When Google engineers first learned about the iPhone: 'What we had suddenly looked just so . . . nineties'
The iPhone turned the tech world on its head and ushered in the modern era of the smartphone. In unveiling the iPhone, Apple not only captured the attention of the masses, but also delivered a huge kick in the arse to competitors who quickly realized that their current product roadmaps were instantly outdated.
Steve Jobs famously called Android a stolen product (in addition to promising to go thermonuclear on them), a point to which Android enthusiasts like to point out that Google actually acquired the Andy Rubin-led Android team in August 2005. Still, the type of product Android embodied drastically shifted once Jobs graced the stage at Macworld 2007 and revealed the iPhone for the very first time.
In his new book, Dogfight: How Apple and Google went to War and Started a Revolution, Fred Vogelstein captures the reaction that many of the early Android engineers had upon learning of the iPhone. In short, many were shocked and soon came to the realization that the version of Android they had been working on for so many months would have to be scrapped. An iPhone-type experience was the future, and it was clear to many involved that they would have to follow suit.
Vogelstein relays a quote from Google engineer Chris DeSalvo, who said, "As a consumer, I was blown away. I wanted one immediately. But as a Google engineer, I thought, 'We're going to have to start over.'"
For most of Silicon Valley-including most of Google-the iPhone's unveiling on January 9, 2007 was something to celebrate. Jobs had once again done the impossible. Four years before he'd talked an intransigent music industry into letting him put their catalog on iTunes for ninety-nine cents a song. Now he had convinced a wireless carrier to let him build a revolutionary smartphone.
But for the Google Android team, the iPhone was a kick in the stomach. "What we had suddenly looked just so . . . nineties," DeSalvo said. "It's just one of those things that are obvious when you see it."
The significance of Jobs' iPhone announcement wasn't lost on Android chief and former Apple engineer Rubin. Vogelstein writes that Rubin at the time was in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. Indeed, many at the time expressed astonishment that a lone company like Apple could completely upstage an event as storied and grandiose as CES. In any event, upon watching the Apple keynote, Rubin knew that his Android team had to re-evaluate its strategy.
That's not to say that the Android models that Rubin and his team were working on were complete crap, but those devices lacked many of the features that made the iPhone so distinct and revolutionary. For instance, the Android models being developed at Google all sported traditional QWERTY keyboards, a feature Jobs lambasted during his keynote.
Now to be fair, the iPhone didn't catch just the Android folks off-guard; it caught everyone off-guard. If you go back and look at many of the early iPhone rumors that circulated before January 2007, even the most ambitious predictions and outlandish mockups absolutely paled in comparison to what Apple actually had in store.
Further, other companies were just as astonished by Jobs' iPhone introduction. A former RIM employee, for instance, recounted how many folks inside RIM were in disbelief following the iPhone introduction.
All these companies were fighting over what amounts to overgrown PDAs with phones and wireless stacks strapped on. Everyone assumed power density was no where even close to what was needed for general computing, that a full featured browser and heavy duty Internet services were impossible due to bandwidth and latency. Take a look at how our Java expert groups named standards, how people at the time talked about what features smart phones should have, and it's clear that no one thought an iPhone was possible. Even Danger, which eventually [led to] Windows Phone 7 and Android, was just working on a better Blackberry.
I left RIM back in 2006 just months before the iPhone launched and I remember talking to friends from RIM and Microsoft about what their teams thought about it at the time. Everyone was utterly shocked. RIM was even in denial the day after the iPhone was announced with all-hands meets claiming all manner of weird things about iPhone: It couldn't do what they were demonstrating without an insanely power hungry processor; it must have terrible battery life, etc. Imagine their surprise when they disassembled an iPhone for the first time and found that the phone was battery with a tiny logic board strapped to it. It was ridiculous, it was brilliant.
The folks working on Android, to their credit, were able to reverse course and steer Android in an iPhone-like direction. RIM, on the other hand, remained beholden to their QWERTY keyboards for far too long and we all saw how well that worked out for them.
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