By Jackson Stiles
The iPhone, credited with redefining the mobile phone and helping make Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world along the way, marks its 10th anniversary today.
Since it was first unveiled in 2007, the company has gone on to sell more than one billion units.
Apple has introduced 11 new generations of the iPhone, drastically redesigning the device on several occasions, including the release of the first five-inch version in 2014.
The phone also sparked the creation of the App Store, which launched in 2008 and has since been at the heart of the creation of a large number of hugely successful mobile app businesses, including the likes of Angry Birds, Uber and Deliveroo.
It very nearly didn’t get off the ground.
How it all started
On a stage in San Francisco, Steve Jobs, a balding tech genius in a black turtleneck and blue jeans, holds up a shiny black device and tells the world that ‘Apple Inc’, his newly renamed company, is about to “reinvent the phone”.
“Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes the world”, he tells the spellbound audience at the company’s annual MacWorld expo on January 9, 2007.
It is a bold gamble, perhaps even a lie.
The prototype Jobs holds up to the cameras barely works. His entire demonstration is a carefully planned sham: a game of smoke and mirrors.
If anyone in the audience gets their hands on it, the device is more likely to freeze or randomly restart than work properly. For this reason, no one but Jobs is allowed to touch it.
“The most advanced phones are called smartphones, so they say. And they typically combine a phone plus some email capability plus they say it’s the internet, sort of the ‘baby’ internet, in one device,” Jobs says.
“The problem is they’re not so smart and they’re not so easy to use.”
The truth is, neither is the iPhone he is holding—one of fewer than 100 prototypes in existence.
For weeks, his team maps out a careful order of tasks they are reasonably certain the phone can handle. They call it the “golden path”. If Jobs does anything to the phone not on this list, or if he changes the order in any way, the device may crash, embarrassing him on the world stage.
But if it works, Jobs may convince the tech industry, and a wider body of consumers, that Apple Inc really can deliver “an iPod, a phone and an internet communicator” all in one.
The gamble pays off.
These secrets are divulged in Battle of the Titans: How the Fight to the Death Between Apple and Google is Transforming our Lives, a 2013 book by tech journalist Fred Vogelstein.
“There was even less they could do to make sure the phone call Jobs planned to make from the stage went through. All Grignon and his team could do was make sure the signal was good and pray. They had AT&T bring in a portable cell tower so they knew reception would be strong. Then, with Jobs’ support, they preprogrammed the phone’s display to always show five bars of signal strength regardless of the true signal. The chances of the radio’s crashing during the few minutes that Jobs would use it to make a call were small, but the chances of it crashing at some point during the ninety-minute presentation were high.”“The software in the iPhone’s Wi-Fi radio was so unstable that [software engineer Andy] Grignon and his team ultimately soldered antenna wires to the demo phones and ran them offstage along the wires to the projection setup. The iPhone would still connect wirelessly to the network, but the signal wouldn’t have to travel as far. Even then, Grignon and his team needed to make sure no one in the audience could get on the frequency they were using,” Vogelstein writes.
Apple launches the iPhone in June that year, with many (but not all) of the bugs ironed out. The first iteration comes in two models: the 4GB or 8GB. They are initially only available through Cingular Wireless, a subsidiary of AT&T, then the biggest telco in the US.
Years later, in 2013, a team of researchers from the United Arab Emirates publish a paper that theorises there have been three great ages of the smartphone.
The first age is when smartphones are only for business people, with email, fax, camera and limited internet, and no more. The defining moment of the second age, so says the paper, is the advent of the iPhone, when portable computing is suddenly opened up to the masses.
Greg Christie, then a senior software engineer at Apple, has also revealed in recent years that the phone had a codename, and that Jobs jealously guarded its secrets.
Scott Forstall, a senior member of Apple’s software team, reportedly approaches Christie in late 2004 to ask if he wants to work on a secret project called “Purple”. He agrees and joins a “shockingly small” team.
For several months, Christie meets Jobs twice a month in a windowless room on the second floor of Apple’s headquarters in Cuppertino, California. Only a handful of employees have access to the room, and cleaners are not allowed in.
Security is tight. Jobs reportedly demands that employees working on “Purple” at home must use a computer in a secluded part of the house to prevent anyone seeing details. All digital images are to be encrypted.
Such has been the success of the iPhone that as an individual business the revenue generated by the phone alone exceeds that of some of its rivals, including Microsoft and Google.
Increasing pressure from competitors—some would even say outright plagiarism—has eroded its market share. Sales of the iPhone dropped for the first time in its history in 2016.
But its moment in history cannot be erased.