By Kevin O'Shaughnessy September 12, 2018

History of the Internet Part 12: The Birth of the iPhone

In Part 11, we covered the huge success of the iPod and iTunes. Apple launched several generations of its music player and kept well ahead of its competitors’ products in terms of technical innovation, ease of use, branding, and sales.

By 2004, Apple CEO Steve Jobs and his executive team were growing concerned about the increasing capabilities of newer phones, and the possibility that one of its competitors could release a phone with a music player. If this happened, it could render the iPod obsolete.

Over the next two episodes in our series, we’re going to dive into the history of the iPhone, investigating how and why it became not just the most successful and influential cell phone brand, but arguably the most successful brand in the world.

To date, the number of iPhone devices sold around the world is more than 1 billion. It’s not just the world’s best-selling cell phone but also the world’s best-selling camera, the best-selling music player, and the best-selling computer of all time.

The First iPhone

The first iPhone was not made by Apple. It was created by InfoGear Technology Corporation and went on sale in 1998.

The prototype technology was invented by Chaim Bendelac, Yuval Shachar, and Reuven Marko at National Semiconductor in 1995. At this time, personal computers were very expensive, and less than 10 percent of U.S. homes were online. National Semiconductor hoped that a low-cost online telephone system would change that forever.

The company had no experience marketing products directly to consumers, so Demetris Paraskevopoulos and Robert Ackerman bid to the technology rights and the engineers. National Semiconductor president Gilbert Amelio (later to become Apple CEO) agreed to sell to InfoGear.

InfoGear’s iPhone was a desktop machine with a 7-inch, 640×480-pixel touch screen display with simple web browsing, use of Sun Microsystem’s Java, and the ability to send and receive emails. Unfortunately it had just one phone line, meaning users couldn’t be on the phone and online at the same time. Although InfoGear hoped to sell it for under $300, the manufacturing costs meant they needed to price it for $499.

Although the technology was in many ways innovative, it sold poorly. InfoGear was bought out by Cisco in 2000, and Cisco soon decided not to continue promoting the iPhone. This was the end of the iPhone for InfoGear, but not for the world.

The Apple Story Begins With FingerWorks

The origins of the Apple iPhone trace back to before Jobs agreed to make a smartphone in 2004, to a purchasing decision made by Apple engineer Tina Huang around 2003. She was suffering from a wrist injury and found working with a mouse painful. She decided to buy an iGesture Pad made by FingerWorks.

FingerWorks was founded by Dr. John Elias and Wayne Westerman of the University of Delaware in 1998, and their first product was patented in 2001. Westerman suffered from tendinitis in his wrists, and he switched his dissertation topic away from artificial intelligence as he developed a touchpad with his professor, Dr. Elias. Some of Westerman’s AI algorithms were repurposed for recognizing finger strokes, and Westerman’s 363-page dissertation, Hand Tracking, Finger Identification and Chordic Manipulation on a Multi-Touch Surface, was written using his touchpad rather than a keyboard.

The iGesture Pad went on sale in 2003 and had innovative features such as two-finger scrolling and pinch-to-zoom. Huang’s use of it soon caught the attention of Apple’s Human Interface R&D group, who were fascinated by it.

Front side of the box containing FingerWorks’ iGesture Pad

FingerWorks technology enabled much more precise input than any other touch technology. Touch screens such as those found in bank ATMs and airport kiosks use resistive screens, which contain two layers that come into contact with each other when the user pushes on one area of the screen. This technology tends to be imprecise and frustrating to use. Apple’s earlier personal digital assistant, the Newton, had a resistive touch screen that used a stylus.

birth of the iphone

Left: Apple Newton MessagePad 2100. Right: the original iPhone – By Blake Patterson from Alexandria, Virginia, USA – CC BY 2.0

FingerWorks instead used capacitive sensing, which detects electrical distortions when we touch the device with our fingers. As innovate as the iGesture Pad was, the invention of capacitive sensing dates back to 1972 at the birthplace of the World Wide Web, CERN (the European Council for Nuclear Research).

At the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, the technology that could arguably be described as multi-touch was designed by the Danish engineer Bent Stumpe for the purpose of managing the control center for a particle accelerator, which became operational along with Stumpe’s touchscreen in 1976. The first literary use of the term multi-touch was in the 1985 paper “A multi-touch three dimensional touch-sensitive tablet,” and in 1985 Bill Buxton demonstrated the achievements of the university’s Input Research Group. Buxton credits Bob Boie of Bell Labs for inventing a working multi-touch system before he did.

