Go Behind the Scenes of Apple’s First iPhone Release

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With an Apple event strongly rumored to be the iPhone 6 release just around the corner on Sept. 9, go behind the scenes with TIME at the January 9, 2007 announcement of Apple’s first iPhone.

The iPhone developed the way a lot of cool things do: with a notion. A few years ago Jobs noticed how many development dollars were being spent—particularly in the greater Seattle metropolitan area—on what are called tablet PCs: flat, portable computers that work with a touchscreen instead of a mouse and keyboard. Jobs, being Jobs, figured he could do better, so he had Apple engineers noodle around with a better touchscreen. When they showed him the screen they came up with, he got excited. So excited that he thought he had the beginnings of a new product.

Jobs had just led Apple on a triumphant rampage through a new market sector, portable music players, and he was looking around for more technology to conquer. He found the ideal target tech sitting on his hip. Consumers bought nearly a billion of cell phones last year, which is 10 times the number of iPods in circulation. Break off just 1% of that and you can buy yourself a lot of black turtlenecks. Apple’s new iPhone could do to the cell phone market what the iPod did to the portable music player market: crush it pitilessly beneath the weight of its own superiority. This is unfortunate for anybody else who makes cell phones, but it’s good news for those of us who use them.

Cell phones do all kinds of stuff—calling, text messaging, Web browsing, contact management, music playback, photos and video—but they do it very badly, by forcing you to press lots of tiny buttons, navigate diverse heterogeneous interfaces and squint at a tiny screen. “Everybody hates their phone,” Jobs says, “and that’s not a good thing. And there’s an opportunity there.” To Jobs’s perfectionist eyes, phones are broken. Jobs likes things that are broken. It means he can make something that isn’t and sell it to you for a premium price.

That was why, two and a half years ago, Jobs sicced his wrecking crew of designers and engineers on the cell phone as we know and hate it. They began by melting the face off a video iPod. No clickwheel, no keypad. They sheared off the entire front and replaced it with a huge, bright, vivid screen—that touchscreen Jobs got so excited about a few paragraphs ago. When you need to dial, it shows you a keypad; when you need other buttons, the screen serves them up. When you want to watch a video, the buttons disappear. Suddenly, the interface isn’t fixed and rigid, it’s fluid and molten. Software replaces hardware.

Into that iPod they stuffed a working version of Apple’s operating system, OS X, so the phone could handle real, non-toy applications like Web browsers and e-mail clients. They put in a cell antenna, plus two more antennas for WiFi and Bluetooth; plus a bunch of sensors, so the phone knows how bright its screen should be, and whether it should display vertically or horizontally, and when it should turn off the touchscreen so you don’t accidentally operate it with your ear.

Then Jonathan Ive, Apple’s head of design, the man who shaped the iMac and the iPod, squashed the case to less than half an inch thick, and widened it to what looks like a bar of expensive chocolate wrapped in aluminum and stainless steel. The iPhone is a typical piece of Ive design: an austere, abstract, platonic-looking form that somehow also manages to feel warm and organic and ergonomic. Unlike my phone. He picks it up and points out four little nubbins on the back. “Your phone’s got feet on,” he says, not unkindly. “Why would anybody put feet on a phone?” Ive has the answer, of course: “It raises the speaker on the back off the table. But the right solution is to put the speaker in the right place in the first place. That’s why our speaker isn’t on the bottom, so you can have it on the table, and you don’t need feet.” Sure enough, no feet toe the iPhone’s smooth lines.

All right, so it’s pretty. Now pick it up and make a call. A big friendly icon appears on that huge screen. Say a second call comes in while you’re talking. Another icon appears. Tap that second icon and you switch to the second call. Tap the big “merge calls” icon and you’ve got a three-way conference call. Pleasantly simple.

Another example: voicemail. Until now you’ve had to grope through your v-mail by ear, blindly, like an eyeless cave-creature. On the iPhone you see all your messages laid out visually, onscreen, labeled by caller. If you want to hear one, you touch it. Done. Now try a text message: Instead of jumbling them all together in your in-box, iPhone arranges your texts by recipient, as threaded conversations made of little jewel-like bubbles. And instead of “typing” on a four-by-four number keypad, you get a full, usable QWERTY keyboard. You will never again have to hit the 7 key four times to type a letter S.

Now forget about phone calls. Look at the video, which is impressively crisp and plays on a screen larger than the video iPod’s. This is the first time the hype about “rich media” on a phone has actually looked plausible. Look at the e-mail client, which handles attachments, in-line images, HTML e-mails as adroitly as a desktop client. Look at the Web browser, a modified version of Safari that displays actual Web pages, not a teensy crunched-down version of the Web. There’s a Google map application that’s almost worth the price of admission on its own.

Weaknesses? Absolutely. You can’t download songs directly onto it from the iTunes store, you have to export them from a computer. And even though it’s got WiFi and Bluetooth on it, you can’t sync iPhone with a computer wirelessly. And there should be games on it. And you’re required to use it as a phone—you can’t use it without signing up for cellular service. Boo.

The iPhone breaks two basic axioms of consumer technology. One, when you take an application and put it on a phone, that application must be reduced to a crippled and annoying version of itself. Two, when you take two devices—such as an iPod and a phone—and squish them into one, both devices must necessarily become lamer versions of themselves. The iPhone is a phone, an iPod, and a mini-Internet computer all at once, and contrary to Newton—who knew a thing or two about apples—they all occupy the same space at the same time, but without taking a hit in performance. In a way iPhone is the wrong name for it. It’s a handheld computing platform that just happens to contain a phone.

