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The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone

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We know the iPhone as the device that transformed our world, changing everything from how we talk to each other and do business, to how we exercise, travel, shop, and watch TV. But packed within its slim profile is the fascinating, untold story of scientific, technological, and business breakthroughs--global in scope, sometimes centuries in the making, and coming from vastly different disciplines--that enabled Apple to create the most profitable product in history.

For all the time we spend swiping, tapping, and staring at iPhones, you think there would be few things we didn't know about these gadgets. But think again.

is a Magic School Bus trip inside the iPhone--traveling into its guts, peeling back its layers, and launching explorations that take us to the driest place on earth and a Mongolian lake of toxic sludge, down the Silk Road, into 19th century photography, and all the way back to Cupertino, California, where members of the original design team reflect on the earth-shattering work they did.

As multifaceted as the invention it follows, The One Device is a roving, wide-lens approach to tech history that engages the imagination as it explores the marvel of engineering that millions of us use each day.

416 pages, Paperback

First published June 20, 2017

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Brian Merchant

8 books26 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 169 reviews
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,921 reviews35.4k followers
August 20, 2017
The author Brian Merchant is an interesting guy --Did he just want a 'around-the-world' paid vacation? A business write-off at least? I have no idea....but he traveled to 'every continent'....( Shanghai - Bolivian Highlands, Africa, South America, etc), to trace the story of the iPhone [the techie folks call it the 'Jesus Phone'].
FASCINATING STATISTICS: ( makes me chuckle and my head swim)....
Brian took 8,000 photos, recorded 200 hours of interviews, tapped out hundreds of notes, and had dozens of FaceTime with his family back home.
NOTICE ---FaceTime 'cannot' be typed with a small 't'.
Brian went through three different iPhones ( screens broke, one stolen in China, etc.)
NOTICE --- typing automatically types the small 'i' in iPhone ......

Moving on---this 394 page book is packed - filled with 'everything-iphone'.....history of the phone, electronics, ( other technology I don't understand), and stories about people around the world associated with 'this phone'
"The iPhone isn't just a tool, it's the foundation instrument of modern life". I have one too.

I can't believe how much fun I had reading this book. My plan was for Paul, to read it for 'us'... then write this review. He is stealing this book away from me - but I stole it from him.
I laughed a lot. Brian Merchant is kinda a funny guy. He tells us investigating the iPhone is a paradoxical task. Ha... ya, think? - but he was confident that he got things right. He had tons of interviews with iPhone innovators.
WAY TOO MUCH TO share about this book --but if you enjoyed any of the Steve Jobs books - you'll love this too --
My favorite chapter ( of course) was about 'Siri'. ....Fun information about her name to how smart she is....her shortcomings.... and best of all: THE CREATOR of SIRI and his relationship with 'her'. So intimate!

"The One Device" is often a little over- my head - but I ENJOYED IT.....
Paul says --he agrees with the techies: the iPhone is "The Jesus Phone".
Our good friend, Ken, who is visiting- is taking the book to read it next: he loves this stuff ... so this hardcopy is making the rounds in my little world around here --
.....Heck - I live in Apple-Town ... Steve Jobs lived down the street from our other good friends: everyone is 'techie-smart' around here. I'm not-but I'm very grateful to know others around here are....
Just in case.... I need to scream for help!

