iPhone design: Documents from the Samsung trial reveal more than ever about Apple’s secretive design process.

New Documents Reveal How Apple Really Invented the iPhone

The way things look.
Sept. 10 2012 3:35 AM

“It Smelled Something Like Pizza”

New documents reveal how Apple really invented the iPhone.

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Around the same time, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief designer, had been investigating a technology that he thought could do wonderful things someday—a touch display that could understand taps from multiple fingers at once. (Note that Apple did not invent multitouch interfaces; it was one of several companies investigating the technology at the time.) According to Isaacson’s biography, the company’s initial plan was to the use the new touch system to build a tablet computer. Apple’s tablet project began in 2003—seven years before the iPad went on sale—but as it progressed, it dawned on executives that multitouch might work on phones. At one meeting in 2004, Jobs and his team looked a prototype tablet that displayed a list of contacts. “You could tap on the contact and it would slide over and show you the information,” Forstall testified. “It was just amazing.”

Jobs himself was particularly taken by two features that Bas Ording, a talented user-interface designer, had built into the tablet prototype. One was “inertial scrolling”—when you flick at a list of items on the screen, the list moves as a function of how fast you swipe, and then it comes to rest slowly, as if being affected by real-world inertia. Another was the “rubber-band effect,” which causes a list to bounce against the edge of the screen when there were no more items to display. When Jobs saw the prototype, he thought, “My god, we can build a phone out of this,” he told the D Conference in 2010.

The company decided to abandon the click-wheel idea and try to build a multitouch phone. Jobs knew it was a risk—could Apple get typing to work on a touchscreen?—but the payoff could be huge: If the phone’s only interface was a touchscreen, it would be endlessly flexible—you could use it not just for talking and music but for anything else, including lots of third-party applications. In other words, a touchscreen phone wouldn’t be a phone but “really a computer in your pocket in some ways,” as Forstall said in court.


Apple is known for secrecy, but Jobs wanted the iPhone kept under tighter wraps than usual. The project was given a codename—“Project Purple”—and, as Forstall testified, Jobs didn’t let the iPhone team recruit anyone from outside the company to work on the device. Instead, Forstall had to make a strange pitch to superstar engineers in different parts of the company: “We're starting a new project,” he’d tell them. “It's so secret I can't even tell you what that project is. I can't tell you who you will work for.... What I can tell you is that if you accept this project … you will work nights, you will work weekends, probably for a number of years.”

The iPhone team took over an entire building at Apple’s Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. "Very much like a dorm, people were there all the time,” Forstall said in court. “It smelled something like pizza, and in fact on the front door of the Purple Dorm we put a sign up that said 'Fight Club'—because the first rule of that project was to not talk about it outside those doors." (Thanks to The Verge for transcribing Forstall’s testimony.)

The iPhone team broke down into two separate but closely integrated groups—the guys who were doing the hardware and the guys who were doing the software. (I can’t find any evidence that there were any women working on the phone.) The software team’s main job was figuring out a way to make a completely novel interface feel intuitive and natural. One way they did this was by creating finger “gestures” that allowed you to get around the phone very quickly. Some of these, like pinch-to-zoom, had been used in multitouch projects in the past (you can see some in Minority Report) but others were Apple’s fresh ideas. For instance, Forstall used a prototype iPhone as one of his main computers, and as he used it, he found that constantly pinching to zoom in on the screen became tedious. In a flash, he thought, why not have the phone figure out how to zoom with a just a double-tap on the screen? This was a difficult gesture to implement—the phone had to “understand the structure” of the document it was zooming in on, he explained—but once engineers got tap-to-zoom to work, Forstall found the phone to be much easier to use. “It allowed me to browse the Web much more fluently,” he said.

The hardware team, meanwhile, was trying to figure out what the phone would look like. In court, Christopher Stringer, one of the Apple’s veteran designers, explained that the company created the phone through a process of rigorous refinement. A group of about 15 designers would regularly assemble around a kitchen table set up in Apple’s design studio to review, in painfully fine detail, every idea for various parts of the iPhone’s design. Apple has an extensive array of systems to quickly create physical prototypes of digital designs, and the team would handle all of these prototypes and remark on how they felt. “We’re a pretty maniacal group of people,” Stringer explained, pointing out that they would sometimes review 50 different refinements of a single hardware button.

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