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iPhone Madness: The Story Behind The First Phone

Andy Grignon, First iPhone

With Andy Grignon, Veteran Software Developer at Apple and part of the rag tag group that developed the first iPhone

Andy Grignon worked at Apple in the Advanced Technology Group and was part of the small, ragtag group charged with creating the first iPhone.

Andy discusses the excitement, chaos, and madness of developing the iPhone under Steve Jobs, the new era of computing in the 1980s, and the technological aspects of National Geographic’s documentary  The 2000s: A New Reality,  a two-part miniseries that revisited key events of the 2000s.

The Decade That Changed The World

The 2000s weren’t that long ago, yet changes in that decade undeniably changed the world.  Andy notes that he was a tech nerd, unconcerned with everything else, sometimes not knowing what day it was.  But the terrorist acts of 9/11 made him wake up to current events and the world around him.

National Geographic’s documentary on the 2000s made key events come alive, such as the “hanging chads” in the Bush-Gore election.

Getting Creative With The iPod

At Apple, Andy was involved with the iPod and the iPad, directly under Steve Jobs’ supervision.  To Apple’s engineers, the iPod became an extension of their creative side.  They worked the iPod so that it met what their needs, like holding 1,000 songs in the palm of your hand.

Working On The First iPhone With Steve Jobs

After the iPod, Steve set his sights on building the first iPhone, back in 2004.  At first, Apple’s engineers built the phone into the iPad.  The symbols on the screen would change when you put the iPad into phone mode, with big numbers from zero to nine.

But the iPad version of the phone was simply miserable to use.

Then someone got the idea of incorporating touch technology into the first iPhone and that really set the wheels in motion.

No Outside Hiring

At the time, in the mid-2000s, Palm and Nokia had innovative devices.  So project managers on the first iPhone were keen to hire top-notch engineers from outside firms.

But Steve Jobs was against the idea of outside hiring.  With the first iPhone, Steve wanted to create a whole different class of product.  He wanted completely original thinking and absolute secrecy, not another me-too product.

To remind himself of what the first iPhone should not look like, Andy carried around a Palm Treo, which had a tiny screen and a full keypad.

Through Steve’s persuasion powers, Apple got an exclusive deal to launch the first iPhone with AT&T, the biggest wireless carrier at the time.

AT&T Unimpressed By Visual Voicemail

Andy was the guy who pitched visual voicemail to AT&T.  Much like an email with attachments, visual voicemail lets users see voice messages and decide which ones to play, save, or delete.

But AT&T was unimpressed.  They condescendingly told the team from Apple that they did not understand the complications of voicemail.  They then gave a litany of reasons why visual voicemail wouldn’t work.  So Apple’s team took it upon itself to address all of AT&T’s points, without outside help.

No One Else Could Have Done It

Andy believes the make-it-from-scratch vision and Jobs’ leadership were vital to developing the first iPhone.  He strongly believes no other company could have developed it because Apple had been building up to this for decades.  The iPod’s success was also pivotal in conceptualizing the first iPhone.

In striving for perfection, Apple was unwilling to let third-party developers write software for the first iPhone.

But when Apple allowed third-party developers in, the App Store exploded with innovation.  Today, users have a hard time wading through the sea of apps to pick one that’s right for them.

To learn more about Apple’s first iPhone, Google, YouTube, and other innovations from the 2000s, listen to Steve’s conversation with Andy Grignon, and watch National Geographic’s documentary  The 2000s: A New Reality.

Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital.  Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions.  Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.  The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.

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Steve Pomeranz: I want to introduce to you a most interesting fellow, he helped build the operating system for the iPod and became part of the Skunk Works team charged with creating the iPhone. Andy Grignon is with me to discuss this experience as well as fill us in about National Geographic’s documentary, The 2000s: A New Reality.
Hi, Andy, welcome to the show.

Andy Grignon: Thank you very much for having me.

Steve Pomeranz: So the 2000s weren’t that long ago, yet changes in that decade changed the world, undeniably. Every time you go through the TSA at the airport or answer a call on your smartphone, you’re impacted by those events.

Andy Grignon: Yep.

Steve Pomeranz: Where does National Geographic actually begin its documentary? Where is ground zero for the 2000s?

