The iPhone’s Creators Reveal the Consequences They Never Expected

From a Wall Street Journal story by Joanna Stern headlined “The iPhone’s Creators Reveal the Consequences They Never Expected”:

While on vacation in Hawaii with his family in 2011, Tony Fadell woke up in a cold sweat. He couldn’t get something out of his mind: a group of people at the resort unable to put down their phones and in search of the perfect paradise selfie—or snapshot of their tropical drinks.

“They’re not enjoying the world around them and you’re like, wait a second. What’s going on here? We are disintermediating reality with this screen in front of our face?” he told me.

Mr. Fadell wasn’t just some cranky guy on a beach: He’s one of the creators of the iPhone.

Fifteen years ago this week, Rihanna stuck “umbrella-ella-ella” in our heads, we were mourning the end of “The Sopranos,” and eager fans lined up in the streets to buy Apple’s first phone.

Was the iPhone the first smartphone? Absolutely not. But the ones before it, from BlackBerry, Motorola, Palm and others, were only awesome if you were a briefcase-toting, email-obsessed exec. And even then, let’s be honest, they weren’t awesome.

With a new all-touch design and a simple app-based interface, the iPhone was the phone that changed phones—and then everything. Android phones from Samsung and others eventually expanded the market and reached the masses, but Apple had the Model T, the first one to follow down the road.

In a new documentary, I set out to pinpoint the biggest changes in the iPhone’s 15-year history to see how it went from a cute device for phone calls and music to one at the center of our lives. Alongside that I traced the impact of the phone on Noah Schmick, a boy who was born the same day as the iPhone. You can watch the full film here.

Through my interviews with current and former Apple executives, one key theme emerged: Not even those with a front-row seat for the development of key features quite understood the massive impact—both good and not-so-good—they would have. These are some of the unforeseen consequences of the iPhone’s evolution, and the moments at which Apple’s own people realized them:

iPhone (2007)

Think back and you’ll remember that the biggest difference—and worry—about the original iPhone was that it required you to type on a screen. Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer laughed it off, saying it was “not a very good email machine.” The top BlackBerry executives said it had a “lousy keyboard.”

Inside Apple there was some similar doubt, yet before the first iPhone went on sale, Mr. Fadell, an Apple senior vice president at the time, started to notice something happening in Apple conference rooms: Employees testing the new phones couldn’t put them down during meetings.

“The culture changed inside of Apple when we were able to be always-on and always messaging and checking things,” said the executive, who left Apple in 2008 to start Nest, the thermostat innovator now owned by Alphabet. “We had a glimmer of the impact but I didn’t know what it would be when the phone went outside of Apple.”

Of course, now we know exactly what happened outside of Apple: We all learned to type on a screen. Email volume only increased. And besides, with no bulky keys taking up half the phone’s front, you could immerse yourself in movies, pinch on photos to zoom and swipe your fingers through websites.

iPhone 3G (2008)

What came on the heels of the first iPhone can actually be credited with changing the world: The App Store. That was when Apple let others in. Angry Birds? Waze? Uber? Instagram? They each transformed the phone into something altogether different, yet you could have all of them simultaneously.

Again, Apple executives weren’t entirely sure what would happen when the store launched alongside the iPhone 3G. “We thought maybe we would get 50 apps, we’d be feeling pretty good as a nice little start,” Greg Joswiak, Apple senior vice president of world-wide marketing, told me. “We had 500.”

By April 2009, 25,000 apps a week were being submitted for approval, according to Phillip Shoemaker, who oversaw the app-review process for the company at the time.

Every Friday morning, Mr. Shoemaker would lead a meeting with the app executive review board, a group of senior leaders including, at times, Steve Jobs.

“We would go through all the apps that my team and I flagged as unforeseen, something we hadn’t seen before,” he said.

Some of the examples he recalled: a “Psycho” app, where a blade appeared on the screen and you would shake the phone to make it sound like you were brandishing it; a hand-warmer app that worked by overheating the iPhone with a lot of processing tasks; an app that, coupled with some electronics, enabled you to remote-control a real cockroach (“Seriously,” he added). There were also many apps with inappropriate sexual content.

Mr. Shoemaker witnessed another surprise first hand—but at home, not at work. His 5-year-old daughter, Mylie, got very into a game called “Smurfs’ Village.” She played it for weeks and weeks. One day, Mr. Shoemaker got a credit-card bill that showed he had paid over $450 to Apple, his own employer. For what? Smurfberries, the kid app’s local currency.

