The iPhone Was Inevitable

Apple changed the world when it launched the iPhone 10 years ago, but the technological march toward computers in everyone’s pockets began long before that.

Apple's former CEO Steve Jobs with Deutsche Telekom and T-Mobile executives at Apple's introduction of the iPhone in Berlin, 2007 (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)

A man sits in a chair in front of a small documentary camera crew. He’s trim, dressed in all black. A red notebook sits on his lap. “Here’s what I wrote in 1989,” he says. “This is a very personal object. It must be beautiful. It must offer the kind of personal satisfaction that a fine piece of jewelry brings. It will have a perceived value even when it’s not being used. It should offer the comfort of a touchstone, the tactile satisfaction of a seashell, the enchantment of a crystal.”

Then comes the reveal. He picks up the notebook. We see a sketch: a rectangular slab of glass, all display, except for bezel at the top and bottom. From his pocket, he pulls an iPhone and holds it above the drawing. The similarities are startling.

“We really had it,” he says with a thin laugh. “We definitely had it.”

This is a scene from the forthcoming documentary General Magic, named for the company that attempted to manufacture the device from the notebook. The man is Marc Porat, CEO of the company. He’d recruited two Apple employees, Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld, who had created the Macintosh. In its earliest iteration, inside Apple, the project had been called Pocket Crystal.

A screenshot from the documentary film General Magic.

After the project was spun out and years of frenzied development, Wired profiled the company in their April 1994 issue. There were 13 million internet users in 1994. There was roughly one cell phone per 100 people on Earth, none of them equipped to do much more than make calls. The first SMS text message had been sent just two years before.

Yet they were convinced that they were making the most important device ever.

“It’s like a lot of different areas are converging on an electronic box that’s in your pocket, that’s with you all the time, that supports you in some way,”  Atkinson told Wired. “That’s going to happen with or without General Magic.”

He was right.

The iPhone launched 10 years ago. The device—and its many, many descendants—is core to how we live. After only a decade, smartphones easily outnumber PCs, despite personal computing’s quarter-century head start. There are 2.5 billion Apple iOS and Android smartphones in use out there, with that number, as analyst Ben Evans puts it, “heading for 5 billion plus users.” PCs never even cracked 2 billion users and are now drifting downwards.

The iPhone is the single-most successful product of all time. One billion iPhones have been sold. They underpin the most valuable company in history, and have catalyzed a whole new technology industry that’s an order of magnitude larger than the one built around PCs. This came with a major assist from Android, the mobile operating system that Google acquired, and then rebuilt after the iPhone came out. But the iPhone pioneered the market, the user interface, the working form factor, and the app store. And iPhone users drove network upgrades and buildouts by the major wireless carriers across the world because people with the Apple devices consumed so much data relative to other cellphone users.

In short: the iPhone is the Pocket Crystal, and we are all enchanted.

But staring at the 1989 sketch and down at one’s phone, it is hard not to ask: How could the form, appeal, and importance of the device have been apparent 18 years before its appearance?

Was the iPhone, in some way, inevitable?

* * *

If you want to understand the long sweep of tech history that culminated in the iPhone, it’s worth paying a visit to Bill Buxton’s gadget museum. A Microsoft user-interface designer, he’s collected dozens and dozens of interactive devices, and documented them for all to see. Strange keyboards, handheld devices, electronic gloves, touch screens, touch pads, phones, and e-readers.

The General Magic Data Rover 840, a 1998 release, is in the collection. It looks nothing like a Pocket Crystal. Like all the other devices designed to work with General Magic’s software—e.g. the Sony PIC series and Motorola Envoy—the housing is grey and bulky. There’s a stylus, of course, and a grayscale backlit screen. The device is heavily skeumorphic, drawing on real-world analogs for everything. To add a new contact, one had to first go to the “Office,” one of the software’s “rooms,” before pulling up the address book functionality. The settings were located in the “Hallway,” like a thermostat.