Andy Grignon: Well, when you think about it we started, you actually kind of brought it up, right? 9/11 was a very transformative event and it kind of set the tone in a way for the decade, right?

We had a lot of things that happened, but in terms of impact, I just flew out to New York recently and I’ve got pre-check. That TSA special gets you through the line quickly kind of thing. And that’s the way flying used to be way back when.

And we’ve just kind of taken for granted the fact that we have to take our shoes off and our belts and all these other things. And that’s just life now, right?

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: Unless you actually have the special program or whatever to get you through all that.

But we start to look at, I think the impact not only security but technology. And just some of the events when you look back at the decade. So there’s fun things, right? Like Survivor, we started to usher in that reality TV kind of era, that’s just part of the fabric-

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: Of life today.

Steve Pomeranz: Right, looking back at the TSA, you look at old movies and you see them smoking-

Andy Grignon: [LAUGH]

Steve Pomeranz: Getting on a plane at the last minute.

Andy Grignon: [LAUGH] Yeah.

Steve Pomeranz: I mean those were days incredibly gone by.
We’ve skipped to the 9/11 era, of course, but back in the 2000s when there was the Bush-Gore campaign, the hanging chads.

Andy Grignon: Yeah.

Steve Pomeranz: And even in the notes that you guys provided us, there seemed to be a link between the Elián González episode.

Andy Grignon: Yep, yep.

Steve Pomeranz: And the Bush-Gore campaign, tell us about that.

Andy Grignon: Well, I think those were all things that I had just, as far as I was kind of raised. 2000, gosh, what am I? I’m 42 now, so I was still kind of just spreading my wings learning about current events. And I was a late bloomer in that respect.

But I remember again, I go back to 9/11 as like the thing where I started to really pay attention to current events.

Steve Pomeranz: Right, right.

Andy Grignon: Right, as a tech nerd all I did was focus on writing software. I ignored pretty much everything else, but I remember that moment waking up and seeing the towers collapse.

And I was like whoa-

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, yeah.

Andy Grignon: And that’s where I started to kind of tune in to life. And so that for me was kind of a big event. And the other events that kind of happen, you have all these big things, but the hanging chad thing. I remember hearing about it, but I wasn’t actively participating in life at that moment, do you know what I mean?

Steve Pomeranz: Right.

Andy Grignon: So especially in techdom. You have to put the blinders on. Yeah, I’ve got guys that used to work for me that didn’t know what day it was.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: They just kind of show up every day, [LAUGH] and I’ve been there done that. But it’s kind of funny to see a show like this which kind of recaps. You’re like I kind of remember that, right?

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: You start to see how all these events that happened. And again, watching the show was like, yeah, I remember Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. I remember all those kinds of funny things, right? But again, it wasn’t front and center.

Steve Pomeranz: Talking about being a nerd, I mean you were involved with the iPod and the iPad and you worked with Steve Jobs. So I mean, you talk about something that really did change the way we live. Not too long ago, I saw an old photo of an ad from RadioShack and it was I guess in the 70s. And it listed all of the things that they sell at the store which was a big fat phone, a clock-

Andy Grignon: Yep.

Steve Pomeranz: A calculator, and on and on. All available on your iPhone today. Tell us about that experience of developing the iPod and the iPad and working with Steve Jobs. Tell us the good, bad, and the ugly.

Andy Grignon: Well, it was interesting. When the iPod, I think was the very first product that became an extension of ourselves, right? It was our ability to express that creative side. You could hold at the time like 1,000 songs in your pocket, right?

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: Like that was the tagline and that was kind of, it wasn’t mind-blowin but it was like wow, I get to keep my music with me, which was kind of neat.

And then when we kind of iterated, we built the first phone. By the way, the very first phone that we did was pretty much what everyone was expecting at the time. We took a phone, we bolted it onto an iPad. And so the same quick wield circular interface. The symbols would change when you put into phone mode into like this big zero to nine rotary dial kind of a thing.

So you texted that way, you dial that way.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: And it was as miserable to use as a phone.

Steve Pomeranz: [LAUGH]

Andy Grignon: But that’s our first attempt, right? Like let’s make this thing. And then at some point, somebody had this idea to marry this touch technology that we had to a new class of [INAUDIBLE] .