Too fun!!!! ENJOY YOUR ieverthings!!!! 📞☎️
116 reviews39 followers
March 1, 2018
iPhone is arguably the most ubiquitous gadget in the world today. For me, an iPhone evangelists, this book was a treat. I strongly recommend it to other iPhone fans.
I was wowed by the breadth the author Brian Merchant covered around iPhone, from its components, key technological drivers, design history, manufacturing process, marketing strategy, all the way to the human costs.
Mr. Merchant gathered all the details through countless hours spent in perusing documents and reports, interviewing relevant people (with a number of Apple employees refusing to talk) , and visiting sites around the world , from Chilly to China(most remarkable story being breaking into Foxconn by faking desperation to use the bathroom)
The central message of the book: “Steve Jobs will forever be associated with the iPhone. He towers over it, he introduced it to the world, he evangelized it, he helmed the company that produced it. But he did not invent it. “
So Mr. Merchant gave credit--where credit’s due—to the little guys behind the scenes, Apple engineers and designers on the iPhone project, key people behind major technology components like Siri, sales people at Apple Stores… down to the child laborers mining the medal components or assembling the iPhone.
The history parts, like the subtitle suggested, fill the bulk of the book. From the historical background of a piece of technology to the bio of a key person, they were brief and to the point.
It was like reading a series of tech reports in a major newspaper. The writing was formal and concise without being dry. The pace was fast but not dizzyingly so. There were plenty of science references, and yet accessible enough for the general reading public.
Below are a few of my takeaways from the book.
The widely proclaimed visionary Steve Jobs did not have the prescience we imagined; in several cases he was slow to warm up to a new idea like the multitouch screen; later he claimed that he invented multitouch…Really? That said, Jobs’ insistence in simplifying user experiences was among his major contributions to iPhone’s success.
Although iPhone single-handedly opened the smartphone chapter in the history, a number of key technologies inside it, including touch screen, were not new. Even the very first smartphone was prototyped by IBM one and a half decades ago.
To any technology, the timing is everything. The first smartphone Simon was one example that popped up before the world is ready, therefore failed to catch on. The others include Corning’s shatter-proof, scratch-proof glass that is covering most of the smartphones today.
Jobs adamantly prohibited third-parties from developing apps for the original iPhone, for fear of crashing. The result, the first iPhone did not catch on immediately. It was the Jailbreakers who forced apple to change its mind. Fast-forwarding to 2018, App Store is one of Apple’s biggest money makers, as Apple takes 30% cut of app sales. I wonder who might force Apple to open the latest HomePod to Spotify, Pandora, and other competing music apps?
Apple may have manufactured the supply shortage of new iPhones right after the launch to stimulate demand, as the book convinced me that it has total control over its supply chain. Recently unexpectedly high iPhone X inventory was reported, even after all four U.S carriers put out promotions. Did this marketing stunt backfired this time?
A little glimpse into the Apple corporate culture: secrecy: Apple gave out innovation award to a team without sharing with the audience what the team contributed. Wow!. The flip side; it might have cultivated a non-collaborative, defensive work culture. This reminded me of my latest phone conversation with a friend working at Apple; she complained and complained about how exhausted she was because of overworking under a serious flu, but she quickly switched topic whenever I showed a hint of curiousness about what she was working on.
Apple took a lot of risks, one of the biggest being replacing the then popular Blackberrylike hard keyboard with untested multitouch screen. It was consistent with Jobs’ philosophy, showing the customers what they will want instead of asking them what they want.
The book detailed several Near misses like an unresolved serious main chip bug forcing Jobs to demonstrate the original iPhone during the public announcement strictly following pre-choreographed sequence to avoid face-losing crash.
One of my favorite parts of the book was the discussion between the author and “the father of SIRI” Tom Gruber on a cruise. It shed much light on the history, current state and future of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the most hyped keywords in the technology circle at the moment.
I can go on and on...
No doubt that despite its immense popularity today , iPhone, like any once popular gadgets, will fade out sooner or later, not unlike a top-40 pop music hit. And yet the myriad of technologies inside will leave footprints, large or small, in the ever-evolving human history.
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 28 books394 followers
July 4, 2017
Other Silicon Valley observers have written about the development of the iPhone—but it's unlikely that anyone else has delved as deeply into the subject as Brian Merchant . . . or will ever do so in the future, for that matter. Merchant's brilliant new book, The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, tells the tale from the mining of the minerals from which the phone is crafted to the oppressive working conditions in Apple's Chinese manufacturing plants and the scavengers at Third World dumps where discarded iPhones are sometimes now found. Those topics bookend the story, which largely consists of interviews with some of the hundreds of people who played a hand in the phone's development.

