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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 Documents in the trial revealed some of the many iPhone designs that Apple considered. There were thin phones; fat ones; ones with rounded glass on the front and back; some with flat sides and a rounded top and bottom, and others with rounded sides and flat tops and bottoms; and even one with an octagonal shape. Apple also looked to other companies as inspiration. In 2006, design chief Jonathan Ive pulled aside one of his designers, Shin Nishibori, and asked, “If Sony were to make an iPhone, what would it be like? Would you make it for me?” according to Nishibori’s deposition. The result was a skinny phone that looks much like today’s iPhone, except it had volume buttons on the front, rather than the side, of the phone. (Samsung attempted to argue in court that this design proved Apple copied Sony, but the judge barred that argument, which was bogus anyway—the design didn’t look like any actual Sony phone, and was instead only Apple’s take on Sony’s design aesthetic.)

By the spring of 2006, about a year before the iPhone’s release, Ive and his team had settled on a design for the iPhone. Their winning prototype looked similar to Apple’s 2004-era iPod Mini—it was a metallic device with rounded sides, what designers referred to as “extruded” aluminum. You can see it in a 2006 photo unveiled in the trial—it’s the one left.

Two iPhone prototypes revealed during the Samsung trial.
Two iPhone prototypes revealed during the Samsung trial. On the left is a version that was scrapped just months before the phone's release.

The phone on the right is another prototype, one that looks a lot more like the iPhone that Steve Jobs unveiled in January of 2007. Indeed, the phone on the right seems almost identical to the iPhone 4, which Apple launched in 2010. What happened? Why did Apple go from building the phone on the left to a version of the one on the right?

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We can’t know for sure, but we have some clues. One reason Apple switched the design was that the rounded sides seemed superfluous. “I’m really worried that we’re making something that is going to look and be too wide,” Apple designer Richard Howarth argued in an email to Ive. Plus, Howarth argued, if Apple cut volume control buttons into the rounded sides, it would remove “the purity of the extrusion idea.”

There was a bigger problem with the extruded-metal phone: One morning Jobs came into the office and declared that he just didn’t love it. As Isaacson describes it, Jobs realized that the design squeezed the phone’s glass display into an aluminum frame—but because the display was the iPhone’s only interface, the design had to put the screen on center stage. Ive realized instantly that Jobs was right. “I remember feeling absolutely embarrassed that he had to make the observation,” he told Isaacson.

So, around the spring of 2006, a few months before the iPhone’s public debut, the team decided to start all over with something new. Looking through their old designs, they found a prototype they’d sketched a year earlier. This phone was a plain rectangle with rounded corners, a single button on its face, and a glass panel that covered the entire face of the phone. This was the iconic design that would become the iPhone.

Changing the design meant that Apple had to alter all of the phone’s internal components in just a few months’ time. The team would have to work nights and weekends in complete secrecy, and most of them would never, ever be able to take credit for what they helped accomplish. Of course, none of this is a surprise about Apple. In some ways, the trial only added fresh details to a story about maniacal precision and obsession that has long been clear. On the other hand, the story is a powerful reminder of something you tend to forget when you goof off on your iPhone: Nothing about it was obvious. Stuff that seems really small and intuitive about its design—things like inertial scrolling, the rubber-band effect, the simple idea of making the device a rectangle with rounded corners—only came about because Apple’s designers spent years thinking those things up and making them real. As designer Christopher Stringer said during the trial, “Our role is to imagine products that don’t exist and guide them to life.”

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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