Technology

How Did Steve Jobs Fake the First iPhone?

With the possible exception of the wheel, there probably hasn't been a more influential invention than the iPhone. Right from Steve Jobs' very first demo, it was clear that this little brick of circuits and glass was going to change the world. But maybe it wouldn't have if the phone had just crashed and burned on stage — and it very nearly did.

More Bugs Than Features

The world first met the iPhone in 2007, when Steve Jobs demonstrated its power live on stage at the Macworld Expo. If you've got 50 minutes to kill, the video link in the previous sentence is a masterclass in flimflammery. The iPhone wasn't the first smartphone, but it was capable of things far beyond its predecessors. What's more, it was easy and intuitive to use — a puzzle that most phone manufacturers were still struggling to crack at that point. The audience didn't have to take Steve's word for it, either. While he moved through his revolutionary presentation, he showed off exactly what he was doing with an actual working model he held in his hand.

Except that didn't really happen. Macworld 2007 went down six months before the iPhone actually hit the market, and at the time, the phone was more bugs than functionality. In 2013, engineer Andy Grignon revealed in New York Times magazine exactly how dicey that demo was. It could play videos and music, sure – just not all the way through without crashing. You could send an email from your phone, then surf the web with no problem, but try those tasks the other way around and the thing could become a brick.

And then there was the memory problem. The apps were still new — and huge. If too many were running at once, the phone would run out of memory and need to be restarted. Not especially impressive.

In fact, Grignon says he watched Jobs practiced the presentation hundreds of times in the five days leading up to the expo, and not once saw him get through it without an illusion-shattering glitch. So how did it go so well at showtime?

iSmoke and iMirrors

Here's how: he faked it. The engineers found what they called "the golden path" — a specific set of tasks, performed in a specific way and order, that made the thing look completely functional. The email-before-web trick, for example, was one of the steps in the path. As for the memory issue, that was simple. He just used a bunch of different phones. Every time one was overwhelmed and had to restart, he'd just surreptitiously slip in a new one. Bingo.

There was another issue — and it's one that anybody who's ever been at a tech convention can relate to. When you get a lot of nerds in one room, all trying to show off their newest gear and upload pictures of next year's big thing, it's a major drain on internet bandwidth. And it just wouldn't do to have the iPhone run slow because of all of the plugged-in audience members. So Jobs struck a deal with AT&T, the only company that supported the iPhone at the time — they'd supply a portable cell tower that only the phones on stage could access, allowing the presentation to run at (relatively) lightning-fast speed. The last piece of the puzzle was to jury-rig the phones to always display a five-bar connection, regardless of how many bars it was actually getting.

It was a pretty brilliant — and absolutely underhanded — strategy. But it worked. And even more incredibly, so did the phone, six months later.

Wondering about the rest of the strange and mysterious story of iPhone? Check out "The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone" by Vice technology editor Brian Merchant. You can get it for free by signing up for Audible — and if you do, you can help Curiosity support our "Clash of Clans" habit.

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Written By Reuben Westmaas October 30, 2017