Steve Jobs didn't invent the iPhone

If you have the impression that Steve Jobs invented the iPhone and is largely responsible for its success, The One Device will quickly disabuse you of that misconception. Without question, Jobs was hugely influential in the project: his obsessive attention to detail, his passion for secrecy, and his genius at marketing all contributed in major ways to the ultimate runaway success of the product. However, not only was the iPhone not Jobs' idea—he actively resisted pursuing the project for several years. (A team of key staff members worked in secret in defiance of his refusal to authorize the work. Their meetings began before the turn of the century. The first iPhone was released in June 2007.) Jobs' insistence on secrecy contributed to the buzz that surrounded the phone in the months leading up to its release, but during the many years that Apple devoted to designing the iPhone, that same paranoid obsession with secrecy impeded the project's progress by compartmentalizing the staff. "Of all the complaints about working at Apple . . .," Merchant writes, "its secrecy was at the top of the list—engineers and designers found it set up unnecessary divisions between employees who might otherwise have collaborated." And Jobs' notoriously volcanic temper and his sometimes abusive treatment of employees may have forced many of them to work longer and harder on the phone than otherwise would have been the case. But it's difficult to believe that morale wouldn't have suffered as a result—and I know from decades of experience as an employer that low morale takes a toll on productivity.

As Merchant makes clear, "The story of the iPhone starts . . . not with Steve Jobs or a grand plan to revolutionize phones, but with a misfit crew of software designers and hardware hackers tinkering with the next evolutionary step in human-computer symbiosis." And a truly fascinating tale it is. Ultimately, hundreds of people, not just at Apple but at key suppliers such as Corning and Samsung as well, made key contributions to the success of the iPhone. Merchant does his best to identify them by name and interview them.

A century of antecedents

One of the strengths of Merchant's account is the thoroughness with which he studied the history of technology. In doing so, for example, he learned that "[v]isions of iPhone-like devices can be traced back to the late 1800s." A Finnish inventor "successfully file a patent for what appears to be the first truly mobile phone"—in 1917. And "[b]y 1994, Frank Canova had helped IBM not just invent but bring to market a smart-phone that anticipated most of the core functions of the iPhone." Thirteen years before Apple's product announcement!

The world's most profitable product?

Merchant frequently refers to the iPhone as "the world's most profitable product." For one thing, it didn't start out that way. Initial sales of the phone were disappointing. Jobs had steadfastly refused to let outside developers supply apps to run on the iPhone. Only when he relented at last and allowed the opening of the App Store did sales explode upwards—and explode they did. Certainly, the profits Apple realizes from the phone are now massive, and it accounts for two-thirds of the company's revenue. Where else might Apple's cash hoard of more than $250 billion have come from? But is it the world's most profitable product? That strikes me as hyperbole. Like other journalists, Merchant clearly fell prey to the fallacy that only huge corporations matter. Although Time lists the iPhone as #1 on its list, the magazine qualifies that claim with the statement that it is "one of the world’s most profitable products." And Merchant's extravagant use of language doesn't stop with his assertion about the phone's profitability. For example, "The iPhone might actually be the pinnacle product  of all of capitalism to this point." Later, he adds, "The iPhone isn't just a tool; it's the foundational instrument of modern life." Really? As of last year, iPhone sales passed one billion units. But there are more than 7.4 billion people on the planet.
46 reviews
August 6, 2017
Disappointing. I think there has to be several great stories related to the development of the iPhone. There are a few of them here. Admittedly there is a problem given Apple's penchant for secrecy many of the original participants wouldn't give interviews and several others have died. But Merchant's credibility was damaged, in my eyes, by several statements that were untrue and others that have been contested.

In addition, it seems that Merchant implies culpability on Apple's part for the problems with mining elements that are used in the iPhone, which to me seemed pretty far down the supply chain. It appeared to me to be blaming Apple for many of the problems of capitalism.

Could have been much better.
Profile Image for Drtaxsacto.
539 reviews44 followers
July 29, 2017
This is a short but very informative book on the development of the iPhone. Merchant went to great lengths to find those people willing to talk about how the first iPhone came to be. It involved a number of moving parts and an extraordinary level of luck to bring all the things together. Some of his exploits included going into the iPhone factory in China and mines where some of the precious metals are done. He seems to have been careful in finding a range of sources and I think for the most part he presents an accurate picture of how this product came to market.

