Field of Science

Friday Book Review: "The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone"

Isaac Newton's quote about standing on the shoulders of giants applies to science as well as technology. No technology arises in a vacuum, and every technology is in some sense a cannibalized hybrid of versions of it that came before. Unlike science, however, technology suffers from a special problem: that of mass appeal and massive publicity, usually made possible by one charismatic individual. Because of the myth-weaving associated with it, technology even more than science can thus make make us forget its illustrious forebears.

Brian Merchant's book on the origin story of the iPhone is a good example of both these aspects of technological innovation. It was the culmination of dozens of technical innovations going back decades, most of which are now forgotten. And it was also sold to the public as essentially the brainchild of one person - Steve Jobs. This book should handily demolish that latter myth.

Merchant's book takes us into both the inside of the iPhone as well as the inside of the technically accomplished team at Apple that developed the device. He shows us how the idea of the iPhone came about through fits and starts, even as concepts from many different projects were finally merged into one. The initial goal was not a phone; Jobs finally made it one. But for most of the process Job was not involved, and one of the biggest contributions that the book makes is to highlight the names of many unsung engineers who both conceived the project and stuck with it through thick and thin.

Merchant illuminates the pressure-cooker atmosphere at Apple that Jobs cultivated as well as his quest for perfection. Jobs comes across as an autocratic and curmudgeonly task master in the account; most of the innovations were not his, and people were constantly scrambling to avoid incurring his wrath, although that did not prevent him from being first on all the key patents. In some sense he seems to have hampered the development of the iPhone because of his mercurial and unpredictable personality. Nonetheless, he had a vision for the big picture and commanded an authority that none of the others did, and that vision was finally what made the device a reality. Merchant's doggedness in hunting down the true innovators behind the phone and getting them to talk to him - a constantly uphill battle in the face of Apple's ultra-secret culture - is to be commended. This is probably as much of an outsider's inside account as we are likely to get.

The second part of the book is more interesting in many ways, because in this part Merchant dons the hat of investigative field reporter and crisscrosses the world in search of the raw materials that the phone is made up of. As a chemist I particularly appreciated his efforts. He surreptitiously sends a phone to a metallurgist who pulverizes it completely and analyzes its elemental composition; Merchant lovingly spends three pages listing the percentages of every element in there. His travels take him deep into a Bolivian mine called Cerro Rico which mines almost all the lithium that goes into the lithium-cobalt battery that powers the device. This mine, along with mines in other parts of South America and Africa which produce most of the metals found in the phone, often have atrocious safety records; many of the miners at Cerro Rico have average life expectancies of 40 years, and it's only the terrible standard of living that compels desperate job-seekers to try to make a quick buck here. Merchant also hunts down the father of the lithium-ion battery, John Goodenough (perpetual contender for a Nobel Prize), who gives him a tutorial not just on that revolutionary invention but on another, even more powerful sodium-powered batter that the 94-year-old chemist is working on.

Merchant also explores the origin of the Gorilla Glass that forms the cover of the phone; that glass was the result of a late-stage, frenzied negotiation between Jobs and Corning. He leads us through the history of the gyroscopes, image stabilizing camera and accelerometers in the device, none of which were invented at Apple and all of which are seamlessly integrated into the system. And there is a great account of the transgender, maverick woman who massively contributed to the all-important ARM chip that is at the heart of the phone's operating system. Equally important is the encryption system which illustrates one of the great paradoxes of consumer technology: we want our data to be as secure as possible, and at the same time we also want to use technology in myriad ways in which we willingly give up our privacy. Finally, there is an important discussion of how the real innovation in the iPhone was not the iPhone at all - it was the App Store: only when third party developers got permission to write their own apps did sales soar (think Uber). That's a marketing lesson for the business school textbooks I believe.

One of the most important - if not the most important - innovations in the iPhone is the multitouch display, and no other part of the phone illustrates how technology and ideas piggyback on each other. Contrary to popular wisdom, neither Steve Jobs nor Apple invented multitouch. It was in fact invented multiple times before over three decades; at particle physics lab CERN, at the University of Toronto, by a pioneering educator who wanted to make primitive iPad-like computers available to students, and finally, by a small company trying to make it easier for people with hand disabilities to operate computers. One of Apple's employees whose hand was sprained was seen wearing that device; it caught the eye of one of the engineers on the team, and the rest is history. Multitouch is the perfect example of how curiosity-based research gradually flows into useful technology, which then accidentally gets picked up by a giant corporation which markets it so well that we all misattribute the idea to the giant corporation.

Another example of this technological usurpation is the basic idea of a smartphone, which again did not come from Apple at all. In fact this discussion takes Merchant into a charming sojourn into the nineteenth century when fanciful ideas about wireless telegraphy dotted the landscape of popular culture and science fiction; in one illustration from 1907, Punch Magazine anticipated the social isolation engendered by technology by showing a lady and her lover sitting next to each other but choosing to communicate through a fictional wireless telegraph. Like many other inventions, ideas about wireless communication had been "in the air" since Bell developed the telephone, and so the iPhone in a sense is only the logical culmination of this marketplace of ideas. The smart phone itself came from an engineer at IBM named Frank Canova. For a variety of reasons - most notably cost - Canova's device never took off, although if you look at it it appears to be an almost identical albeit primitive version of the iPhone.

In the last part of the book, Merchant takes us on a trip to Foxconn, the world's largest electronics factory. Foxconn which is based in China is a city unto itself, and it's fascinating to have Merchant lead us through its labyrinthine and dimly-lit corridors, housing literally hundreds of thousands of workers whose toil reminds us of scenes from the underground city of Zion in the "Matrix" franchise. At one point Merchant makes an unauthorized excursion into forbidden parts of the factory and is amazed to see a landscape of manufacturing whose sheer scale seems to stretch on forever. The scenes are fascinating even if morbidly so; the working environment is brutal, the workers are constantly overworked and live in cramped quarters, and the suicides are so frequent that the authorities had to install nets in front of buildings to catch those who jumped from the top.

In one sense everything - the Bolivian lithium salt mines with workers breathing noxious fumes and being paid in pennies, the iPhone scrap heaps in Africa over which eager counterfeiters drool, the dozen other odd sourcing companies for metals and plastics, the dizzying cornucopia of iPhone parts with their diverse history and the sweat and toil of countless unknown laborers in far-flung parts of the world struggling to produce this device, often under conditions that would be downright illegal in the United States - come together on that dimly lit factory floor in Foxconn to bring you the piece of technology on which you may be reading these words.

You should never look at your phone the same way again.

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