The Untold History of iPhone

January 9, 2007. San Francisco California. Mere minutes before he put sneaker to stage for the biggest keynote in history, Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, called his team together and told them to remember this moment. This one, last moment… before the iPhone. Because everything was about to change.

Except… it almost didn’t. The original iPhone almost never happened. Like at all. Because Steve Jobs never intended for Apple to make the iPhone. He was just having dinner one day, with his wife, her friend, and her friend’s husband, who just happened to work at Microsoft, Apple’s biggest rival. And dude was going on and on about how Bill Gates and company were about to revolutionize the whole entire world with a breakthrough new product — the tablet PC, digital pen and paper. And Steve went from eye-rolling to full-on kill mode… so fast.

See, there are few motivators in this world better than competition… but spite is one of them. And there was no way in hell Steve Jobs was going to let Microsoft — janky, tasteless, Microsoft — redefine the future of ultra-personal computing. Not on his watch.

So, Apple began work on what would eventually become… the iPad. Yes, the iPad. But stick with me here! Because, Shamalan-style plot twist… at the same exact time, the smartphone revolution was beginning. Handspring and Palm. BlackBerry. Nokia. It was still early days and they were all equal parts tantalizing and terrible. And to Steve Jobs and his team, they all kinda sucked in terms of user experience. But here’s the thing — It was also clearly an existential threat, like meteors-to-dinosaurs or, you know, Facebook-to-civilization.

Not to a threat the Mac, not for a long time. But an extinction level event for Apple’s other big business — the iPod.

A thousand songs in your pocket was cool, and Apple was flat out dominating the MP3 market. But a thousand songs on your phone… that was going to be way, way cooler, and basically game over for the iPod. And Steve Jobs… well, Steve was never one to mistake the company’s products for its business. He’d seen what fear and protectionism was doing to Microsoft. And if anyone was going to kill the iPod, it was damn well going to be Apple.

So, they ran a proof-of-concept with Motorola called the ROCKR. It was a way to test not just iTunes on a phone, but to learn more about making phones. And at the same time, they pivoted the tablet project — that Microsoft-spiting tablet project — into a full-on Apple phone.

It was codenamed Purple Experience Project, PEP, or more commonly, just Purple. And the dream was for it to be based on this multitouch technology Apple had acquired from FingerWorks for the tablet project. But that was being prototyped as a massive, table-sized rig, nothing even close to what could fit in a pocket — to what Steve could actually sell.

So, he decided to split the team up. Tony Fadell, who’d been working on the iPod, would lead Purple 1, or P1, an iPod-based phone with a clickwheel interface. I kid you not! Something Apple could bring far more rapidly to market and buy time for Purple 2, or P2, led by Scott Forstall who’d been working on OS X, and would follow up with the multitouch Mac phone.

Secrecy for Purple was dialed up to 11. To 111. Steve insisted on disclosing each and every new addition to the team personally, something made hugely complicated by his growing health issues. So, managers had to get creative. Running to secured rooms to look at whiteboards, back to rooms filled with undisclosed new recruits, basically the worst MrBeast challenge ever, just doing their best to describe what needed to be implemented and how.

But then something super interesting began to happen: As much as there was an external rivalry between Apple and Microsoft, and, unbeknownst to them yet, Palm and BlackBerry. There was a growing internal rivalry between P1 and P2.

Fadell’s team really wanted to finish and ship fast, but Forstall’s team began beating them to key milestones like SMS, the texting system used on all mobile phones. The nail in P1’s coffin though, was the multitouch interface that P2 was developing, especially human interface designer Bas Ording’s inertial scrolling and rubber banding. Lists would slow down the way a spinner would in real life, and wouldn’t just stop cold or feel stuck, but bounce back at the ends. A type of digital faux physics that didn’t just make P2 feel better and more instinctive to use, but way more fun to use. When Steve saw that, when he realized that, it was second purple to the right, and straight on till keynote.

It was this… perfect combination of everything Apple had been learning about miniaturization from the iPod, the media content and syncing they’d built up over the last few years for iTunes, the foundations of NExT and OS X they’d spent so much time transitioning to, the growth of mobile carriers and especially mobile data, and AT&T, then Cingular’s, rabid desperation to catch up to Verizon… Verizon who’d been offered the Apple phone before, and just hard passed. The hardest of passes.

But that let Apple keep P2 secret even from the carriers, even from Cingular, and, more critically, free from their meddling and molestation, something that had frustrated and compromised the attempts of literally every other phone maker.

There were real problems though. The keyboard, for one. Palm, Nokia, and Blackberry had been using full-on hardware keyboards, which were terrifically tactile but to Apple, maddeningly immutable. A software keyboard that could change not just over time but from app to app and experience to experience was going to be critical to Steve’s marketing, but it was just a complete failure at the time.

