Former Apple Engineer Gives Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Original iPhone Introduction

originaliphoneJust ahead of the second anniversary of Steve Jobs’ death, Fred Vogelstein has published a piece in The New York Times that gives a detailed behind-the-scenes look at the work that went into both the first iPhone and its January 9, 2007 announcement, featuring information from key iPhone developers like Andy Grignon, Tony Fadell, and Scott Forstall.

According to Andy Grignon, the senior manager in charge of the radios of the iPhone, the night before the iPhone announcement was terrifying. Jobs had insisted on a live presentation of the prototype iPhone, which was still in the developmental stages, often "randomly dropping calls, losing its Internet connection, freezing, or simply shutting down."

The iPhone could play a section of a song or a video, but it couldn’t play an entire clip reliably without crashing. It worked fine if you sent an e-mail and then surfed the Web. If you did those things in reverse, however, it might not. Hours of trial and error had helped the iPhone team develop what engineers called “the golden path,” a specific set of tasks, performed in a specific way and order, that made the phone look as if it worked.

At the time of the announcement, only 100 iPhones existed, with some of those featuring significant quality issues like scuff marks and gaps between the screen and the plastic edge. The software, too, was full of bugs, leading the team to set up multiple iPhones to overcome memory issues and restarts. Because of the phone’s penchant for crashing, it was programmed to display a full five-bar connection at all times.

Then, with Jobs’s approval, they preprogrammed the phone’s display to always show five bars of signal strength regardless of its true strength. 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 its crashing at some point during the 90-minute presentation were high. "If the radio crashed and restarted, as we suspected it might, we didn’t want people in the audience to see that," Grignon says. "So we just hard-coded it to always show five bars."

Apple had poured all of its efforts into the iPhone, and its success largely hinged on a flawless presentation. As described by Grignon, there was no backup plan in place if the presentation was a failure, which put enormous pressure on the team.

Jobs rarely backed himself into corners like this. He was well known as a taskmaster, seeming to know just how hard he could push his staff so that it delivered the impossible. But he always had a backup, a Plan B, that he could go to if his timetable was off.

But the iPhone was the only cool new thing Apple was working on. The iPhone had been such an all-encompassing project at Apple that this time there was no backup plan.

Though there were a huge number of factors that could have caused the presentation to fail, it famously went off without a hitch. Grignon shares a final story on how the engineers and managers that worked on both the iPhone and the presentation shared a flask of Scotch as they watched "the best demo any of us had ever seen."

The full piece, which explores thoughts from other key Apple employees like Tony Fadell and Scott Forstall, is well worth a read. It covers the overwhelming complexity of developing an entirely new product and the extreme lengths that Jobs and his team went to keeping the product a secret.

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Top Rated Comments

MacFan782040 Avatar
139 months ago
"An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator...are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone."

(That still gives me chills)
Score: 54 Votes (Like | Disagree)
3N16MA Avatar
139 months ago
Just imagine being on stage with all eyes on you after years of rumors about to come true. You also know that the product that is about to change your company has a high chance of crashing during the presentation.

Most would be nervous or need some cue cards (we have seen this at keynotes before) but Jobs was as cool as ever. Not even a hint of nervousness during that keynote.

No one does a keynote like Steve Jobs did.
Score: 54 Votes (Like | Disagree)
melendezest Avatar
139 months ago
Now that's vision and leadership. Steve made that team do the impossible: make a product that, well, didn't work right appear to be nearly flawless.

And after release, his team delivered on that vision (ok, eventually).

This is something that is often underestimated. Just because a team has the skills and abilities to do something does not mean it will get done. That's where great leadership and vision comes in. Painful, yes. But great. The results speak for themselves.

Steve was, and still is, considered amazing in this regard. Alas, leaders and visionaries like that don't come often.

Those saying "stop with the worship", etc, etc, just don't get it. It's not about "religious" rhetoric, it's about appreciation, and recognizing skills that are hard to come by and thus incorporate them so as to make us better.
Score: 38 Votes (Like | Disagree)
sphoenix Avatar
139 months ago
Well, they fooled me!
Score: 21 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Tankmaze Avatar
139 months ago
The iPhone could play a section of a song or a video, but it couldn’t play an entire clip reliably without crashing. It worked fine if you sent an e-mail and then surfed the Web. If you did those things in reverse, however, it might not. Hours of trial and error had helped the iPhone team develop what engineers called “the golden path,” a specific set of tasks, performed in a specific way and order, that made the phone look as if it worked.
Ooo wow, that was chaos.
but I can relate to this or other developers working for a client, to demo a product and only show what needed to be shown.

no wonder they need another 6 month to launch the phone when they announced back in january 2007.
Score: 17 Votes (Like | Disagree)
inkswamp Avatar
139 months ago
The lies... the deceit...
The humanity! :rolleyes:

Why couldn't they just wait a few months until it was more polished?
IIRC, there were some issues with public communications filings with the FCC that would have revealed the iPhone. Apple decided to get in front of that instead of letting it steal their thunder. Smart move, IMO. They got a solid 7 months of nonstop buzz out of it.
Score: 14 Votes (Like | Disagree)