Friday, June 1, 2018

The One Device We Can't Live Without

Yesterday, I forgot my phone as I left home. By the time I remembered it, I was almost to the train station 15 minutes from my house and too far to go back for it, as I had to meet my class.

I'm sure this has happened to others and, like most people I found that living without a smartphone changed my day.  While I remembered my lecture and one other meeting that day, I was at a complete loss as to what my schedule was for the week ahead.  Even though I rarely make phone calls, if I wanted to make one, I had no contact phone numbers that day.  And, of course, I had no maps, no Siri, no camera, and no email contact as I traveled to and from work.  Actually, the list of things I was not able to do without a smartphone is endless.

Coincidently, I had just finished reading an excellent exploration of the background and (amazing, but now taken for granted) features of smartphones in Brian Merchant's book, The One Device: The secret history of the iPhone (2017, Little, Brown and Co, New York/London).  In this tightly written epic, all roads lead to the iPhone, but not before reminding us that humans have had 'a century-long drift towards being always connected, always available' (p. 39), including an 1879 vision of FaceTime. And, the scientist/inventor, Nikola Tesla told Collier's magazine early in the last Century, 'We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone.  A man (sic) will be able to carry one in his vest pocket' (p. 43).

Merchant then takes us on a physical trip to the Cerro Rico silver mines Bolivia and goes on to trace the origins of some of the 'rare Earth' metals contained in an iPhone. In total, there are 30 chemical elements that make up 129 grams of the iPhone's weight, but which are only worth $1.03, according to the chart on page 56 of my hard-cover version of the book.  It may sound dull, but it's fascinating in Merchant's narrative.  While straightforward and revealing, his purpose in the mining story is not to judge, but to inform us as owners of resource implications of these everyday luxuries.

The engineering and industrial design threads are even more captivating. Whether you're a technical person or not, the historic development of features like 'multi-touch' interfaces, 'gorilla glass' and 'lion' batteries are fascinating accounts of marvellous technologies that we all use and seldom appreciate. Indeed, most, if not all, the brilliant technologies incorporated into the iPhone were invented long ago by companies all over the world.  Many sat dormant for years after prototypes failed to excite executives, just as Steve Jobs himself was not originally interested in developing a phone. In fact, he hated phones, until he saw what was possible if the phone was re-imagined and reinvented, which is what Apple did, at first without and then with Steve's blessing (and obsessions).

The human and organizational story in this history is no less intriguing, informative and inspiring.  Though never officially sanctioned by Apple (as one might expect), the author tracks down many key members of key teams and others associated with and/or close enough to the action to relate the intensity and extreme pressure the engineering, human interface, design and programming teams were under once the iPhone project moved from a renegade movement to a massive master endeavour within One Infinite Loop and Apple's partners.

Speaking of partners, there is an eery account of Merchant's chance (unsanctioned) access into Foxconn, whose scale and secrecy is surpassed only by Apple itself.  By his reckoning, the author estimates that in one quarter (based on 2015 figures), workers spent 1,152,000,000 hours screwing, gluing, soldering and snapping together iPhones.  Besides the visceral reality of the place, the economic reality is that, unlike Ford's Model T, at Foxconn, Merchant found no one who was assembling iPhones could actually afford to own one.

Even though the component technologies had long been in the making, the actual concept and design of the iPhone was audaciously ambitious.  The notion of simply putting a phone into the company's wildly successful iPod product line was tempting (and there was a team devoted to that mission), but in the end, Apple's leadership decided to put the Mac OS into a phone, which is what made the smartphone 'smart' and not just another phone.  Ultimately, Steve Jobs made this and other major calls, but only after agonising and debating with others over competing priorities and practicalities.  The politics and some might say insane commitment of the folks involved in the development cannot be overstated. Those who love Apple mythology won't be disappointed.  There are fables and fairytales, heroes and, of course, there is Steve Jobs.  The various teams were locked down and pushing themselves to the limits, and paying the price in terms of divorce and lost family time.  Most were of course proud of their unfathomable success in the end.

Why should we care about the 'one device'?  Besides a story of the convergence of many extraordinary technologies, the smartphone that Apple gave the world cleverly brought computers to our daily lives in a way that had never been done before and which has changed our lives.  But, Brian Merchant reflects on how 'human' this one device also is.  In his words, ''s worth thinking about the computer--especially this, the bestselling computing device of all time--as being powered by human work.  Because the iPhone, more expertly than its many predecessors, hides the immense amount of effort and ingenuity that's gone into it.  As the screens get sharper, the apps get more addictive, and the phone becomes more seamlessly integrated into our daily routines, we're drifting further away from grasping computing as the work of human beings--at a time when they are in fact the work of more human beings than ever' (p. 378).

While smartphones are here to stay, the iPhone itself will be surpassed by other devices. As Henri Lamiraux who oversaw the software engineering for the iPhone reflects, 'It's not like you created something, a piece of music that's going to be appreciated for a long, long time. It's just going to disappear and be replaced with something better, and be gone' (p. 380).

That may be so, but until it's replaced with something better, most of us won't go anywhere without ours.

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