Three Revolutionary Products in One
An iPod That Makes Calls
By 2005 iPod sales were skyrocketing. An astonishing twenty million were sold that year, quadruple the number of the year before. The product was becoming more important to the company’s bottom line, accounting for 45% of the revenue that year, and it was also burnishing the hipness of the company’s image in a way that drove sales of Macs.
That is why Jobs was worried. “He was always obsessing about what could mess us up,” board member Art Levinson recalled. The conclusion he had come to: “The device that can eat our lunch is the cell phone.” As he explained to the board, the digital camera market was being decimated now that phones were equipped with cameras. The same could happen to the iPod, if phone manufacturers started to build music players into them. “Everyone carries a phone, so that could render the iPod unnecessary.”
His first strategy was to do something that he had admitted in front of Bill Gates was not in his DNA: to partner with another company. He began talking to Ed Zander, the new CEO of Motorola, about making a companion to Motorola’s popular RAZR, which was a cell phone and digital camera, that would have an iPod built in. Thus was born the ROKR. It ended up having neither the enticing minimalism of an iPod nor the convenient slimness of a RAZR. Ugly, difficult to load, and with an arbitrary hundred-song limit, it had all the hallmarks of a product that had been negotiated by a committee, which was counter to the way Jobs liked to work. Instead of hardware, software, and content all being controlled by one company, they were cobbled together by Motorola, Apple, and the wireless carrier Cingular. “You call this the phone of the future?” Wired scoffed on its November 2005 cover.
Jobs was furious. “I’m sick of dealing with these stupid companies like Motorola,” he told Tony Fadell and others at one of the iPod product review meetings. “Let’s do it ourselves.” He had noticed something odd about the cell phones on the market: They all stank, just like portable music players used to. “We would sit around talking about how much we hated our phones,” he recalled. “They were way too complicated. They had features nobody could figure out, including the address book. It was just Byzantine.” George Riley, an outside lawyer for Apple, remembers sitting at meetings to go over legal issues, and Jobs would get bored, grab Riley’s mobile phone, and start pointing out all the ways it was “brain-dead.” So Jobs and his team became excited about the prospect of building a phone that they would want to use. “That’s the best motivator of all,” Jobs later said.
Another motivator was the potential market. More than 825 million mobile phones were sold in 2005, to everyone from grammar schoolers to grandmothers. Since most were junky, there was room for a premium and hip product, just as there had been in the portable music-player market. At first he gave the project to the Apple group that was making the AirPort wireless base station, on the theory that it was a wireless product. But he soon realized that it was basically a consumer device, like the iPod, so he reassigned it to Fadell and his teammates.
Their initial approach was to modify the iPod. They tried to use the trackwheel as a way for a user to scroll through phone options and, without a keyboard, try to enter numbers. It was not a natural fit. “We were having a lot of problems using the wheel, especially in getting it to dial phone numbers,” Fadell recalled. “It was cumbersome.” It was fine for scrolling through an address book, but horrible at inputting anything. The team kept trying to convince themselves that users would mainly be calling people who were already in their address book, but they knew that it wouldn’t really work.
At that time there was a second project under way at Apple: a secret effort to build a tablet computer. In 2005 these narratives intersected, and the ideas for the tablet flowed into the planning for the phone. In other words, the idea for the iPad actually came before, and helped to shape, the birth of the iPhone.
One of the engineers developing a tablet PC at Microsoft was married to a friend of Laurene and Steve Jobs, and for his fiftieth birthday he wanted to have a dinner party that included them along with Bill and Melinda Gates. Jobs went, a bit reluctantly. “Steve was actually quite friendly to me at the dinner,” Gates recalled, but he “wasn’t particularly friendly” to the birthday guy.
Gates was annoyed that the guy kept revealing information about the tablet PC he had developed for Microsoft. “He’s our employee and he’s revealing our intellectual property,” Gates recounted. Jobs was also annoyed, and it had just the consequence that Gates feared. As Jobs recalled:
This guy badgered me about how Microsoft was going to completely change the world with this tablet PC software and eliminate all notebook computers, and Apple ought to license his Microsoft software. But he was doing the device all wrong. It had a stylus. As soon as you have a stylus, you’re dead. This dinner was like the tenth time he talked to me about it, and I was so sick of it that I came home and said, “Fuck this, let’s show him what a tablet can really be.”
