Steve Jobs did not invent the iPhone

Steve Jobs did not invent the iPhone

By Brian Merchant Published on July 1, 2017

An important lesson in innovation—and teamwork—on the 10th birthday of the most popular product of all time.

The iPhone just turned 10 years old, and if you were anywhere near a magazine, newspaper, or screen—swipeable or otherwise—you probably saw a story or nine celebrating its advent. That story would likely run alongside an image of one man in particular. There he is, Steve Jobs on stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Steve Jobs with an aluminum-backed rectangle in his palm. Steve Jobs handing the iPhone down unto the world.

The narrative is clear: Steve Jobs gave us the iPhone, which, at over 1.2 billion units sold, has become the single best selling product of all time. But that narrative also happens to be rather flawed, even misleading. And that’s well worth noting, all these years after the iPhone was set upon its trajectory for world domination—because Steve Jobs did not invent the iPhone.

Rarely is it worth going to the trouble to point out that someone did not invent something. ‘Brian Merchant Did Not Invent the Cuisinart’ is a headline that is unlikely to generate much interest anywhere, ever, even inside the whirring world of cuisinart aficionados. So why pick on Steve Jobs? Why the iPhone? Because the myth is becoming inextricable from the man. Jobs may have never claimed outright that he alone invented the one device—though he did seem to insist on putting his name first on many of its patents—but history is beginning to conflate the art of invention with CEOship, marketing prowess with innovation.

Think back to those photos of the iPhone. There are few, if any, images of the team(s) of impossibly hard-working designers, engineers, and hardware hackers who deserve the lion’s share of the credit for bringing it to life. (And I’m not just talking about Jony Ive, either!) We are being encouraged to believe a version of a myth that has been promulgated for decades, if not centuries: The myth of the sole, or lone, inventor.

At least since Edison—and probably since Newton and beyond—the public has glommed onto narratives of great men with great ideas, overcoming adversity and uncertainty to transform the world with the invention of the light bulb, the telephone, the iPhone. This isn’t anyone’s fault, and everyone’s guilty; our brains just tidily compute such appealing narratives, suffused as they are with moral rectitude and justified outcomes. But in a research paper published in 2012, the renowned patent scholar and Stanford professor Mark Lemley found that the vast, vast majority of inventions were achieved not just by people working in teams, but often simultaneously, by different teams, even sometimes working in different parts of the world. Ideas are truly “in the air” as he says.

We now know, for instance, that Edison most certainly did not invent the lightbulb—he simply perfected it as a consumer product. His team found the ideal bamboo filament that made his bulb’s glow much more appealing than the competition. And even then, Edison manned a large lab staffed by brilliant researchers; but who remembers a name besides Edison’s when we think of the bulb, going off, signifying the spark of a new idea?

So it is with Steve Jobs and the iPhone. In fact, some of the parallels are almost eerie. There was work being done on smartphone products at least a decade and a half before the iPhone was launched—Frank Canova Jr. built the IBM Simon, which was a large black rectangle with touchscreen buttons, apps, and a web browser. Sound familiar? It should—but it was launched in 1993, and flopped. It was ahead of its time, and the technology wasn’t ready.

What Jobs did at Apple with the iPhone was take a smattering of percolating technologies, and drove his team to integrate them in a way never executed so elegantly before. The key word is “team”; the iPhone, in fact, grew out of a series of clandestine meetings, under even Jobs’ radar, in the bowels of Apple’s 2 Infinite Loop building—where designers, user interface experts, and hardware engineers experimented with a collection of technologies until they’d come up with the set of demos that would form the core of the iPhone experience: Multitouch finger sensors married to custom Apple software that would bring the pixels to dance underneath your fingers.

I had a chance to meet many of these pioneers over the course of reporting my book: Bas Ording, Imran Chaudhri, Greg Christie, Brian Huppi, Josh Strickon—any of those names ring a bell? Probably not—yet they’re the forefathers of the iPhone. They prototyped what would become the “one device” long before Steve Jobs even had a whiff of its existence. And then a whole slew of software engineers—Scott Herz, Richard Williamson, Nitin Ganatra, And Grignon and so on, organized by product manager Kim Vorrath—took those experiments and built the world’s most stealthy mobile computer around it. And then a crack team of hardware engineers, including David Tupman, Michael Culbert, and—okay, you’re getting the point. There’s a small city worth of people who contributed to the iPhone, who made it tick, who unfurled its innovations, who designed the most popular software interface of all time, who made it sing on a tiny handheld device. And that is to say nothing of the miners, laborers, and manufacturers who collect and convert the raw materials into tiny components and finished products around the globe.

Steve Jobs made crucial decisions. His business maneuverings—especially absorbing info from the carriers and then winning near-total freedom to build his iPhone any way he liked, and winning favorable contract terms—and his aesthetic tastes in the space were unparalleled. He deserves a lot of credit. Just nowhere near all of it.

“The thing that concerns me about the Steve Jobs and Edison complex,” Bill Buxton, who helped pioneer multitouch in the 1980s (Jobs said Apple invented it in 2007), told me, “is that young people who are being trained as innovators or designers are being sold the Edison myth, the genius designer, the great innovator, the Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates, or whatever,” Buxton says. See: The current myth of the founder-hero, that is partly to blame for steering companies like Uber into peril. “They’re never being taught the notion of the collective, the team, the history.”

Which is why it pains me a bit to see the story of the iPhone reduced to Jobs, brilliant as he may have been. The true version is more intense, messy, convoluted—and human. And it’s not just a matter of doling out credit, either; it’s a matter of understanding how innovation actually happens, so we might facilitate it better in the future. There are lessons here for anyone who might try to build a product, advance a technology, stir progress—or understand how innovation really unfurls. The iPhone is the product of a collaboration carried out on a scale that’s so massive it can seem almost incomprehensible—but it makes more sense than the lone inventor myth. And we can learn more about where we're headed if we look into the iPhone's black mirror and try to see the huge host of faces reflected back—not just Steve Jobs'.

Brian Merchant is the author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone.


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