From my perspective the book has a series of continuing defects. First and foremost is his annoying tactic of introducing political correctness into almost every commentary. For example, he found that each phone is created from 34 kilos of materials (metals, glass, chips, etc). Oddly, while he is going into a rant about how precious all those things are and sustainability and all that stuff - he takes a brand new iPhone to a crusher and then destroys it. You would not be surprised that he adds in the rap about how poorly workers at Foxconn are paid - and how horribly they feel about the experience. But he gives short shrift to the efforts by Apple to bring up standards in all of its suppliers. He comments that there were very few women or people of color on the engineering team that built the phone. True but did the quality of the product suffer because its team lacked diversity? Has Apple worked hard to build a more diverse workforce? His discussion of the GSM standard adds a gratuitous comment that this kind of common standard could not be created without government intervention. What a crock, the alternative to GSM include CDMA - which is still used by many networks - its main developer or promoter was Qualcomm. (Here is a good short summary of the differences between the two standards - https://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817...) The two technologies have grown together in recent years but without the efforts of the European governments to be able to cross borders - the integration of networks and radio standards still would have happened. Hasn't Merchant ever heard of things like Underwriters Laboratories? Finally, his constant mantra is that Apple did not invent anything - every part of the iPhone has an antecedent. Well duh, that is the way any set of ideas including technologies advance.

With all those flaws you might be surprised that I gave the book four stars. Regardless of his constant preaching he presents a ton of information about how that handy gadget that many of us have with us constantly came to be. If you are interested in how things get built (you might also want to read Tracy Kidder's the Soul of the Machine) - this is a good resource.
6 reviews
August 7, 2017
~25% is about the history of the iPhone and its development. The rest is about mining, who invented touch screens in 1950, and other fairly esoteric trivia.

Its not a good book if you want to learn about the original iPhone creation process. If you don't know anything about technology and its news to you that rare earth minerals are mined in 3rd world countries, or that modern tech usually had some sort of basic forerunner, then I suppose this might be interesting to you.

edited: "if you want to lear about the iPhone"->"If you want to learn about the original iPhone creation process"
162 reviews9 followers
April 13, 2018
The author put a huge effort on this book clearly, and I really liked it. history of many technologies, and the efforts and stories behind the iPhone. Something should keep in mind while reading this book, every element which used in iPhone also used in millions of other devices, and those markets and factories work on other devices too.
Some projects which mentioned in this book remind me of Google nowadays when they launch products and fail just because it isn't the right time. Google glass for example.
Profile Image for Stuart Berman.
119 reviews2 followers
August 6, 2017
The insider information the author shares is fascinating and I appreciate the lengths he went to to visit the various supply chain sources.

The fatal flaw in his work is that his obvious biases prevent him from being considered reliable. I am not saying he is lying but it is clear his narrative is that be sided and he lacks the discipline or experience of a serious journalist. He also confesses to knowing very little about business (referring analysis to MBA's) marring the book as highly opinionated and unbalanced.

Ultimately I do recommend the book with the caveat that you must endure his anti capitalist attitudes while bringing interesting facts and anecdotes to the table and at times having to question which statements are reliable and which are biased conjecture.
Profile Image for Thomas.
Author 1 book52 followers
August 9, 2017
Fascinating story with tons of great detail and background. The history of what became the iPhone goes back much further than you expect. Despite Jobs' claim of Apple inventing multitouch, the story is deep and lengthy and worth reading. There's also a long journey connecting from Vennevar Bush's Memex through Kay's Dynabook to the iPhone. No, the iPhone is not the spiritual progeny of either of those visionary devices. It is something else entirely. But seeing the history of ideas and inventions that led up to it is fascinating and informative. Merchant's book gives an engaging view of how this all came together.
Profile Image for Vamsi Sridhar.
47 reviews3 followers
June 30, 2017
Copy: Kindle
Rating -4/5

As the world celebrates the 10th anniversary of the "Jesus Phone", one picture is commonly shared among all the media outlets - Steve Jobs, in his signature black turtleneck, holding a 3.5inch iPhone at its birth launch. The picture goes with a tagline - the man who personified the brand.
The fascinating aspect of this book is that it shatters this image to bits (or bytes). In a nutshell if i were to summarize the book & here i take the words of the author -

" hope my jaunt into the heart of the iPhone has helped demonstrate that the one device is the work of countless inventors and factory workers, miners and recyclers, brilliant thinkers and child laborers, and revolutionary designers and cunning engineers. Of long-evolving technologies, of collaborative, incremental work, of fledgling start-ups and massive public-research institutions."

