

Jobs was so obsessed with leaks that he tried to have all the contractors Apple hired — from people manning booths and doing demos to those responsible for lighting and sound — sleep in the building the night before his presentation. Aides talked him out of it.

Now this is a great way to phrase it:

Ponder the individual impacts of the book, the newspaper, the telephone, the radio, the tape recorder, the camera, the video camera, the compass, the television, the VCR and the DVD, the personal computer, the cellphone, the video game and the iPod. The smartphone is all those things, and it fits in your pocket

On the initial gamble of the iPhone and the buggy versions that existed at launch:

It’s hard to overstate the gamble Jobs took when he decided to unveil the iPhone back in January 2007. Not only was he introducing a new kind of phone — something Apple had never made before — he was doing so with a prototype that barely worked. Even though the iPhone wouldn’t go on sale for another six months, he wanted the world to want one right then. In truth, the list of things that still needed to be done was enormous. A production line had yet to be set up. Only about a hundred iPhones even existed, all of them of varying quality. Some had noticeable gaps between the screen and the plastic edge; others had scuff marks on the screen. And the software that ran the phone was full of bugs.

This bit about the compromises that Apple took to make the demo iPhone work is phenomenal:

The software in the iPhone’s Wi-Fi radio was so unstable that Grignon and his team had to extend the phones’ antennas by connecting them to wires running offstage so the wireless signal wouldn’t have to travel as far. And audience members had to be prevented from getting on the frequency being used. “Even if the base station’s ID was hidden” — that is, not showing up when laptops scanned for Wi-Fi signals — “you had 5,000 nerds in the audience,” Grignon says. “They would have figured out how to hack into the signal.” The solution, he says, was to tweak the AirPort software so that it seemed to be operating in Japan instead of the United States. Japanese Wi-Fi uses some frequencies that are not permitted in the U.S.

There were multiple versions of the iPhone built near launch:

Many executives and engineers, riding high from their success with the iPod, assumed a phone would be like building a small Macintosh. Instead, Apple designed and built not one but three different early versions of the iPhone in 2005 and 2006. One person who worked on the project thinks Apple then made six fully working prototypes of the device it ultimately sold — each with its own set of hardware, software and design tweaks. 

The first iPhone prototype in 2005 had a wheel (like the iPod):

From the start of the project, Jobs hoped that he would be able to develop a touch-screen iPhone running OS X similar to what he ended up unveiling. But in 2005 he had no idea how long that would take. So Apple’s first iPhone looked very much like the joke slide Jobs put up when introducing the real iPhone — an iPod with an old-fashioned rotary dial on it. The prototype really was an iPod with a phone radio that used the iPod click wheel as a dialer. “It was an easy way to get to market, but it was not cool like the devices we have today,” Grignon says.

On how stressful the environment was:

The pressure to meet Jobs’s deadlines was so intense that normal discussions quickly devolved into shouting matches. Exhausted engineers quit their jobs — then came back to work a few days later once they had slept a little. Forstall’s chief of staff, Kim Vorrath, once slammed her office door so hard it got stuck and locked her in, and co-workers took more than an hour to get her out. “We were all standing there watching it,” Grignon says. “Part of it was funny. But it was also one of those moments where you step back and realize how [expletive] it all is.”

And that ending to the piece? What a tear jerker. It put a huge smile on my face.

Seriously, you should read the whole thing.

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