Oct 13

A rare bit of Apple journalism

Three days ago, The New York Times published a terrific article about the making and unveiling of iPhone.

It’s mostly drawn from the experience of Andy Grignon, a senior manager involved in creating the first iPhone, but also contains quotes from Tony Fadell and others.

Two important things about this article:

First, it’s written by a real writer. Fred Vogelstein weaves a most interesting tale, which is likely to draw you in whether you love Apple or loathe it. It’s a refreshing change from what you read on a hundred blogs every day. (Ouch. I think I just insulted myself.)

Most important, Vogelstein’s article addresses the true nature of innovation in the technology business, with its neverending challenges and complexities. Anyone who believes that Apple relies more on borrowing than innovating will have an enlightening experience.

Though it doesn’t address the issue head-on, the article illuminates the difference between a company that has to figure things out from scratch vs. one that copies the inventions of others.

Great writing aside, Vogelstein does manage to get a few things wrong.

The premise of the story is that Steve Jobs was unveiling iPhone six months before it would ship. Because of this, it was extremely unfinished and almost impossible to demo without a frightening degree of risk.

Vogelstein provides the reason: “Even though the iPhone wouldn’t go on sale for another six months, [Steve] wanted the world to want one right then.”

That may be true, but he doesn’t mention the reason why Steve was unveiling iPhone six months before it shipped. That would be secrecy. Before Apple could sell any iPhones, it had to get the device approved by the FCC. That would take months, and once it was in the hands of the FCC, it would be almost impossible to keep secret.

Steve wasn’t about to let anyone steal his thunder on launch day — so he made the decision to announce iPhone before the FCC got their mitts on it. That way, Apple’s iPhone event would contain maximum surprise and generate maximum buzz.

Given that iPhone was still six months away from launch, it’s not unusual that it was so unfinished when Steve unveiled it. What’s unusual is that it was unveiled six months before it shipped — unlike any other product in Apple history. That far before its ship date, every Apple product has serious issues.

When Vogelstein describes the challenges facing the modern Apple, he plays back some of the familiar Apple misperceptions.

He points out that Apple’s stock price dropped after the most recent iPhone announcements while past announcements “used to routinely send the stock soaring.” That would indeed be alarming — if it were true. As John Gruber correctly points out, Apple’s stock price has dropped following product launches more often than it has risen — even during Steve Jobs’ reign.

He also states that under Jobs, Apple churned out revolutionary products “every three to five years … but under Cook, nothing has materialized.” This is stated as a problem, even though Cook is currently well within that that three-to-five year timeframe.

I find these extraneous comments unfortunate for the same reason I recently ragged on CNN for misrepresenting Apple news. Most people don’t focus on Apple as much as we do; they simply play back what they get from the major news organizations — even when “the facts” are seriously flawed.

But hey, nobody’s perfect. As I said up top, Vogelstein has written an engrossing article about the extraordinary effort required to create iPhone — and a mesmerizing look behind the scenes of a Steve Jobs presentation. It’s well worth reading.

  • Peter

    Ken, in what way were you involved in the promotion/marketing of the iPhone? Was the iPhone shown to you before the presentation? Care to elaborate on your ”iPhone Story” and the interaction with Apple and SJ back in 2006-2007 ?

  • Gary Deezy

    1) Agreed. Vogelstein shares a compelling story. In some ways, even more interesting than Isaacson’s biography of Steve.
    2) Stock price has almost always been driven up by rumors and then sold off after the announcement. Anyone that didn’t see that wasn’t really paying attention.
    3) I’ve been personally a little hard on Tim Cook myself, and I too would like Apple to release SOMETHING AMAZING SOON. Thanks for reminding me, though, to be fair and let the man have his due time. He’s officially got 365 more days before I start to worry.

  • SuperMatt

    iOS 7 is amazing to me. It is a pretty substantial departure from the previous iOS. However, almost everybody I know loves it. That’s very hard to accomplish. Also, getting 200 million people to upgrade their OS in a week is unbelievable.