Jobs went into the office the next day, gathered his team, and said, “I want to make a tablet, and it can’t have a keyboard or a stylus.” Users would be able to type by touching the screen with their fingers. That meant the screen needed to have a feature that became known as multi-touch, the ability to process multiple inputs at the same time. “So could you guys come up with a multi-touch, touch-sensitive display for me?” he asked. It took them about six months, but they came up with a crude but workable prototype.
Jony Ive had a different memory of how multi-touch was developed. He said his design team had already been working on a multi-touch input that was developed for the trackpads of Apple’s MacBook Pro, and they were experimenting with ways to transfer that capability to a computer screen. They used a projector to show on a wall what it would look like. “This is going to change everything,” Ive told his team. But he was careful not to show it to Jobs right away, especially since his people were working on it in their spare time and he didn’t want to quash their enthusiasm. “Because Steve is so quick to give an opinion, I don’t show him stuff in front of other people,” Ive recalled. “He might say, ‘This is shit,’ and snuff the idea. I feel that ideas are very fragile, so you have to be tender when they are in development. I realized that if he pissed on this, it would be so sad, because I knew it was so important.”
Ive set up the demonstration in his conference room and showed it to Jobs privately, knowing that he was less likely to make a snap judgment if there was no audience. Fortunately he loved it. “This is the future,” he exulted.
It was in fact such a good idea that Jobs realized that it could solve the problem they were having creating an interface for the proposed cell phone. That project was far more important, so he put the tablet development on hold while the multi-touch interface was adopted for a phone-size screen. “If it worked on a phone,” he recalled, “I knew we could go back and use it on a tablet.”
Jobs called Fadell, Rubinstein, and Schiller to a secret meeting in the design studio conference room, where Ive gave a demonstration of multi-touch. “Wow!” said Fadell. Everyone liked it, but they were not sure that they would be able to make it work on a mobile phone. They decided to proceed on two paths: P1 was the code name for the phone being developed using an iPod trackwheel, and P2 was the new alternative using a multi-touch screen.
A small company in Delaware called FingerWorks was already making a line of multi-touch trackpads. Founded by two academics at the University of Delaware, John Elias and Wayne Westerman, FingerWorks had developed some tablets with multi-touch sensing capabilities and taken out patents on ways to translate various finger gestures, such as pinches and swipes, into useful functions. In early 2005 Apple quietly acquired the company, all of its patents, and the services of its two founders. FingerWorks quit selling its products to others, and it began filing its new patents in Apple’s name.
After six months of work on the trackwheel P1 and the multi-touch P2 phone options, Jobs called his inner circle into his conference room to make a decision. Fadell had been trying hard to develop the trackwheel model, but he admitted they had not cracked the problem of figuring out a simple way to dial calls. The multi-touch approach was riskier, because they were unsure whether they could execute the engineering, but it was also more exciting and promising. “We all know this is the one we want to do,” said Jobs, pointing to the touchscreen. “So let’s make it work.” It was what he liked to call a bet-the-company moment, high risk and high reward if it succeeded.
A couple of members of the team argued for having a keyboard as well, given the popularity of the BlackBerry, but Jobs vetoed the idea. A physical keyboard would take away space from the screen, and it would not be as flexible and adaptable as a touchscreen keyboard. “A hardware keyboard seems like an easy solution, but it’s constraining,” he said. “Think of all the innovations we’d be able to adapt if we did the keyboard onscreen with software. Let’s bet on it, and then we’ll find a way to make it work.” The result was a device that displays a numerical pad when you want to dial a phone number, a typewriter keyboard when you want to write, and whatever buttons you might need for each particular activity. And then they all disappear when you’re watching a video. By having software replace hardware, the interface became fluid and flexible.
Jobs spent part of every day for six months helping to refine the display. “It was the most complex fun I’ve ever had,” he recalled. “It was like being the one evolving the variations on ‘Sgt. Pepper.’” A lot of features that seem simple now were the result of creative brainstorms. For example, the team worried about how to prevent the device from playing music or making a call accidentally when it was jangling in your pocket. Jobs was congenitally averse to having on-off switches, which he deemed “inelegant.” The solution was “Swipe to Open,” the simple and fun on-screen slider that activated the device when it had gone dormant. Another breakthrough was the sensor that figured out when you put the phone to your ear, so that your lobes didn’t accidentally activate some function. And of course the icons came in his favorite shape, the primitive he made Bill Atkinson design into the software of the first Macintosh: rounded rectangles. In session after session, with Jobs immersed in every detail, the team members figured out ways to simplify what other phones made complicated. They added a big bar to guide you in putting calls on hold or making conference calls, found easy ways to navigate through email, and created icons you could scroll through horizontally to get to different apps—all of which were easier because they could be used visually on the screen rather than by using a keyboard built into the hardware.
