Unless you’ve been tramping around the Brazilian rain forest on an extended holiday for the last month or two, you’ve probably heard the news that the iPhone turned 10 years old this summer. It’s hard to believe that these ubiquitous devices that have become such a big part of our everyday existence (there are over 2.5 billion–yes, that’s billion, with a “B”–out there today) didn’t even exist a decade ago, but it’s true (Madrigal, 2017). It just goes to show how truly world-changing a single creative idea can be.

To commenorate the event, journalist and author Brian Merchant, who writes about science and technology topics for Vice Media’s Motherboard, recently published the book, The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, where he details all the behind-the-scenes work that went into creating and marketing the world’s most popular smartphone.

But while the device itself, shown glowing softly on the book’s cover in an edge-on view that emphasizes its slim profile, is clearly the star, the key word in the book’s title is “secret.” Why so? Because the vast majority of the story of the iPhone’s creation has been unknown to the masses until now. Part of this obscurity, of course, has to do with Apple’s legendary culture of secrecy, playing their cards close to the vest until their latest breakthrough technology is launched (well, that and non-disclosure agreements). But the biggest reason most of us know little to nothing about how the iPhone came to be is because of the larger than life persona of Apple’s former CEO, Steve Jobs.

In fact, if you asked the average Joe or Josephine on the street, “Who invented the iPhone?” you’d almost certainly get the answer, “Steve Jobs.” News flash, people: Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPhone! That distinction goes to a small army of designers, engineers, and software coders who toiled on the project in secret for years before its launch.

So, why do so many people think Steve Jobs invented the iPhone? Partly because many of us want to believe in the lone genius, slaving away into the wee hours of the morning in his or her garage or basement to create the newest world-changing technology. There’s something romantic about that kind of story. And yes, sometimes (very, very rarely) it happens that way, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule–the rule being that the vast majority of new inventions are created by hard-working teams of people working in collaboration.

The other reason most people believe Steve Jobs invented the iPhone is that Apple, and Jobs himself, did just about everything short of out-and-out lying to sell us on that story. Why? Because they believed that that story would more effectively sell the iPhone to the masses–and they were right, of course.

So, what does any of this have to do with teachers and students? Well, I believe that there are some important lessons to be learned from both stories–the true story of how the iPhone was developed and the story of the real role Steve Jobs played in the iPhone’s commercial success (as opposed to the bogus story of Steve Jobs as the device’s inventor)–and that we can use these lessons to guide us in creating curriculum for our classrooms that is both highly engaging and that prepares students for the adult world they will be entering soon.

But before I get into practical applications for the classroom, let’s go a little deeper into how the iPhone really was invented.

Steve Jobs Didn’t Invent the iPhone…

Counter to what most people believe, not only did Steve Jobs not invent the iPhone, but Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, either, though they certainly came up with by far the most successful design. No, if you take the word “invent” to mean “came up with the initial idea,” there were a number of people at several different companies thinking along the same lines nearly two decades before the first iPhone was sold.

As a case in point, here’s a pop quiz: identify the speaker in the following quotation:

“This is a very personal object. It must be beautiful. It must offer the kind of personal satisfaction that a fine piece of jewelry brings. It will have a perceived value even when it’s not being used. It should offer the comfort of a touchstone, the tactile satisfaction of a seashell, the enchantment of a crystal” (Madrigal, 2017).

No, it’s not Steve Jobs (though it does sound a lot like Jobs). The speaker above is Marc Porat, CEO of the company, General Magic, and he wrote that in his notebook in 1989 to describe the device he had in his head–18 years before the iPhone was launched! Not only that, but in the same notebook, Porat sketched his conception of the device he was describing, and the similarities to today’s iPhone are startling.

Never heard of Marc Porat or General Magic? Join the crowd. The fact of the matter, however, is that a number of different people had visions along the same lines during the late 80’s and into the 90’s, and a number of different companies worked on projects to develop a device similar to today’s iPhone, but none of them succeeded in bringing their projects to fruition. There were many reasons for this, ranging from the fact that some of the materials necessary for bringing such a product to life didn’t yet exist or were extremely difficult to procure to the fact that wireless technology and availability was nowhere near at the levels it would need to be for most people to use such a device.

In fact, Apple’s own foray into smartphone development began without Steve Jobs’ knowledge. The project, bearing the code name of “Purple” for some arcane reason, began in secret (only a small group within Apple even knew about it) behind the sealed doors of a lab dubbed “the Purple Dorm,” where engineers and software designers worked around the clock on the project (Grossman, 2017).

Along the way, the people involved with the project had to find and procure the perfect, scratch-free type of glass (called Gorilla Glass by Corning, who produces it); they had to find the best battery to power the device (the lithium-ion batteries that are ubiquitous in our devices today); they had to find the perfect memory chips; they had to develop the best wireless technology to use in the device; they had to find and procure the best multi-touch technology (developed by a company called Fingerworks that Apple bought out), and on and on (Grossman, 2017; Madrigal, 2017).