What if we were to make the phone have touch? And that’s really what set the wheels in motion.

Steve Pomeranz: Now you guys had an opportunity to hire people from Palm and people from Nokia, but Steve Jobs said no, right?

Andy Grignon: Yeah, well, it was actually very smart. So back in the day, when we first started developing, I carried around a Palm Treo 650 which was like the baller’s phone way back when, right? It had like this tiny little screen and the full keypad, but that’s what all the big execs and everybody who has anything had this phone.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: And we carried it because that’s the reminder of the product we didn’t want to end up with.

We didn’t quite know what we were shooting, we had some designs. We had some hardware and software designs, but we wanted to set up to create a whole different class of product. So Steve had made an edict which was thou shalt not hire people from the phone business.

The thinking I think that he was trying to do was when you’re trying to build a phone, of course, the fastest way for us to build a phone is to hire people who build phones.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: Because we knew nothing about it. But his thinking was, while I care about the schedule, I don’t want to end up with another me too product.

I don’t want to end up with a Treo 650. I want to end up with a new kind a thing and if we gotta really work hard at figuring out how to do that, then we have to do that. So he was flipping the schedule by, I think about a year to figure out how to actually make a phone.

I was the guy that pitched visual voicemail to AT&T.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I was just about to ask you. What was AT&T’s response when you did that? First of all, what is visual voicemail anyway?

Andy Grignon: So back in the day, visual voicemail, right? And you’d have to hit like four to rewind, seven to delete, or whatever.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah-

Andy Grignon: Right? You just had this cryptic set of-

Steve Pomeranz: Hate that.

Andy Grignon: Numbers you’d hit.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: And now visual voicemail, again, to a computer person. It’s just another version of email, right? You’ve got a subject, you got an attachment which is a message.

So that was kind of the thinking that we had. When I went to go pitch it, the response was, how about not enthusiastic?

Steve Pomeranz: [LAUGH]

Andy Grignon: [LAUGH] It was funny because I get up there and it was like this awful wedding, right? It was like half of the room was AT&T and half of the room is Apple.

And you’d get up and you’d be like, all right, here’s this crazy idea, right? And basically, I got a pat on the head which was-you don’t quite understand how complicated voicemail systems are, right? There’s the connected to the…get this and four people in Iowa need to do that.

It’s just like they trail out all these reasons why it can’t be done.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: And you go back to why Steve didn’t want us to hire phone people. Because if I would have hired a phone person from Palm or wherever onto my team, and we were just brainstorming the idea of visual voicemail.

Now that we have somebody kind of internally which would be shooting it down before we can get a chance to b not even pitch data in.

Steve Pomeranz: Right.

Andy Grignon: Our own person be like just think about [INAUDIBLE] and we would have shot the idea down before we have a chance to have a picture.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, that was the difference operating at Apple at that time with under Steve Jobs. I’m not having any commentary about what’s going on today, cuz I have no idea. But back then, I mean-

Andy Grignon: Right.

Steve Pomeranz: You had this driving force who had quite a reputation both positive and negative. But nevertheless-

Andy Grignon: Yep.

Steve Pomeranz: Just this driving force to be completely new, completely innovative. Do you think any other company could have developed the iPhone?

Andy Grignon: Absolutely not, we even had a hard time building it and Apple still does have, a really deep bench. They’ve got some of the smartest people in the industry, and they have the clout.

So that when things go wrong, we had one instance where it was really going bad and we had to bring in the people that wrote the software to make the chips. [LAUGH] So that we could get everybody to a room, so we could figure out this one particular problem.

And no other company that I know of could have pulled off something like that, yeah.

Steve Pomeranz: Didn’t Apple spend like $150 million developing it? Did I read that somewhere? Was that the number?

Andy Grignon: I actually don’t know, I have no idea how much we spent on it.

Steve Pomeranz: Okay.

Andy Grignon: But we crafted everything. We built our own radio chambers with the antennas that were all custom designed. Everything was custom designed because when you think about it, there was nothing about the iPhone, the very first iPhone, that should have made it work in the first place, right?