If we were to take public survery to name the top 3 impacts of the iPhone, the most likely answers will be - media, economy & music (in no particular order). The hidden but the deepest impact is though felt on the enviorment. The author does this interseting exercise that forms the basis of half of the book - he takes an iPhone & pulverises it. He gets to know what minerals are used (and in what %). The author then takes us to a whirlwind tour to where these minerals origniate- from the mines in Chine to the state-run smelters in Bolivia, from the refinieries situated at the white desert-Salar del Carmen to many other deeper holes on earth. Miners & workers, who form the first chain that links to this top selling smart device, share a deep mistrust to automation & machinery. They use pickaxes and dynamite to break the rock free and load it into mine carts for transportation; the workers are said to distrust more efficient technologies because they would eliminate jobs. As a result, the mining inside Cerro Rico looks a lot like it did hundreds of years ago.

It means your iPhone begins with thousands of miners working in often brutal conditions on nearly every continent to dredge up the raw elements that make its components possible. This is a probably the biggest highlight of this book.

Going to other parts of the book - the author follows a same pattern - take one component of the device say the battery, touch-based UI or the screen; trace the origin of this component & link to how it eventually founds its way to the iPhone. The author, I must admit, takes great pain in remiding us constantly that Apple is not a true inventor of many things that it is associated with. The weak part of the book is the elaborative account of his sorjourn to Foxconn - he pulishes more or less the same of what we have already heard.

I love reading about Apple - this books really in deep on what goes behind to create a succesful product. It is an eye opener.

This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Melsene G.
659 reviews2 followers
July 13, 2017
If you're an Apple user, a techie, or curious about how we got the smart phone, this book will take you on a little journey. This book builds on other books written about Apple and Steve Jobs, and so many of these books show the ugly side of Jobs and how he ran Apple. One of the premises is that Jobs and Apple did not invent the smartphone-the technology and ideas have been around for a long time, and these products are built on existing technology and so many engineers, inventors,etc., have played a role. You will learn some new history-even if you've read all the tech books out there. The stuff on multitouch is interesting, and I liked learning about the metals, and what's inside the phone, and where the products come from. The author covers child labor and mining accidents, the horror of China's factories and Foxconn and what it's like working there-suicides are a problem. There's a little too much climate hysteria, which is fake science-follow the money, and some other social issues that I could do without here. All in all, you will have a better understanding of the iPhone and continue to dislike Steve Jobs.
Profile Image for Pete.
769 reviews54 followers
July 13, 2017
One Device (2017) by Brian Merchant is a history of the iPhone for the tenth anniversary of the device. It looks at how the phone was developed, parts of the global supply chain that produce the device and the impact it's had. Merchant has managed to write a book that is more than just a hagiography for Apple fans. 

One of the big problems for a book like this is actually talking to the people who were really involved in the creation of the device. Most companies like to keep things quiet and get people to sign NDAs and not until long after will people really talk. On top of this Apple is a company with more secrecy than most. In this book Merchant seems to have managed to get quite a few people to talk and be what appears to be honest. There are some frank exchanges where some of the original team talk about the cost to their personal life and marriages of the work involved.

The book goes to Chilean mines, a Foxconn plant and a recycling center for electronics in China. He also gets an iPhone broken down to see exactly what it's made of. Merchant also goes to ARM and talks to the transsexual engineer who was one of the original ARM designers.  

There is also an interesting part on one of the first Smart phones that was tried, an IBM device from the early 1990s. There is not much of a mention of the Nokia Communicators prior to the iPhone. There is some mention of the first phone to get email working well on a phone, the Blackberry, which was common in business circles prior to the arrival of the iPhone. There are also a few mentions of WAP the unsuccessful attempt prior to the iPhone to get the internet working on a portable device. 

