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How iPhone Got Invented

Written By: 

Mohit Parikh

The year was 2005. iPods were the coolest entertainment devices around. Their sales numbers were hitting the roof, setting new revenue records. Apple was unanimously winning laurels and awards for its technological excellence and innovation. The sailing was more than smooth for the company and the future looked shiny. And yet, one man - the man who mattered most for Apple - wasn’t all that happy.

Steve Jobs, the visionary founder of Apple, had sensed an inevitable immediate threat. Cellphones. The mobile technology was evolving rapidly, there was a vast unexplored market and a number of consumer electronic giants were researching in that space. Jobs knew it was only time before someone developed a software and made the phones double as entertainment devices. And if phones could have music - and not only music but games, internet access and camera - of what use would ipods be?

Thus, embarked him, with a set of Apple’s best engineers, designers, analysts and thinkers to come up with a product that could change the very idea of phone, even if it would mean potentially killing their own baby, the universally loved ipods.


Jobs was so impressed by these two elements he exclaimed, ‘My god, we can build a phone out of this.’


The First Design Of iPhone

Apple, as such, had released its first smartphone ROKR E1 in Septemeber 2007 in collaboration with Motorola.  Jobs was unhappy with Motorola and had decided to venture alone in this new territory. The company began to examine and analyze the high-end cellphones of that time, to understand what others were up to. The high-end cellphones were mostly Hard Keys, like those of RIM’s Blackberry, with a QWERTY keyboard and a touch screen that required stylus. Navigation from their one feature to another, say for example, from Music to Documents section, was much like moving in and out of folders in Windows disk drives – which was cumbersome on phones. And Jobs hates stylus. The other advanced desk phones, which did not use stylus, were those of Samsung and Bang & Olufsen. These mobiles allowed roaming through a rotating wheel keypad with numbers 0 to 9 on it. X810, another Samsung cell phone that was creating some buzz, had a similar rotating wheel for user input.

While engineers at Apple weren’t impressed by all these designs, they were beginning to make their mind that an iPhone would be like an iPod with a rotating number panel for navigation. This idea was far from the iphone the world eventually got to see. So how come the design evolved?

Apple’s Newton Message Pad (1994) which looks similar to iPhone 2007.

Evolution of Touch

It turns out Apple was simultaneously working on the touch technology. The company was envisioning a touch based tablet device that could replace laptops. An initiative was taken in 2003 and subsequently rapid progresses were made on the multi-touch ability and finger sensitivity in Apple’s R&D department. One day, Steve Jobs was called to oversee a prototype tablet that had two newly developed touch features by a genius user-interface engineer Bas Ording. The first of these two features was called inertial scrolling. It allowed the user to swipe at a list on the screen, and in response the list would move based on how fast the swipe was, finally resting with a deceleration as if it had a real inertia. The second feature was called the rubber-band effect. It caused a list to rebound against the screen’s wall when there are no more pages or icons to display.Jobs was so impressed by these two elements he exclaimed, ‘My god, we can build a phone out of this.’

Apple didn't invent the touch screen but Apple made it cool. It acquired a start-up called Fingerworks in 2005 to use their touch screen know-how along with their own. They were truly focused on creating a completely new way to interact with the mobile device. They wanted that when a buyer flips through songs or clicks on hyperlinks or zooms in and out of photographs with their fingers an illusion of real-world manipulation of data with fingers must be created. This they did. This was their biggest accomplishment in designing the next generation phone.

How Apple made Blackberry phones look primitive


It was hailed as Time’s Invention of the Year 2007, it sold millions of pieces in the very first year in USA alone and it made all other designs look primitive.


Green Flag to “Project Purple”

To create a prototype model that had a cool touch technology was one thing. But to invest millions of dollars, thousands of work hours of the greatest engineers on earth in order to manufacture a consumer electronics product that might or might not work – sell – in the marketplace was quite another thing. Was the world ready for such a device? Would the consumers pay for this hi-tech high-end phone? Will they find it useful and fun, and cool? What if the competitors stole and recreated their technology?

Among all these uncertainties, the one reason that might have convinced Jobs to go ahead was the opportunity to work with third-party applications. Apple had launched iTunes some years ago which allowed third party apps to create content for ipod users and if the same model could be made successful with iPhones, the manner in which the phone could be used would be endless. Think maps, documents, images, pretty much everything we do now with phones – it took some foresightedness to believe people would use phones like that. The phones were bound to be the new computers. And not just computers, but platforms on which so much more could be build. Apple, like some other companies, could see that. "The iphone project got green flagged and a select few members started working on it. It was a top secret project and most people in the company did not have a clue about it. The core group codenamed this project “Project Purple” and only the best and loyal Apple employees were handpicked to work in it, after their consent to working for long hours, nights and weekends for many years."

The iphone project got green flagged and a select few members started working on it.The iPhone team took over an entire building at Apple’s Cupertino, California headquarters. In famous the trial of Apple vs Samsung, it came out that the headquarters were like dormitory - people slept there; the place smelled like pizza; and on the front door there was a sign up called 'Fight Club' because the first rule of Project Purple was to not talk about it with outsiders.

 

The work began. iPhone team was compartmentalized into two simple units - hardware and software unit. The task of the software team was to find out how to create a brand new interface that felt intuitive and natural. While the hardware team’s goal was to design the phone – how it should look. The engineers in the two units interacted closely with each other and soon came up with their near-final designs.

On left, iPhone screen with Aluminium casing and, on right, iphone screen without casing 

Making the iphone we know

Jonathan Ive was the Senior Vice President of Apple’s Design team and one of the in-charges of Project Purple. Steve Jobs has quoted him as his “spiritual partner”. In 2006 spring, Ive embarked on a design for the iPhone that was similar to Apple’s iPod Mini. It was very close to how iphone eventually looked - but not quite so. When he shared the final layout with Jobs, Jobs did not like it. His reservation was on a very astute point. If the display was the iPhone’s only interface, shouldn’t the design to showcase the screen on the forefront, not inside an aluminum casing as it was then?

Ive at once understood the folly of his proposal and some months later in 2006, the design team started working from scratch, trying to find out something new. Apple had already decided it would release the iphone in 2007 so the pressure on the team was tremendous. To create the “new” they looked into the old. There was a sketch drawn a year earlier that had a plain rectangle with rounded corners, just a single button on its face – at the bottom center, and there was a glass panel without frames or casing. It is said that that design was inspired by Apple’s first touch phones called ‘Newton pads’ that were manufactured back in 1983. Ive and his team made improvements in the sketch and it became the design the world would know iPhones for.

On January 9, 2007, at the Macworld convention, the first announcement for the iPhone was made and on June 29, 2007 the first device was released amidst large media attention and hype. If there were any remaining doubts about the phone’s success, they were eradicated as soon as it was made available for sale. The phone was a huge hit.It was hailed as Time’s Invention of the Year 2007, it sold millions of pieces in the very first year in USA alone and it made all other designs look primitive.

The success story of iphone is the result of the incredible vision and understanding behind its invention, and the amount of work and pace with which that vision was realized. Had Apple not have the foresight to sail into the new waters of mobile phones, had it not decided to reinvent the very idea of phone, had it basked in the glory of ipod’s success, it would never have been the global leader it is today. 

Steve Jobs on a Samsung design