As the iPhone turns 10, a new book details its ‘secret history’

In January 2007, Steve Jobs appeared at MacWorld in his trademark black turtleneck, blue jeans, and white sneakers, and announced that Apple is going to reinvent the phone.

“An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator,” Jobs said to the cheering audience, “these are not three separate devices – this is one device.” On June 29, 2007 the first iPhone came out.

Apple is a company known for its secrecy. But for his new book, “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone,” Brian Merchant gained access to Apple’s engineers, designers, programmers, and executives to find out how the iPhone came to be.

“A lot of folks were thinking, ‘it’s been 10 years,’ they want the story out there,” Merchant said.

One of the things he discovered was that Steve Jobs initially didn’t want to pursue the phone and had to be convinced. The development of the iPhone began as a wild experimental research project, led by some of Apple’s ambitious engineers and design gurus. Its mandate was limited to ‘explore new rich interactions.’

But the history of the iPhone doesn’t necessarily start there. In the early ‘90s, a product called the IBM Simon had very similar functions, on paper. According to Merchant, the IBM Simon’s unknown inventor, “basically laid out this template of what smartphone could be.” But its features wouldn’t work together seamlessly enough to make it popular, like the iPhone.

While reporting his book, Merchant saw the dark side of iPhone production. He travelled to the Atacama Desert in Chile, where lithium for iPhone batteries is mined. He also got into the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where, he said, work culture hasn’t changed much since the site drew attention for a wave of suicide attempts by its line workers. In 2010 alone, 18 workers tried to kill themselves in desperation and protest of labor conditions; 14 workers were confirmed dead.

While talking to workers in the factory, Merchant heard evidence of harsh labor conditions. “You’re expected to stand on your feet and work sometimes for 12-hour days,” he said. “You’re doing this tiny repetitive motion that can be hard on your hands and if you mess up you can be publicly shamed by your superiors.”

However, Merchant found that Apple has done a little bit more than most of its competitors to use more ethical practices in its production. The company has worked to trace its supply chain to verify that it is conflict-free. Last March, Apple temporarily stopped buying cobalt mined in Congo, because of child labor.