What FingerWorks achieved was updating the technology and bringing it to both the Macintosh and PCs. This gained a loyal fan base (known as finger fans), and their iGesture Pad won the Best of Innovation award at the Computer Electronics Show (CES) in 2005.

At Apple, the Human Interface (HI) team was excited by the possibilities of this technology.

Headed by Greg Christie and including Bas Ording, Imran Chaudhri, Joshua Strickon, and Brian Huppi, the team put a piece of white paper over the trackpad and used a projector to display the screen onto the paper. This created a useful prototype that they could continue to develop in secret.

Ording and Chaudhri were so concerned that Jobs might shut the project down if he saw it too early on that they even kept Christie in the dark about what they were doing until he told them he wanted to know “what the hell you’re doing down there.”

Once they had a number of demos ready, they showed it to Jony Ive and his Industrial Design team. Ive exclaimed, “This is going to change everything!” and said it was time to show it to Jobs.

Apple discussed a licensing deal with FingerWorks, and this quickly evolved into a potential acquisition deal. After about eight months of negotiations, all of the patents and the services of its founders, John Elias and Wayne Westerman, became the property of Apple.

User Interface pioneer Wayne Westerman

Apple filed a new patent shortly thereafter, and in his last public interview, Westerman said, “The one difference that’s actually quite significant is the iPhone is a display with the multitouch, and the FingerWorks was just an opaque surface. There’s definitive similarities, but Apple’s definitely taken it another step by having it on a display.”

The ‘New Inventor’ of Multi-Touch

In the summer of 2003, Ive presented multi-touch to Jobs, but not successfully. “He was completely unimpressed. He didn’t see that there was any value to the idea,” recounted Ive. However, after he spent a few days thinking the idea over, the HI team discovered that he loved it.

After coming out of a meeting with Jobs, Christie announced to his team, “Well, first thing everyone needs to note is: Steve invented multi-touch. So everybody go back and change your notebooks.” The team rolled their eyes and then started to laugh. Jobs had approved a secret project to turn a prototype into a real product. This project went by the codename Q79.

Sony SmartSkin

While researching how to turn this early prototype into a commercial product, Joshua Strickon found that Sony’s research was already ahead of them. In 2002, professor Jun Rekimoto of the University of Tokyo published the paper SmartSkin: An Infrastructure for Freehand Manipulation on Interactive Surfaces, which presented a more elegant way of creating a multi-touch device.

The team borrowed heavily from the design outlined in Rekimoto’s paper as they created what they called the “Multi-touch Visualizer.” It was the size of a poker table, but the team hoped that one day they would be able to shrink it down to tablet size. At this point, the thought of using it in a cell phone had not occurred to anyone.

However, a problem emerged: While the staff agreed that anything over $600 for a touch screen tablet was overpriced, the cost of all the components was bringing the project price of the tablet somewhere nearer $1,000. Then in 2004, Steve Jobs took medical leave, and with nobody clearly in charge, the project languished while he was away.

An Apple and Motorola Partnership

The idea of Apple making a smartphone had been floated many times. Greg Christie joined Apple to work on the Newton and proposed a Newton phone many times. Other employees had other smartphone ideas, but Jobs was reluctant to accept any of them. He feared entering a market where network carriers held so much control.

However, he was friends with Motorola CEO Edward Zander, and the two of them struck up a business deal in 2004.

Edward Zander. Photo by RenderSeven, CC BY-SA 3.0

Apple had no experience at all with cell phone development, and partnering with Motorola gave it the chance to get a music-playing phone released to market quickly and relatively cheaply. Motorola’s RAZR brand was selling well, and if they could blend it with Apple’s technology, they could be onto another winner.

The Motorola E398 was already on sale, and Motorola agreed to use this hardware as the basis for a new phone with the ability to play music purchased from the iTunes Music store.

It took 15 months before Apple and Motorola were ready to release the ROKR in September 2005, and few people felt it was worth the wait.

The iPod’s original slogan was “1,000 songs in your pocket,” and subsequent generations of the iPod came with enough storage to fit many more songs than that. Motorola’s phone allowed only up to 100 songs to be loaded. Former vice president of iPod engineering Tony Fadell said Apple’s initial thinking was to give ROKR users just a small taste of the iPod experience so they would go on to buy an iPod as well.

