The formerly secret history of the iPhone, as told by Scott Forstall

Mon, Aug 6, 2012

Apple History, Featured, News

The Apple/Samsung litigation has proven to be an Apple enthusiast’s dream. iPhone prototypes, iPad prototypes, and a plethora of fascinating information regarding Apple’s design process and previously undisclosed internal workings of the notoriously secretive company.

This past Friday was no different when Scott Forstall – Apple’s Senior VP of iOS Software – took the stand to testify.

During his examination, Forstall spoke at length about the development of the original iPhone and dropped a number of extremely fascinating tidbits.

“In 2003, we had built all these great Macs and laptops and we started asking ourselves what comes next. One thought we settled on was a tablet. We settled pretty quickly if we could investigate doing that with a touchscreen, so we started investigating and building prototypes.”

And then the talk turned to cellphones, a conversation prompted by a number of Apple executives’ displeasure with their current devices.

“In 2004, I remember sitting with Steve and saying we all hated our cell phones,” Forstall recalled. “We were asking ourselves: could we use the technology we were using with touch and use that same technology for phone. Something that would fit in your pocket.”

Forstall continued:

I’ll never forget we took that tablet and built a small scrolling list. On the tablet, we were doing pinch and zoom. So we built a small list to scroll on contacts and then you could tap on it to call. We realized that a touchscreen that was the size that would fit in your pocket would be perfect for the phone. So in 2004, we switched over from developing a tablet to developing the iPhone.

And so the first plans to hatch the iPhone were born. Jobs then approached Forstall about designing a mobile OS for the device, giving him free reign to handle the software aspect of iPhone development, albeit with one major caveat – Forstall could take anyone from within Apple he wanted, but he was not to hire anyone from outside the company.

So armed with that constraint, Forstall went on to approach all the superstars he could find at Apple whereupon he would deliver a cryptic offer.

“That was quite a challenge,” Forstall explained. “What I did was find people who were true superstars of the company, amazing engineers, bring them into my office and say, ‘you’re a superstar in your current role. I have an other offer, another option. We’re starting a new project. It’s so secret I can’t tell you what that project is. I can’t tell you who you will work for. What I can tell you is if you chose this new role, you’re going to work hard, give up nights, work weekends for years.”

“We wanted to build a phone for ourselves, “Forstall continued. “A phone that we really love. A computer in your pocket. We wanted to bring out something great without anyone else finding out what we’re doing so they wouldn’t leak it.”

As far as working conditions go, Forstall described how the orginal iOS team worked in a locked down floor in a building on Apple’s campus, complete with security readers and video cameras to monitor activity. The iPhone project was given the code name Purple, so the building was henceforth called the “purple dorm.”

“People were there all the time. It smelled like pizza,” Forstall noted.

And highliting the secretive nature of their work, the team put up a poster of “Fight Club”, because you know, the first rule of Project Purple is that you don’t talk about Project Purple.

Interestingly enough, when asked if he was confident that is core iOS team could pull off what they were aiming for, Forstall said matter-of-factly, “not at all.”

And then we get to how they made the software, Scotty F said that a lot of the work was focused on the iPhone’s new multitouch screen and creating software capable of running on it.

Every single part of the design had to be rethought for touch. We started with a brand new user interface. That’s one. Second, we didn’t want to have a physical keyboard on here. If you look back to even 2005 when the engineering team started on this, smartphones all had a physical keyboard. The most popular one at the time was the BlackBerry. People thought we were crazy.

We wanted to give people the entire web, the entire Internet experience. And the Internet is designed for a much larger screen. When a web designer is building a site, they expect a [large] screen like this. We had a small screen. So we wanted to solve the problem of giving people the entire, Internet experience on this device.

As one would expect, Apple’s iOS guru said that creating and ultimately releasing what would become the iOS interface was an immense and very difficult, and the result of years of blood, sweat, and tears.

Also of note was Forstall’s testimony regarding the ‘163 patent – wherein Forstall is listed as an inventor – which covers “tap to format.”

The patent embodies technology that “makes it real simple for a user to move around, navigate around the web site by double tapping on what you see,”

When asked how he came up with the idea for tap to zoom, Forstall explained that he spent a lot of time using early prototypes and was constantly pinching in and out to get things to look “just right.” After a while it hit him that it would be much more efficient for the OS to take care of this automatically with a simple double tap.

“The team went back and worked really hard” to figure out how to do that..” Forstall said

Forstall was then asked if the feature was a significant one, to which Forstall answered, “ “Absolutely! I remember what it was like before, during development and after. It allowed me to browse the web much more fluently.”

“And we know from our users,” Forstall added, “that browsing the web is one of the things they do on their iPhone. It allows you to have a dramatically better experience.”

Forstall also said it was no coincidence that Apple created an advertisement highlighting the tap to zoom feature of the iPhone.

Some other interesting tidbits include the fact that Forstall has 10 people working with him on the executive side and an astounding 1000 people underneath him who report to him. But the craziness doesn’t end there, Fostall also has 1000 people working on iOS. All told, that’s 2000 people working on iOS under his helm.

As the trial continues on this week, we’ll report back on other fascinating revelations.


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