  • dr.no

    I find Andy Grignon’s comment in the article that
    He had to tell Steve Jobs and Jony Ives that Wifi doesn’t penetrate metal kind of hard to believe.
    After all Apple had shipped Titanium Macbooks in 2001 with Wifi
    so they knew exactly what has needed.

  • ksegall

    I was a consultant with Apple in the months leading up to the launch of iPhone, involved in the presentation of iPhone on apple.com. So yes, I did see iPhone before it was unveiled publicly. Not sure what you’d like me to elaborate on though — something specific?

  • nsw

    ” Anyone who believes that Apple relies more on borrowing than innovating will have an enlightening experience.”

    Not the folks commenting on that article, unfortunately.

  • Glenn Fleishman

    I was a journalist given access after the keynote in January 2007 to a prototype during a brief. It worked astonishingly well, and I wasn’t “handled” at all. They gave me one which I played with for about 30 minutes while we talked. I don’t think it crashed. I used the apps, browsed the Web. I was astonished by how stable it was.

  • rogifan

    He’s just perpetuating the myth that designers at Apple are obsessed with form over function. I don’t know the degrees of all the industrial designers at Apple but based on linked in profiles I know some of them do have engineering degrees.

  • rogifan

    Galaxy Gear is a lesson to all of us impatient Apple fans. Don’t rush something to market just to be first or just because the market or Wall Street needs an itch scratched. I want something truly useful and truly amazing from Apple. I’m willing to wait to get that and not a dud like the Gear.

  • Merckel

    Kudos for a refreshingly honest story about Apple.

    Until the business model changes for what passes today as “journalism,” we get negative news because it sells, especially with Apple being a celebrity company.

    The lack of accountability with writers is journalism’s biggest problem today.

  • mattack1

    If the alleged range is 3-5 years, shouldn’t it be 1095 days?

  • Dan

    I was wondering your thoughts on the iPhone 5c. Do you think that, just like the iPod mini with colors after the original iPod, they should have made 5c a smaller iPhone with colors because I think people pay premium for Apple and I don’t see it in Apple’s interest to offer a lower quality iPhone with the same size as the 5s. I feel people will chose the 5s over 5c most of the time because a hundred dollars is not much more for the updates. If they answered maybe to the people who want phones that are smaller and more durable, I would be able to understand a new line of iPhones with color. I don’t think Apple has ever offered less features on a device the same size. Just an opinion.

  • ksegall

    I have this stubborn belief in human intelligence. Gets me into trouble :)

  • ksegall

    Thanks. That’s an interesting bit of info. But then after the big unveiling, there was no touching the iPhones in the Apple booth. They were displayed inside plexiglass containers. Maybe the few working models were saved for those private briefings.

  • ksegall

    Opinion duly noted!

    I think the key is that the 5c is not a “lower quality” model than the 5s. It’s just more affordable — due to its plastic case, less powerful processor and lack of Touch ID. Personally, I doubt that a smaller iPhone would have much appeal at a time when a significant portion of the market is gravitating toward bigger screens. That would be low-cost, but it would start to feel cheap.

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  • And creating iOS 7 in approximately 6 months is to me astonishing.

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  • qka

    TiBooks have exterior parts that aren’t metal, specifically to allow the Wi-Fi to work.

  • Peter

    Just wondering about your first response/opinion when you first held an iPhone at Apple’s office and SJ’s interaction with you on the marketing side (e.g. marketing ideas that were not pursued) and how was Phil Schiller involved with you as a consultant during the period before iPhone was launched/when it launched… Just the inside story about your personal interaction during these times (2006-2007) with Apple/SJ/PS (and others) ….

  • ksegall

    Way too long a story for a comment box, I’m afraid.

    Never saw a working iPhone before launch — just models and photos. But certainly everyone involved believed that this would be one of Apple’s greatest moments.