Dubbed “the Podfather” by the tech media, Tony Fadell played a key role in both the iPod and the iPhone. Photo by official leweb photos CC BY 2.0

Jobs launched the Motorola ROKR as the “iTunes Phone” at a special event in 2005. He called it “a pretty cool phone,” but privately he was embarrassed by it.

birth of the iphone

The November 2005 cover of Wired magazine featured the damning headline “You Call This The Phone of the Future? Inside the quest to build the ultimate music phone – and why Apple fell short.” Wired reviewed the ROKR, complaining that the product had been completely botched due to various squabbles between Apple, Motorola, and the data carrier Cingular.

Sales of the Motorola ROKR were below expectations, and Motorola’s CEO admitted, “People were looking for an iPod and that’s not what it is. We may have missed the marketing message there.”

Lobbying Jobs to Go It Alone

Well before the disappointing ROKR launch, other Apple employees were arguing to go it alone.

On Nov. 7, 2004, Mike Bell emailed Jobs saying, “I know you don’t want to do a phone, but here’s why we should do it: Jony Ive has some really cool designs for future iPods that no one has seen. We ought to take one of those, put some Apple software around it, and make a phone out of it ourselves instead of putting our stuff on other people’s phones.”

Toward the end of 2004, Ordling received a call from Jobs, who said, “We’re gonna do a phone. There’s gonna be no buttons. Just a touchscreen.”

Jobs also told Fadell, “I’m sick of dealing with these stupid companies like Motorola. Let’s do it ourselves.”

Creating the First Apple iPhone

At the end of 2004, Apple had a second secret project in the works: to create a tablet computer without a keyboard or a stylus. The basis of this technology was the Multi-touch Visualizer.

Scott Forstall. Photo by Matt Yohe, CC BY-SA 3.0

In February 2005, Jobs was unimpressed with the next set of prototypes the team showed him, and he threatened them they had just two weeks left to produce something dramatically better, or he would reassign the project to a different team.

Greg Christie gathered the team together to sell them on two weeks with even less sleep. “Doing a phone is what I always wanted to do. I think the rest of you want to do this also. But we’ve got two weeks for one last chance to do this. And I really want to do it.”

A team consisting of Christie, five human interface designers, and a project manager slept in a local hotel for the next two weeks so they could work as close as possible to 24 hours a day on the project. “For some period of time, this was the most important part of our lives,” recalled Christie. “Not family. Not personal health. Not physical health.”

“My favorite things in life don’t cost any money. It’s really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time.” – Steve Jobs

By the end of the two week workathon, they had an overall design for the product, including the home button, the scrolling and the multi-touch features.

Left to Right: Apple Human Interface Designers Freddy Anzures, Imran Chaudhri, Bas Ording, Marcel Van Os, Steve Lemay, and Mike Matas.

The idea for the “slide to unlock” feature came from Freddy Anzures while on a flight from New York to San Francisco. The airplane lavatory doors slide to lock and unlock, and Anzures realized that could work well for the iPhone too.

Jobs was excited by what the team came up with, and from that moment on he insisted the project be kept in total secrecy. Badge readers were installed at either end of the hallway, and nobody on the project was allowed to mention anything about it to any Apple colleagues who were working on different projects. Even the cleaners were not allowed into any rooms where there were whiteboard sketches.

Employees were asked to sign up to the project without knowing anything about it. They were told, “We want you to come work with us on a project we can’t tell you about. What I can tell you is, if you choose to accept this role, you’re going to work harder than you ever have in your life. You’re going to have to give up nights and weekends probably for a couple years as we make this product.”

Despite all the secrecy, Fadell heard a rumor that Apple was starting work on a phone, and he proposed that they make an iPod phone. “Take the best of the iPod and put a phone in it.” The idea was to have two distinct modes, music player and phone. As the device switched from being a music player to a phone, the backlighting changed from blue to orange.

Soon Jobs called key employees into a boardroom and announced another change of plan. “We’re going to do this iPod-based thing, make that into a phone because that’s a much more doable project. More predictable.” From this point on, there were two competing phone projects, the iPod phone led by Fadell and the experimental multi-touch phone led by Forstall. The HI designers assisted both teams.

The iPod phone team found the trackwheel too cumbersome for entering phone numbers. They tried somewhere between 30 and 40 different ways to avoid the trackwheel becoming an old rotary phone dial. Ideas included predictive typing, but this was still a tedious process. Fadell conceded that the iPod phone’s user interface just wasn’t working. But parts of the team’s work, such as the radio, made it into the final iPhone.

