As Apple launches its tenth-anniversary iPhone, it's easy to take for granted all the big (and little) things that went into making the game-changing device a reality. And while the mercurial and inspiring Steve Jobs certainly had a lot of influence over the iPhone's design and features, dozens of engineers, designers and others gave rise to the handset — and its successors — through a series of truly impressive innovations.
Brian Merchant's "The One Device" chronicles this journey, from the birth of multitouch and the cramming of OS X into a 3.5-inch slab of glass to the arrival of the App Store (no, it wasn't there at the phone's 2007 launch). I had an opportunity to chat with Merchant about the iPhone and its evolution, and there are plenty of surprises.
Here are 10 things you didn't know about the iPhone.
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Today, pinching to zoom and other multitouch gestures are second nature, but in 2007, when the iPhone launched, multitouch was an absolute revelation. Work on this feature started way back in 2002. The innovation "sprang from a series of freewheeling, open-ended experiments in the bowels of Apple's 2 Infinite Loop building," said Merchant, and the FingerWorks iGesture Pad was a huge influence. That device enabled users to use gestures to interact with their Macs.
"One of the junior engineers had randomly brought in a FingerWorks Pad because she had a repetitive strain injury," Merchant said. Apple's engineers would jerry-rig the FingerWorks to double as a quasi touch screen to operate a Mac using a projector and a piece of paper over the iGesture Pad, while interface guru Josh Strickon found a way to make the UI work.
Apple would acquire FingerWorks in 2005, and that company is credited with playing a major part in the birth of the iPhone's multitouch interface.
Corning's Gorilla Glass has become a staple in modern-day smartphones because of its sheer strength and ability to ward off cracks when dropped. But the technology wasn't embraced until after Steve Jobs met with Corning CEO Wendell Weeks just months before the iPhone hit shelves. During an infamously testy exchange, Weeks convinced Jobs how durable his material was, saying, "Can you shut up and let me teach you some science?"
Amazingly, the Gorilla Glass technology had essentially lain dormant since 1971, when it was called Chemcor and Project Muscle, but there weren't many takers at the time. In fact, car companies believed the material was too strong for reinforcing windshields (for fear that people would be injured by it). But Corning found a way to commercialize Gorilla Glass and produced enough of it to allow Apple to switch from plastic to glass at the last minute.
Credit: Corning Inc.
Today, the iPhone accounts for about two-thirds of Apple's revenue, but during the early 2000s, the iPod was king, accounting for 50 percent of the company's sales. So in retrospect, it's easy to see why Apple considered souping up the iPod to create an iPhone. It was one of two paths Steve Jobs and co. pursued. Path 1 was a phone with a click wheel (really), and Plan 2 was "the still-experimental hybrid of multitouch technology and Mac software."
A scaled-down version of OS X, which would later become iOS, won out. The software team was let by Scott Forstall and Richard Williamson, and the "nail in the coffin" for the iPod-based phone came when the two wowed Steve Jobs by showing that the stripped-down OS X could handle tasks like scrolling.
After that, Merchant said, an OS engineer named John Wright was tasked with going through and throwing out extraneous code from OS X to fit the operating system on the iPhone. "Just to save memory, they were just throwing out and stripping code, pulling it out, spending days and days whittling it down," Merchant said.
Credit: Apple/US Patent Office
The 2-megapixel camera inside the first iPhone wasn't the best in terms of image quality. In fact, it was almost like an afterthought compared to some of the other hallmark features. "Most of the people I talked to about the camera on the original phone were like, 'We put a camera on it because Nokia had a camera phone,'" Merchant said.
But it was a feat that Apple was able to cram a decent-quality shooter inside a handset so thin. And it was inspired by Steve Jobs describing an iSight camera protruding from a laptop in a meeting thusly: "That looks like shit."
Apple engineering manager Brett Bilbrey said, "I can fix that, and set out to deliver a thinner, CMOS-enabled camera in time for the iMac's launch in January 2006, one that would ingeniously send the video from the camera to the computer's GPU for processing and color correction. The iPhone's camera would not have materialized without this breakthrough internal webcam.
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Although many of us use Touch ID or a pass code to open our iPhone today, swiping to unlock was the very first method introduced. Apple needed to find some way to enable people to unlock their phones while preventing accidental touches from zapping the battery life. And the answer came to UI designer Freddy Anzures on a flight from New York to San Francisco.
"He stepped into the airplane bathroom stall and slid to lock. Then, of course, he slid to unlock," Merchant wrote in The One Device. "That, he thought, was a smart way to activate a touch screen whose sensors always needed to be on."
For years after the iPhone debuted, Android phones were perpetually playing catch-up in terms of how fluid — and frankly, how fun — they felt to use. A large amount of credit for the iPhone's advantage belongs to Apple's software engineers. John Harper is one of them, an engineer is credited with figuring out a way to have the iPhone's graphics hardware accelerate the rendering of attractive animations. This is referred to as Core Animation.
Software engineer Bas Ording took those animations to the next level, creating things like the bouncing effect you get when you scroll to the end of the screen. "I describe it as playful," Ording told Merchant in "The One Device," "but at the same time, it's very functional. … and you want to do it again, just to see the effect again." Ording was inspired by highly repetitive but highly rewarding '80s video game classics like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.
During the grand unveiling of the iPhone, one of the features that elicited "oohs" and "ahs" from the crowd was when Steve Jobs turned the device from landscape to portrait mode and back again. The image on the screen re-oriented with it.
This trick was made possible by the iPhone's accelerometer and software working together, but the feature wouldn't have been possible without the work Brett Bilbrey and other Apple engineers did on integrating an accelerometer in MacBooks. This feature stopped the hard drive from spinning when the machine detected a fall, to prevent damage. But it was also used for such fun apps as MacSaber, which enabled users to wield their laptops as lightsabers, complete with the sound effect.
More than 10 years later, there are also plenty of lightsaber apps in the App Store that similarly leverage the iPhone's accelerometer. "It really inspired them to, like, really from the get-go think about a loading a bunch of sensors onto the iPhone," Merchant said.
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