Apple's "Skankphone" Was The iPhone's Ugly Twin Brother

Before Apple introduced its polished phone to the world, it was a clunky tablet-size device running intentionally ugly software called Skankphone.

When Apple's engineers first began developing the iPhone, it was far from the slim, polished device that it is today. In fact, it didn't resemble a phone at all. "It was a tablet-size device, with this thick cable running into a Mac," recalls Nitin Ganatra, Apple's former director of engineering for iOS applications. "Shoved into the corner of this display was the phone interface."

The insight comes as part of Fast Company's recent oral history of design at Apple, comprised of interviews with dozens of insiders and former executives. The revelations are all the more compelling given that Apple just launched the latest iterations of its iPhone, the high-end 5s and the budget 5c. But back in 2003, as Apple was just starting to experiment with multitouch technology, creating a smartphone was not top of mind for the company's design team.

"We were always trying to shove a PC into a tablet," recalls Doug Satzger, Apple's former industrial design creative lead. "Duncan Kerr [an industrial designer] sat people down for a couple of hours and just talked about multitouch. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just turn a page like you were turning a page? Wouldn’t it be great if you could just zoom in and out by doing some kind of gesture? A couple of weeks later, we were all just blown away by the prototype Duncan and his team built. It was a multi-touch layer on top of a screen laying on a table and attached to a tower."

It was essentially an iPad tethered to a PC tower. Though its implications were promising, the team didn't feel the tablet's execution was up to Apple's standards—standards that push products beyond vaporware and pie-in-the-sky concepts to become must-have gadgets. "It was the iPad, but it wasn’t the iPad at the time," says Jon Rubinstein, then-VP of hardware engineering. "It was pretty cool, but it wasn’t good enough. And so the technology wound up in the iPhone."

It wasn't until 2005 that Apple set off a small skunkworks team to begin work on the project that would become the iPhone. At that point, as it's been reported before, Apple didn't have touch screens in mind. Rather, the team was trying to figure out how to convert the iPod's iconic form factor into a phone. "We started with an iPod Mini and tried to make it a phone," recalls Tony Fadell, Apple's former senior VP of its iPod division. "We actually built a phone with a click wheel—it worked like a rotary dial."

The iPod-like iPhone was codenamed Purple, which was soon shortened to P1. "This was around when [Apple software head Scott] Forstall got wind of the project," recalls former top iPhone manager Andy Grignon. "He really wanted to do Mac OS on a phone. And Apple had just acquired a company called FingerWorks, which made multi-touch software. So the idea was born to do a full touch-screen-based platform for the phone."

Forstall's touch-screen project was called P2, which would eventually win favor with Steve Jobs over Fadell's project.

But even then, the iPhone was far from finished, and its development would have to continue under a level of secrecy that kept Apple's own iPhone development teams siloed from one another. For most developers involved, it wasn't until Jobs unveiled the iPhone to the world in 2007 that they finally understood what the complete package would look like.

While Jony Ive's team was crafting the industrial design, Forstall's software team was plugging away on a set of clunky hardware simulators. But surprisingly, these simulators were designed not from cutting-edge Apple computers, but their dinosaur predecessors. "We knew we weren't going to have [the real] hardware for a long time," says Ganatra. "We developed a simulator running on a Power Mac G5, and isolated as much running software as we could from the rest of Mac OS. Once we had that thing running, we said, 'Let's find the shittiest Mac we can,' because we knew we were going to have performance issues that were hidden by the fact that we're running on this super computer processor."

The shittiest Mac available to simulate the power of an iPhone? It was a blue and white Power Mac G3, which was the least powerful system still supported by the latest version of OS X. Soon thereafter, Forstall's team would receive the iPhone's processing guts—though not in the right size. The parts, dubbed together as a Freescale MX-31, took up half of a table in Forstall's lab, and included a full development board, with a modem, antenna, and display tethered to it.

"When we got everything compiled and running on the MX-31, that was our first eureka moment," Ganatra says.