Jobs reviewed the trackwheel-based prototype along with a prototype of a touch-based phone. He pointed to the touch screen and said, “We all know this is the one we want to do, so let’s make it work.”

The next problem to solve was the phone’s operating system. For the operating system that the iPhone would use, Jobs had to choose between making a cut-down version of MacOS X or an enhancing the iPod operating system.

Forstall’s team argued that the device they were building was a miniature Macintosh, but Fadell’s team felt they were making a touchscreen iPod that could make phone calls and should use a simpler Linux-based system.

Early versions of the OS X-based operating system took far longer to load up than the Linux-based system, but once Forstall’s team created enough of the iPhone OS to allow the scrolling and multi-touch features, Jobs deemed it to be superior offering.

An important new feature of Mac OS X, Core Animation was included in the iPhone OS. This technology boosted rendering performance by intelligently using GPU acceleration, enabling fluid animations that easily surpassed those found in any other smartphone.

American performer Eddie Cantor once quipped, “It takes 20 years to make an overnight success.” When you consider the years of development that went into either the Macintosh operating system or the low-power ARM chip it’s based on, you could say the iPhone was one such overnight night success.

In 2005, Blackberry phones with hardware keyboards were the most popular phones in the world. Marketing executive Phil Schiller insisted that Apple’s phone also needed a hardware keyboard.

Phil Schiller was initially skeptical of the virtual keyboard. Photo by Ben Miller – WWDC 2012 Keynote, CC BY 2.0

Jobs rejected this suggestion, instead challenging the team to create an on-screen keyboard. According to Fadell, Schiller shouted, “We’re making the wrong decision!” and was thrown out of the meeting by Jobs.

Early on-screen keyboard designs had poor accuracy, which made it frustrating to use. Scott Forstall, senior vice president of the iPhone Operating System, knew the project would fail if this wasn’t fixed, and he pulled every UI developer from application design work, re-assigning them to keyboard design.

One of the engineers had the idea of using artificial intelligence to dynamically alter the hit regions of certain keyboard buttons depending on the likelihood that that key would be the next key that the user selected. For example, if the first letter selected was “t,” there would be a high probability that the next character the user wanted was “h,” so the hit region of the “h” was automatically and invisibly increased. This was found to work better than all the competing designs and was selected for inclusion in the product.

Because the iPhone was such a critical project for Apple, the management team was careful to select only the very best engineers and to seat them together. Although Apple was already a large company, the working environment felt much more like a startup to the iPhone engineers, who were cut off from the rest of the company, and since credited each other with a spirit of togetherness throughout an exceptionally challenging two-year period.

Gorilla Glass Enters the Picture

The original plan for the iPhone was for it to have a plastic screen, as that was industry standard at the time. But in September 2006, after Jobs trialled an iPhone prototype with the same hard plexiglass screen used by the iPod, carrying the device around with his car keys in his front pocket, he was disgusted.

“Look at this. Look at this. What’s with this screen?” he complained, holding up a screen covered in scratch marks.

“Well, Steve,” the humbled executive stumbled, “we have a glass prototype, but it fails the one-meter drop test 100 out of 100 times.”

If a glass screen was going to be viable, Apple would need to find a type of glass that was far superior to regular glass.

After a few failed in-house attempts at hardening glass, Apple decided to consider outside help. Jobs was friends with a board member of Corning Inc., and he soon invited their CEO, Wendell Weeks, to his office in Cupertino. Weeks told Jobs the story of how Corning had invented an incredibly strong form of glass called Chemcor back in 1962.

Corning had already invented a glass ceramic “pyroceram,” which is harder than steel and was used in missile nose cones before it became more commonly associated with casserole dishes. But this material lacked the transparency that you normally expect from glassware.

At the end of the 1950s, Corning began “Project Muscle,” an attempt to invent the world’s strongest glass. By 1962 they found that the process of blending of aluminum oxide with sand to produce aluminosilicate and then dipping it into a bath of hot potassium salt and heating to 400 degrees Celsius (752 degrees F) produced the result they desired.

The glass had a chemically hardened outer layer, and its manufacture incorporated an ion exchange and a “fusion process” in special furnaces that Corning built in its Blacksburg, Virginia, facility.

It used this technology to manufacture extra strong windshields for cars like American Motor Corporation’s 1970 Javelins and AMXs, but the venture was a commercial failure.

