09262017Tue
Last updateWed, 20 Sep 2017 9am

Business & Real Estate

Author tackles secret history of ubiquitous iPhone


Photos courtesy Little, Brown & Co.
Brian Merchant recently released a book that documents the iPhone’s 10th anniversary. Merchant is the grandson of Los Altos residents Joan and Al Merchant.

With more than 1 billion sold, the iPhone has profoundly changed the world as we know it in just 10 short years. Everywhere you look, users are staring at their screens. Some of us find it hard to function in today’s world without our little magic boxes close by.

“The iPhone isn’t just a tool; it’s the foundational instrument of modern life,” author Brian Merchant writes in his new best-seller, “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone” (Little, Brown & Co., 2017).

The tech journalist, grandson of Los Altos residents Joan and Al Merchant, used the occasion of the iPhone’s 10-year anniversary to write a book that delves deeply into the product’s origins. Over months of research, the author conducted dozens of interviews, some under condition of anonymity, to uncover a story that doesn’t scrimp on the details. In “The One Device,” Merchant uncovers some intriguing side stories, gives credit to key inventors behind the scenes, poses a few moral dilemmas and shatters a few myths along the way.

Convergence technology

If you don’t want to know how your sausage is made, skip the book. If you’re interested in the elements that created the iPhone, “The One Device” will be a fascinating read.

“It struck me one day that we didn’t ask all the questions that should be asked about a device that’s so ubiquitous,” Merchant said in a June 30 interview with the Town Crier. “It’s changed the way we operate. What got us there?”

Merchant, who lives in Los Angeles but considers his grandparents’ hometown a second home, takes note of “many hidden figures hidden behind the iPhone screen. The story is nuanced and messy.”

Senior editor of the tech blog Motherboard, Merchant draws several interesting conclusions from his research.

The iPhone makes its mark as a “convergence technology,” he said, combining existing innovations ranging from email to texting and digital cameras all in one little package. Merchant erases any preconceived notion that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was the sole guiding light behind the gadget. In fact, there were 14 inventors responsible for the iPhone, the author noted. Some have remained unknown due to Apple’s culture, steeped in paranoia and “notorious secrecy.”

Ironically, the temperamental Jobs himself also was kept in the dark early on – the real inventors hid their work from him so that the iPhone wouldn’t die an early death. When the revolutionary device was presented to him, Jobs initially wondered whether it would cater only to “the pocket-protector crowd,” Merchant recalled of Jobs’ reaction.

“Jobs was skeptical and ambivalent at first, but his relationship to the project changed dramatically,” Merchant said. “He became a true believer.”

The book also addresses the myth that Jobs and Apple invented the iPhone’s popular touchscreen technology. In fact, according to Merchant, the technology is 20 or more years old, stemming from an engineer who sought to ease disabilities with his hands. Apple purchased the engineer’s company and used the technology. The Gorilla, or shatterproof glass used to make the iPhone, was a 50-year-old technology that lay dormant until Apple revived it.

Downside of progress

Despite Apple’s reputation as an ethical company valuing fair treatment of employees, “The One Device” uncovers the less-than-ideal working conditions under which parts of the iPhone are manufactured. Merchant pulls back the curtain on laboratories in China where a string of suicides have occurred due to abusive conditions. In addition, Merchant reveals, the raw materials from various parts of the world are gathered under harsh circumstances.

“It’s useful to understand how it’s commonly done across the industry, period – not just Apple,” he said. “The enormity of the issue stymies calls for action on the part of the consumer.”

While the company isn’t to blame for the substandard conditions in various parts of the world, Merchant believes that “people should be asking a little more of Apple.”

Merchant fully acknowledges the all-engrossing impact the device has had on consumers’ everyday lives. He cites a study that claims people spend an average of 4.7 hours per day on their phones. A second study claims that use could be double that, as most people underestimate time spent on their phones.

Another major revelation for Merchant is the “ambivalent” response of the iPhone designers themselves. Rather than basking in the glory of a monumental achievement, he points to some raising the same concerns as sociologists about the iPhone’s negative impact on person-to-person interaction.

“They go out to dinner and see people with noses in their phones, and they think, ‘Is this what I’ve wrought?’” Merchant said.

Spreading the word

While he admits that he received “some blowback from the diehard Apple core base,” Merchant said reaction to his book has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The forgotten engineers and designers appreciated having their stories told,” he said.

And though he has employed a publicist, Merchant said his Los Altos grandfather has assisted in spreading the word – including a call to this newspaper.

“He just arranged an interview with a local radio station this morning,” Merchant said on June 30. “My grandparents went above and beyond – they’ve been really supportive. This would not be possible without my grandparents.”

Al and Joan Merchant were reading their grandson’s book last week.

“Of course, Joan and I are proud grandparents,” Al said, “but that aside, we are both enjoying the book, the extensive research he did, the historical perspective he imparts, as well as the personal accounts he documents about the first Apple team to work out the hardware and software even before they allowed Steve Jobs to see it.”

For more information on “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone,” visit Amazon.com.

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