With 500 Million iPhones Sold and a Brutal Ongoing Patent War, Engineer Waxes Nostalgic About Birth of the Iconic Device

In 2004, Scott Forstall walked into Greg Christie’s office, quietly closed the door, and asked if he wanted to work on a top-secret project codenamed “purple.”

The concept was visionary: integrate a phone with a music player, and make it all operate with a touch screen. It would become one of Apple’s most revolutionary products, and it would have an immense, enduring impact not only on the mobile device market, but on the way we live.

Greg Christie is a senior software engineer who joined Apple in 1996 to work on the ill-fated Newton. He was working on the Macintosh when he joined the “purple” project.

Under Jobs’ direct supervision, Christie’s team was instructed to completely rethink every interaction, every feature, every experience associated with the phone. They devised concepts for swiping to unlock the device, placing calls from an address book, threading text messages, and operating a music player from a touch screen.

The project was entirely clandestine. Meetings were held in secret rooms where even the cleaning people weren’t allowed. Employees working from home were ordered to work in secluded rooms and to encrypt any digital images of the device.

After several months of bi-monthly presentations to Jobs, Christie finally gave one that impressed him, and the next day they were asked to repeat the presentation for Bill Campbell, and a few days later, for Jony Ive. Then came a “two and half year marathon” to obsess over every detail. Then, in June 2007, the first iPhone went on sale — and now, seven years later, the 500 millionth has just been sold.