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Apple engineer shares details on the iPhone’s long birth

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By now most people are familiar with the introduction of Apple’s(s aapl) iPhone, which debuted in a 2007 Steve Jobs presentation that literally paused the humongous Consumer Electronics Show hundreds of miles away.

I vividly remember because I was at that CES and Apple’s announcement took the wind out of everyone’s sails that day. But the story of how the iPhone came to be is less well-known. The concept began in earnest 2.5 years prior to launch, according to Apple senior software engineer Greg Christie.

Steve Jobs with iphone

Christie hasn’t publicly shared details of the original iPhone’s development process until now, but he spoke with the Wall Street Journal in an interview that published on Wednesday. The commentary is filled with little nuggets of how the iPhone went from a secret project called “Purple” to the final disruptive product Jobs demonstrated on stage January 9, 2007. This is the full presentation, which is worth the long watch:

Christie had worked on the Newton as far back as 1996, but in 2004 Scott Forstall approached him to work on the secret initiative to create a music player that also worked as a phone and used a touchscreen for controls. According to the interview:

“Mr. Christie’s team pored over details like the perfect speed for scrolling lists on the phone and the natural feel of bouncing back when arriving at the end of a list. He said his team ‘banged their head against the wall’ over how to change text messages from a chronological list of individual messages to a series of separate ongoing conversations similar to instant messaging on a computer.”

While Christie’s team worked on the software — at one point using an old Mac and plastic touchscreen device to simulate the slower performance of a phone using ARM chips — Jony Ive was working on the glass and overall phone design.

iphone simulator

According to Christie, Ive didn’t even see the iPhone software for months, not until the third major presentation of the nearly finished product. That speaks to the secrecy of the effort, which also required that work take place in rooms that only a few employees could access.

Even after the famous iPhone presentation, Christie says major changes to iOS took place in the final months leading up to the June 29, 2007 launch date. Mail, for example, originally used two viewing panes — one for the email list and one for reading actual messages, much like how Mail works on the iPad today. Jobs smartly shot that down because he felt the iPhone screen was too small.



After all these years, why would Apple make Christie available to tell the iPhone back story? It’s all about the patents. Christie is listed on five Apple patents, including the “slide to unlock” feature, all of which are part of Apple’s current suit against Samsung for copyright infringement.

2 Responses to “Apple engineer shares details on the iPhone’s long birth”

  1. reasonableguyca

    Jobs was a masterful nit-picker. Small things that cumulatively would irritate were things he spotted and demanded they be fixed.

    That attention and unwillingness to accept “minor” flaws and compromises are what made the Mac and later iOS interfaces so comfortable.