Tony Fadell Shares New Details On The Birth Of Apple’s IPhone

We’ve learned a lot more about the iPhone as it celebrates its tenth anniversary this week, blogger Sonny Dickson shared some interesting details about the two main prototypes for the iPhone user interface. This morning, ex-Appler Tony Fadell has taken to Twitter to share a whole bunch of new insights into how the iPhone was born.

Exactly! No doubt in anyone's mind which was the right path. Those on the iPod based UI knew is was doomed. SJ pushed us, "Make it work!"

— Tony Fadell (@tfadell) January 11, 2017

Made on a Mac

Apparently the user interface variants were designed on Macs and only “years later” ported to work on iPhones.

The thing is all the teams involved in the project had a feeling that the right user interface would be the one that eventually won, Fadell explained in a Tweet.

“No doubt in anyone’s mind which was the right path. Those on the iPod based UI knew it was doomed. Steve Jobs pushed us,” he wrote. “Steve asked us to test all the possibilities.


There were many competing UI ideas - both physical & virtual clickwheels. The clickwheel was very iconic & we were trying to leverage that.

— Tony Fadell (@tfadell) January 11, 2017

All about the Clickwheel

If you ever used an iPod you will remember the Clickwheel user interface you had to control music (and later podcasts and video) playback on the device. 

“We’re gonna use the best pointing device in the world. We’re gonna use a pointing device that we’re all born with – we’re born with ten of them. We’re gonna use our fingers.” Steve Jobs, iPhone launch 2007

This was a brand new paradigm in user interfaces when it first appeared – we’d never had something so intuitive.

That’s why Apple wanted to take a closer look at the UI while developing it. “The Clickwheel was very iconic and we were trying to leverage that,” Fadell wrote.

Incredibly hard to work on something you didn’t believe in - especially when I used a rotary dial phone growing up. The push button won!

— Tony Fadell (@tfadell) January 11, 2017

Make it so

History shows us that in the end the iPod Clickwheel was destined to pass into history – MultiTouch won out.


That’s why Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, was able to say the iPhone used the world’s simplest user interface: touch and was able to amuse his audience by showing a picture of an iPod dressed up as an phone that was equipped with a rotary dialer.

Given their gut feeling that touch would win through, the teams had to work extra hard to develop a ClickWheel interface. “Incredibly hard to work on something you don’t believe in – especially when I used a rotary dial phone growing up,” Fadell says. “The push button won”.

(We know from a New Yorker report that design of the interface took a great deal of effort. Even as late as 2004 the essential technology behind the interface hadn’t been invented. “The studio hadn’t invented the essential technology - nor, indeed, had Apple engineers - but the designers helped guide it to market, over years,” the report claimed.)

There were many variations as we co-evolved the designs - both HW UI and SW UIs. Good design process doesn't follow a straight line...

— Tony Fadell (@tfadell) January 11, 2017

There were lots of designs

Apple works very hard on design. That’s one of the reasons the company became so incensed when the entire industry decided to “draw inspiration” from its iPhone design. These days it seems every phone is a rectangle with a Multitouch interface and a big display. It need not have turned out that way, Fadell reveals.

He says there were “many variants” as the company co-evolved the smartphone design. “Good design process doesn’t follow a straight line.”

The need to iterate and iterate one again led to some interesting contrasts. For example, at point there was an iPod with a larger display for watching video that used a virtual Clickwheel and an iPod phone with a physical wheel.

Wrong!!! There was never a competition. We, together, were searching for the best solution. Steve asked us to test all the possibilities...

— Tony Fadell (@tfadell) January 11, 2017

Cooperation, not competition

There have been some reports characterizing the effort made by the iPhone design teams as competitive, but that’s not how Fadell sees it.

“The ideas were competing, not the teams,” he explained.

“We, together, were searching for the best solution. Steve [Jobs] asked us to test all the possibilities.”

Did they know it was special?

There are still some industry pundits who don't seem to recognize the transformative nature of the iPhone.

Not only did the device set the template for every smartphone since (though you may want to watch this movie trailer for a unique slant on this), but the teams involved in creating the device knew that what they were doing was transformative.

That’s also why Apple’s Steve Jobs was able to say his company had been “lucky to have brought a few revolutionary user interfaces to market in our time” when announcing iPhone.

The rest is history, some of which isn’t written yet.

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