So, Forstall stopped everything, called the team together, and had everyone go off and brainstorm a way to solve for the keyboard. Ken Kocienda won that derby a few weeks later with an implementation that would change the tap target size of the individual characters depending on what you were typing — larger for more likely combinations, way smaller for less likely. Also, auto-correct, which would try to fix anything that didn’t come out right… even if it often made things… just more wrong. Ducking hilarious. But it took so long to nail the keyboard there was no time left to work on advanced text functions like… oh… copy and paste.

Another tentpole was going to be the first real web browser on mobile. Don Melton had led the Alexander Project, the one that’d forked KDE’s KHMTL rendering engine and Konquerer browser from Linux into WebKit and Safari for OS X. It had the advantage of a codebase that was just ridiculously small. So small… it could fit onto a phone. Richard Williamson was in charge of bringing MobileSafari to P2, but this time it didn’t go badly… it went way to well. So well, Apple never even bothered to make a WAP browser. One of those stripped down, barely functional little wireless access protocol — aka baby web browsers — every other phone was using at the time. But, too late, Apple discovered they needed WAP to support MMS. The multimedia version of SMS. You know, the protocol that let you display things like pictures in text message threads. So… they’d have to ship without it.

There were bigger issues ahead of them as well, like whether to build the interface with AppKit, the traditional frameworks on the Mac, on WebKit, and go all-in on Web technologies, or to create something new. They’d eventually settle on something new. UIKit. But there wasn’t any time to even think about an SDK, or software development kit, at that point anyway. Henry Lamireux’s entire frameworks team was already running a marathon of sprints. Forstall was even hacking together basic controls for views and tables. But, they had planned to ship some of the built-in apps using web technologies, specifically the kind they’d debuted as Dashboard widgets on the Mac. Apps like Weather. But the performance was just terrible, so they had to switch them over to native code. And that pretty much settled that. At least at Apple. The dissenters would later take their hardware keyboards and web-based interfaces to Palm for webOS and the Pre. But that’s a whole separate secret origin spin-off!

Steve would sometimes change his mind, like deciding he hated the split screen email view Nitin Ganatra’s App team had been working on, so that got yoted. But he was also brokering deals with Google to add even more apps. Their then-CEO, Eric Schmidt was on Apple’s board and… kinda… sorta.. forgot to ever tell Steve they were working on Android at the same time. But that story of intrigue and double betrayal is for another video. Let me know if you want to see it! Either way, Apple would have access to Google’s services, like Maps and soon, YouTube as well. But Apple would have to design and build their own apps and interfaces for those services from scratch, which added to the already staggering load.

It wasn’t too bad when Forstall was around. He had this… singular talent, this ability to just know which… 3 out of a hundred of any particular design or implementation Steve would like enough to make a final call on. But whenever Forstall was doing something else and not around to effectively pre cognate for a designer or engineer, the iteration cycles on which specific shade of blue or what exact texture could be near-endless. Because Steve didn’t want to iPhone to feel antiseptic. He believed photorealism not only made tables and lists less… naked and more visually interesting, but more relatable and distinguishable to actual people. The human part of human interface.

Industrial Design had to face some grim realties as well. Jony Ive’s platonic ideal aluminum slab was being cut off at the knees by a plastic kilt just so Bob Mansfield’s hardware team could ensure there’d be enough radio-frequency transparency for the GSM voice and 2G EDGE data signals, and 802.11b.g Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 2.0 EDR, to pass through.

At least there was no Verizon to worry about yet, so no need to support their very different CDMA and EVDO networks. Not until the iPhone 4. But there also wasn’t even 3G UTMS/HSPA data, AT&T’s faster, better, longer, stronger network. But then, AT&T’s 2G network wasn’t in any shape to support what the iPhone would become, much less their still maturing 3G network. Something that would just be the subject of misery until long after the iPhone went on Verizon as well. Also no GPS, just Wi-Fi router mapping and cell tower triangulation. No removable, replaceable battery. No SD card support. Apple not only wanted to keep things simple, they needed every square millimeter of space to pack everything inside. And from the Mac on, Steve famously, infamously, veered away from computer kits and towards computing appliances — elegantly sealed boxes.

The industrial design team also had this longstanding dream to kill the headphone jack… kill it just to watch it die. Luckily for the vast majority of us, that was just nowhere nearly ready to become reality yet, especially not with the Bluetooth Apple had to work with at the time. So, they begrudgingly drilled into the bead-blasted aluminum shell so they could fit the super skinny hipster plug on Apple’s headphones, and then dropped the mother of all dongles for anything with even a little bit more chonk.

The main port was Apple’s 30-pin dock connector. That would tie P2 into the whole entire iPod ecosystem, giving it a huge advantage over every other phone on the market where it mattered most to Apple — mainstream customers. They did add a ringer switch, though. I mean, sure, the industrial design team hated buttons almost as much as headphone jacks, but no one, absolutely no one, wanted it to be their phone that interrupted Steve during a meeting. I kid. Kinda.