For anyone interesting in technology 'One Device' is well worth a read. It's well written and quite informative. It's not the complete history of the emergence of the internet on portable devices but it is a very readable, informative and interesting book about the creation of a significant technological device. 
Profile Image for Carl.
110 reviews5 followers
July 10, 2017
I found this to be a fascinating story, well told.
Profile Image for Geoff Nelson.
32 reviews31 followers
July 7, 2017
Felt unnecessarily long. The bulk of the book felt like a general exploration into the sourcing and assembly of any modern electronic device. Real meat was in the last chapter where the process of actually designing the iPhone inside Apple was detailed. Author went to extensive lengths to reveal new information, but many involved remain tight lipped.
3 reviews
June 27, 2017
Broad strokes were great, details were only good

The chapter selections were excellent. More than once I was pleasantly surprised when the book included one of my favorite iPhone anecdotes or technical details (such as the FingerWorks acquisition or the heavy software influence NeXT had over iOS). However, I noticed that some (admittedly very technical) details were incorrect or explained in such a way that was contradictory or confusing. Also, at many junctures the author chose to explain some technical point in a very general way in order to help the layperson understand it. Unfortunately, pulling away to generalities actually made the explanations more confusing. This was annoying when I already understood what he was explaining and forced me to look up the details myself when I didn't.
Profile Image for Daniel Gusev .
74 reviews6 followers
June 30, 2017
A near definitive account of a sweatshop underneath a pixie dust factory

We believe in magic. Unobtrusive, short, self explanatory, exhilarating and full of mystery, it titillates the senses and drives imagination. What was built as a imaginative drive of one person was instead a decade long sweatshop inquisitive creative process by those who believed in the art of the technologically impossible - and made that possible.
Profile Image for Pat Cummings.
46 reviews1 follower
July 26, 2020
Will never look at my iPhone the same way. Great stories and tidbits of information about all aspects of the device from inception, design, product teams and manufacturing. Did you know the average employee in an Apple stores brings in over $400,000 in sales?
160 reviews
January 16, 2020
The story behind the iPhone makes for great reading for technophiles. Up there with "What the Dormouse Said" as my favorite computer and technology books.
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,521 reviews93 followers
December 14, 2018
Love them or hate them, smartphones have revolutionized society like few other inventions. Entire sectors of the economy now exist which wouldn’t be there had they had not been invented, and barring some kind of global collapse it’s unlikely their influence will fade anytime soon. The One Device: A Secret History of the iPhone reviews not just how a computer company decided to gamble on making what would become the best-selling consumer device ever, but investigates how the various technologies which make it possible came into being, and how everything was finally put together. Merchant illustrates that a lot of key elements were already in existence and argues that Apple’s success was putting them together at the right time, building on to them, and adopting to market pressures in a few key areas (grudgingly allowing for third-party apps, for instance). It’s faintly anti-Steve Jobs, for as much as it quotes from Isaacson’s biography it also relegates Jobs himself to the background, choosing to focus instead on the inventors, tinkerers, programmers, and engineers whose ideas and grueling work made the device possible.

Unless you're a fan of retrotech videos like myself, you'll probably be surprised to learn that the idea of smartphones predates Apple, and that the first was made by Apple's hated foe, IBM -- Big Blue itself. IBM's "Simon", however, was before its time, with a battery life of a single hour. Other technologies which were later incorporated also had their genesis in a place other than Apple's R&D department. Merchant suggests that many technologies have a long stewing period before they're truly ready for work. In the mid 2000s, Apple was at a place where they were looking for an edge. Jobs' experiment in remaking Apple products as a linked digital hub --the iMac and iPod linked together with iTunes, for instance -- was a great success,, but he anticipated iPods being undercut in the future by cell phones and wanted address the problem by turning the iPod in to a phone. The shuffle wheel, as useful as it was for scrolling through music, was poorly suited for dialing phone number. However, a team working on a tablet computer were onto something with touchscreens, and Jobs' focus on the phone project was such that the tablet, the "iPad", was shelved until a little later. The phone didn't meet immediate success, however: Merchant reminds readers that the original only had three apps that weren't Apple products, all from Google, and there was no App store. It took increasing pressure from people hacking into their iphones to allow for third-party programs to force Apple's hand. It was immediately advertised as an essential feature of the phone in Apple advertisements, and Merchant suggests that the phone would have never taken off (given its price) were it not for the store.

