THE ONE DEVICE
The Secret History of the iPhone
By Brian Merchant
Illustrated. 407 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $28.
Before anybody outside Apple was aware of it, the project that would become the iPhone was referred to internally by the code name Purple. No one seems to remember exactly why; it may have been named after a toy purple kangaroo that belonged to one of the engineers.
Purple was so secret that even inside Apple hardly anybody knew about it. It was developed in a lab sealed tight behind badge readers and a metal door. Employees had to sign N.D.A.s for their N.D.A.s. The lab became known as the Purple Dorm because people worked there round the clock, through weekends, holidays, vacations, honeymoons. They ate there. They slept there. It smelled bad.
In fact, although it would eventually emerge as the gleaming quintessence of the collaboration between the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Apple’s design magus, Jony Ive, Purple could seem like a nightmare of overwork, insoluble technical tarballs and political infighting. “You created a pressure cooker of a bunch of really smart people with an impossible deadline, an impossible mission, and then you hear that the future of the entire company is resting on it,” Andy Grignon, one of the iPhone’s key engineers, has said. “It was just like this soup of misery.” The Purple Dorm will no doubt one day be the setting of a taut claustrophobic drama by some future Aaron Sorkin.
If it does, that drama may well be based on “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone,” a new book by Brian Merchant, an editor at Motherboard, the science and technology division of Vice. Merchant does the important work of excavating and compiling large numbers of details and anecdotes about the development of the iPhone, many of them previously unrecorded. It’s important because along with being splash-, water- and dust-resistant, the iPhone is resistant to history.
The iPhone dwells among us, but it looks — it’s designed to look — as if it just moments ago entered our world from some higher, more ideal plane of existence. Just as its flat black face makes no compromise with the contours of the human skull, its gleaming, lickable surface offers no clues about where and when it was made, or by whom, or how. You can’t even open it without a special proprietary screwdriver called a Pentalobe. This is an effect not just of the iPhone’s physical design but of the strange culture of reverence and secrecy that Apple has created around its products. The iPhone knows everything about us, but we know very little about it.
An example: multitouch, the technology that allows the iPhone’s touch-screen to track several fingertips at once — it’s why you can pinch to zoom. Where does it come from? Jobs always maintained that multitouch was invented at Apple. It wasn’t.
As Merchant demonstrates, it was actually invented several different times, including in the 1960s at England’s Royal Radar Establishment and in the 1970s at CERN. The specific multitouch technology that went into the iPhone was pioneered around the turn of the millennium by a man you’ve almost certainly never heard of named Wayne Westerman. A brilliant engineering Ph.D. at the University of Delaware, Westerman worked on multitouch in part because he suffered from severe repetitive strain injury, which made conventional keyboard interfaces agony. Apple acquired Westerman’s company, FingerWorks, in 2005 — whereupon it and Westerman disappeared behind Apple’s Titanium Curtain. The rest is, and isn’t, history. (Apple wouldn’t let Merchant interview Westerman, or any current Apple employee, for “The One Device.” Merchant did, with characteristic thoroughness, track down Westerman’s sister.)
The iPhone is designed for maximum efficiency and compactness. “The One Device” isn’t. The three chapters on the development of the iPhone are the heart of the book, but there’s some filler too. It’s curiously unilluminating to read a metallurgical analysis of a pulverized iPhone, or to watch Merchant trudge around the globe on a kind of iCalvary in search of the raw materials Apple uses — through a Stygian Bolivian tin mine and a lithium mine in the Chilean desert and an e-waste dump in Nairobi where many iPhones end up. This kind of hacker tourism can be done well — the gold standard is Neal Stephenson’s epic 1996 Wired article “Mother Earth Mother Board.”
His one conspicuous success in this line is his visit to a Foxconn factory outside Shenzhen, China, where iPhones are manufactured. Foxconn has a reputation for bad labor conditions, and visiting Westerners are generally closely chaperoned, but during a trip to the bathroom Merchant manages to ditch his minders and take a stroll through the vast, dystopian facility. “It is factories all the way down,” he writes, “a million consumer electronics being threaded together in identically drab monoliths. You feel tiny among them, like a brief spit of organic matter between aircraft-carrier-size engines of industry.” It’s a palpable glimpse of the way the iPhone has, like a shiny glossy virus, physically reshaped the world to produce copies of itself.
Merchant also tells the origin stories of the technologies that converged into the iPhone: Gorilla Glass, motion sensors, lithium-ion batteries, ARM chips, wireless technology and so on. He shows how many people’s work went into the creation of the iPhone, as a counterweight to “the myth of the lone inventor — the notion that after countless hours of toiling, one man can conjure up an invention that changes the course of history.” The lone inventor starts showing his straw stuffing after a couple of paragraphs, but Merchant spends entire chapters chatting with people like Mitsuaki Oshima, the father of image stabilization. Oshima undoubtedly has hidden depths, but as an interviewer Merchant is powerless to reveal them. (“Even with a shake of the camera, the image did not blur at all. It was too good to be true!” etc.)
Even worse is Merchant’s ghastly time-traveling habit. In order to talk about magnetometers we first have to sit still for a history lesson (“compasses can be traced back at least as far as the Han dynasty, around 206 B.C.”). To get to assembly-line production, a concept with which most readers are already pretty familiar, we have to slog back to the Pleistocene Era (“Homo erectus, which emerged 1.7 million years ago, were the first species to widely adopt tools.…”). And so on. The origin of this kind of writing can be traced back at least as far as the Undergraduate Era, to those leaden essays that begin, “Since the dawn of time, mankind has wondered.…”
But when he gets back to the actual iPhone’s creation, Merchant tells a far richer story than I — having covered Apple for years as a journalist — have seen before. If you’ve ever worked on a hopeless project that felt like it was going nowhere, you will draw spiritual strength from Merchant’s account of life in the Purple trenches. It includes fascinating dead ends and might-have- beens (a prototype based on the original iPod’s click wheel, backlit in blue and orange); personal sacrifices (“The iPhone is the reason I’m divorced”); obscure technical hurdles (the phone’s infrared proximity sensor, which turns the screen off when it’s near your head, wouldn’t recognize dark hair); backstage tension at the launch (I was actually there, watching Jobs rehearse the famous iPhone keynote, but apparently missed everything); even a symbolic onstage assassination (when Jobs publicly demonstrated swiping to delete a contact, he used Apple vice president Tony Fadell’s name, foreshadowing Fadell’s imminent departure).
The iPhone masquerades as a thing not made by human hands. Merchant’s book makes visible that human labor, and in the process dispels some of the fog and reality distortion that surround the iPhone. “The One Device” isn’t definitive, but it’s a start. What we need is the critical equivalent of a Pentalobe, a book that will crack open the meaning of the iPhone, to properly interrogate this digital symbiont, or parasite, that has introduced new kinds of both connection and disconnection into our lives. If the iPhone was a revolution, who or what exactly was overthrown? One of the stories Merchant tells comes from Grignon, who was the first person to receive a call on the iPhone. The punch line is that he didn’t pick up. “Instead of being this awesome Alexander Graham Bell moment, it was just like, ‘Yeah,… go to voice mail,’” Grignon says. “I think it’s very apropos, given where we are now.”