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And Then Steve Said, ‘Let There Be an iPhone’ - NYTimes.com


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The second iPhone prototype in early 2006 was much closer to what Jobs would ultimately introduce. It incorporated a touch-screen and OS X, but it was made entirely of brushed aluminum. Jobs and Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief, were exceedingly proud of it. But because neither of them was an expert in the physics of radio waves, they didn’t realize they created a beautiful brick. Radio waves don’t travel through metal well. “I and Rubén Caballero” — Apple’s antenna expert — “had to go up to the boardroom and explain to Steve and Ive that you cannot put radio waves through metal,” says Phil Kearney, an engineer who left Apple in 2008. “And it was not an easy explanation. Most of the designers are artists. The last science class they took was in eighth grade. But they have a lot of power at Apple. So they ask, ‘Why can’t we just make a little seam for the radio waves to escape through?’ And you have to explain to them why you just can’t.”

I'm going to cut and paste my favorite parts of the article here.

Steve Jobs was uncompromising, hard driving, and mean:

“At first it was just really cool to be at rehearsals at all — kind of like a cred badge,” Grignon says. Only a chosen few were allowed to attend. “But it quickly got really uncomfortable. Very rarely did I see him become completely unglued — it happened, but mostly he just looked at you and very directly said in a very loud and stern voice, ‘You are [expletive] up my company,’ or, ‘If we fail, it will be because of you.’ He was just very intense. And you would always feel an inch tall.” Grignon, like everyone else at rehearsals, knew that if those glitches showed up during the real presentation, Jobs would not be blaming himself for the problems. “It felt like we’d gone through the demo a hundred times, and each time something went wrong,” Grignon says. “It wasn’t a good feeling.”

The presentation had to be magical:

Jobs wanted the demo phones he would use onstage to have their screens mirrored on the big screen behind him. To show a gadget on a big screen, most companies just point a video camera at it, but that was unacceptable to Jobs. The audience would see his finger on the iPhone screen, which would mar the look of his presentation. So he had Apple engineers spend weeks fitting extra circuit boards and video cables onto the backs of the iPhones he would have onstage. The video cables were then connected to the projector, so that when Jobs touched the iPhone’s calendar app icon, for example, his finger wouldn’t appear, but the image on the big screen would respond to his finger’s commands. The effect was magical. People in the audience felt as if they were holding an iPhone in their own hands. But making the setup work flawlessly, given the iPhone’s other major problems, seemed hard to justify at the time.

No one had ever put a multitouch screen in a mainstream consumer product before, either:

Capacitive touch technology — a “touch” by either a finger or other conductive object completes a circuit — had been around since the 1960s. Capacitive multitouch, in which two or more fingers can be used and independently recognized, was vastly more complicated. Research into it began in the mid-1980s. It was well known, though, that to build the touch-screen Apple put on the iPhone and produce it in volume was a challenge few had the money or guts to take on. The next steps — to embed the technology invisibly in a piece of glass, to make it smart enough to display a virtual keyboard with autocorrect and to make it sophisticated enough to reliably manipulate photos or Web pages on that screen — made it hugely expensive even to produce a working prototype. Few production lines had experience manufacturing multitouch screens. The touch-screens in consumer electronics had typically been pressure-sensitive ones that users pushed with a finger or a stylus. (The PalmPilot and its successors like the Palm Treo were popular expressions of this technology.) Even if multitouch iPhone screens had been easy to make, it wasn’t at all clear to Apple’s executive team that the features they enabled, like on-screen keyboards and “tap to zoom,” were enhancements that consumers wanted.

As early as 2003, a handful of Apple engineers had figured out how to put multitouch technology in a tablet. “The story was that Steve wanted a device that he could use to read e-mail while on the toilet — that was the extent of the product spec,” says Joshua Strickon, one of the earliest engineers on that project. “But you couldn’t build a device with enough battery life to take out of the house, and you couldn’t get a chip with enough graphics capability to make it useful. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out just what to do.” Before joining Apple in 2003, Strickon had built a multitouch device for his master’s thesis at M.I.T. But given the lack of consensus at Apple about what to do with the prototypes he and his fellow engineers developed, he says, he left the company in 2004 thinking it wasn’t going to do anything with that technology.

The people who created iPhone worked ridiculous hours and were sworn to secrecy:

Compounding all the technical challenges, Jobs’s obsession with secrecy meant that even as they were exhausted by 80-hour workweeks, the few hundred engineers and designers working on the iPhone couldn’t talk about it to anyone else. If Apple found out you’d told a friend in a bar, or even your spouse, you could be fired. In some cases, before a manager could ask you to join the project, you had to sign a nondisclosure agreement in his office. Then, after he told you what the project was, you had to sign another document confirming that you had indeed signed the NDA and would tell no one. “We put a sign on over the front door of the purple dorm” — the iPhone building — “that said ‘fight club,’ because the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club,” Scott Forstall, Apple’s senior vice president of iOS software until last October, testified in 2012 during the Apple v. Samsung trial. “Steve didn’t want to hire anyone from outside of Apple to work on the user interface, but he told me I could hire anyone in the company,” Forstall said. “So I’d bring them into my office, sit them down and tell them: ‘You are a superstar in your current role. I have another project that I want you to consider. I can’t tell you what it is. All I can say is that you will have to give up nights and weekends and that you will work harder than you have ever worked in your life.”

