The New York Times last week provided a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what it was like working on the original iPhone development team. Much of the article is sourced from Andy Grignon, a former Apple engineer who helped work on the wireless components for the iPhone.
Needless to say, working on the first iteration of the iPhone was an exhilarating and harrowing experience. Grignon recalls working seven days a week and relays that he gained about 50 pounds during the two or so years the original iPhone was in development.
What’s particularly interesting is that the iPhone was still a wonky beta product at the time Steve Jobs introduced it during Macworld 2007.
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 email 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.
But even when Jobs stayed on the golden path, all manner of last-minute workarounds were required to make the iPhone functional. On announcement day, the software that ran Grignon’s radios still had bugs. So, too, did the software that managed the iPhone’s memory. And no one knew whether the extra electronics Jobs demanded the demo phones include would make these problems worse.
Of course, the iPhone introduction went off without a hitch, and was arguably Jobs’ finest product introduction. One piece of previously undisclosed information revealed by Grignon is that the iPhone demoed by Jobs on stage was configured to always display five bars.
Then, with Jobs’ 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.”
Overall, the article provides amazing behind-the-scenes tidbits detailing the tremendous amount of work that went into getting the iPhone to market. What’s more, the article reminds us that Apple working on a phone in the first place was itself a risky undertaking that was only made possible by teams of engineers working upwards of 80 hours a week, often in compartmentalized and secretive teams. Even then, there was no guarantee that the device would go onto become the iconic and successful device that it did.
The full article is rather lengthy, but well worth reading in its entirety for anyone with even a passing interest in Apple history.
For a trip down memory lane, check out Jobs’ full iPhone introduction below.