Five Things You Might Not Know From 'The Secret History of the iPhone'

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In his new book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, Brian Merchant gives us a rare look inside Apple, chronicling the development of the iPhone with details about everything from the selection of raw materials to the product’s famous launch event.

In the past, we’ve heard a few scraps of information from the development history of the iPhone. Like that it almost ran on Linux. Or that Apple didn’t invent the Multitouch technology that allows for pinch-and-zoom. Or even Steve Jobs’ demand that the phone’s screen be made of glass instead of plastic came one month before its launch. Here are five things you might not know about the development of the iPhone, straight from Merchant’s book.


1) Before there was the iPhone, there was an Apple flip phone prototype

Today, touchscreen phones are everywhere, but in 2003, not so much. While there were some early attempts in the 80s, others were developed closer to the iPhone’s launch. Industrial Design (ID) Engineer Brian Huppi, who worked at Apple from 2012 to 2016 explains Apple’s first foray into phones.


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[T]he ID group fabricated plenty of cell phones. Not smartphones, but flip phones. “There were many models of flip phones of various sorts that Apple had been working on,” Huppi says. “I mean very Apple-ized, very gorgeous and beautiful, but they were various takes on cell phones with buttons.” (This might explain why Apple had by this point already registered the domain


2) The first iPhone user interface was designed in Photoshop

And not even Adobe could believe it. Apple’s Director of Design from 1995 to 2016, Imran Chaudhri, describes the process by which he and designer Bas Ording built the iPhone’s user interface (UI).


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Ording’s design animations, embedded since the earliest days sharpened by Chaudhri’s sense of style, might be one reason we’re all so hooked on smartphones. And they did it all on basic Adobe software. “We built the entire UI using Photoshop and Director,” Chaudhri says, laughing. “It was like building a Frank Gehry piece out of aluminum foil. It was the biggest hack of all time.” Years later, they told Adobe— “They were fucking floored.”


3) The phone was almost just an iPod with a “steampunk dial”

How would this even work? Senior Apple Engineer Andy Gringon tries to explain an early iPhone design.


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“We prototyped a new way,” Gringon says of the early device. “It was this interesting material… it still had this touch sensitive click wheel, right, and the Play/Pause/Next/Previous buttons in blue backlighting. And when you put it into phone mode through the UI, all that light kind of faded out and faded back in as orange. Like, zero to nine in the click wheel in an old rotary phone, you know ABCDEGF around the edges.”... The problem was that they were difficult to use as phones… “It was just obvious that we were overloading the click wheel with too much,” Gringon says. “And texting and phone numbers—it was a fucking mess.”


4) There was also an impossible keyboard design

At one time, Apple considered entirely revamping how keyboards were laid out. Director of software engineering Richard Williamson list a few ideas that were being kicked around.


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Radical rethinkings of text input were floated… “We tried all kinds of stuff to come up with all kinds of variants to make the keys appear bigger or have a multitap that you could use to cycle through letters. The chord keyboards were probably the most crazy,” Willamson says. One of them was like a piano keyboard, and you could kind of play letters on the keyboard.”


5) Apple’s Exposé feature is right out of the Pre-Crime Department

Ording talks about how the feature that allows iPhone users to look at all of their windows at once was inspired by a gesture-based touchscreen computer from the Steven Spielberg sci-fi classic.


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“You know that Exposé feature?... I was staring at my screen with a whole pile of windows, and I’m like, ‘I wish I could somehow, just like they do in the movie, go through in between those windows and somehow get through all your stuff.’ That became the Exposé thing, but it was inspired by Minority Report.”


Fun fact, the sound effect the phone made when an iPhone is plugged into into a charger until iOS 7 is also from in Minority Report.

Read more about the crazy history of the iPhone in Brian Merchant’s The One Device.