On Jan. 9, 2007, Steve Jobs gave one of the most important speeches in the history of technology. “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything,” he said during the keynote address at Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco.
“Well, today we’re introducing three revolutionary products of this class. The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device […] These are not three separate devices, this is one device, and we are calling it iPhone. Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone, and here it is.”
But, despite appearances, the iPhone at that time was not a functional device. According to news website TechSpot, which spoke with Andy Grignon, a senior engineer with Apple at the time, only some parts of the software worked properly, and the apps consumed excessive amounts of resources, causing it to unexpectedly crash and restart. All the prototypes worked poorly, and something always went wrong during testing for the presentation.
However, on stage, that day, everything worked perfectly.
This was because, as Grignon explained, after hundreds of testing hours, engineers had identified something they called the golden path, a series of actions that, if done in a specific order, would make it seem like the phone worked flawlessly. For example, it could play part of a song or video but not completely, and if you sent an email and then used the browser it would be fine, but if you did those two things backwards the phone would stop working.
Additionally, in order to avoid the device’s memory saturation problems that caused it to crash or restart, Jobs used several iPhones that he swapped out on stage without anyone knowing.
What many consider the best presentation in history was an illusion, but it was not magic. Jobs practiced his presentation over and over again until he was sure that everything would work perfectly. He gave the appearance that the iPhone was functional when it really wasn’t.
And the issues with the iPhone that Apple needed to resolve before it shipped to customers later that year didn’t end there. Another major problem with the prototype was its screen.
The day after the presentation, Jobs called Jeff Williams, Apple’s Operations Manager. Recounting the story at a press conference in 2017, Williams said that Jobs had detected a serious snag — the screen had been scratched in his pocket, possibly by keys. That was of course unacceptable; the iPhone could not get scratched. Jobs decided that Apple needed to use glass for the screen instead of hard-coated plastic.
The operations team had tested all the glass options on the market, but none of them were feasible since they all shattered every single time when the iPhone was dropped, as Williams explained. He told Jobs that the necessary technology likely wouldn’t be available for another three or four years. The Apple founder is said to have responded: “I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but when it ships in June, it’s going to be glass.”
Jobs reached out to Wendell Weeks, the CEO of Corning Incorporated, a New York-based company that manufactures special glass, to explain Apple’s conundrum.
A couple of days later, Williams received a call from Weeks. “Hey, your boss called and said my glass sucks,” said Weeks, according to Williams. Weeks then suggested using a product dubbed Gorilla Glass that had been developed in the 1960s and that was “sitting on the R&D shelf,” but that had never gone to market since there weren’t any apparent applications for it.
As written in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, once Weeks explained how the glass product was manufactured and the science behind it, Jobs was sold on the idea. He said he wanted as much Gorilla Glass as Corning could make within six months. “We don’t have the capacity,” Weeks replied. “None of our plants make the glass now.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Jobs replied, according to Isaacson. This stunned Weeks, who tried to explain that a false sense of confidence would not overcome engineering challenges. But that was a premise that Jobs didn’t accept. “Yes, you can do it,” he said. “Get your mind around it. You can do it.”
As Williams tells it, the Apple and Corning “teams scrambled” over “months of sheer terror” to make everything come together.
In the end, it was just eleven days before the iPhone went on sale when Apple announced the change from plastic to glass in a footnote on a press release. In less than six months, Corning was able to mass produce a type of scratch-resistant glass that had never been manufactured before.
Gorilla Glass quickly became one of Corning’s main business lines, and in 2019 the company reported $11.5 billion in gross sales, more than double the 2006 figure. The alliance between Apple and Corning Incorporated continues to this day. Apple said that by 2019 it had spent nearly $3 billion with Corning on the glass used in its products, including the iPad and every generation of the Apple Watch and iPhone.
On June 29, 2007, the day the iPhone went on sale around the world, Jobs sent a message to Corning Incorporated’s chief executive: “We couldn’t have done it without you” – a message that Weeks keeps framed in his office.