Apple's iPhone: The untold story
- 13 September, 2012 13:34
Apple is one of the most secretive companies on the planet, so the Apple-Samsung trial was fascinating in that it lifted the veil of secrecy that typically shrouds Apple's operations. From marketing budgets to photos of never-before-seen iPhone prototypes, the evidence introduced at trial gave the world an unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of Apple.
One of the more interesting stories to emerge from the trial centers on the development of the original iPhone. Piecing together statements made by Apple executives at trial and during depositions conducted in anticipation of trial, along with public statements made by Steve Jobs and other Apple employees in the past, we now have a clearer idea of how the iPhone came to be.
It all began as a tablet
The iPhone actually began as a tablet project. Indeed, Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller testified that the success of the iPod and the disruptive effect it had on the music industry prompted Apple to think about what other industries it could tackle.
The iPod, Schiller explained, "really changed everybody's view of Apple both inside and outside the company." Schiller said that as ideas were tossed about regarding Apple's next leap, everything was fair game, with some at the company going so far as to suggest Apple look into developing a stand-alone camera, or even a car.
But once some of the more grandiose ideas began to dissipate, the Apple brain trust began focusing their attention on creating a tablet.
Scott Forstall, who currently serves as Apple's senior vice president of iOS Software, explained the early beginnings of Apple's interest in tablet computing: "In 2003, we had built all these great Macs and laptops and we started asking ourselves what comes next. One thought we settled on was a tablet. We settled pretty quickly if we could investigate doing that with a touchscreen, so we started investigating and building prototypes."
During his 2010 appearance at the All Things D conference, Steve Jobs explained to Walt Mossberg how Apple's interest in creating a tablet soon gave way to the iPhone.
"I had this idea about having a glass display [tablet], a multi-touch display you could type on. I asked our people about it. And six months later they came back with this amazing display. And I gave it to one of our really brilliant UI guys. He then got inertial scrolling working and some other things, and I thought, 'my god, we can build a phone with this' and we put the tablet aside, and we went to work on the phone."
Indeed, inertial scrolling, otherwise known as "rubber band scrolling" was a patent Steve Jobs particularly cared about and, not surprisingly, was asserted against Samsung in the recent trial.
Recalling that aha! moment, Forstall explained: "I'll never forget we took that tablet and built a small scrolling list. On the tablet, we were doing pinch and zoom. So we built a small list to scroll on contacts and then you could tap on it to call. We realized that a touchscreen that was the size that would fit in your pocket would be perfect for the phone."
And so, in late 2004, the idea to create a uniquely Apple smartphone was born.
As work on the tablet project stopped, Apple began dedicating resources towards creating a phone, a daunting task for a company with no previous significant experience in the cellphone industry, save for the flop that was the Motorola ROKR.
But as Schiller explained at trial, Apple saw a lackluster market it could really deliver some innovation to. "At the time, cellphones weren't any good as entertainment devices," Schiller said.
And with the iTunes Store already a runaway success at that point, Apple knew a thing or two about delivering media content to portable devices.
Project Purple: Creating iOS
A 15-year Apple veteran, Forstall's history with Steve Jobs goes all the way back to 1992 when Forstall, then a recent Stanford graduate, began working at NeXT - the company Jobs founded after his unceremonious exit from Apple in the mid-1980s.
Forstall soon became one of Jobs' most trusted lieutenants, having played integral roles in the development of various iterations of OS X. It's therefore not surprising that Forstall was the one tapped by Jobs to create the software that would power Apple's revolutionary device.
Jobs gave Forstall free rein to handle development of what would later be known as iOS, albeit with one constraint - Jobs told Forstall was that he was not allowed to hire anybody from outside the company. Instead, Forstall was free to choose anyone he wanted from within Apple to join the nascent iPhone team.
With that directive in tow, Forstall scoured the ranks at Apple and honed in on the company's best and brightest engineers as potential additions to the team.
But due to the secretive nature of the project, Forstall wasn't even able to tell potential iPhone team members what Apple was working on or even who they might be working under. Instead, potential team members were given a rather cryptic offer.
Forstall told them that Apple was working on something great and that if they chose to join the team they'd have to "work hard, give up nights, work weekends for years."
Before long, Forstall had assembled a core team to work on the iPhone's software and it was time to get to business.
On a heavily secured floor in a building on Apple's campus, the original iPhone team got to work. As one would expect, security on the floor was extremely stringent, equipped with security card readers and even video monitors to monitor activity. Forstall recalled, "The team took one of Apple's Cupertino buildings and locked it down. It started with a single floor with badge readers and cameras. In some cases, even workers on the team would have to show their badges five or six times."
Within Apple, the secretive iPhone project was referred to as Project Purple and the building where the work was taking place was called the "purple dorm."
At trial, Forstall explained that the long hours spent there made the "purple dorm" feel like a college dorm of sorts. "People were there all the time. It smelled like pizza," Forstall noted.
And highlighting the secretive nature of their work, the team put up a poster of "Fight Club", because you know, the first rule of Project Purple is that you don't talk about Project Purple.
Movie references aside, there was no mistaking the determination and vision that drove development of the iPhone. More than just a phone, Forstall explained that the ultimate goal was to create a phone that Apple employees themselves would use. "We wanted something that was a great phone," Forstall said.