General Magic Data Rover 840 (Buxton Collection).

This is not to fault General Magic for creating devices with the technology of the era. Buxton’s collection contains other key precursors to the modern smartphone—and all of them have that teenage awkwardness to them.

There’s the Newton, Apple’s own personal digital assistant, which was released in 1993. The so-called MessagePad looks more like Porat’s sketch, but it relied on shaky handwriting recognition and inadequate battery technology. While Newton improved through the ’90s, it was eventually canceled, and history records it mostly as a flop.

Apple Newton Message Pad 120 (Buxton Collection).

Then there are the various devices that Palm powered. The Palm Pilot, introduced in 1996, became the standard bearer for PDAs, as they were known through the end of the ’90s. They were useful and improved steadily, but never became much more than glorified address books and calendars.

Palm Pilot (Buxton Collection)

“No computer product category has been more ridiculed than the PDA,” wrote Home Office Computing magazine in 1995. “Originally conceived as a tiny digital factotum that would call home, receive faxes, store documents, and send email, the first PDAs from AT&T, Apple, Casio, and Tandy fell far short of expectations.”

That’s how a review of the most intriguing early smartphone, the IBM/BellSouth Simon, begins. It was a straight-up smartphone with a touchscreen—in the mid-’90s. The battery lasted eight hours in standby mode or a single hour in use. It weighed more than a pound. And it cost $899. But it worked better than the rest of the devices out there.

The Simon, a collaboration between IBM and BellSouth Cellular (Buxton Collection).

The Home Office Computing review ends promisingly, or ominously, as it were. “It may be that we're still asking too much of PDAs,” it says. “For example, how can you possibly fit an acceptably large touch screen on an object that’s supposed to fit in your pocket?”

While PDAs floundered through the 1990s, cell phones soared. Nokia became the world’s dominant smartphone maker with rugged, simple devices. It’s easy to forget that Nokia was the cell phone game for many years. In the year the iPhone came out (2007), Nokia sold 437 million phones and had near half of the cell phone market. And yet they never released anything that looked like the Pocket Crystal.

But that’s not to say that they didn’t think about it. In a funereal piece in The Wall Street Journal, former head designer Frank Nuovo rued Nokia’s mistakes.

“More than seven years before Apple Inc. rolled out the iPhone, the Nokia team showed a phone with a color touchscreen set above a single button. The device was shown locating a restaurant, playing a racing game and ordering lipstick,” the Journal narrated. “In the late 1990s, Nokia secretly developed another alluring product: a tablet computer with a wireless connection and touch screen—all features today of the hot-selling Apple iPad.”

Nuovo, clicking through his old slides like General Magic’s Porat paging through his old sketches, echoed the General Magic CEO’s lament. “Oh my God,” he said. “We had it completely nailed.”

So many people had it—and with the backing of the world’s most powerful electronics’ companies—and yet none of them made it.

When Buxton launched his virtual museum six years ago, he told me that it takes two decades for something genuinely new to become a billion-dollar business.

“If what I said is credible, then it is equally credible that anything that is going to become a billion-dollar industry in the next 10 years is already 10 years old,” Buxton said. “That completely changes how we should approach innovation. There is no invention out of the blue, but prospecting, mining, refining and then goldsmithing to create something that's worth more than its weight in gold.”

There is no wizard, no singular genius, who comes up with the Next Big Thing, but something like an evolutionary process. Apple’s iPhone business hit $1 billion in sales in 2008. By 1998, most of the conceptual work thinking through an iPhone-like device had been done.

*  * *

“The iPhone is a deeply, almost incomprehensibly, collective achievement,” Brian Merchant declares in his new biography of the iPhone, The One Device.

“Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb, but his research team found the filament that produced the beautiful, long-lasting glow necessary to turn it into a hit product,” Merchant writes. “Likewise, Steve Jobs did not invent the smartphone, though his team did make it universally desirable. Yet the lone-inventor concept lives on.”