The One Device blends technical research and business history, and at times its level of detail may cool the interest of a casual reader. Merchant is generally more personable than technical, with the exception of the chapter on the iPhone’s processor, and the subjects covered are diverse -- everything from software to mining to business deals. There's a lot of surprising content in here, too, so if you've an interest in popular tech, The One Device will probably be of interest.
Profile Image for Omar.
14 reviews
August 21, 2018
there are two UIs that people use: the Xerox PARC UI and the iPhone UI. we hear a lot more about the development of the former than about the development of the latter, but the latter is probably more important!

this is a decent overview of what went into the iPhone. one of the best takeaways is how arbitrary / unplanned a lot of iconic product choices were. the App Store is a famous example, but even having it be a touchscreen, Internet device, etc were all contested choices, not inevitable. the Apple org comes off as deeply dysfunctional by normal standards, and yet… :)

i'm bemused by the criticism that it's slanted against Apple or against capitalism. I was surprised at how _positive_ it was about Apple, largely buying into a kind of triumphalist narrative, with just some lip service to issues around that narrative (mining exploitation down the chain, ephemerality of the iPhone [ehh], diversity on the team). you still get the impression after reading this that the iPhone was a Big Deal and admirable in a deep way, much like in the early Mac stories. i think it's because the worldwide effects of the phone are described, and because the iPhone team are protagonists in the core of the book, so you inevitably sympathize.

the criticism that it's a couple chapters of novel 'core' (the Apple work) and the rest 'padding' (China, Chile, etc) is accurate, but I didn't mind the padding that much. it's a useful antidote to hero-worship and teleological thinking, and I didn't know most of it anyway. (I could have done without the chapter on Siri, though.)

but I could have used even more antidote. it's still a great story, right? nothing anyone does in the book is wasted, ultimately. it's all stuff that won.

the biggest question I have is: how much of this stuff was _necessary_ to the iPhone's success? multitouch is cool, Core Animation is cool, Gorilla Glass is cool, but could an iPhone without them have succeeded?

an alternative theory to the one in the book is that Apple had so much cultural capital (as a result of the iPod) that they could have pushed anything in 2007 (above some minimum standard of quality) and made it a billion-phone-seller.
another alternative theory is that they had such a reserve of strong people, or such a strong culture, that they could have made anything work!

most impressive technical tidbit: the final push, incl Google Maps and YouTube being made in a couple weeks
Profile Image for Sebastian H.
389 reviews7 followers
March 8, 2018
Discoveries are made while standing on the shoulders of giants.

Steve Jobs’ invention of the iPhone is nothing more, nothing less than his pretending to fly while standing on the shoulders of a veritable platoon of invisible giants, inventors, entrepreneurs, historians and technologists. It feeds into the falsehood of the genius individual, when true paradigm-shifting creations are possible thanks to the confluence of multiple and disparate events that click together at the best possible moment, grasped from the air by a driving force that manages the confluence.

That’s the message this read transmits, and it does so loud and clear.

In other words, this may be one of the most important reads into the history of the One Device, the iPhone to rule them all. The exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) investigative effort by the author is truly commendable, as it offers a confluence of various essential narratives to understand just how that technological marvel you very likely have by your side right at this moment, was possible in the first place. From South American mines to Chinese Factories, from multinational laboratories to booming companies, from African wastelands to illegal markets, the author describes a one-of-a-kind world-trek that results in an informative, comprehensive and, above all, truthful read.

If you have ever felt curious about that black mirror that accompanies you everywhere, you owe it to yourself to read this one and find out the story behind the myth, the sacrifices that made it possible, and the future that was set in motion just a little over a decade ago.
125 reviews3 followers
December 25, 2017
The book is a great read into how various technologies evolved and were made to converge to become the iPhone, the material cost and human effort that went into the making of the iPhone, and various facets of mobile devices, from supply chain to marketing and distribution, and second hand markets and recycling.