Make no mistake about it, what Apple was trying to do with the iPhone was monumental. Putting things into perspective, remember that Apple began working on software features in 2005 that were hailed as revolutionary when they were finally unveiled in 2007. And further highlighting the challenges of the task at hand, Forstall admitted on the stand that he wasn't entirely confident his team could pull off what they were trying to do.
The touchscreen changes everything
Moving onto the actual development of the software, Forstall explained that a lot of the original innovation done on the iPhone centered on the device's capacitive touchscreen and developing software to work in conjunction with that.
While large capacitive touchscreens are now commonplace, the smartphone landscape in 2007 was markedly different. At the time, RIM's BlackBerry devices were extremely popular and any smartphone worth its salt came with a tactile keyboard.
Apple, however, forged its own path and completely did away with a tactile keyboard. Instead, the hallmark feature of the iPhone, the pièce de résistance if you will, was its 3.5 inch multi-touch screen.
At a time when most smartphone browsers provided users with a dumbed down browsing experience, Forstall and his team wanted to enable users to access the entire Internet as it was meant to be viewed, sans Flash support of course. To that end, Apple viewed a phone with a large multi-touch screen and no tactile keyboard as a selling point, not a detriment.
Because the cornerstone of the iPhone design was a large multi-touch display, Apple's engineering team had to create an entirely new framework for how consumers interacted with their phones.
"When creating the iPhone, there were so many completely unsolved problems that we had to tackle," Forstall explained. "Every single part of the design had to be rethought for touch."
As one example, Forstall said that Apple had to engineer scrolling on the iPhone to work not only when a user's finger moved vertically up and down, but also when a user's thumb would move in an arc-like trajectory.
"And so we had to figure out a way", Forstall said, "with this new form of input, with this touch and multi-touch input, to scroll something in the way the user would want it, even though there is imprecise input here."
Forstall explained that the amount of work that went into building the original iOS interface was "immense," adding that he "devoted years of my life to this," and that it was "very, very difficult."
While the way we interact with smartphones today seems highly intuitive, the user experience that we may now take for granted was the result of a lot of hard work, creative engineering, and thoughtful consideration as to how people would ideally interact with their device.
As a quick example, most iPhone users are likely familiar with the "tap to zoom" feature when browsing the web. Note, it might also sound familiar because it was one of the patents Apple asserted against Samsung in its recent trial.
Well as it turns out, the idea for "tap to zoom" came from Forstall and was borne out of the heavy testing he was doing on early iPhone prototypes.
When browsing the web, Forstall noticed that he was constantly "pinching to zoom" so that he could read text on the screen. And so it dawned upon him that it'd be much more efficient "for the iOS to take of this automatically with a single double tap."
"The team went back and worked really hard to figure out how to do that," Forstall said
And so slowly, many of the basic features that we now associate with the modern day smartphone were put together. A large buttonless screen capable of displaying the full web, a multi-touch display with gesture support and more.
Design team considered curved glass on front and back of new phones
Just as important to the iPhone's software was the design of the device itself. Apple has long prided itself on innovative industrial design and the work that went into creating the original iPhone design really reflects that.
When long time Apple designer Christopher Stringer took the stand in August, we learned quite a bit more about Apple's secretive industrial design group.
When Apple began working on the original iPhone design, Stringer said that the goal was to build a "new, original, and beautiful object" that was "so wonderful that you couldn't imagine how you'd follow it".
Stringer explained that Apple's industrial design group is comprised of 16 'maniacal' individuals who share one singular purpose - to "imagine products that don't exist and guide them to life."
The industrial design group at Apple works closely together and often gather around what Stringer referred to as a "kitchen table" where team members exchange sketches and ideas for current and future products on a weekly basis.
Naturally, an exceptional design aesthetic is the ultimate goal, and as a result, feedback from group members on proffered designs can be "brutally honest."
In a fascinating revelation that highlights Apple's obsession with even the tiniest of details, Stringer explained how Apple designers will often create mockups of a single design element - such as a button on the iPhone - and sometimes create upwards of 50 mockups of that single design element.
Once a sketch is given a green-light of sorts, Stringer explained that "the next step is CAD modeling, followed by physical mock-ups."
And speaking of one of the more interesting things to emerge at trial were photos of iPhone prototypes that never made it to market. The sheer number of designs Apple experimented with - though not all were aesthetically striking - really underscores Apple's passion for design and its unending efforts to explore every avenue to create a truly magnificent device.
Notably, the initial iPhone design Apple's designers were keen on involved a device with two pieces of curved glass, one on the front and one on the back. Apple's design team, however, was forced to abandon this idea because the technology involved in cutting the glass was cost prohibitive at the time.
And throughout the design process, Apple's industrial design team worked closely with technical liaisons who provide detailed feedback regarding issues such as drop-test results for various designs.
While this isn't terribly surprising, it does speak to the close collaborative process that goes into the design of Apple's hardware.
Jobs had doubts
Looking back, the iPhone was without a doubt one of the most disruptive and influential products to ever hit the tech market. Apple's take on the smartphone provided the blueprint for what the modern day smartphone looked like.
Getting there wasn't easy, however. Not only did Forstall have his doubts about his team's ability to achieve what they were aiming for, but Jobs did as well, according to testimony from Stringer. From production problems to software glitches and cellular issues, the iPhone was fraught with problems until Apple was able to get it just right.
In January 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone and the smartphone market has never been the same since.
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