Apple engineer recalls the iPhone’s birth

Daisuke Wakabayashi
27 March, 2014
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In February 2005, Apple Inc’s then chief executive, Steve Jobs, gave senior software engineer Greg Christie an ultimatum.

Christie’s team had been struggling for months to lay out the software vision for what would become the iPhone as well as how the parts would work together. Now, Jobs said the team had two weeks or he would assign the project to another group.

“Steve had pretty much had it,” says Christie, who still heads Apple’s user-interface team. “He wanted bigger ideas and bigger concepts.”

Christie’s team devised many iPhone features, such as swiping to unlock the phone, placing calls from the address book, and a touch-based music player. The iPhone ditched the keyboard then common on advanced phones for a display that covered the device’s entire surface, and it ran software that more closely resembled personal-computer programs.

Christie has never publicly discussed the early development of the iPhone. But Apple made him available on the eve of a new patent-infringement trial against Samsung Electronics Co to highlight a key element of its legal strategy – just how innovative the iPhone was in 2007, when it arrived.

Since then, Apple has sold more than 470 million iPhones. The phone is now the subject of patent disputes around the world between Apple and Samsung, the two biggest and most profitable smartphone makers. Apple contends that Samsung copied its designs and software features, while Samsung argues that many iPhone and iPad innovations aren’t exclusive to Apple.

In an earlier trial in US district court in San Jose, California, juries ordered Samsung to pay Apple US$930 million for infringing other Apple patents. Samsung is appealing the decision.

The next round starts on Monday. Apple claims Samsung infringed on five more of its patents, including the ‘slide to unlock’ feature for which Christie is listed as an inventor. Samsung counters that Apple has violated two of its patents. The damages could be larger than those awarded in the earlier trial, because this case covers features in more recent phones that sold in greater volume.

A Samsung spokesman declined to comment.

Christie joined Apple in 1996 to work on the Newton, the short-lived personal-digital assistant that had a touch screen controlled by a stylus. But the Newton proved to be ahead of its time – too big, too expensive, with software that was too balky. Despite the failure, Christie remained intrigued by the potential of a powerful computing device that could fit in a pocket.

In late 2004, Christie was working on software for Apple’s Macintosh computers when Scott Forstall, a senior member of the company’s software team, walked into his office, closed the door and asked if he wanted to work on a secret project, codenamed ‘purple’. The team would develop a phone with an integrated music player, operated by a touch screen.

A system created by Apple to test early iPhone software in 2006. It tethered a plastic touch-screen device – code-named 'Wallaby' – to an outdated Mac to simulate the slower speeds of a phone's hardware. (Image: Apple)

By that time, Jobs had revived Apple and focused it around key products, including the iPod. Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of iPhone and iOS product marketing, monitored other phone makers for signs of a handset that integrated a music player, threatening the iPod.

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.

He also said the team was “shockingly small”. Apple declined to specify the number of members.

For several months, Christie made twice-monthly presentations to Jobs in a windowless meeting room on the second floor of Apple’s Cupertino, California headquarters. Only a handful of employees had access to the room; cleaning people weren’t allowed in.

The day after Christie’s team finally impressed Jobs with its vision of the iPhone software, it had to repeat the presentation for Bill Campbell, an Apple director and close Jobs confidant. Christie recalled Campbell saying the phone would be better than the original Mac. Campbell didn’t return a call seeking comment.

A few days later, Jobs summoned the team for a third demonstration, this time for Jony Ive, Apple’s design chief. Ive’s team was designing the glass for the physical device. “He was curious how we were going to pull off that magic trick” of manipulating software, Christie said.

With each demonstration, Jobs took over more of the narration, making the story his own. “His excitement for it was boundless,” says Christie.

So was his demand for secrecy. Jobs ordered employees working on the project at home to use a computer in a secluded part of the house to prevent anyone from accidentally seeing details. He also demanded that employees encrypt digital images of the device.

The green light in early 2005 was the start of what Christie calls a “two-and-a-half-year marathon”. It involved rethinking every part of the phone, from how to check voicemail to how to display a calendar. Jobs obsessed over every detail.

In late 2006, a few months before Jobs formally introduced the iPhone, the CEO asked Christie what albums would best demonstrate the phone’s ‘cover-flow’ feature for scrolling through images. Jobs wanted album art with bright colours and lots of faces to show off the phone’s display. But the music needed to be ‘Steve music’. They settled on the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In the following six months, before the iPhone went on sale in June 2007, Christie’s team made other changes. At Jobs’s urging, they eliminated a split-screen view for email with information about the sender on one side and the message on the other. “Steve thought it was foolish to do a split screen on such a small display,” Christie says.

Almost seven years into the life of the iPhone, Christie says one moment stands out. A few days before Jobs’ keynote, Christie entered the auditorium through a side door using two separate security badges, then pulled back a thick curtain. He saw a giant image of the iPhone’s home screen projected onto the screen in the dark room. At that moment, he said, he realised how big the phone would be.

“It was glowing in this huge space,” says Christie. “My heart skipped a beat and I thought, ‘This is actually happening’.”

by Daisuke Wakabayashi, WSJ Online

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