The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone
by Brian Merchant

The One DeviceSome of Vice science and tech editor Brian Merchant’s account of the development of what Steve Jobs called “the one device”, the life-unifying little computer that one could carry in one’s pocket and incidentally use as a telephone, is a little scattershot. It contributes little to the story to recap the history of “line-of-sight semaphores” and other signalling technologies, for instance.

When the author settles in to the facts of the phone itself, though, he delivers a solid if formulaic business history, complete with the trope that a single charismatic leader – Jobs, in this case – seldom acts alone but instead has a team backing the “chief proselytiser”. In the case of the iPhone, that team was made up of hungry engineers and designers who were avid for the project and wanted to make something that would be not just insanely great, but attractive, with a handsome user interface and a lot of power.

The dream team included “an MIT-trained sensor savant with an ear for electronica and a feel for touchscreens” and “a decorated and respected designer intent on marrying industrial design to digital interfaces”. Despite the usual stumbling blocks, they succeeded well beyond expectation.

Merchant has a good handle on the technology – for instance, the role that accelerometers and magnetometers play in the development of truly smart smartphones – and a good feel for the archly competitive, sometimes oddly monastic culture of Apple. He also does not shy away from the darker aspects of the technology, including working conditions at Chinese manufacturing facilities that border on slave labour.

Merchant’s story takes sometimes unexpected turns. In the end, though, he paints a thoughtful portrait of how a piece of reigning technology became ubiquitous in just a decade, for good and ill.

Previous books of the month