Apple engineer recounts events leading up to the original iPhone unveiling

Steve_Jobs first iphone

Fred Vogelstein has published an interesting article in The New York Times today entitled “And Then Steve Said, ‘Let There Be an iPhone.’” The lengthy piece offers up a detailed look at the events that lead up to the original iPhone unveiling.

More specifically, Vogelstein’s profile paints a picture of what the atmosphere at Apple was like leading up to Steve Jobs’ big keynote, with anecdotes from Andy Grignon, who was in charge of the original iPhone’s radios, and other employees…

This particular story from the Times article explains how hard it was for Grignon and other engineers to explain to the likes of Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive that radio waves don’t travel through metal. “Sure it looks good, but it won’t make calls.”

“It incorporated a touch-screen and OS X, but it was made entirely of brushed aluminum. Jobs and Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief, were exceedingly proud of it. But because neither of them was an expert in the physics of radio waves, they didn’t realize they created a beautiful brick. Radio waves don’t travel through metal well.

“I and Rubén Caballero” — Apple’s antenna expert — “had to go up to the boardroom and explain to Steve and Ive that you cannot put radio waves through metal,” says Phil Kearney, an engineer who left Apple in 2008. “And it was not an easy explanation. Most of the designers are artists. The last science class they took was in eighth grade. But they have a lot of power at Apple. So they ask, ‘Why can’t we just make a little seam for the radio waves to escape through?’ And you have to explain to them why you just can’t.”

And Jobs wasn’t exactly the easiest person to talk to. This anecdote describes how the pressure that Jobs put on his team to meet product deadlines created a really tense atmosphere around Apple—particular in its iOS software division.

“The pressure to meet Jobs’s deadlines was so intense that normal discussions quickly devolved into shouting matches. Exhausted engineers quit their jobs — then came back to work a few days later once they had slept a little. Forstall’s chief of staff, Kim Vorrath, once slammed her office door so hard it got stuck and locked her in, and co-workers took more than an hour to get her out. “We were all standing there watching it,” Grignon says. “Part of it was funny. But it was also one of those moments where you step back and realize how [expletive] it all is.” 

But my favorite tale out of the entire piece is this one detailing the night before the new infamous Macworld keynote of 2007, where Jobs would unveil the first iPhone. As you can imagine, engineers were terrified that something would go wrong.

“Grignon and some colleagues would spend the night at a nearby hotel, and around 10 a.m. the following day they — along with the rest of the world — would watch Jobs unveil the first iPhone.

But as Grignon drove north, he didn’t feel excited. He felt terrified. Most onstage product demonstrations in Silicon Valley are canned. The thinking goes, why let bad Internet or cellphone connections ruin an otherwise good presentation? But Jobs insisted on live presentations. It was one of the things that made them so captivating. Part of his legend was that noticeable product-demo glitches almost never happened. But for those in the background, like Grignon, few parts of the job caused more stress.”

Vogelstein’s entire article—which you can find here—is worth reading. It really gives you an idea of what goes into a major product launch at Apple, and it seems like an appropriate way to reflect on the eve of the second anniversary of Jobs’ passing.