Day 6

The iPhone's secret history: How Steve Jobs went from rejecting to embracing the future

It's been a decade since Apple launched the iPhone, a device that transformed the way we interact with technology. But the history of its development has always been veiled in secrecy. Brian Merchant, author of "The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone," tells the story.
Former Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs shows off the first generation iPhone on Jan. 9, 2007. (Kimberly White/Reuters)

by Brent Bambury

In the hours before Apple released its first iteration of the iPhone on June 29, 2007, fans were already lining up to buy one.

They'd not yet held an iPhone, but they'd seen the commercials. They loved the blank slate of the touch screen and the uncluttered interface.

Many of them already owned an iPod and that had changed the way they consumed music. 

They sensed the iPhone was transformative.

They liked the style and ergonomics of Apple's stuff, and they'd listened to Steve Jobs who, six months earlier, boasted to the world, "we're going to reinvent the phone."

Apple employees greet the first customers in line at the Apple Store for the launch and sale of the new iPhone 6 on Friday, Sept 19, 2014, in Palo Alto, Calif. (Tony Avelar/The Associated Press)

Today, a billion iPhones have made their way into the world and those devices transformed people's relationship with data, communications, music and navigation.

The iPhone changed Apple too.

In 2007, the company was sitting on $6.39 billion in cash. By 2016, that number was $237.59 billion.

The iPhone is arguably the most popular product of all time, and one of the most successful. But Apple engineers had to work hard to make it successful, and they had to convince a lot of sceptics that it was a good move.

One of the most sceptical was Steve Jobs.


Steve Jobs didn't want to make a phone

"The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone" by Brian Merchant was released June 2017. (Hachette Book Group)

Jobs never wanted his company to be a phone maker. "Jobs was really, really against the idea of trying to bring Apple into this market," Brian Merchant told me on Day 6.

Merchant is an editor at Motherboard and the author of the new book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone. He says Jobs was scornful of the regulatory obligations attached to making mobile phones.

"It's notoriously difficult to work with companies like Verizon," Merchant says. "At the time, they had an immense amount of control over the handsets that manufacturers could make. They would deliver these giant manuals that said, 'you have to have this, you have to have that…'"

"And it was totally anathema to the style that Jobs had adopted designing products at Apple, where every single thing had to fit his window and cater to his ideas."

Jobs said 'Meh!" And just kind of, you know, wrote it off.- Brian Merchant

Courting Steve Jobs

Introducing Steve Jobs to new ideas, and getting him to buy into initiatives that weren't his own, required careful management and timing.

He was exacting and mercurial and prone to being dismissive.

But a group of Apple engineers working independently were prototyping a technology they thought may be useful enough to eventually present to Jobs.

It was a form of direct manipulation: touchscreens.

"They had hacked together this rig to make this sort of prototype of touchscreen technology work," Merchant says.  "It was really the size of a table. They were just really kind of trying to experiment with this whole brand new paradigm."

"And the fear was that if Jobs stumbled into it too early before it looked like something Apple could physically do, he would say, 'What the heck are you guys doing?' and shut the whole thing down."

"They knew there was a right way to approach Jobs with this stuff and there was a wrong way, and you had to, sort of very strategically roll it out and give it to the right person to give it to him on the right day when he was in the right mood."

An Apple iPhone 7 and the company logo are seen in this illustration picture. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

They found their intermediary in Apple's design chief, Jonathan Ive.

Ive loved the touchscreen technology.

"He thought it was the future," says Merchant.

"And he said, 'Let me bring it to Jobs when he is in a good mood, when, you know, the time is right.'"

Ive was one of Jobs' closest collaborators and the two were intimate friends. But when he unveiled the project, Jobs wasn't impressed.

"Jobs said 'Meh!" And just kind of, you know, wrote it off," Merchant says.

Ive was surprised and disappointed. But Jobs kept thinking about what he'd seen until he wheeled back, embraced the technology and put his mark on the project.

"Sure enough, Jobs came around," says Merchant "He thought about it some more. He asked to see the demo again and he said, 'OK, this is pretty cool.' And then fast forward a couple weeks, couple months and he loves it. And now he is like, 'Oh, you know what? Multi-touch? Yeah, I invented that.'"

The touch screen team didn't know it yet, but they'd begun the work that would be a key component to the device that changed the course of smartphones.   


Protecting the iPod

By 2004, some of the regulatory issues around mobile phones that had earlier vexed Jobs were easing. The other huge incentive for Apple to produce a phone was the threat that other companies might offer a mobile phone that played music, cutting into the sales of the iPod.

"Once you could put music on a cell phone, even if the cell phone was lame, consumers would start thinking, 'Well do I really want to have two things in my pocket?'"

"The iPod was, at the time, Apple's biggest marquee product. It was their cash cow," says Merchant.

That brought urgency to the project.

An Apple employee grabs an iPhone 6 for a customer at the Apple Store during the launch and sale of the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus smartphones, in Palo Alto, Calif. (Tony Avelar/The Associated Press)

Engineers were recruited from other parts of the company to find ways to shrink and fine-tune the touchscreen technology, meld it with an operating system and gild it onto a sleek device.

It was an expensive, paranoid and secretive project, and no one who was approached to work on it was completely sure what they were being asked to do.

"They knew almost nothing," says Merchant.  "Their boss was knocking on their door and saying, 'Excuse me, do you have a second? I have an exciting opportunity for you.'"

"'This project is going to demand all of your time. You're going to have to work around the clock, you're going to work harder than you've ever worked before. And I cannot tell you what it is and you have to tell me whether or not you're on board today.'"

A brilliant, anonymous team

It took two-and-a-half years and an enormous toll on the team.

"[Those years] were brutal," says Merchant.

"They were really stressful times and people were working around the clock, sometimes sleeping in this so-called purple dorm. Dirty laundry was piling up, trash was piling up. It stunk." 

"Tensions were running high. People were missing holidays, missing their children's birthdays. And it got so intense that I've had some of these engineers tell me that the iPhone is the reason that I'm divorced."

"So it really created this sort of vortex; 'a soup of misery' is how one of the engineers described it, just non-stop craziness."

Jobs was the face of Apple Inc. especially during product launches. In this 2008 photo, he's unveiling the iPhone 3G. (Kimberly White/Reuters)

In the end, hundreds of designers and engineers navigated the emotional stress and corporate pressure to help produce the device that revolutionized the smartphone.

Fans loved it. Not all the reviews were raves, and the full potential of the iPhone, the billions of possibilities unleashed when Apple launched the App Store, was yet to be seen. But the iPhone was an instant success.

When Apple was awarded a patent for the original device, there were only 14 people listed as designers. How did the others feel about their anonymity given the demands of the project?

"I think they were OK with it at the time," says Merchant.

"Now, 10 years later, I think a lot of people are coming around to the idea that maybe it would be nice if this achievement could be recognized as sort of the fuller, more complex undertaking that it was, if only because that's just the truth about how innovation and invention happens. It takes teams, it takes cooperation, it takes a lot of people, more people than we can even perhaps comprehend."

But Merchant says most were aware of what they were getting into. They understood Steve Jobs.

"You knew, by signing on to work there, that that was a possibility, that you would just, sort of, be working under Jobs' shadow, and [that] he wasn't going to divulge any of the details or the names or the teams that really made this possible."

"It was just his nature."