Steve Jobs and Snow White: The Conception of the iPhone

| Marketing, Technology

Earlier this year I was contacted by a television production company in Japan working on an Apple documentary; they had heard me say in an interview years earlier that Steve Jobs actually had conceived of a Mac Phone back in the mid-1980s.

Here’s the back story.

One of the early decisions Steve Jobs and I worked on together in the first weeks after I joined Apple in 1983 was to select an industrial design firm for future Apple products. While the first 128k Mac was still almost a year away from launch, Steve believed Apple needed its own design language that would make us recognizable as the creator of uniquely elegant appliances. At that time, no one in Silicon Valley gave any attention to creating beautiful devices, but to Steve Jobs this was a really important decision. I had some experience with industrial design at Pepsi, where I helped create the first plastic soft drink bottle and various unique beverage display equipment for large retail stores, so I appreciated why this project was so important to Steve.

Choosing a designer finally came down to two finalists, both European: A highly respected Italian automobile designer ( I forget his name) and Hartmut Esslinger, founder of Frog Design. Hartmut always dressed in jeans and had a flare for cool music and design. Steve immediately liked him. The most controversial issue with Frog Design’s work was Hartmut’s insistence on everything being a pure white color, so the project was code-named “Snow White.” Steve loved Frog’s concepts, which, incidentally, were very unpopular with our supply chain, manufacturing, and sales people because they were concerned that our information appliances would show every finger print and smug.

The original Mac design had previously been selected and the complex injection molding tools for the ABS plastic Steve had chosen were in long development process. Even Mac’s greatest fans probably don’t know how demanding Steve Jobs was on insisting on a very complex two-piece Macintosh plastic box that could be sealed in such a way that one could only get inside the box with a special key device. All personal computers at the time had slots on their motherboards making it easy for enthusiasts to customize their PC with the latest performance enhancement or upgrades. Steve hated this idea because he wanted complete control over the user experience, believing that the elegance of the industrial design had to carry over to the elegance of the experience using his information appliance. Steve wanted the experience of every Mac to be exactly the same – no compromises.

After we selected Frog Design’s Snow White for our design language, their first project was not with a future Mac, but with Steve’s rival organization, the Apple II group. In the spring of 1984, just months after we launched the Mac 128k with the ImageWriter dot matrix printer, we introduced the Snow White design Apple Iic.

The attached photo shows a May 14, 1985 date on the screen, but this concept model was actually built in 1984. Steve and I were in discussions with AT&T in the summer of 1984 about a special relationship, and Steve wanted AT&T executives to see that personal computing would inevitably be a big part of the future for telecommunications. The screen shot shows Steve’s “sj” signature (the always used lower case ) and my JS. In 1984, our plan was to ship 300,000 Macs, so to write 5 million Macs on the screen for 1985 was pretty bold. This photo showed something that was still decades away from possible. But Steve never let what was probable today get in the way of what he believed would be possible in the future.

Every first principle of design that the world came to know with the iPhone 25 years later was clearly already in Steve Jobs’ mind back in those early days.

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