That iPhone in your pocket is old. Way older than you think. You’ve probably heard and reheard Steve Jobs’ lofty claim that the original iPhone was five years ahead of its time, but did you know that that rings true for nearly all of the subsequent models?
And, more importantly, what new secrets can we learn from the company’s super-long development time?
Newly released prototypes and designs, dating back to 2006, have just been dished out in court for the sake of Apple’s right to throw the book at everyone else who dares to produce a rectangle with a screen. And you know what? It seems as though Apple designed the iPhone 4 – and a lot more besides – a full six years ago.
Table of contents
Click on any of the following to skip straight to that section.
The collection of prototypes and 3D models reveals some shocking truths. Truths that, given the choice, Apple probably wouldn’t want you to know. Everyone who buys an Apple product want to think that they’re buying cutting edge hardware, and there’s something disappointing in the knowledge that your new iPhone’s design hasn’t fallen from the heavens in the weeks before you bought it.
Turns out these design apples haven’t just landed on Jonathan Ive’s head. It looks as though they fell at the iPhone’s birth. And they weren’t alone. Among the exposed designs are iPads from way before the original’s announcement and half-breed iPod touch and nano devices.
But it’s not just the amount of time in advance that these devices are made in that’s should shake an Apple fan to the core. Moreover, the designs suggest that Ive and the rest of the design team work on many, many different ideas before settling on a final one.
This is the obvious method for industrial design, of course, but Apple’s different. Well, fine, it’s not, but it’s perceived to be. And that’s important here. There is an idea, predominantly among Apple fans, that Apple designs are sacred. They appear to Ive in his dreams as fully-formed, perfect objects. There are no revisions. There is no alternative. Apple products are perfect conceptions.
Only now we know they’re not. They’re the result of dozens of protoypes and ugly ducklings. And that takes some of the company’s mysterious powers away.
A guided tour
Right, that’s enough dispelling of the Apple design mythos for the time being. Let’s have a ganders at what’s come out of Apple labs…
Ok, so the original iPhone came out in 2007, and this very similar design is from 2006. Not an awfully big surprise, there, but it provides a bit of context: all of the following designs are from around the same time.
One thing to notice, here: that ain’t the finished iOS.
iPhone 3G and 3GS
Well, hello. Unless our eyes are playing tricks, this is a pretty much finished iPhone 3G. The swooping, curved back is present, as is the glossy black casing. Even the icons for what emerged as iOS (or iPhone OS, as it was), have been finalised, yet we’re still looking at a prototype from before the launch of the original iPhone.
iPhone 4 and 4S
It’s a little bit fatter than the iPhone 4 we ended up with, but there’s no denying the cues here. This prototype device has the same shiny metal band around its edge, a squared-off design and a nearly identical, completely flat back plate.
It’s the iPhone 4S circa 2006, and it proves that – even today – Apple is working off of design principals it came up with at the dawn of the modern smartphone.
See the two-tone design of the back? That matches up to what we’ve seen so far of the reported iPhone 5 casing.
What the hell are these? If it weren’t for this deluge of evidence, we’d look at these oddities and say that they must have been strung together in Ive’s workshop after a drunken night out. But seeing as so many of the design touches found in these slides have later come to pass, it’s probably not a stretch to think that these flourishes might find their way into the iPhone 6.
A phone with a scooped out backplate? Or a mighty, case-wide speaker grill half way up the handset? Could happen, you know.
Secrets in the software
But it’s not just hardware design we can look at here. There’s a couple of secret gems that can be stripped out from the early versions of the iPhone OS.
You’ll notice that some of these shots show versions of iOS that, while similar, are far from finished products. And yet, even though that’s the case, there are clues about developments that came later on in the platform’s life.
Let’s take a look at some of the app icons in that picture. It’s obviously early days in the life of iOS here, but one of those app icons is almost certainly meant to be a Yellow Pages (Yell) app. The iPhone famously launched before Apple was ready to admit that it needed the help of third party apps, but this slightly changes our thinking.
The official line was that the iPhone wouldn’t open to developers, and then suddenly it would. And did. But if Apple was anticipating apps from the likes of Yellow Pages this early in the game, it says that, firstly, it always planned on launching the App Store and, secondly, that it must have been working on the SDK since day one.
That’s not all. See the app on the top right? That’s FaceTime. It seems as though, in one way or another, Apple had designs on introducing video calling to the iPhone all the way back in 2006. That’s despite the fact that the original iPhone (and the original designs) lacked a front-facing camera. That’s forward planning.
In 2006, the year before the iPhone came out, Apple was in need of a new hit. Its Mac business was growing and the iPod had been a monumental success, but Steve Jobs clearly knew that it was about time the company launched a product that revolutionised a market the same way that its MP3 player did.
Share prices had risen steadily since 2001, but had started to tail off at the end of 2005, only to spike dramatically at the iPhone’s launch. I’ve no doubt that Apple had the iPhone in the works well before this small slump, but there’s my point: a slump in investor interest was always going to come unless something fantastic hits every few years. That’s the way of the world. And that’s why, three years since the iPad’s launch, analysts are now predicting an iPad Mini.
What’s interesting to see, though, is the scope of this plan. For the first time ever we’re able to see the lengths that Apple goes to, along with the fact that when a product is about to come to market it’s never just ‘about to’ come to market. Chances are that it was first imagined some years before.
That being true for the kernel of an idea for a product? That makes sense. But the actual design for far future products laid bare? Seeing the future buried in Apple’s past is something slightly shocking.
With all this on show, you’ve got to wonder: does Ive have 2018’s iPhone already sitting on his desk?
You can see all the prototypes at CultofMac