A highly recommended read if you want to get a good view of what goes into the making of successful technology
Profile Image for Toby White.
115 reviews
March 17, 2019
An excellent insight into the iPhone, how it began, the technology and people involved and the materials and manufacturing processes used and everything in between. Well worth a read if you’re looking to understand how the “one device” came to be.
Profile Image for Billy O’Keefe.
Author 2 books23 followers
August 6, 2017
“Sorry,” I say to Enrique. “I was just talking with the inventor of the lithium battery.”
“What did he say?” he asks, trying not to sound too interested.
“He says he’s invented a better battery,” I say.
“Does it use lithium?”
“No,” I say. “He says it will use sodium.”

If you look at your phone and just take it for granted at this point, I cannot recommend this enough as a means to put things into proper perspective. “The One Device” made some waves because of a single piece of disputed behind-the-scenes Apple gossip, and that’s fine, and if all you want is the story of the behind-the-scenes turmoil that raged at Apple while the first iPhone came together, you’ll probably enjoy at least a third of this book.

But it’s the rest of the book that is truly remarkable. “TOD” travels around the world (and briefly winds up behind security lines at Foxconn City) to detail how much mining, materials and manpower goes into making these devices possible, and it travels back in time (sometimes years, sometimes decades and centuries) to give proper credit to the unheralded people at Apple (not named Steve Jobs) and beyond who invented technology that lay dormant or unappreciated for decades until time caught up and the iPhone gave them a home.

I’m still not sure I actually *like* my smartphone, but I appreciate its existence a whole lot more than I did before picking this book up.
Profile Image for Tony Taylor.
329 reviews16 followers
July 28, 2017
Fascinating book! This book starts with the embryonic development of the iPhone telling the story right on up to 2017, warts and all. Whether you are an Apple (or iPhone) aficionado, an IT specialist, or just someone with a curious mind, this is truly an interesting and educational book that covers everything that not only goes into the making of an iPhone (rare minerals, batteries, scratch proof glass, etc.), but the people and teams behind this totally in-house secret project that did not even begin as a phone project at all. You learn not only about what goes on at Foxconn where the phones are assembled, but what's behind the development of Siri, image-stabilized cameras, sensing motion and the struggle to get Steve Jobs on board to give the project the green light.
Brian Merchant, the author of "The One Device," has researched this blockbuster product not only from its conception, but also the technology that led up to the perfect storm that made it possible in 2007... it is very doubtful that anything like this could have come to pass even just a few years before. Brian traveled around the world form Africa, South America, as well as China, and even to spots in Europe where much of the earliest technology that became the basis for the birth of the technology that made it all come together has not been given its due credit. Steve Jobs did not invent the iPhone or even the touch screen, but over a course of time he became the leader at the helm who listened, encouraged, shouted, cursed, and finally blessed (with some restrictions) the first iPhone even when it was not really ready for its debut.
If you want a good read that is not overly technical, you will enjoy reading the secret history of the iPhone and will finished the last page with a "wow, they did it!" There have since been many who have developed their own version of what is referred as the smart phone, but there is still so much that is totally unique and totally Apple that keeps the iPhone as a marvel of technology not only in its design, but in the fact that it has really become a computer unlike anything that was even considered possible the day the first iPhone slipped into the pockets of millions and millions of believers around the world.
What's next?
Profile Image for Vikrant.
86 reviews3 followers
October 7, 2018
Before I picked the book up, I thought I already knew the story of the rise of the smartphone.

Now I know 500 pages more!
Profile Image for John.
93 reviews42 followers
February 17, 2023
Recommended for all lovers of innovation or tech, fans and detractors of Apple, and anyone afflicted with the convenient delusion of “the sole inventor”.

Fair warning: this deeply researched global exploration of a book by the editor of Motherboard is LONG. It’s a sprawling exploration of the collaboration and convergence technology that created the iPhone.
Profile Image for Alwin Tong.
8 reviews
August 11, 2017
Uncovers the invention story and the human footprint of the iPhone. Spoiler: Steve Jobs did not invent it and only worked on the phone much later.

It covers largely the team who did work on it day-to-day.

Loved the book.
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