However, not all of Forstall's team experienced that same a-ha moment. For the majority of people involved in P2, including most of Ive's ID team, only a dumbed-down version of the iPhone software was made available, to keep it from leaking. "We ended up making two user interfaces," recalls Grignon. "There was the UI that you got if you were knighted by Steve to see these glorious pixels cause they'll blow your fucking eyes out. And then there was this other UI that we called Skankphone for testing. It was this awful UI that allowed you to make phone calls and text, but it was these hideous red buttons and boxes."

Jobs and Forstall only offered access to the real iPhone UI to a select number of people, even within the strict confines of the most secretive skunkworks project in Apple's history. Even the anointed few had to go through a thorough, multi-tier approval process. "You had to sign a separate legal document, Steve had to approve it, and then you’d go to Forstall, who was the ultimate owner of the secret list," Grignon says. "He would tell you, 'Don’t talk to anybody. Don’t tell your wife.'"

Insiders recall how absurd it became when the engineering teams became increasingly split over who did and didn't have access to the real UI, despite needing to work together. Ganatra remembers having to sprint back and forth between rooms to serve as a secure translator between the two teams. "I would go into the room where the full UI was, then come back and draw the rough proportions on the whiteboard for the other engineers," he recalls. "We did that for days until Scott went to Steve and said, 'It sure would be helpful if the engineers implementing this all could actually see the UI.'"

Though more engineers were eventually given access to the full-blown UI, Forstall's team was never truly on the same page. In fact, in Grignon's recollection, he had to go to extremes to work around the system to the point where he had to sit his own engineers next to one another with a curtain in between—one with full iPhone access, the other with Skankphone access—to debug the code.

The teams pulled it off, but with this perspective in mind, it's remarkable to see how far Apple has managed to come, from Skankphone to iOS 7.

A team of Fast Company reporters spent months interviewing more than 50 former Apple execs and insiders, many of whom had never spoken publicly about their work. Read part four of the oral history here, which covers the creation of the iPhone. An extended version of this oral history is available from Byliner. Purchase it here.

[Images: Laptop, Hand, Cord via Shutterstock]

[Image: Old Phone via Shutterstock]

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  • Skankphone is the test/debug/demo software that was part of Apple's internal dev suite. The phone itself was never referred to by that name.

  • econobiker

    So the red dial phone at the head of the article is not related to the article. Nice....

  • dbrem

    What I find odd or amusing, particularly as it relates to Apple, is with any discussion regarding what was done (or not), was whether or not it made sense or if it was effective.

    As an example, using two engineering teams with the levels of secrecy between teams was an interesting read, but was it useful? Was it required? Did it help more than it hurt?

    It's nice to know that's what Apple / Steve Jobs did as part of bringing the iPhone to life, but was it "good"? I don't want to pretend that just because Apple / Steve Jobs did something a certain way that we should necessarily embrace or emulate it.

    It smacks more of idolatry than of something we can actually learn from.

  • Suz_X

    "This isn't feministing or jezebel" -- seriously? Is that where we get to talk about sexism? Not in mainstream pubs, where it actually happens? 
    Editors and writers have choices. To discover "skankphone" was a great find and Fast Co chose to trumpet it. It landed in my inbox this morning, and it pissed me off. 

    No one else seems to have had even remote discomfort with it, which surprises me only a little. Way more surprising to me is the tone of the commenters, the hostility here. It's intense. Over and out. 

  • disqusmademeregister

    SUZ_X, you're the only one being hostile, you are the bull, this is the china shop, and we are the patrons trying to avoid further calamity.

    Now if you would care to reread what I wrote:  "If you want to argue that the use by apple was sexist, fine, but lets not suggest censorship by keeping the name of the focal product of this story our of the headline and/or article. " This addresses the sexism discussion. Blame the company not the author of the article reporting factual uncensored information. You could have only commented how apple was sexist for using the word, but you decided to add disdain for the authorship using this word and suggested censorship to avoid harming your sensibilities.