Why is Apple able to do things most other companies can’t? Partly by charging for it: The iPhone will cost $499 for a 4GB model, $599 for 8GB, which makes it expensive, but not a luxury item. And partly because the company has highly diverse talent who are good at hardware, software, industrial design and Internet services. Most companies just do one or two things well.

Unlike most competitors, Apple also places an inordinate emphasis on interface design. It sweats the cosmetic details that don’t seem very important until you really sweat them. “I actually have a photographer’s loupe that I use to look to make sure every pixel is right,” says Scott Forstall, Apple’s vice-president of Platform Experience (whatever that is). “We will argue over literally a single pixel.” As a result, when you swipe your finger across the screen to unlock the iPhone, you’re not just accessing a system of nested menus, you’re entering a tiny universe, where data exist as bouncy, gemlike, animated objects that behave according to consistent rules of virtual physics. Because there’s no intermediary input device—like a mouse or a keyboard—there’s a powerful illusion that you’re physically handling data with your fingers. You can pinch an image with two fingers and make it smaller.

To witness the iPhone launch from behind the curtain (or under the towel) is to see the controlling hand of Steve Jobs, for whom this is an almost mystically significant year. He’s 52 years old. It’s been 30 years since he founded Apple (with Stephen Wozniak), and 10 since he returned there after having been fired. In that decade Apple’s stock has gone up more than 1,000%. Neither age nor success (nor cancer surgery in 2004) have significantly mellowed him, though some of the silver in his beard is creeping into his hair. All technologists believe their products are better than other people’s, or at least they say they do, but Jobs believes it a little more than most.

Jobs’s zealousness about product development— and enforcing his personal vision—remains as relentless as ever. He keeps Apple’s management structure unusually flat for a 20,000-person company, so he can see what’s happening at ground level. There is just one committee in the whole of Apple, to establish prices. I can’t think of a comparable company that does no—zero—market research with its customers before releasing a product. Ironically, Jobs’s personal style could not be more at odds with the brand he has created. If the motto for Apple’s consumers is “think different,” the motto for Apple employees is “think like Steve.”

The same goes for Apple’s partners. The last time Apple experimented with a phone, the largely unsuccessful ROKR, Jobs let Motorola make it, an unsatisfying experiment. “What we learned was that we wouldn’t be satisfied with glomming iTunes onto a regular phone,” Jobs says. “We realized through that experience that for us to be happy, for us to be proud, we were going to have to do it all.”

Apple’s arrogance can inspire resentment, which is one reason for some of the glee over Jobs’s stock options woes: taking pleasure in seeing a special person knocked down a peg is a great American pastime. (Jobs declines to talk about the options issue.) But there’s no point in pretending that Jobs isn’t special. A college dropout, whose biological parents gave him up for adoption, Jobs has presided over four major game-changing product launches: the Apple II, the Macintosh, the iPod, and the iPhone; five if you count the release of Pixar’s Toy Story, which I’m inclined to. He’s like Willy Wonka and Harry Potter rolled up into one.

That doesn’t mean Apple can operate beyond the boundaries of the Securities and Exchange Commission, but the iPhone wouldn’t have happened without Apple’s “we’re special” attitude. One reason there’s limited innovation in cell phones generally is that the cell carriers have stiff guidelines that the manufacturers have to follow. They demand that all their handsets work the same way. “A lot of times, to be honest, there’s some hubris, where they think they know better,” Jobs says. “They dictate what’s on the phone. That just wouldn’t work for us, because we want to innovate. Unless we could do that, it wasn’t worth doing.” Jobs demanded special treatment from his phone service partner, Cingular, and he got it. He even forced Cingular to re-engineer its infrastructure to handle the iPhone’s unique voicemail scheme. “They broke all their typical process rules to make it happen,” says Tony Fadell, who heads Apple’s iPod division. “They were infected by this product, and they were like, we’ve gotta do this!”

Now that the precedent has been set, it’ll be interesting to see if other cell phone makers start demanding Apple-style treatment from wireless carriers. It’ll also be worth watching to see how successful they’ll be in knocking off the iPhone’s all-screen form factor, which will be very difficult without Apple’s touchscreen technology. Apple has filed for around 200 patents associated with the iPhone, building an imposing legal wall. Considering the size of the market, the stakes are high. The phone market is, of course, divided into armed camps by carrier, and so far the iPhone is exclusive with Cingular. Apple has sold 100 million iPods worldwide, but Cingular has only 58 million customers. Apple expects to launch the iPhone abroad in the fourth quarter of this year.

It’s not quite right to call the iPhone revolutionary. It won’t create a new market, or change the entertainment industry, the way the iPod did. When you get right down to it, the device doesn’t even have that many new features—it’s not like Jobs invented voicemail, or text messaging, or conference calling, or mobile Web browsing. He just noticed that they were broken, and he fixed them.

But that’s important. When our tools don’t work, we tend to blame ourselves, for being too stupid or not reading the manual or having too-fat fingers. “I think there’s almost a belligerence—people are frustrated with their manufactured environment,” says Ive. “We tend to assume the problem is with us, and not with the products we’re trying to use.” In other words, when our tools are broken, we feel broken. And when somebody fixes one, we feel a tiny bit more whole.

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