Space & Innovation

The iPhone at 10: The Myth and the Reality of Apple’s Famous Device

Brian Merchant, author of&nbsp;<em>The One Device: The Secret History of the IPhone</em>, urges skepticism toward the conventional wisdom about how Apple’s ubiquitous smartphone came to be.

Take a leisurely scroll online and you'll find a merry parade of 10th anniversary stories this week, reflecting on the uniquely American success story that is the iPhone. But is the story unique? Is it really American? What kind of success are we talking about?

A simple and powerful mythology has gathered around the iPhone over the years, with Apple's prime mover Steve Jobs heralded as the iPhone's visionary inventor. Jobs, so the story goes, was the design savant and tech messiah who conjured up this mystical device that will guide us through the new millennium.

But we would do well to question this received wisdom, says Brian Merchant, author of a new book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone. Merchant, a reporter and editor at the science and technology website Motherboard, digs deep into the history of the iPhone's development, which is often very different from the popular narrative that has established itself.

Merchant said he's been tracking this week's 10th anniversary coverage with great interest.

“One of the things I was trying to do with the book is dismantle the lone inventor myth, the idea that Steve Jobs invented the iPhone,” he said. “That's just a shorthand mythology that Apple has used, and it's effective as a marketing tool.”

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While Jobs certainly made important contributions to the development of the device, Merchant said, the reality is that the iPhone is an immensely complex piece of technology, brought about by scores of people within Apple — and hundreds of people outside the company.

“These were technologies that had been maturing for decades,” Merchant said. “Apple did not do the most amount of work on these technologies, but they did a really good job presenting them.”

As an example, Merchant cites the core iPhone feature of touchscreen technology. Touchscreen devices were already in use well before the advent of the iPhone, ATMs being a ubiquitous example. Apple's application of the technology — its famed “multi-touch” functionality of pinching and swiping — was hawked as visionary development for consumer devices.

But according to Merchant's research, that technology was not developed inside Apple. It was purchased.

“In the 1990s, this guy who has severe tendinitis, Wayne Westerman, developed this product to help people relieve hand strain,” Merchant said. “That technology — and there were several versions of it — was called FingerWorks. Somebody at Apple brought it in, because they had repetitive strain injury.”

Developers in Apple's input technology division took notice.

“In 2005, Apple buys Wayne Westerman's technology wholesale, so they can integrate it into the iPhone,” Merchant said. “Two years later, Steve Jobs stands on stage and says, ‘We've got this great technology that Apple invented called multi-touch and we've patented it.’”

Merchant said that while it's true Apple improved the technology, maybe even perfecting it for consumer use, they didn't invent it.

“Out of all the misleading statements in the pantheon, that one takes the cake, because Apple did not in any way, shape, or form invent multi-touch,” he said. “To say so is greatly reductive and misleading.”

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The multi-touch story is just one example of developments that get lost in the mythology of the iPhone, Merchant said. There’s also the little matter of who it is that actually, you know, makes our phones.

“Let's remember the huge supply operations, the hundreds of thousands of laborers in mainland China who put this thing together for us,” Merchant said. “The miners in Indonesia and the Congo and Bolivia that pried the raw materials out of the ground in these very deadly conditions. Let's look a the whole tapestry of human effort that made this thing possible.”

Merchant traveled extensively to research the nuts-n-transistors details of global iPhone production. In one passage of the book, he ditches his chaperones at an iPhone factory in China and takes an unauthorized, self-guided tour of the facilities.

Merchant’s up-close familiarity with the real story of the iPhone has made him particularly sensitive to the all the 10th anniversary coverage.

“I have tried to keep an eye on it,” he said. “I see this trend of repeated stories, that Steve Jobs made the iPhone, and I really hope that the book can serve as a sort of counter-narrative.”

As to the future of the iPhone, and smartphones in general, Merchant said he's not really in the prognostication business. But he did offer some insights.

“My belief is that the evolution is going to continue very slowly,” he said. “We have everyone talking about augmented reality and virtual reality; new features and directions. But the basic foundation of the smart phone hasn't changed that much in ten years. It's just been iterated and beefed up and accelerated.”

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Now that Apple and its competitors have distributed these devices around the world, Merchant believes the iPhone and its imitators will be with us for a good, long while.

“It's become so standardized, so central to how we conduct our daily lives, that it's much harder to radically innovate,” Merchant said. “As a culture, we've decided that we really like this product, this rectangle in our pocket. It's as entrenched as the car, and we haven't had any truly conceptual changes to that design in decades.

“So yeah,” he added, “in the spirit of reckless speculation, maybe the radical idea is that nothing radical is going to happen. We'll actually have this rectangle in our pockets for a lot longer than anyone thinks.”