Jobs became infatuated with different materials the way he did with certain foods. When he went back to Apple in 1997 and started work on the iMac, he had embraced what could be done with translucent and colored plastic. The next phase was metal. He and Ive replaced the curvy plastic PowerBook G3 with the sleek titanium PowerBook G4, which they redesigned two years later in aluminum, as if just to demonstrate how much they liked different metals. Then they did an iMac and an iPod Nano in anodized aluminum, which meant that the metal had been put in an acid bath and electrified so that its surface oxidized. Jobs was told it could not be done in the quantities they needed, so he had a factory built in China to handle it. Ive went there, during the SARS epidemic, to oversee the process. “I stayed for three months in a dormitory to work on the process,” he recalled. “Ruby and others said it would be impossible, but I wanted to do it because Steve and I felt that the anodized aluminum had a real integrity to it.”
Next was glass. “After we did metal, I looked at Jony and said that we had to master glass,” said Jobs. For the Apple stores, they had created huge windowpanes and glass stairs. For the iPhone, the original plan was for it to have a plastic screen, like the iPod. But Jobs decided it would feel much more elegant and substantive if the screens were glass. So he set about finding a glass that would be strong and resistant to scratches.
The natural place to look was Asia, where the glass for the stores was being made. But Jobs’s friend John Seeley Brown, who was on the board of Corning Glass in Upstate New York, told him that he should talk to that company’s young and dynamic CEO, Wendell Weeks. So he dialed the main Corning switchboard number and asked to be put through to Weeks. He got an assistant, who offered to pass along the message. “No, I’m Steve Jobs,” he replied. “Put me through.” The assistant refused. Jobs called Brown and complained that he had been subjected to “typical East Coast bullshit.” When Weeks heard that, he called the main Apple switchboard and asked to speak to Jobs. He was told to put his request in writing and send it in by fax. When Jobs was told what happened, he took a liking to Weeks and invited him to Cupertino.
Jobs described the type of glass Apple wanted for the iPhone, and Weeks told him that Corning had developed a chemical exchange process in the 1960s that led to what they dubbed “gorilla glass.” It was incredibly strong, but it had never found a market, so Corning quit making it. Jobs said he doubted it was good enough, and he started explaining to Weeks how glass was made. This amused Weeks, who of course knew more than Jobs about that topic. “Can you shut up,” Weeks interjected, “and let me teach you some science?” Jobs was taken aback and fell silent. Weeks went to the whiteboard and gave a tutorial on the chemistry, which involved an ion-exchange process that produced a compression layer on the surface of the glass. This turned Jobs around, and he said he wanted as much gorilla glass as Corning could make within six months. “We don’t have the capacity,” Weeks replied. “None of our plants make the glass now.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Jobs replied. This stunned Weeks, who was good-humored and confident but not used to Jobs’s reality distortion field. He tried to explain that a false sense of confidence would not overcome engineering challenges, but that was a premise that Jobs had repeatedly shown he didn’t accept. He stared at Weeks unblinking. “Yes, you can do it,” he said. “Get your mind around it. You can do it.”
As Weeks retold this story, he shook his head in astonishment. “We did it in under six months,” he said. “We produced a glass that had never been made.” Corning’s facility in Harrisburg, Kentucky, which had been making LCD displays, was converted almost overnight to make gorilla glass full-time. “We put our best scientists and engineers on it, and we just made it work.” In his airy office, Weeks has just one framed memento on display. It’s a message Jobs sent the day the iPhone came out: “We couldn’t have done it without you.”
On many of his major projects, such as the first Toy Story and the Apple store, Jobs pressed “pause” as they neared completion and decided to make major revisions. That happened with the design of the iPhone as well. The initial design had the glass screen set into an aluminum case. One Monday morning Jobs went over to see Ive. “I didn’t sleep last night,” he said, “because I realized that I just don’t love it.” It was the most important product he had made since the first Macintosh, and it just didn’t look right to him. Ive, to his dismay, instantly realized that Jobs was right. “I remember feeling absolutely embarrassed that he had to make the observation.”
