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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The original iPhone.
The original iPhone

Photograph by Tony Avelar/AFP.

Like many of Apple’s inventions, the iPhone began not with a vision, but with a problem. By 2005, the iPod had eclipsed the Mac as Apple’s largest source of revenue, but the music player that rescued Apple from the brink now faced a looming threat: The cellphone. Everyone carried a phone, and if phone companies figured out a way to make playing music easy and fun, “that could render the iPod unnecessary,” Steve Jobs once warned Apple’s board, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography.

Fortunately for Apple, most phones on the market sucked. Jobs and other Apple executives would grouse about their phones all the time. The simplest phones didn’t do much other than make calls, and the more functions you added to phones, the more complicated they were to use. In particular, phones “weren't any good as entertainment devices,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s longtime marketing chief, testified during the company’s patent trial with Samsung. Getting music and video on 2005-era phones was too difficult, and if you managed that, getting the device to actually play your stuff was a joyless trudge through numerous screens and menus.

That was because most phones were hobbled by a basic problem—they didn’t have a good method for input. Hard keys (like the ones on the BlackBerry) worked for typing, but they were terrible for navigation. In theory, phones with touchscreens could do a lot more, but in reality they were also a pain to use. Touchscreens of the era couldn’t detect finger presses—they needed a stylus, and the only way to use a stylus was with two hands (one to hold the phone and one to hold the stylus). Nobody wanted a music player that required two-handed operation.

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This is the story of how Apple reinvented the phone. The general outlines of this tale have been told before, most thoroughly in Isaacson’s biography. But the Samsung case—which ended last month with a resounding victory for Apple—revealed a trove of details about the invention, the sort of details that Apple is ordinarily loath to make public. We got pictures of dozens of prototypes of the iPhone and iPad. We got internal email that explained how executives and designers solved key problems in the iPhone’s design. We got testimony from Apple’s top brass explaining why the iPhone was a gamble.

Put it all together and you get remarkable story about a device that, under the normal rules of business, should not have been invented. Given the popularity of the iPod and its centrality to Apple’s bottom line, Apple should have been the last company on the planet to try to build something whose explicit purpose was to kill music players. Yet Apple’s inner circle knew that one day, a phone maker would solve the interface problem, creating a universal device that could make calls, play music and videos, and do everything else, too—a device that would eat the iPod’s lunch. Apple’s only chance at staving off that future was to invent the iPod killer itself. More than this simple business calculation, though, Apple’s brass saw the phone as an opportunity for real innovation. “We wanted to build a phone for ourselves,” Scott Forstall, who heads the team that built the phone’s operating system, said at the trial. “We wanted to build a phone that we loved.”

The problem was how to do it. When Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he showed off a picture of an iPod with a rotary-phone dialer instead of a click wheel. That was a joke, but it wasn’t far from Apple’s initial thoughts about phones. The click wheel—the brilliant interface that powered the iPod (which was invented for Apple by a firm called Synaptics)—was a simple, widely understood way to navigate through menus in order to play music. So why not use it to make calls, too?

In 2005, Tony Fadell, the engineer who’s credited with inventing the first iPod, got hold of a high-end desk phone made by Samsung and Bang & Olufsen that you navigated using a set of numerical keys placed around a rotating wheel. A Samsung cell phone, the X810, used a similar rotating wheel for input. Fadell didn’t seem to like the idea. “Weird way to hold the cellphone,” he wrote in an email to others at Apple. But Jobs thought it could work. “This may be our answer—we could put the number pad around our clickwheel,” he wrote. (Samsung pointed to this thread as evidence for its claim that Apple’s designs were inspired by other companies, including Samsung itself.)

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