    My point in bringing up jezebel and feministing was to suggest the author doesn't need to focus on how offensive the word skank was on a design site when the obvious focus is the phone's existence. You could have deduced that by reading the rest of the sentence and understanding its simple grammatical construct. I didn't say those were the only venues of feminist discussion, I merely pointed out a simple fact that this is a design site (i.e it does not frame all articles in a feminist narrative).

    I hope that was clear enough for you the second time around.  Please try to remain calm and stop spamming the comments section suggestions of censorship.Thanks.

  • Suz_X

    joeblew, not sure where you're coming from characterizing my anger "false." Seeing a site that should know/act better normalizing "skank" upsets me. Yes, more than the porn map.  

  • disqusmademeregister

    SUZ_, please do us a favor and stay on topic. Your argument belongs on tumblr, not here. The author was writing about some phone history, stop trying to reframe the narrative to argue another issue. This isn't that issue. Furthermore, you're suggesting censorship of the author. I have another idea: Grow a pair of ovaries, and stop ruining feminism for other women by making pro-patriarchal men and women assume its just for a bunch of hyper-reactive psychos that assume every discussion in the world is about themselves. Mr. Carr may have privilege because he is a white male, but he shouldn't have to apologize for it when writing an article, quoting the name a company used for a prototype. Take your issues up with apple, not with Mr. Carr, as quite simply put, he is not at fault. If you want to argue that the use by apple was sexist, fine, but lets not suggest censorship by keeping the name of the focal product of this story our of the headline and/or article. This isn't feministing or jezebel, the point was to talk about tech history, so don't get offended if he chose to focus on that rather than how your sensibilities were offended.

  • AlanGraham

    Umm, see how the word "Skankphone" is in quotes... that's because the apple engineers called it that, not Fast Co.

  • Suz_X

    Umm, hello? I get that Fast Co didn't make the term up. Re-read what I wrote, please... I'm addressing the editorial decision to highlight an offensive, sexist term in a story (surely there were many other angles and names along the way). My problem is with perpetuating and normalizing blatantly sexist language. 

  • Suz_X

    "Skank" is "slut" on steroids. Look it up. I realize you didn't name the thing, but let's try to keep sexist and classist terms out of headlines and hey maybe out of your stories altogether, unless you're going to call somebody out on that kind of thing. Clearly it's a grab for cred with your main readership -- privileged males. What this shows me, a woman, is that sexism is alive and well both at Apple and Fast Company. Quelle bummer. 

  • Fa Pin Teng

    No reply.... Looks like someone lost the argument.... Next time don't bring a knife to a gun fight... Or in your case don't bring your undercooked accusations to a tech blog with knowledgable readers. And also remember to use a dictionary as other commentor mentioned

  • McGehee

    "let's try to keep sexist and classist terms out of headlines and hey maybe out of your stories altogether"

    How about we keep humorless scolds off the internet?

  • Mark Williams

    "Skanky" means disgusting or nasty. Referring to a woman as a skank is simply saying she has the attribute of skankiness. A "skankphone" is clearly referring to a phone that is disgusting or nasty and has no sexual connotation at all. You are as ill-informed as the people who got upset over the politician using the word "niggardly" in a speech.

  • miken40

    I looked it up.  Websters says "skank" is "a person and especially a woman of low or sleazy character."  And sleazy is defined as "dishonest or immoral."  Is there not room for words that mean this in the English language without it being considered sexism?  There are certainly words for men that mean this.  Scoundrel comes to mind as does sleazy, a word I've used numerous times to describe used car salesmen.  Nowhere in the definition does the word "slut" appear. 

  • miken40

    I think the reference to the prototype being attached to a tower was probably a phallic reference too.  

  • joebluw

    How about your trivialization of something being "on steroids"?

    Where is your anger over their infographic "Mapping The United States By Its Porn Searches"?
    Take your false anger elsewhere.