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6 minute read

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.

[Image: Old Phone via Shutterstock]

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]

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