It happened slowly at first. One day there’d be an empty chair where a star engineer used to sit. A key member of the team, gone. Nobody could tell you exactly where they went.
“I had been hearing rumblings about, well, it was unclear what was being built, but it was clear that a lot of the best engineers from the best teams had been slurped over to this mysterious team,” says Evan Doll, who was then a software engineer at Apple.
Here’s what was happening to those star engineers. First, a couple of managers had shown up in their office unannounced and closed the door behind them. Managers like Henri Lamiraux, a director of software engineering, and Richard Williamson, a director of software.
One such star engineer was Andre Boule. He’d been at the company only a few months.
“Henri and I walked into his office,” Williamson recalls, “and we said, ‘Andre, you don’t really know us, but we’ve heard a lot about you, and we know you’re a brilliant engineer, and we want you to come work with us on a project we can’t tell you about. And we want you to do it now. Today.’ ”
Boule was incredulous, then suspicious. “Andre said, ‘Can I have some time to think about it?’ ” Williamson says. “And we said, ‘No.’ ” They wouldn’t, and couldn’t, give him any more details. Still, by the end of the day, Boule had signed on. “We did that again and again across the company,” Williamson says. Some engineers who liked their jobs just fine said no, and they stayed in Cupertino. Those who said yes, like Boule, went to work on the iPhone.
And their lives would never be the same — at least, not for the next two and a half years. Not only would they be working overtime to hammer together the most influential piece of consumer technology of their generation, but they’d be doing little else. Their personal lives would disappear, and they wouldn’t be able to talk about what they were working on. Steve Jobs “didn’t want anyone to leak it if they left the company,” says Tony Fadell, one of the top Apple executives who helped build the iPhone. “He didn’t want anyone to say anything. He just didn’t want — he was just naturally paranoid.”
he iPhone began as a Steve Jobs–approved project at Apple around the end of 2004. But its DNA began coiling long before that.
“I think a lot of people look at the form factor and they think it’s not just like any other computer, but it is — it’s just like any other computer,” Williamson says. “In fact, it’s more complex, in terms of software, than many other computers. The operating system on this is as sophisticated as the operating system on any modern computer. But it is an evolution of the operating system we’ve been developing over the last thirty years.”
Like many mass-adopted, highly profitable technologies, the iPhone has a number of competing origin stories. There were as many as five different phone or phone-related projects — from tiny research endeavors to full-blown corporate partnerships — bubbling up at Apple by the middle of the 2000s. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in my efforts to pull the iPhone apart, literally and figuratively, it’s that there are rarely concrete beginnings to any particular products or technologies — they evolve from varying previous ideas and concepts and inventions and are prodded and iterated into newness by restless minds and profit motives. Even when the company’s executives were under oath in a federal trial, they couldn’t name just one starting place.
“There were many things that led to the development of the iPhone at Apple,” Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing, said in 2012. “First, Apple had been known for years for being the creator of the Mac, the computer, and it was great, but it had small market share,” he said. “And then we had a big hit called the iPod. It was the iPod hardware and the iTunes software. And this really changed everybody’s view of Apple, both inside and outside the company. And people started asking, Well, if you can have a big hit with the iPod, what else can you do? And people were suggesting every idea, make a camera, make a car, crazy stuff.”