Last year marked the 10th anniversary of one of the most disruptive product innovations of our time: the iPhone. Apple’s iPhone launched the era of the smartphone, the ubiquitous device that some 2.5 billion people now rely on for their daily communications.

I have long had an interest in how large enterprises innovate, and therefore on the top of my holiday reading list was a book titled “The One Device: The Secret History of the IPhone,” by Brian Merchant. 

While most of us would credit the innovations that led to the development of the iPhone to the genius of Steve Jobs, it was interesting to read that Jobs had to be talked into making a phone in the first place. And even after the iPhone’s glitzy launch in 2007, sales were mediocre until Jobs was talked into opening up the iPhone App Store library to third-party developers — a move that went against his predisposition for proprietary systems.

So the iPhone was not a one-person invention; its development was facilitated by a complex web of human social relationships and interactions. 

In this column, I will put on my “social networking” lenses to explore the human relationships and interactions that resulted in the iPhone. I will then speculate as to whether today’s social-network-centric digital workplace could have helped or hindered a radical innovation like the iPhone.

The Social Network That Made the iPhone

It would be naïve to believe that one could adequately describe the entire influence network that led to the development of the iPhone, but here is my attempt to do so, using information mined from Merchant’s insights:

people and places behind the iphone

Notable Features From the iPhone Social Network

  • Steve Jobs, as we know, is the central character at Apple, a man who ruled as an authoritarian.
  • Those in the Steve Jobs inner circle were, in the end, the only ones capable of changing his mind on something. They all had long and deep relationships with Jobs, most dating back to the earlier years of Apple.
  • A team of innovators at Apple dubbed the ENRI (for “explore new rich interfaces”) group is credited with creating the distintive look and feel of the iPhone. As an informal research and development group without a specific product focus, they cleverly used Apple insider Jony Ive to present their prototype developments to Jobs.
  • The iPhone project also drew from the R&D efforts of many external groups. While several connections came through Jobs’ own industry network, some emerged via some relatively junior staffers. For example, Tina Huang had links to FingerWorks, which provided the impetus for the pinch-and-swipe interface, and Ben Byer was a member of a hacker network whose influence was responsible for Apple improving iPhone security.
  • After making the decision to build a phone, Apple had the luxury (or insight) to allow two promising development streams (P1, which worked on the iPod extension, and P2, which worked on iOS and the pinch/swipe interface) to essentially compete. Importantly though, the human interface groups supported both streams, so that the eventual winner, P2, did still benefit from positive elements of the losing P1 effort. The P1 team continued as the iPhone hardware team, though.
  • Initiatives like Gorilla glass, a custom RISC chipset, Google maps on the initial iPhone and the open App Store (after launch) would also draw heavily from external resources, brokered largely through well-connected Apple engineers.
  • What is not shown on the network diagram, but is evident from the book, was that once the Apple made the decision to develop a phone, the iPhone team was locked down in a secured building and driven to meet nearly impossible deadlines. Staffers were overworked and experienced burnout. Shockingly, one iPhone team member, reflecting on the unhealthy intensity of the workloads, reported that 36 people he had worked with at Apple had since died. Most of the key iPhone team members no longer work for Apple.

Could the iPhone Have Happened in the Modern Digital Workplace?

I like this description of the modern digital workplace, from Elcom Technology, an Australian provider of web content management and intranet software: “Today’s workplace is an always connected environment providing instant access to everything employees need. The lines between the physical office and the place where the work actually happens are becoming blurred, as is the distinction between personal and professional lives. As the workplace becomes digital the whole workforce and upper management can communicate and collaborate in many new and effective ways. The ability to combine productive business relationships beyond the natural work groups enables knowledge sharing across the organization.”

The evolution of the modern digital workplace has accelerated since the launch of the iPhone, and quite likely, also because of it.

Learning Opportunities

Where a modern digital workplace have helped with the development of the iPhone

Brian Merchant’s reporting paints Apple as a very siloed organization, perhaps even by the CEO’s design. Many of the internal tensions were a direct result of teams not being aware of what other teams were working on. Internal competition, like P1 vs. P2, was not uncommon in large tech companies at that time. And consequences for the losers appeared to be quite damaging to a positive organizational culture. It seems likely that a more transparent modern digital workplace could have relieved some of the internal tensions. Such an environment may also have amplified and expanded some of the liaisons with external resources, which, as described in the book, often appeared serendipitous.

It is also likely that the extreme workload and intense atmosphere that the iPhone team dealt with were byproducts of the restrictions on the team’s freedom to reach out to others for help. One could argue that the secrecy maintained around the iPhone development, even inside Apple, was a necessity for competitive reasons. That was certainly Jobs’ perspective. But with the benefit of hindsight, even after the launch of the iPhone, and its consequent dismantling and reverse-engineering by competitors, the iPhone remains the market leader, even 10 years on. Were the secrecy and work silos needed?

Apple, like many successful tech companies, is staffed by engineers delivering on defined projects. It can be difficult for young engineers to explore beyond their own local work areas. The modern digital workplace would have made it easier for key informal research communities like the ENRI group to coalesce and thrive. Thanks in part to Google-inspired policies under which employees can devote 20 percent of their time to personal research, corporate R&D has become less of a formal department and more of a social network of innovative colleagues whose 20 percent time efforts are facilitated by the connections available through the digital workplace.

Where a modern digital workplace have hindered the development of the iPhone

The colocation and lockdown of the iPhone team, the extreme working hours and the intensity of the deadlines are all nearly the antithesis of today’s open, distributed, work anytime and anywhere workplace. One cannot see the modern digital workplace achieving the same level of collaboration and degree of intensity of that co-located group. There is only so much that a chat tool can achieve in terms of intensity!

If you subscribe the Steve Jobs’ ethic of locking down key developments and pitting internal teams against one another in a winner-take-all competition, then there is not much that the modern digital workplace can offer. One could envisage how an enterprise social network, where the majority of groups are closed and secured, might at least improve the efficiencies within silos. Digitally facilitated sharing within secured environments could prove useful at a local team level. That said, it would not lead to distributed teams being more efficient than co-located teams.

Could the iPhone have been developed more effectively in today’s modern digital workplace? I think, for the large part, the answer is yes. While not overcoming the advantages of colocation, I suspect the cross-enterprise-and-beyond transparency, a more diverse outer network, facilitated by today’s digital workplace tools, may have accelerated its development. Importantly, the inclusive nature of social networking may have limited the human damage that much of the iPhone team is reported to have experienced.

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