Quora: The Secret History of the iPhone

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Answer from Brian Merchant, Writer, editor, author of The One Device:

What is the secret history of the iPhone? There are (at least) two different ways to think about this question.

New versions of iPhone may be getting an OLED screen I'll stop here, thanks, Apple. Regis Duvignau/REUTERS

The first is that there is a hidden history of the product inside Apple, which has long been obscured from view by the company’s strong predilection for secrecy. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the mid-to-late 90s, he exhibited a new penchant for secrecy, keeping the names and deeds of particular teams and team members secret from the press and the public, which, he argued, allowed him to better tell the story of each of the company’s products. Thus, many tend to associate the iPhone (or the iPod or iPad) primarily with Steve Jobs, or with Jobs and Jony Ive. The truth is, there were many different teams composed of many different brilliant designers, engineers, and programmers who made huge breakthroughs in order to make the iPhone possible.

Apple has kept that history a secret largely, I believe, to simplify its message and to benefit from the fact that Steve Jobs was a brilliant and beloved public figure. The first part of my book is based on sharing that secret history.

The second is that there is a ‘secret’ history of the device you hold in your hand right now—one that’s secret, yes, because Apple doesn’t disclose exactly how it’s made or where its parts come from, exactly, but secret also because we don’t always care to look. I didn’t, at least. To remedy that, I followed the supply chain all the way back to the raw materials the iPhone comes from, in an effort to illuminate the secret history of each physical device—from tin mines in Bolivia, lithium mines in Chile, to component manufacturers in China, to the retail stores around the world, meeting the people who make the physical product possible.

Additionally, there are also plenty of what you might call ‘hidden’ histories wound up into the phone; uncredited pioneers of technologies like multitouch, like Wayne Westerman, Bill Buxton, and Bent Stumpe, for instance, who are unknown to the public, but who made the modern device possible.

Understanding all of these ‘secret’ histories, I believe, is crucial to understanding how a product as massive as the iPhone comes into being.

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