iPhone smoke & mirrors as Apple engineer dishes on Steve Jobs' big reveal

A signal gage permanently showing five bars to hide radio crashes, a "golden path" for demos that was the only way to avoid crashes, and Steve Jobs accusing "you are [expletive] up my company": the launch of the original iPhone wasn't straightforward. In a lengthy retrospective about Apple senior engineer and iPhone radio manager Andy Grignon, the NYTimes pieces together the back-story on the game-changing iOS smartphone, and just how close to falling apart on-stage – and behind the scenes – the project was.

The first iPhone – despite not having 3G, third-party app support, or more than a 2-megapixel camera – effectively changed the smartphone world back in 2007. Steve Jobs' demo on January 8 saw the Apple founder not only critique just about every element of the existing phone experience, but walk through how the iPhone would fix them.

However, with six months between the big unveil and the iPhone actually shipping, things weren't quite so polished behind the scenes. Grignon's recollection is punctuated with nightmare moments, not least the true nature of the iPhone prototypes Apple had to work with.

"In truth, the list of things that still needed to be done was enormous. A production line had yet to be set up. Only about a hundred iPhones even existed, all of them of varying quality. Some had noticeable gaps between the screen and the plastic edge; others had scuff marks on the screen. And the software that ran the phone was full of bugs.

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" Fred Vogelstein, NYTimes

Jobs' polished demonstration was actually more smoke & mirrors, Grignon reveals. Frequent radio crashes led the iPhone team to hard-code five bars of signal strength on-screen, masking any background issues; Jobs had a number of different units he could switch between to highlight each app's functionality before running up against the prototypes' mere 128MB of memory.

In total, three different versions of the original iPhone were created, it's said, with the bullishness of executives and an engineering team "riding high from their success with the iPod, [who] assumed a phone would be like building a small Macintosh." The project picked up on early work in 2003 on a multitouch tablet, the design spec for which apparently included creating something Steve Jobs could happily use during bathroom breaks.

"The story was that Steve wanted a device that he could use to read e-mail while on the toilet – that was the extent of the product spec," Joshua Strickon, an engineers from the tablet project, says. The tablet failed to materialize as a commercial product – until several years later, and the first iPad – as it butted up against the limits of battery and GPU technology at the time. "You couldn't build a device with enough battery life to take out of the house, and you couldn't get a chip with enough graphics capability to make it useful" Strickon says. "We spent a lot of time trying to figure out just what to do."

Grignon and his team even had to deal with the over-ambitious plans of Jobs and Jony Ive, the iPhone's designer, when their understanding of wireless fell short of their enthusiasm. One of the earlier designs for the iPhone was for a fully metal bodied handset; challenged with the issue that it wouldn't work with the multiple radios required, Jobs and Ive supposedly asked "Why can't we just make a little seam for the radio waves to escape through?"