Remarkably, Jobs had to be talked into having Apple build a phone at all:

It had been a topic of conversation among his inner circle almost from the moment Apple introduced the iPod in 2001. The conceptual reasoning was obvious: consumers would rather not carry two or three devices for e-mail, phone calls and music if they could carry one. But every time Jobs and his executives examined the idea in detail, it seemed like a suicide mission. Phone chips and bandwidth were too slow for anyone to want to surf the Internet and download music or video over a cellphone connection. E-mail was a fine function to add to a phone, but Research in Motion’s BlackBerry was fast locking up that market.

Above all, Jobs didn’t want to partner with any of the wireless carriers. Back then the carriers expected to dominate any partnership with a phone maker, and because they controlled the network, they got their way. Jobs, a famed control freak, couldn’t imagine doing their bidding. Apple considered buying Motorola in 2003, but executives quickly concluded it would be too big an acquisition for the company then. (The two companies collaborated unsuccessfully a couple of years later.)

iPhone changed everything:

Grignon knew the iPhone unveiling was not an ordinary product announcement, but no one could have anticipated what a seminal moment it would become. In the span of seven years, the iPhone and its iPad progeny have become among the most important innovations in Silicon Valley’s history. They transformed the stodgy cellphone industry. They provided a platform for a new and hugely profitable software industry — mobile apps, which have generated more than $10 billion in revenue since they began selling in 2008. And they have upended the multibillion-dollar personal-computer industry. If you include iPad sales with those for desktops and laptops, Apple is now the largest P.C. maker in the world. Around 200 million iPhones and iPads were sold last year, or more than twice the number of cars sold worldwide.

The impact has been not only economic but also cultural. Apple’s innovations have set off an entire rethinking of how humans interact with machines. It’s not simply that we use our fingers now instead of a mouse. Smartphones, in particular, have become extensions of our brains. They have fundamentally changed the way people receive and process information. Ponder the individual impacts of the book, the newspaper, the telephone, the radio, the tape recorder, the camera, the video camera, the compass, the television, the VCR and the DVD, the personal computer, the cellphone, the video game and the iPod. The smartphone is all those things, and it fits in your pocket. Its technology is changing the way we learn in school, the way doctors treat patients, the way we travel and explore. Entertainment and media are accessed and experienced in entirely new ways.

What's interesting is that Google seems to be the new torchbearer for changing the world.

Google Glass and self-driving cars have a lot of promise.

But they did not have the immediate impact of the sonic boom that was iPhone in 2007.

Cool story.

As far as a new torchbearer not achieving a sonic boom of change like the iPhone, is it maybe because the culture and creativity at Google is largely decentralized and distributed to small teams running emerging projects, such that talent joins up and disbands at the will of the engineers, rather than falling in line and be forced marched underneath some some grand, top-down driven vision of a creative?

That's part of it.

The other part of it is that Google can afford to disrupt without making money because the main revenue sources for the company are still growing at a good pace.

This is why it was affordable for Google to give Android away.

It means that they'll work hard to push the margins of Google Glass to zero because they're better off if more people have them than to try to make a profit on the hardware.

Same thing with self-driving cars.

So it's much more the Amazon strategy of "sell hardware at cost" than the Apple strategy of higher-margin hardware because of the Apple brand.

Ok, but I'm not sure how operating margin distinctions are consequential to disruption, or not, other than speculating if the company will survive long enough to bring a product to market.  Yet the risk of too short an onramp or ramp-up production potential is rarely due to initial customer revenues and has much more to do with cost controls and burnrate of enough capital raised to start.

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I've always thought of the Google business model as making a strategic play to become a public utility with its free services, but without all the public regulation, thereby asserting monopoly status as it quietly creates and integrates new markets.  The freemium model and zero profit margins make sense in this light.

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What I'm less clear about is whether the operational profile of any company, and by proxy its leadership talent, is highly consequential for disruption, as you seemed to imply above.  And so a couple questions remain: 

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1. Will any juggernaut of smart engineers at Google (or elsewhere) ever come up with a product as elegantly viral and sonic boom-like far-reaching as an iPhone without top-down creative leadership driving them to make a sonic boom vision manifest?

2. Can any product by committee conquer the world?  Hmmm, I guess open source products and crowd sourced designs are giving us some object lessons along the way... 

...but are they iPhone iconic in stature?

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