In 2017, an Apple employee walked into work and his colleagues burst into applause for something he had done many years before. Why the applause and why today?
The history of the iPhone – its highly clandestine development and its transformation into a global phenomenon – is accessible to those with sufficient curiosity, but there has been enough secrecy that even inside Apple, the critical role of certain employees in the development of the iPhone is widely unknown or overlooked.
Not anymore, as technology journalist and author Brian Merchant explained in his Morning Forum of Los Altos presentation, “The World Inside the iPhone,” March 5.
The vast majority of people could name only one individual associated with the invention of the iPhone, but Merchant’s lecture and his book, “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone,” aspire to expand that narrative, telling the stories of “collective innovation,” the “confluence of technology” and, most important, the interesting characters behind the creation of the iPhone who are not named Steve Jobs.
Merchant emphasized some of the aspects of iPhone history that are not widely known, from the top-secret early-stage development meetings to key corporate acquisitions that paved the way.
Merchant was quick to recognize that the “iPhone would not exist without Steve Jobs,” and his story was not about diminishing Jobs or claiming that Jobs had only tangential involvement. Merchant simply wants to pay tribute to a deeply involved cast of designers, engineers and inventors who actually did the day-to-day work of creating the device that became the iPhone.
Merchant started his talk by going back to Nikola Tesla, who in 1926 predicted “instant global communication” with a device that could be “carried in a vest pocket.”
Jumping ahead decades, Merchant pointed out that Apple had been considering for some time the possibility of combining a phone with its hit product, the iPod. Early design iterations included a digital version of a rotary phone that could be accessed through an iPod.
One critical corporate acquisition that moved the process rapidly forward was Apple’s quiet purchase of FingerPad in 2005. FingerPad had been created by two people at the University of Delaware and had accomplished remarkable advances in the field of touch-sensing capabilities for electronic devices. The FingerPad technology was the precursor for the ubiquitous pinch and swipe capabilities that allow users to interact so intuitively with iPhones, and now, many other devices.
Merchant also described in detail the extreme secrecy and intensity that characterized the development of the iPhone. Many people at Apple were not even aware of its existence during the development period, as Apple was trying to beat competitors to market with a product that broke new ground on multiple fronts.
Which brings us back to the employee and the applause: What exactly was going on that day? It turns out that an excerpt from Merchant’s book describing in some detail this particular employee’s role in iPhone development had just been published in a magazine and shared around the department where the employee worked. Most of his colleagues had been unaware of his role in the early days of the iPhone, until the book excerpt was published.
The type of recognition that the employee received is especially gratifying for Merchant, as shining a light on such people was the original inspiration for his book – which a Wall Street Journal review called “A remarkable tale. … (T)he story it tells is compelling, even addictive – almost as addictive as the iPhone itself.”
The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets twice per month, September through June, at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. Subscriptions are open to new members. For more information, visit morningforum.org.