Steve Pomeranz: [LAUGH]

Andy Grignon: We were starting with a brand new piece of hardware that we’d never built.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: With chips that didn’t exist. We had Samsung make us a chip and other people. Everything was custom. And then we put an operating system on it that didn’t ever exist.

So it’s a brand new version of Mac OS, which is used to running in gigabytes of RAM and now all of a sudden, you get the tiny little bit of memory.

Steve Pomeranz: I’m speaking with Andy Grignon, former developer of the iPod and the iPhone that we’re talking about right now.

Andy, you and I have been talking about the development of the iPhone and the iPod and how it transformed things. But another element which was created during that period of time which is really just exploded. And I think transformed the world even to a greater degree is social media. Were you involved with social media at the very beginning?

Andy Grignon: It’s funny because when we first created the phone, we didn’t want to allow anybody to write software for it, right?

It was supposed to be a little closed box that made phone calls and use the software that we try to put on it, right? And now you kind of fast forward to where we are today, and I don’t know about you, but I actually don’t use my phone as a phone really.

I’ll be standing in line at a grocery store tweeting about whatever the person in front of me is doing.

Steve Pomeranz: [LAUGH]

Andy Grignon: Whatever random things, right?

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: [LAUGH] And now I think a lot of us use our phones for everything but. And that goes both ways, so it’s kind of good to something crazy happen, right?

There’s an earthquake, and you want to tell people you are okay, or those are I think fairly positive impacts on social media. Being able to sit there while you’re thinking of it, wouldn’t it be great to just have some more Q-tips right now.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: Or whatever it is. And so you call up your phone and just Amazon order one click, bam, there it is, and it shows up in a couple of days. And I think those are kind of positive ones. The negative ones, you’re at a bar at 2 in the morning and what seems like an awesome post to make on Facebook certainly doesn’t seem like so awesome a post the next morning, right?

Steve Pomeranz: So it follows you around, but the beautiful thing about Facebook and Twitter, is that really it’s just so ephemeral-

Andy Grignon: Yeah, yep.

Steve Pomeranz: That it may seem important at the time, but really two minutes later, it’s gone and forgotten, because it’s been replaced by a thousand other people’s thoughts.

Andy Grignon: Absolutely, but at least the way I use social media, is it allows me to stay connected with people. Even though they’re small moments and even though it’s flooded with a thousand other people’s thoughts. It allows me to stay connected to people that I normally wouldn’t really stay connected with, right?

Even just my family, like my mom, right? Every now and then I see her post something, it was like, hey, that’s happened.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: Right? And I even talked to her in a couple weeks, but it’s kinda nice to know that little bit in that moment of our life.

Steve Pomeranz: Right.

Andy Grignon: Now you distill that down to like a tweet and again, the guy in front of me is ordering Apple or whatever, right?

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, okay.

Andy Grignon: That’s just noise.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, and really how many cats, cute pictures of cat and dogs, I mean can we stand?
I can’t stand it anymore.

Andy Grignon: Exactly, exactly.

Steve Pomeranz: [LAUGH]

Andy Grignon: A couple years ago, I was with my family at a Mother’s Day brunch. And my wife’s on her phone, my son’s on his tablet-

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: My daughter’s on her phone, and I’m on my phone. I just held it back and like wow.

Steve Pomeranz: That’s terrible, yeah.

Andy Grignon: We are all seriously avoiding each other.

Steve Pomeranz: That’s right. You go to a restaurant, you see a family there. There’s a couple of young kids and two parents. The parents are talking and interacting, and the two kids are involved in their phones and whatever they’re doing, playing a game or whatever.

Andy Grignon: Yep.

Steve Pomeranz: It just seems to be something lost in that.

Andy Grignon: It is, and that was never the intent. When we created these things, it was supposed to be a tool that allowed you to have a more connected life with like a browser to get direction, whatever.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: But then you open it up to everybody. And then people start to do crazy stuff, right? Now you’ve got lunch being delivered in an hour anyway. All these crazy things that are now possible that weren’t ever part of the plan.

Steve Pomeranz: There’s an old story when Xerox created the copier, way, way back when. That they showed it-

Andy Grignon: Yeah.