In The One Device, Merchant works through the technical achievements, distributing acclaim in and outside Apple. The glass—Gorilla Glass—was a Corning achievement, which had its roots in a half-century-old research project. The multi-touch screen that allowed the entire surface of the glass to become the user-interface has its origins in the European physics organization, CERN. Merchant quotes Buxton saying his lab at the University of Toronto was working on multi-touch in the early 1980s, and that he’d seen an earlier working system at Bell Labs. The winding multitouch trail continues through the University of Delaware, where an electrical engineer named Wayne Westerman created a multi-touch system for typing to ease his own repetitive stress injuries. Apple eventually bought the company and filed patents on the technology with Westerman’s name on them.

One last example, the lithium-ion battery. Merchant provides a pithy genealogy: “The lithium-ion battery—conceived in an Exxon lab, built into a game-changer by an industry lifer, turned into a mainstream commercial product by a Japanese camera maker, and manufactured with ingredients dredged up in the driest, hottest place on Earth—is the unheralded engine driving our future machines.”

Apple’s supply chain for tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold, and cobalt includes no less than 256 refiners and smelters. Look just at the cobalt in lithium-ion batteries and you find a crazy trail that’d leads back primarily to the copper mines of the Congo, and on to smelters in China. China is the biggest consumer of cobalt and 80 percent of it goes to battery production.

And that’s just the stuff inside the phone. There is also the nearly unbelievable story of how much data capacity the various cell phone providers have added, which requires tower after tower of equipment. From 2007 to 2010, when iPhones were only available with an AT&T wireless connection, data traffic on AT&T’s network went up 8,000 percent. And the growth kept going. A Cisco research study found that from 2011 to 2016, when smartphones became far more prevalent, mobile data traffic grew 18-fold. Now, the country hosts an enormous electronic forest: more than 118 thousand towers are now in operation, according to an industry publication.

Underpinning all of these systems are the incredible leaps in computing power (Moore’s law) and energy efficiency (Koomey’s law) that have been hallmarks of the computing revolution. The chip work, alone, represents hundreds of billions of dollars of R&D, not to mention the work on modems and wireless technology by places like Qualcomm.

Merchant follows computer historian Chris Garcia in calling the iPhone a confluence technology: “There are so many highly evolved and mature technologies packed into our slim rectangles, blending apparently seamlessly together, that they have converged into a product that may resemble magic.”

A general-purpose kind of magic, you might say.

* * *

General Magic will probably be written out of the history books as time goes on. The company itself never amounted to much. But look at a list of the people who worked there, and two names jump off the (very distinguished) list: Tony Fadell and Andy Rubin. Fadell led the hardware team that created the iPhone. Rubin led the team that created Android. While Android dominates by market share (87 percent worldwide), the iPhone dominates the profits made from smartphone sales. In any case, together, the two operating systems we can trace back to General Magic have 99 percent share of the smartphone market.

It’s a perfect narrative. A few people in the Apple orbit have the perfect idea. That seed incubates for 15 years until the technology stack catches up, and then two alums of General Magic finally create the object from that original inspired vision.

The only problem is that Fadell has said the iPhone team tried out all kinds of things. They put a scrollwheel on one proto-iPhone. The team had a months-long battle over whether to include a hardware keyboard before Steve Jobs made the decision to go keyboard-less. And Rubin’s team only ditched its hardware keyboard plans after the iPhone came out. If General Magic did have a map of the future, the legend must have been lost somewhere along the way.

The iPhone happened, and we can mark the world as before-and-after. It unlocked a new era of human-computer interaction and human-human interaction. The iPhone is the ur object of our time. A version of it is attached to the vast majority of adults. We sleep with them. We spend more time with them than our children. The success of other technology companies, media empires, romantic relationships, and political campaigns depends on reaching people through them.

Happy 10th Birthday iPhone. Happy 10th Birthday World That the iPhone Made.