The truth of the matter is that many people worked together extremely hard for an extended period of time, identifying and solving problems, trying new approaches, and cobbling together the best materials they could find in order to produce a prototype that they felt comfortable enough with to share with others inside Apple. At this point, they showed the prototype to Scott Forstall and Jony Ive, Apple’s design wiz. Then, and only then, did Steve Jobs find out about the project (Medium, 2017).

…BUT He Had the Vision and Took Action

So, no, Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPhone, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t instrumental in its success.

Once Jobs was informed about the project, he became its biggest (and, of course, most visible) champion. In order to push the project from prototype to finished product, here are some of things he did:

  • He gave the project his 100% support. While the original Purple team had obviously been able to secure a lab, materials, and time to work on the project through lower-level managers, to really ramp the project up, it needed more resources, more people devoted to the project, etc. And only Jobs could make that happen. The key here is that, instead of quailing at the enormity or expense of the project, he went all in and gave the project team everything it needed to bring the project to completion.
  • He not only resonated with the work team’s vision, but improved upon it. Once Jobs was made aware of the project, his legendary design aesthetic kicked in to guide the team toward the version of the device we see today. Even very late in the process, some of the design team’s prototypes still sported a scroll-wheel and a hardware keyboard. Jobs nixed these ideas in favor of the sleek, fully multi-touch approach (Madrigal, 2017).
  • He had the drive to push through obstacles to take the vision public. He had to secure favorable contract terms with wireless carriers, with software companies, and with materials manufacturers. According to one story, when Jobs met with a Corning executive about procuring the best glass for his iPhone (Corning’s Gorilla Glass), he was told that there was no way to produce the glass in the quantities needed in the limited time left before launch. Jobs basically said (supposedly), “I’m sure you will find a way to make it happen.” His unshakable belief in being able to pull off such miracles and his unwillingness (inability?) to take no for an answer carried the day. Corning found a way to provide the glass needed.
  • He marketed the new product brilliantly to the public. We all have the image in our heads–Jobs in his trademark black turtleneck and blue jeans, pacing the stage before a mammoth video screen, revealing the iPhone to the world. That was Jobs in his element. He was a master storyteller who knew how to focus on a product’s benefits instead of its features. By the time he had finished his sales pitch, the public couldn’t wait to get their hands on the device. Statistics show that approximately 1 million iPhones were sold on the first day they were available in 2007 (Kollmeyer, 2014)!

Putting the Lessons of the iPhone’s Invention to Work in the Classroom

But again, what does all of this mean for the classroom? I think that there are a number of important take-aways from the story of Steve Jobs and the creation and launch of the iPhone. Here is my list of five lessons we should take to heart:

1. Build a Culture of Curiosity–We don’t have the full story of how the Purple team at Apple got started, but obviously, a number of like-minded people were curious about the possibilities of creating the do-everything computer/camera/phone-in-your-pocket that we now call a smartphone. But the key is, how did they secure a private lab to work on it? How, and from whom, did they get permission to spend their time in that lab working on that project instead of on whatever their normal duties were at Apple? How, and from whom, did they get permission to order all the materials they would have to have to create prototypes? Obviously, someone–people at the mid-management level apparently–had to support the curiosity of the team. That such a costly (in time, manpower, and materials) project, not guaranteed to ever produce the desired result, was so well-supported shows that a culture existed that gave leeway to workers to explore their ideas.

In the classroom, we need to be just as supportive of curiosity. But this is even more difficult in schools than in a businees. We do, after all, have a certain amount of set curriculum that experts have determined students must learn to be well-educated, so at least the bare bones of the curriculum are non-negotiable. However, within that framework, there are always many opportunities to allow students to follow their curiosity. We can support these explorations by offering choices on assignments, by using student-selected topics for research projects, by allowing a wide range of choices (both genre and topic) on writing assignments, and in many other ways. The key is for teachers to be open to noticing what their students are curious about within their field and to find ways to allow students to explore these topics.

2. Help Students Create a Vision–The Purple team had a vision. At first, it was kind of fuzzy, and of course the details of the vision changed over time as the team encountered and worked through problems, but the iPhone we ended up with is very close, at least in its capabilities, to what the team had in mind when it started. It was this vision that drove team members.

Question: do your students have a vision, a big idea of what your subject matter could allow them to achieve in a school year, and, beyond that school year, into their lives as adults? If not, could you articulate that vision to them and set up a long-term project in the classroom that would allow them to get a taste of working on a meaningful project that changes the world in some way, at least locally? If you can find and articulate that vision and get your students to buy into it, you will find that your students will be hungry to learn all the skills and knowledge that you want to teach because that learning will be in service of bringing the vision to fruition.

