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Management Lessons from the History of the iPhone

Updated: 5 days ago

The iPhone is ubiquitous today, with its touchscreen and other features now second nature for any smartphone user. But it wasn’t always so. A new book by journalist Brian Merchant explores the inside story of the iPhone’s creation at Apple, Inc.: from Steve Jobs’ initial reluctance to create such a device in the first place, to the secrecy and grueling hours surrounding the engineering process, to the iPhone’s transformative impact on the way we interact with technology.

While the narrative is compelling on its own terms, it also highlights how a comprehensive, behind-the-scenes history like this one can provide vital insights into management, innovation, and the origins of success.

A key turning point comes early in the story, when, according to Merchant, Mike Bell, a veteran Apple employee, convinced a skeptical Jobs to move forward with the phone idea. In 2004, Bell sent Jobs a late-night e-mail that began “Steve, I know you don’t want to do a phone but here’s why we should do it,” and then elaborated on the technological and design possibilities that made it attractive. Jobs immediately called Bell and they “argued for hours, pushing back and forth” before Jobs came around to Bell’s view. This organizational culture—in which employees could push back against a CEO’s decision and leaders would change course in the face of convincing evidence—was at the root of Apple’s innovation.

The history also reveals the importance of learning from past product ideas — successful and otherwise — in order to innovate. The iPhone built not only on the iPod, an acknowledged success, but also on the Motorola Rokr, a device dubbed the “iTunes phone” that was widely criticized for its slowness and limited memory. The iPhone, in other words, did not happen in a vacuum; rather, it consciously drew on earlier products and ideas, some of them deeply flawed.

Finally, Merchant reveals “a number of competing origin stories” for the iPhone. By delving into the documentary record and interviewing some of the key players, he found that all of these stories were, in some sense, true, since “as many as five different phone or phone-related projects” were unfolding at Apple by the mid-2000s. And this illustrates a key point: when a single dominant narrative emerges to explain a successful product or decision — as it often does — it can omit other factors that helped contribute to the success in question. By unearthing and examining multiple origin stories, historians can shed light on the complex web of factors that nurtured an important innovation, making it easier to replicate those factors in the future.

The history of the iPhone is, in many ways, sui generis. And some aspects of the tale — such as engineers who worked such long hours that they attribute their divorces to the device — serve more as warning than as inspiration. Still, that history may very well assist Apple as it pursues similarly transformative advances in areas such as automated homes and cars. It also shows why other firms should look to the past as they chase the next big thing.

Arielle Gorin, a Saybrook consultant, specializes in the history of the US and Canada. She is currently researching a history of the Ford Foundation.


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