A history of the smartphone

Cover of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhoneThe One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone
by Brian Merchant
Published by Bantam, £20
(Buy at Amazon)

This year saw the tenth anniversary of the Apple iPhone’s creation. Brian Merchant’s book looks at the history of the device. The story is just as dull as that sounds in places, says Hugo Rifkind in The Times, but the rest is a fascinating “questing mission to understand the smartphone”.

He interviews Apple employees and takes trips to factories and mines around the world in this quest, and as a result, his book manages to highlight the “utter disconnect” between “the clean, polo-necked Western geek world” of the iPhone and that of “the teeming chaos of China where the work is done”.

If you’ve ever worked on a hopeless project that felt like it was going nowhere, you will “draw spiritual strength” from this account of life in the Apple trenches, says Lev Grossman in The New York Times. The book details all the “fascinating dead ends and might-have-beens”, the personal sacrifices and obscure technical hurdles, and the backstage tension that surrounded the iPhone’s development and launch.

But there’s also a lot of filler in there. “It’s curiously unilluminating to read a metallurgical analysis of a pulverised iPhone, or to watch Merchant trudge around the globe… in search of the raw materials Apple uses.” Of more interest for most readers is the “remarkably negative picture” the book paints of Apple’s fabled former chief executive, says Jacob Mikanowski in The Guardian. Steve Jobs is largely confined to the margins of this story, but comes across as “impatient, domineering, petty, ruthless, clueless, megalomaniacal and frequently wrong”.

Indeed, “most of the early work on the iPhone was hidden from him, to keep him from killing the project”. iPhone lovers owe a larger debt, says Merchant, to anonymous Apple staff and the “forgotten pioneers” who developed the technologies that it depended on than they do to Jobs.