That, combined with customer complaints about hidden in-app purchase costs, pushed the team to create the “Mylie Rule,” which required extra due diligence on apps for children. This led to an iOS update requiring a password to purchase anything within an app.

iPhone 4 (2010)

Apple had long been interested in photography. In fact, Mr. Fadell told me Apple discussed creating its own camera when the iPod became a hit. Ultimately, though, the iPhone ended up being both.

“Why would you carry a second camera if your phone is the device you’re gonna always carry with you?” Mr. Joswiak said. From the outset, ever-improving photography was part of Apple’s program, he said.

But what wasn’t expected? Selfie-mania.

“The next phone has a front-facing camera, and we are trying to figure out, what do you do with the front-facing camera?” recalled Justin Santamaria, an engineering manager who led the development of FaceTime in 2010. “You could take a picture with the front-facing camera. Is that gonna be big? I don’t know.”

It was big. Very big. Selfies exploded, becoming a top form of expression among younger iPhone owners. So did the apps that facilitated sharing them.

Mr. Shoemaker recalls talking to a 21-year-old Evan Spiegel, working out of his dad’s house, about his concept for disappearing photo messages. “I’m thinking this is going to be used for bad things,” he said. “If there’s a disappearing message at the end of it, there’s gotta be nefarious intent, right?”

Apple worked with Mr. Spiegel on content-moderation policies and allowed the Snapchatapp into the store. Mr. Spiegel is now CEO of Snap, a $23 billion publicly traded company.

Mr. Santamaria’s project, FaceTime, grew to be an important medium for communication, made all the more valuable during the global Covid-19 pandemic.

But according to Mr. Santamaria, FaceTime was one of the first to use Apple’s push-notification service, which brought little red dots with numbers, sounds and home-screen pop-ups to the phone. These days, it’s hard to imagine a time when your phone didn’t show you dozens or even hundreds of these pop-ups a day.

“It’s recognized that we’re more distracted than ever,” Mr. Santamaria said, adding that notifications are partly to blame. The general thinking on the team at the time, however, was that notifications could actually streamline the iPhone experience, he said instead of demanding “your attention more.”

iPhone 6 (2014)

The smartphone competition got bigger—literally. Android phone makers, particularly Samsung, had expanded the size of the screens to 5 and even 6 inches. The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg called the first Galaxy Note, with a 5.3-inch screen, “positively gargantuan.” Apple underestimated the demand for larger displays.

Recalling that time, Mr. Joswiak said Samsung had “ripped off our technology. They took the innovations that we had created, created a poor copy of it and just put a bigger screen around it.” Apple sued Samsung for patent infringement—and by the end of the last decade, Samsung had paid Apple hundreds of millions in compensation.

A Samsung spokeswoman said the company has “pioneered many mobile-industry firsts,” including large OLED displays and water- and dust-resistant devices.

Apple finally caved and expanded the screens on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, which went on to be some of the company’s best-selling devices. Today’s iPhones have even bigger displays. Apple also followed Samsung with water-resistant models, wireless charging and other small but powerful features smartphone users now take for granted.

iPhone 11 (2019)

Some will argue that the iPhone X in 2017, which killed the home button and introduced Face ID facial recognition, was a huge leap. I say an even bigger one came with the iPhone 11 models and their dramatically improved battery life. No longer did we need to run around with battery backpacks and extra chargers.

And all that—the bigger screens, the powerful cameras, the all-day battery life—left us with a powerful computer in our hands that was harder than ever to put down. And social-media companies developed algorithms to send us content and notifications to keep us hooked. That wasn’t part of the 2007 vision.

It’s hard to disagree that the iPhone is a powerful instrument for work, education, communication and entertainment. “But at the same we want to help people with the fact that there’s moderation needed,” Mr. Joswiak said. “Sometimes that does mean you have to temper how much you use it.”

In 2018, Apple introduced Screen Time, which allows you to set time limits on apps and provides feedback into how much time you’re spending on your phone. It is especially useful for parents hoping to keep their children from overusing devices.

Throughout my conversations, I realized one thing above all else: The thought these people put into the iPhone was more about making it the best device possible, not as much what world-altering impact it would have.

Steve Jobs isn’t here to reflect on what is perhaps his greatest legacy. But maybe he saw it coming.

“I want to build really good tools that I know in my gut and my heart will be valuable,” he said in a 1994 interview. “Then you just stand back and get out of the way, and these things take on a life of their own.”

Joanna Stern is an American technology journalist, best known for her videos and columns at The Wall Street Journal and technology news websites Engadget and The Verge. She became a personal technology columnist at The Wall Street Journal in 2014.

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