3. Build a Culture of Creativity–At Apple, the company’s fortunes rise and fall on whether or not they can be first to market with the next technological breakthrough that makes people’s lives easier and more productive. As I stated above, in order to achieve this goal, the company has to support curiosity in its workers. But curiosity isn’t enough by itself. Curiosity is just the spark. To turn that spark into a flame–a fully realized product–takes creativity, a process that is replicable and leads to high-level, breakthrough thinking. Apple not only supports curiosity, it supports the creative process necessary to produce miraculous new products.

Does this sound like your classroom? Do you teach students how to think creatively? (If you’re not aware of the specific steps involved in creative thinking, check out any of the books written by creativity experts like Edward de Bono, Michael Michalko, or Roger von Oech.) But teaching students how to think creatively is only part of the job. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. In order for your students to truly be creative, you also have to provide them with a forum through which they can stretch their creative muscles. The good news is that teachers all over the country continue to find ways of doing this, despite the on-going, soul-crushing focus by legislators and departments of education on low-level knowledge and standardized tests. The Makerspaces movement is just the latest iteration of this push to help students become creative thinkers.

4. Use Collaboration as the Default Structure for Learning–Yes, the story of the lone genius inventor burning the midnight oil to produce the next breakthrough invention is romantic, but the fact is, it almost never happens like that. People hold Thomas Edison up as example of a great inventor, but Edison employed an entire lab full of creative people in his Menlo Park, New Jersey facility who worked on inventions that many people ascribe to Edison alone today. The fact of the matter is, it took many people working collaboratively to produce products like the light bulb and the phonograph. Steve Jobs is our modern-day Edison; people like to give Jobs credit for Apple’s inventions because he was most visible, but the vast majority of the work done on each new product was done by teams of people working together.

Do you value collaboration in your classroom? Business people keep telling those of us in education that graduates need to be able to work together to achieve goals, and we do a good job of parroting their words, putting objectives like “works well with others” in our standards documents and curriculum guides, but do we really value and promote collaboration? I can tell within seconds when I enter a classroom whether the teacher really values collaboration or not. One of the first things I determine is what the default seating arrangement is in the classroom. If the default arrangement is in rows, this tells me that the default mode of operation in the classroom is still the old wisdom-delivered-from-the-mountaintop model. Sure, the teacher may have students meet together to do a collaborative processing activity from time to time, but this is obviously a departure from the norm. If, on the other hand, I walk into a classroom where the default seating arrangement is in collaborative pods or tables, where the teacher has to have students turn their seats to face her whenever she needs to input some new information via direct instruction, I know that this is a classroom where collaboration is truly valued.

5. Strive for Real-World Application–At Apple, as in any business, the bottom line is profit, and the key aspect leading to profit is producing products that people want to buy or delivering a service that people are willing to pay for. As I mentioned previously, a number of companies worked on previous iterations of the smartphone, but few ever reached the buying public, and the few that did died quickly either because the products themselves weren’t seen as good enough by the public or because the necessary infrastructure wasn’t yet in place to make them viable. What I’m saying is that, in the business world, the only thing that matters is results.

In the typical classroom, this isn’t the case–and it hasn’t been the case historically. In fact, this has been one of the biggest problems with education since mandatory public education began. Students just haven’t seen what they’re asked to learn as being relevant. But all that changes when we can provide them with a chance to apply what they’re learning to the world outside of the classroom.


What can happen when we apply all the lessons learned from Apple’s development of the iPhone to our classrooms? Amazing things, that’s what!

Imagine what your classroom would be like if you started right at the beginning of the school year this year to foster a culture of curiosity and creativity in your classroom and structured the work in such a way that students worked together collaboratively to develop a vision for some change they wanted to make in the world, then worked together across the entire school year, learning along the way everything they needed to learn in order to bring that vision into existence. And imagine that you, ala Steve Jobs, became your students’ biggest champion, interfacing with the adult world outside of your school to help your students’ vision manifest itself in the community.

Students, even quite young students, are capable of coming up with exciting ideas and are capable of working extremely hard to bring those ideas to fruition. All that’s lacking is a support structure that allows it to happen. I believe that, if we look at the story of the iPhone’s development, we get a good idea for how we might go about setting up such a structure.



Grossman, L. (2017, June 19). The iPhone is 10 years old. Here’s the story of its birth. Retrieved from https://nytimes.com/2017/06/19/books/review/one-device-secret-history-iphone-brian-merchant.html

Kollmeyer, B. (2014, September 22). How Apple’s iPhone first-day sales have fared since 2007. Retrieved from http://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-apples-iphone-first-day-sales-have-fared-since-2007-2014-09-22

Madrigal, A. C. (2017, June 29). The iPhone was inevitable. Retrieved from https://theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/06/the-iphone-was-inevitable/531963/

Medium.com. Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPhone–But he did make it happen. Retrieved from https://medium.com/thethursdaythought/steve-jobs-didnt-invent-the-iphone-but-he-did-make-it-happen-1b1d914f4d09