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Top Apple engineer details how the original iPhone was developed


The Wall Street Journal has published a rare authorized interview with Apple senior software engineer Greg Christie who detailed the arduous process involved in getting the iPhone from a concept to a shipping product.

In February of 2005, Steve Jobs gave Christie's team an ultimatum -- either deliver a concept that wow'd or the project would be handed over to another group. At the time, Christie writes that his group was still struggling to figure out just what the iPhone's software would look and act like.

"Steve had pretty much had it," said Mr. Christie, who still heads Apple's user-interface team. "He wanted bigger ideas and bigger concepts."

Mr. Christie's team devised many iPhone features, such as swiping to unlock the phone, placing calls from the address book, and a touch-based music player.


Mr. Christie's team pored over details like the perfect speed for scrolling lists on the phone and the natural feel of bouncing back when arriving at the end of a list. He said his team "banged their head against the wall" over how to change text messages from a chronological list of individual messages to a series of separate ongoing conversations similar to instant messaging on a computer.

Timing of Christie's WSJ interview isn't coincidental. With Apple and Samsung preparing to battle in California next week, Apple made Christie available in an effort to demonstrate, outside of the courtroom, that many of the iPhone's innovations only seem obvious in hindsight. Put differently, Apple wants everyone to know that the iPhone was in every which way an original device that Samsung "slavishly copied."

The entire interview is well worth a read and is chock-full of interesting details, including the fact that the original iPhone team was "shockingly small" and that Steve Jobs obsessed over every detail of the device, from how email messages were displayed to which album covers were best suited to show off the device's Cover Flow feature.

Adding somewhat of a chronological framework to the iPhone development story, Christie notes that he was tapped by Scott Forstall to join the iPhone project in late 2004. Once Steve Jobs was sufficiently impressed by the project's progress, it was green-lit. And so began what Christie referred to as a "2 1/2 year marathon."

Interestingly, Fred Vogelstein's recently released book, "Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution", reveals that the iPhone was still far from a finished product on the day Jobs dazzled the Apple faithful and introduced the world to the iPhone at Macworld 2007.

Based on interviews with then Apple senior engineer Andy Grignon, Vogelstein writes:

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 e-mail 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, by the the time the iPhone launched a few months later, Apple had successfully worked out many of the kinks. Oddly enough, the iPhone's biggest problem upon launch was actually that it was too popular, thereby resulting in horrendous data speeds on AT&T's ill-prepared network.

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