The lack of mandatory safety standards for motor vehicle windshields meant automakers had no financial incentive to use Corning windshields over the cheaper existing products. A more serious deterrent was that the glass was so strong it created problems in crash tests: Crash dummy skulls broke before the glass did. Corning was forced to terminate Chemcor and Project Muscle in 1971.

birth of the iphone

1970 AMC Javelin SST with Corning Windshield. Photo courtesy of Christopher Ziemnowicz

Corning had invested $42 million on Project Muscle, and it hoped that the day would finally come when it could resurrect its technology. By 2005 it saw that cell phones could be the market.

Because the glass was 15 times stronger than regular glass, it was trademarked as Gorilla Glass.

Jobs told Weeks he wanted as much of this “gorilla glass” as Corning could make within the next six months. Weeks declined. “We don’t have the capacity: none of our plants make the glass now.” Jobs knew never to take no for an answer and replied, “Don’t be afraid. Yes, you can do it. Get your minds around it. You can do it.”

Weeks did not believe it was possible and was amazed when they managed to do it in under six months. “We put our best scientists and engineers on it, and we just made it work.” On the day of the iPhone launch, Jobs sent Weeks a congratulatory memo saying, “We couldn’t have done it without you.” Weeks had it framed and hung up in his office.

Redesigning the iPhone

Near the end of the project schedule, the team was almost ready to manufacture the phone with a glass screen set in an aluminium case. This design, inspired by the iPod Mini, was known as “Extrudo,” and it came with hard edges.

Jobs went to meet Jony Ive and told him, “I didn’t sleep last night because I realized that I just don’t love it.”

Ive was embarrassed and agreed that the design was not perfect. Jobs announced to the rest of his team, “Guys, you’ve killed yourselves over this design for the last nine months, but we’re going to change it.”

Ive’s team came up with a new design where the case was smaller and all aspects of the design focused on the display. To make the change, Apple’s hardware team would need to redo the circuit boards, antenna, and processor placement. Jobs ordered the hardware team to make this happen.

“I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes.” – Steve Jobs

David Tupman, Senior Hardware Engineer

David Tupman led a small team of about six engineers who built the hardware. As with all Apple projects, there were constant arguments between the hardware engineers, who wanted more space for the electronics, and Ive’s Industrial Design team, who wanted the devices to be very thin. Tupman recalled, “You’re fighting over every micron. Every micron of thickness and square millimeter of thickness and board area, and you just try to be as innovative as you can to make it work.”

There was a discussion about whether the original phone would support 3G, but the hardware team found all the 3G chipsets available at the time were too big and power hungry.

Apple was working with Samsung to build the iPod, and Tony Fadell asked them to provide

the main chipset for a new project that he could not go into details on. They had an ARM11-based chipset and agreed to modify it to what Apple asked for. Tupman since admitted that Apple would never have been able to ship the iPhone as early as it did without Samsung’s help.

But not everything went smoothly. Just a couple months before Jobs planned to reveal the product to the world, engineers at both Apple and Samsung were fighting with major hardware bugs. The main processor and its cell radio would not reliably communicate, and it was extremely difficult to work out why. According to Tupman, “Steve was ready to start firing everybody.” But what would that action solve? Macworld was approaching fast, and as the iPhone was the main project Apple was working on, the event could not be anything other than a huge disappointment if the iPhone wasn’t demonstrated there. The entire company’s reputation was on the line, and the pressure was immense.

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” – Steve Jobs

The situation grew so desperate that an exception was made to the policy of keeping everything top secret. Teams of engineers from both Samsung and cell radio manufacturer Infineon Technologies were flown into Cupertino to give their expertise.

An all-hands-on-deck effort between the Apple, Samsung, and Infineon resulted in significant progress, but not all the bugs were fixed in time for Macworld. The main chipset was not fully ready. So Apple engineers rigged the demo sequences to make it look like a fully working phone, knowing that what Jobs demonstrated would be representative of the iPhone that would finally ship. “It was all just so monkey-patched together with some of the ugliest hacks you could imagine,” recalled Andy Grignon.

When Jobs presented the iPhone, he boasted that it worked like magic. And like every great magician, not a single member of the audience spotted the sleight of hand.

Join us in Part 13: The Redemption of the iPhone to learn how Apple pushed through immense adversity to turn the product into a worldwide sensation.

About the author

    Kevin O'Shaughnessy

    A senior Web developer based in the UK. Kevin runs a blog at www.zombiecodekill.com and is also a regular guest blogger at Outlier Developer. He believes in continuous learning and improvement. Kevin is also active on Twitter @OShaughnessyKev.