The New York Times has published an excellent behind the scenes look at the making and unveiling of the original iPhone.
Besides some very interesting history on the actual development of the device, the article reveals something that many customers may not know. At the time Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, it was no where near fully functional. In fact, it barely worked at all.
The iPhone could play a section of a song or a video, but it couldn’t play an entire clip reliably without crashing. It worked fine if you sent an e-mail and then surfed the Web. If you did those things in reverse, however, it might not. Hours of trial and error had helped the iPhone team develop what engineers called “the golden path,” a specific set of tasks, performed in a specific way and order, that made the phone look as if it worked.
The Wi-Fi software in the phone was so unstable that the team connected the device to wires running off stage so the signal wouldn’t have to travel as far. To prevent audience members from getting on the frequency they tweaked the AirPort software so it seemed to be operating in Japan where they use frequencies not permitted in the United States.
AT&T brought in a portable cell tower but the iPhone’s radio wasn’t stable either and it often crashed and restarted. To prevent the audience from seeing this they hard coded the signal bars on the phone to always display five bars.
Another issue was that Steve Jobs wanted a direct video out from the device for the presentation. Engineers spent weeks fitting extra circuit boards and video cables onto the backs of the iPhones he had on stage.
The worst problem of all was that the iPhone often ran out of memory and had to be restarted. To circumvent this issue, Jobs had a number of iPhones on stage for the presentation so he could use a different device for each demo, in an attempt to avoid a crash.
If disaster didn’t strike during one of the dozen demos, it was sure to happen during the grand finale, when Jobs planned to show all the iPhone’s top features operating at the same time on the same phone. He’d play some music, take a call, put it on hold and take another call, find and e-mail a photo to the second caller, look up something on the Internet for the first caller and then return to his music.
Andy Grignon, a senior engineer at Apple describes the rehearsals:
“At first it was just really cool to be at rehearsals at all — kind of like a cred badge, but it quickly got really uncomfortable. Very rarely did I see him become completely unglued — it happened, but mostly he just looked at you and very directly said in a very loud and stern voice, ‘You are [expletive] up my company,’ or, ‘If we fail, it will be because of you.’ He was just very intense. And you would always feel an inch tall. It felt like we’d gone through the demo a hundred times, and each time something went wrong,” Grignon says. “It wasn’t a good feeling.”
At the keynote, Grignon and other engineers were in the audience nervously waiting to see if everything would work.
“And so there we were in the fifth row or something — engineers, managers, all of us — doing shots of Scotch after every segment of the demo. There were about five or six of us, and after each piece of the demo, the person who was responsible for that portion did a shot. When the finale came — and it worked along with everything before it, we all just drained the flask. It was the best demo any of us had ever seen.”
The entire article can be found here. It’s an excellent read.