Steve Pomeranz: To I think it was Arthur Anderson, a consulting company. And the consulting company said, well, no, nobody’s going to really buy this because really what it’s a big company. They’re going to have like one or two copiers. They never could envision the use of a copier, and I think you’re telling the same story in as much as you had these ideas for what the use would be. But you had no idea, nobody could, as to how the human nature and the human experience would change things.

Andy Grignon: Right, exactly.

Again, this has played out on the desktop side as well. I remember when we were doing Mac OS in computers. You’d put a new thing out and then you’d wait to see what crazy thing some developer would build on it. And it’s neat to see, people just when you have a global audience.

You start to see people are taking and solving problems that are important to them and whatever, wherever they are.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: You start to see crazy things in India. Is doing some really interesting stuff, but they’re using technology to solve problems that are applicable to India.

Steve Pomeranz: Sure.

Andy Grignon: And I think that’s actually one of the things that Silicon Valley, that’s because I’m a resident. I think we tend to solve problems that are appropriate for Silicon Valley. And not necessarily what’s appropriate for Iowa or Chicago as long as you are on either coast, you’re good.

Steve Pomeranz: When did Apple decide to open up the software or the platform to allow others to write and create applications, was that a separate decision?

Andy Grignon: It was a separate decision, although there was this idea that going back to we didn’t want developers to crash the phone and thought we can get away with making a sandbox for them.

So we can do it inside of the web browser. So we had these web apps. And the developers started to do some of those apps, but they started complaining, loudly. That they didn’t have enough access to do the things they really wanted and then it became a scramble.

So this is I think around the second iteration of the product where they, I was out of Apple at that point…where they allowed developers to get right down to the metal and build whatever they wanted. And now you started to see games, like that was the very first kind of adoption, make all these crazy games.

Steve Pomeranz: I guess as long as Apple could figure out how to monetize it, it didn’t really matter, right?

Andy Grignon: Right.

Steve Pomeranz: I mean- [LAUGH]

Andy Grignon: Right, absolutely.

Steve Pomeranz: Cuz that’s first and foremost.

Andy Grignon: Well, that’s one of the things they troughed that statistic out pretty much every time that they get in front of people.

The number of app downloads they’ve had.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: Billion dollars paid out or whatever it is to developers. How many billions of downloads that have happened on the App Store, really what they’re basically saying is, yeah, look how much money we’ve made on this, yeah. Well, and now we’re having the inverse problem. So it’s kind of like the gold rush in the early days, where you’d have these apps created, and then it got to the point where everybody’s making an app, and now you’ve got a discoverability problem. How do you promote the thing you’ve got versus the other thing? And now once then we have people downloading on your screen, you’ve got pages and pages of apps.

Now it’s not only a discoverability to get people to download it, but then it’s a retention issue. Why is somebody going to use your app every day?

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: There’s this idea of whatever is on the front page is the apps people pretty much exclusively use. And if you are on the second or third page, you get launched when you board.

Steve Pomeranz: It’s like a Google thing too. I mean if you’re not on the first page on a Google Search, I think-

Andy Grignon: Absolutely.

Steve Pomeranz: The odds go down tremendously.

Andy Grignon: Absolutely, but what’s interesting is the fact that we’re even having this conversation, right? Ten years ago, it’s like when we were in the 2000s, people didn’t know what memory was, right?

Google, a search engine, was starting to be picked up, right?

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: But largely, people didn’t really need to think that they could just search for whatever they wanted out of billions of pages of content. And now, the fact that I can talk to my mom about things like Google, voice recognition.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: Posting to YouTube, first it didn’t exist way back when. But the fact that it’s part of the vocabulary today, I think is kind of a profound thing. And that topics that, again, my mom’s generation would just throw their hands up and I don’t know how to program the VCR, or I don’t know how to do this.

Like it’s funny but way back when that’s what you just did.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Andy Grignon: And now they’re grasping concepts, which are infinitely more complicated than programming the VCR.

Steve Pomeranz: My guest is Andy Grignon, he helped develop the iPod and the iPhone. And today, we were talking National Geographic’s terrific series chronicling the dynamic changes in America than for those ten tumultuous years.

Andy, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your experience about Apple.

Andy Grignon: Absolutely.

Steve Pomeranz: We all really want to know that stuff.

Andy Grignon: Happy to do it. Thanks for having me on, I appreciate it.