The basic principle was something like, if 80% of people won’t use it 80% of the time, it shouldn’t be built-in. But that’s also exactly why Apple added a physical Home button — so anyone not as technologically savvy, anyone who felt lost or confused at any time, could push it at any time, like an escape hatch, and return to the comfortably known state of the Home Screen and it’s springboard of app icons. That was going to be key to making P2 feel accessible to the far, far larger market.

Apple also had sensors that had to be perfectly calibrated to really sell the experience. Not just the multitouch, which was actually a 3-dimensional radiating field that some other companies would later dabble with for air gestures, but that Apple settled on, early on, as a way to model far more precise finger detection — and rejection. But also an accelerometer that had to automatically rotate the screen to match device orientation, and a proximity sensor that had to automatically turn off the display and multitouch when you held it close to your face.

That display, by the way, was 3.5-inches… the biggest display that could be fit into a phone at the time. Even if by today’s standards it’s… tiny… toy sized… it could ride a Pro Max like a tauntaun.

And it was all powered by an ARM-based 1176JZ(F)-S processor, PowerVR MBX Lite 3D graphics chip, and 128MB of RAM, manufactured by Samsung. Literally repurposed from a set-top box. Something that switched cable channels for a TV. But Apple was just beginning to look ahead, to assemble their Silicon Avengers. Tim Millet was on board, but Johny Srouji was still on his way. Because they knew even then, that it would become one of their biggest differentiators — from GPU accelerated, rock solid 60 frames-per-second animations to instant touch response for direct manipulation, and so much more to come.

Very, very late in the process, Steve managed to scratch up the then plastic screen of his prototype with his keys, and so he demanded something harder, and Apple’s hardware team and Corning had to race to get chemically hardened, ion-exchange glass ramped up and ready for production lines in mere weeks.

And, of course, because P2 was based on OS X, Apple’s native apps would have killer multitasking capabilities, and Steve really wanted to show those off. Start a song, make a call, switch to Mail, look up something from Safari, end a call, and have the music just fade back in. Something that, second only to pinch to zoom, would drop every jaw in the room.

But, for the demo, things were still McGyver’ed together with so many paperclips and so much chewing gum, that it would only work if Steve stuck to that exacting sequence of tasks. To that golden path. Any deviation — or any bad luck — and it would all come crashing down. Literally.

It was also going to priced at $499 for the 4GB and $599 for the 8GB model on-contract. Those prices weren't unheard of at the time — early Motorola RAZR flip phones were incredibly expensive back in the day as well — but it meant P2 would be limited to early adopters and those able and willing to pay a premium. A far cry from the mainstream audience iPod had reached.

Then there was the small, tiny even issue of Cisco owning the trademark for the name Steve Jobs and Apple had settled on — iPhone. Something that might have stalled or even altered the plans of any company not run by Steve Jobs, who decided he was just going to roll with it, hope for a Nat 20 and not a fumble, to force a deal later, and not get mired in litigation.

Because January 9, 2007 was set. Moscone West would be jam packet. The Macworld keynote had to be… beyond epic. It had to be iconic. And, of course, it was.

It shocked the world. Including and especially Apple’s new competitors, who Steve Jobs had opened up on with the keynote equivalent of a flame thrower. A mass driver. Saying their hardware keyboards were everything wrong, their resistive touch screens sucked, they styluses were just yuck, and their browsers could only show the baby web.

They were caught completely off-guard and flat footed, but they did manage to fire back.

Ed Coligan, the CEO of Palm said they’d “learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They're not going to just walk in.”

Mike Lazaridis, Co-CEO of BlackBerry, who literally believed the iPhone demo just had to have been faked, and that keyboards and proxy browsers were still key to the future of phones, said “Apple's design-centric approach [will] ultimately limit its appeal by sacrificing needed enterprise functionality. I think over-focus on one blinds you to the value of the other. [...] Apple's approach produced devices that inevitably sacrificed advanced features for aesthetics.”

Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft said “You can get a Motorola Q for $99. [...] [Apple] will have the most expensive phone, by far, in the marketplace. There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”

But Apple wasn’t looking at the puck where it was, or where it had just come from. They were Gretzky skating to where it was going to be. A world where dial-up-style mobile data was about to go broadband. Where enterprise and early adopters were going to get swarmed by mainstream consumers. Where bringing up a phone from a pager or PDA, or trying to make pocket versions of operating systems or browsers wasn’t going to be enough. They were going to have to be brought down from those PCs. All they needed was to… alter the bargain with AT&T to fix the up-front pricing, and it was light speed ahead.

Only Google, who had Android in Eric Schmidt’s back pocket, and Eric on Apple’s board, was able to see the same future, and pivot that Nokia communicator / BlackBerry style Sooner prototype into a more iPhone-competitive slider. And yes, that was the exact moment, when Google stopped worrying about Microsoft, Windows Mobile, and Pocket IE owning mobile, and turned their sights on Apple, that we entered the third age of Middle Earth. Or of connected computing. Both maybe.

The original iPhone would go on to sell over 6 million units in its first year on four carriers and in four countries. Now it sells hundreds of millions on almost every carrier in almost every country on earth.