The One Device: A New Book about the iPhone

Brian Merchant’s new book, The One Device, has gotten a lot of media attention, including this review in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a compelling story–and an exhaustive one; maybe the book has too many details–but if you really really want to know everything about the iPhone, this is the book for you.

In any book about innovation, the first thing that I look for is to see if the author debunks the “lone genius” myths that we’ve heard so many times. According to endless media reports, Steve Jobs is the classic lone genius. He’s a loner, he dropped out of college, he comes up with an inspired vision and insists that everyone follow through, without compromise.

There’s a bit of truth in every myth, I suppose. But basically, the idea that Steve Jobs is a brilliant, visionary, lone genius is exaggerated, if not completely wrong. The details in Merchant’s book debunk the lone genius myth. He provides details about the many people who came up with the small creative insights that made the iPhone happen. Often, these people worked without Job’s involvement, and sometimes without his knowledge.

None of Apple’s three products–the Mac, iPod, and iPhone–were original. (Although they were improvements to what existed at the time.) With the ten-year anniversary of the iPhone, I keep thinking of how everyone’s forgotten about the Palm Pilot. Five years before the iPhone, I was checking my email, surfing the Internet, and downloading and installing apps. When the iPhone came out, my first response was, big deal, what’s so new about this? My second response was, I HATE trying to type words on this f***ing touch screen keyboard. (Ten years later, I still can’t do it. Am I the only person with big thumbs?) But my skepticism of the iPhone turned out to be on the wrong side of history. Everybody else was happy to get rid of the stylus and learn how to make their thumb tips really small.

Merchant describes plenty of dead ends and iterations that weren’t planned but that emerged during the innovation process.

  • Jobs didn’t want the Mac to be compatible with other computers (such as IBM PCs with DOS). Does anyone remember when the Mac had its own word processor and spreadsheet programs?
  • In 1985, Apple offered to license their operating system to clone makers, just like Microsoft licensed its PC-DOS operating system. Apple failed, Microsoft won, and now, every computer runs Microsoft Windows.
  • The iPod struggled in the market, until Jobs was persuaded to make it compatible with Windows computers.
  • The iPhone didn’t take off until Jobs finally agreed to open the app store to non-Apple products.

And furthermore, as Dan Gallagher writes in the Wall Street Journal, Apple thought that the iPhone would primarily be used as a phone. (As in, making and receiving voice calls…remember those?)

Yes, Steve Jobs was a strong and stubborn individual who was committed to his ideas. That fits our cultural myths about the lone genius. But the most stereotypically genius of his ideas (stubbornly sticking with your vision) were usually the most wrong. What made Apple, and the iPhone, successful was that its innovation continued down an iterative, wandering path, and that Apple brought together great people into creative teams.

7 thoughts on “The One Device: A New Book about the iPhone

  1. Hi Keith, in this article I write about the history of the development of smart phones in the 1990s. You may be interested to see the photos of Nortel’s Orbitor – a functional Java smart phone which was ready to go to market in 1999. Nortel decided that it was not a B2C company and canned the project. The entire design team for this phone then moved to Apple. It seems that Merchant did not include this piece of iPhone history in his book, but I thought you may like to see one of the handsets which most informed the design of the iPhone: https://transitionconsciousness.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/a-brief-and-personal-history-of-mobile-telephony-1992-2002/

  2. Point taken Keith, but do you remember the buzz around the Palm Pilot?
    Me either 😉
    One thing you have to hand to Apple is the way they capture (and exploit) the vibe.

    1. I remember the Palm Pilot being used primarily in business, it was not really a consumer product. Apple was great at marketing, probably even more than technology. The iPhone really isn’t much different from Android, technically, but people will still pay 3 to 4 times as much for an iPhone. It’s because of the brand, not the features. And as with any brand, when you possess the brand, the brand image rubs off on you. Subconsciously, anyway: “Creative phone” equals “Creative person.”

      1. Not sure I agree the difference is marketing and branding. I’d argue Apple’s difference is providing a better user experience: “there is a third component of product capability: the user experience. Moreover, the user experience is unique in that, like emotional jobs-to-be-done, a product can never be “too good,” and, like technical jobs-to-be-done, it is always possible to improve – or to fall behind.” See – https://stratechery.com/2014/best/

      2. Right, sure, one phone OS could be slightly, or even significantly, better than another. To judge which user experience you like best, you would have to try out the Android, the Apple iOS, and the Microsoft Windows Mobile (although the last is dead, RIP). And then, decide which one has a better user experience. But very few buyers do that. Because the Apple brand includes “better user experience” consumers buy the iPhone because of this brand identity/image. Doesn’t that consumer conception originate in marketing? (That doesn’t mean that the iPhone isn’t better, it might be…I personally prefer Windows Mobile, but obviously most people (almost all people!) don’t.)

  3. Great review. I actually got this book on my Kindle and keep dipping into it.
    I also had an early version of a smart-ish phone back in the 90s.
    It was made by a |French company and it’s been racking my brain for days. But yes, I think the key takeaway here is what Apple has always been amazing at and that’s focusing on the benefits of their products and keeping it simple…

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