Mobile & Apps

The Unknown Story Behind the iPhone

Today most people would regard Steve Jobs as the inventor of the iPhone. I want to share the story of the iPhone that I believe is true, even though I don’t have any proof. It is based on storied I heard and observations. None of this is confidential information I gained while I worked at Motorola in 2004.

How Motorola invented the iPhone

Back in 2004 the RAZR was the best selling phone in history. Apple was starting to dominate the music industry with the iPod and was getting ready to launch the iPod nano. Apple was happy, things were looking good.

Motorola had a team in Libertyville working on customer trends, lifestyle, and technology trends. At the time, a few Motorola phones had music capabilities, and the company saw an opportunity to converge the iPod and the RAZR.

The story is that Ed Zander, Motorola’s president at the time, had a meeting with Steve Jobs to share this idea. Apparently, Steve was not very interested in the idea. Then Ed said something that changed Steve’s point of view (and probably the world):

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“When you leave the house, you always bring the three things: keys, wallet and your cell phone. That’s it. Your iPod is not in this list.”

At that point, Steve understood Motorola’s idea and agreed to build a product. The Motorola ROKR E1 was launched on September 7th, 2005. It was the first phone to work with Apple’s iTunes, a truly revolutionary concept. Yet it was fatally flawed.

There were a few key problems with the ROKR: it could only store 100 downloaded songs at any given time, probably a limitation imposed by Apple to avoid direct competition with the iPod. There was no USB interface, which made the process of getting music into the phone incredibly slow. Apple did not seem to be particularly excited about the ROKR, Ed Zander complained to Apple about lack of support and undercutting it with the Nano.

However, the biggest flaw was usability. Like most cell phones in 2005, the user interface was not intuitive. Here is where you can see the genius of Steve Jobs at work: Steve understood without great user experience the idea of a music phone was going to fail.

Most likely, Steve became frustrated about the lack of UX focus at Motorola, and thought he would execute on the same idea on how own. Development on the iPhone started that same year, in 2005. . It was a monumental task. Building a cell phone operating system from scratch is not an easy task, even for Apple. The iPhone shipped June 2007. The rest, is history.

The iPhone was not perfect when it launched. At the time, it was a closed system that did not allow any third party apps. Apple asked developers who wanted to innovate to basically create a browser app optimized for the Safari mobile browser. After a few months, Steve saw the opportunity in an ecosystem and opened the iPhone to 3rd party apps. Today, the breadth of iPhone apps is one of the strongest selling points, and the focus of the “There is an App for that” ads.

Before Apple fanatics show outside my home with pitch forks and torches, I am not trying to take credit away from Steve. People who know me know I am not a fan of Apple products (I love my Windows Phone and yes, I have a Zune and it is great), but it would be foolish not to recognize Steve as an incredible innovator.

My next post, in fact, will cover the three reasons why Steve was a genius, from the perspective of the Adaptive Marketer.

  Discuss This Article

Comments: 2

  • Mot should have bought Creative Technologies for their (back then) comparable MP3 play and sound tecnology to starve off Apple’s cash cow in iPod. The reason Apple flourish was their MP3 play were not contested at all with Sony thinking MP3 is not it.

    Mot is no mobile computing company before acquiring Symbol Technologies.

    Ed was basking in the glory of RAZR success, which was created outisde the R&D program, before he joined Mot in 2004. Taking the shortcut to leverage iTune because of the popularity of iPod, and the growing Apple brand was like inviting enemy to take control of your home. A clear sign of lack of innovation to leverage the RAZR momentum under Pad’s watch as CTO.

    Mobile phone is the single biggest threat to iPod, hence Apple had to get into the Phone business. If Mot would have take their phone to conquer the MP3 market, leveraging the RAZR success, iPhone may not have been invented, as Apple will be busy defending their turf. That however, may not stop Apple from creating mobile computing devices as Apple was way ahead of time in mobile computing with Newton. The only difference is that, Motorola would have overtaken Nokia in a more sustainable manner to lead the mobile phone market, and with the right people/org in place, leverage Symbol Technology mobile computing competencies and lead the mobile computing revolution we see today led by Apple.

    Motorola may still be one company, and did not need to place their bet on Andriod to rescue them from drowning. Motorola could be buying RIM now to be the enterprise mobility play play they always wanted and Google may have bought Nokia instead.

    Wish someone had listened to me back then……

  • Interesting perspective, especially ‘MOt was no mobile computing company’:

    Motorola led the development of the J2ME (mobile Java) platform (Bala Kumar and others, we worked in the same division). Motorola also produced the first programmable mobile phones, a Nextel version with 3×40 character display (I think) and the chinese Motorola A388 with a 8Mhz processor and grayscale touhscreen display. They co-founded Symbian and had many mobile computers way before they purchased Symbol for the enterprise division.

    Newton was never successful. The mobile (consumer) division of Mot is now Google. I think Motorola failed because of culture, which I covered in a post some time ago

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