The problem was that the iPhone should have been all about the display, but in their current design the case competed with the display instead of getting out of the way. The whole device felt too masculine, task-driven, efficient. “Guys, you’ve killed yourselves over this design for the last nine months, but we’re going to change it,” Jobs told Ive’s team. “We’re all going to have to work nights and weekends, and if you want we can hand out some guns so you can kill us now.” Instead of balking, the team agreed. “It was one of my proudest moments at Apple,” Jobs recalled.
The new design ended up with just a thin stainless steel bezel that allowed the gorilla glass display to go right to the edge. Every part of the device seemed to defer to the screen. The new look was austere, yet also friendly. You could fondle it. It meant they had to redo the circuit boards, antenna, and processor placement inside, but Jobs ordered the change. “Other companies may have shipped,” said Fadell, “but we pressed the reset button and started over.”
One aspect of the design, which reflected not only Jobs’s perfectionism but also his desire to control, was that the device was tightly sealed. The case could not be opened, even to change the battery. As with the original Macintosh in 1984, Jobs did not want people fiddling inside. In fact when Apple discovered in 2011 that third-party repair shops were opening up the iPhone 4, it replaced the tiny screws with a tamper-resistant Pentalobe screw that was impossible to open with a commercially available screwdriver. By not having a replaceable battery, it was possible to make the iPhone much thinner. For Jobs, thinner was always better. “He’s always believed that thin is beautiful,” said Tim Cook. “You can see that in all of the work. We have the thinnest notebook, the thinnest smartphone, and we made the iPad thin and then even thinner.”
When it came time to launch the iPhone, Jobs decided, as usual, to grant a magazine a special sneak preview. He called John Huey, the editor in chief of Time Inc., and began with his typical superlative: “This is the best thing we’ve ever done.” He wanted to give Time the exclusive, “but there’s nobody smart enough at Time to write it, so I’m going to give it to someone else.” Huey introduced him to Lev Grossman, a savvy technology writer (and novelist) at Time. In his piece Grossman correctly noted that the iPhone did not really invent many new features, it just made these features a lot more usable. “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. . . . When our tools are broken, we feel broken. And when somebody fixes one, we feel a tiny bit more whole.”
For the unveiling at the January 2007 Macworld in San Francisco, Jobs invited back Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson, Steve Wozniak, and the 1984 Macintosh team, as he had done when he launched the iMac. In a career of dazzling product presentations, this may have been his best. “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything,” he began. He referred to two earlier examples: the original Macintosh, which “changed the whole computer industry,” and the first iPod, which “changed the entire music industry.” Then he carefully built up to the product he was about to launch: “Today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products of this class. The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.” He repeated the list for emphasis, then asked, “Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices, this is one device, and we are calling it iPhone.”
When the iPhone went on sale five months later, at the end of June 2007, Jobs and his wife walked to the Apple store in Palo Alto to take in the excitement. Since he often did that on the day new products went on sale, there were some fans hanging out in anticipation, and they greeted him as they would have Moses if he had walked in to buy the Bible. Among the faithful were Hertzfeld and Atkinson. “Bill stayed in line all night,” Hertzfeld said. Jobs waved his arms and started laughing. “I sent him one,” he said. Hertzfeld replied, “He needs six.”
The iPhone was immediately dubbed “the Jesus Phone” by bloggers. But Apple’s competitors emphasized that, at $500, it cost too much to be successful. “It’s the most expensive phone in the world,” Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer said in a CNBC interview. “And it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard.” Once again Microsoft had underestimated Jobs’s product. By the end of 2010, Apple had sold ninety million iPhones, and it reaped more than half of the total profits generated in the global cell phone market.
“Steve understands desire,” said Alan Kay, the Xerox PARC pioneer who had envisioned a “Dynabook” tablet computer forty years earlier. Kay was good at making prophetic assessments, so Jobs asked him what he thought of the iPhone. “Make the screen five inches by eight inches, and you’ll rule the world,” Kay said. He did not know that the design of the iPhone had started with, and would someday lead to, ideas for a tablet computer that would fulfill—indeed exceed—his vision for the Dynabook.