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A Frontline Perspective on the Birth of the iPhone

The Verge has a lengthy excerpt from Brian Merchant’s upcoming book, ‘The One Device: the Secret History of the iPhone.’ Merchant’s book chronicles the development of the iPhone from the recruitment of engineers, designers, and others at Apple, through the battles over its hardware and software implementation. What’s unique about the excerpt of ‘The One Device’ is that it doesn’t try to fit the story of the iPhone’s development into a neat and tidy straight-line narrative. Instead, the excerpt embraces the messy, twisted path the product took from inception to launch.

The first battle was over hardware and whether the iPhone would be a multitouch device or an adaptation of existing iPod hardware. According to Merchant, an iPod-based Apple phone made the first calls:

The first calls from an Apple phone were not, it turns out, made on the sleek touchscreen interface of the future but on a steampunk rotary dial. “We came very close,” Ording says. “It was, like, we could have finished it and made a product out of it… But then I guess Steve must have woken up one day like, ‘This is not as exciting as the touch stuff.’ ”

Once it was decided that the iPhone would be a multitouch device, the battleground shifted to whether the operating system would be based on OS X or the iPod’s OS:

“At this point we didn’t care about the phone at all,” Williamson says. “The phone’s largely irrelevant. It’s basically a modem. But it was ‘What is the operating system going to be like, what is the interaction paradigm going to be like?’ ” In that comment, you can read the roots of the philosophical clash: The software engineers saw P2 not as a chance to build a phone, but as an opportunity to use a phone-shaped device as a Trojan horse for a much more complex kind of mobile computer.

Ultimately, the iPhone was released as a touchscreen device that sported a stripped-down version of OS X, and has proven to be the mobile computer that its creators envisioned. What I like most about the excerpt, and why I immediately purchased the book, is that it tells the story of the iPhone from the perspective of the people who worked on it, which provides details that only the engineers and designers working on the front lines can bring to life.

‘The One Device: the Secret History of the iPhone’ by Brian Merchant will be released on June 20th and is available for pre-order on the iBooks Store and Amazon.