Business Book Challenge: episode 4
To celebrate the FT’s Business Book of the Year Award, the team talk to the six shortlisted writers. In this third episode, Helen Barrett, work and careers editor, and Andrew Hill, management editor, hear from Brian Merchant, author of The One Device, which examines the secret history of the iPhone.
Presented by Helen Barrett and Andrew Hill
Hello, and welcome to the FT Business Books podcast-- the place to discover the best in business writing. I'm Helen Barrett, the FT's work and careers editor, and with me, again, is columnist Andrew Hill. We're talking to the six authors who have made the shortlist for the world's most coveted prize for business writing- the 2017 FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award. Find the shortlist at ft.com forward slash book award, and find out who the winner is on November the 6th. Tweet us at FT work careers using the hashtag ftbizbooks.
This week, we meet our fourth author, Brian Merchant, whose book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone impressed our judges with its forensic approach to uncovering what lies behind the most profitable product in the world. Brian joins us now from a writing retreat near Lake Tahoe. Welcome, Brian.
Thanks so much for having me.
Brian, Apple is the most valuable company ever, and in this book, you promise us the inside story you won't hear from Cupertino. It's a towering investigation. You take us to California, to South America, to the deserts in Chile, and mines in Bolivia, and toxic waste pits in Africa, and factories in China. Did you know when you started this what you were getting into?
Well, yea and no. I mean, I certainly knew that Apple was this monolithic almost mythic company that was extremely good at controlling its own narratives and keeping questions limited to journalists they could trust to answer them. So I knew that that was going to be a challenge. I did not know that it would be such a challenge. Finding out what lied behind the screen of the iPhone would require not only spending a lot of time drilling down into Cupertino and finding folks who were willing to talk there, but also through traipsing the world and following each of the component parts that make this thing possible to its root. So it was a bit more of an undertaking than I initially assumed, even though I imagined it would be formidable. It ended up taking the better part of two years doing nothing but wading knee-deep into The One Device.
And you're a veteran tech journalist, but I take it you're not one of Apple's trusted journalists, is that right?
That's right, yeah. Part of its marketing strategy is to sort of groom a handful of journalists. They don't necessarily need to be propagandists or anything like that, but folks that they can count on to sort of tell Apple's story in a positive light or at least positive enough. So needless to say, I fell outside that purview as do most journalists who are sort of intent on asking tough questions outside of what its latest spate of products is going to be. It's just a kind of a different sort of journalism. My background was more in environmental journalism and sort of the politics of technology and that sort of thing. So I naturally sort of gravitated towards taking a more holistic approach towards understanding the product itself instead of its interface with consumers.
Some of the things that you write about, obviously, have been written about before-- the factories in China and the somewhat grim approach to that mass production of the iPhone and some of the stories about the natural resources being mined to put into the iPhone. But I'm wondering what was the most shocking thing that you thought you'd uncovered about the making of the device?
Well, you know, I found it pretty shocking to visit Foxconn firsthand.
That's the Chinese manufacturer?
That the Chinese manufacturer, yeah. It's one of the biggest technology companies in the world, and it manufactures devices, not just for Apple, but for Samsung and a number of others. And the story of the suicide epidemics was incredibly tragic-- a story that broke in 2010 or so was well-known, if briefly. So what was shocking to me was to go back six or seven years later and to find that despite the promises from Cupertino and despite a lot of assurances from the likes of Steve Jobs at the time and Tim Cook, very little had changed in the fundamental makeup of how these devices are manufactured and the working environment in which they're done.
So it was shocking to me to see that despite the iPhone long since taking its place as this well-known, luxury-skewing product that has been embraced by the world, how it gets manufactured is still a bit of a dirty secret. So that was shocking to walk through this factory which was the size of a small city-state really. I mean, half a million people at its height work in this one factory complex. So being there amidst this place that is not cultivated for anything but workman-like efficiency, and that people sort of live their lives out, it really did have a pretty profound affect on me. And you know visiting Bolivia to see where some of the tin came from and seeing the conditions there was alarming. And learning many of the histories of the technology itself was also pretty mind-blowing to me.
The fun thing about this book was that there were surprises around every turn. Some of them were grim, most of them were not. Those are the ones that seem to resonate, and a lot of device users feel like they need to know that information the most. It has sort of the most urgency, but there are many surprising things that I learned throughout this little journey.
But you're still a user. You're speaking to us on an iPhone I think now.
So did it change your feeling about the devices that you used? You went through quite a few of them in the book if I-- didn't do a count, but you had some stolen in Chile I think. And then you, obviously, deliberately destroyed a couple in order to find out what was inside them. You're still using it despite your knowledge of all the sacrifices that have gone into it?
Yeah, that's right. And I think that one of the interesting things that all this reporting has kind of led to is this deep ambivalence because we're put in this peculiar position now in modern society, so to speak. And that's that the iPhone, or a smartphone, is this fundamental tool that if you don't have one, you will fall behind in your social life, your professional life. I call it one of the fundamental tools of the modern world and it is. So we really don't have that many options when it comes to picking an alternative that isn't, so to speak, ethically difficult.
You know, Apple is one of the better companies that manufactures these devices. Just about any device maker that you look at, whether it's Samsung or LG, their supply chains are even murkier, less transparent, plagued with the same issues. Sometimes it's child labour. Sometimes it's too much overtime in the manufacturing lines. But you really don't have a solid, ethical alternative unless you live in some parts of Europe. There's a new nascent effort to try to make one called Fairphone, but even that is very small right now, and it's a very limited alternative.
So I guess that's a long-winded way of saying that yeah, I still use my iPhone, and I try to think about all these things that go into it. And I try to think about opportunities to raise more awareness about that whole universe that goes into making each one, but I certainly still use it. I still use an Apple MacBook and I've got an iPad, so it's not that I'm shying away from the product after learning what I've learned.
In the book, you're meticulous about telling us what goes into a single iPhone. And so you buy an iPhone, and you recruit a metallurgist to help you determine the chemical composition of a single phone by smashing one up and pulling it apart in a laboratory. And what you find is quite shocking. I mean, when I was reading it, I had to keep interrupting my family and telling them, you'll never guess what's in an iPhone. Arsenic, you know, incredible things you found. So it's 129 grammes exactly as Apple advertises. 24% aluminium, which as you point out, is incredibly cheap-- $1 a pound. 3% tungsten, commonly mined in Congo. 0.01 grammes of arsenic, and you pull out the stats from this.
So from this breakdown of, I think, how many minerals was it? 30. 30 elements that you pull out, you estimate that about 34 kilogrammes of oil would be mined to produce one phone, 100 litres of water, and 20.5 grammes of cyanide to free enough gold because there's gold in an iPhone as well. And the raw metal is worth about $1. And you then calculate that because a billion iPhones have been sold by 2016, that suggests 34 billion kilos, or 37 million tonnes, of mined rock, which is quite extraordinary. I mean, were you surprised when you pulled out that figure?
Yeah, I was surprised to hear. It's really kind of interesting to conceptualise it, right? Like that huge towering pile of ore and all these exotic minerals and some of these toxic materials. And just to kind of imagine that on one end of a seesaw, and the iPhone on the other, it was this kind of striking thing to think about. I do have to say the credit goes to the metallurgists and mining consultant, David Michaud, for crunching those numbers. And he even, who works in this industry of course and has for many years, was pretty shocked to see that disparity between this tiny 129 gramme device and the many, many, many thousands of tonnes of ore that have to be made to make each one or that go into making them every year. It really is an interest thing to think about that this thing that I'm holding in my hand and talking to you through right now has caused the displacement of this radical amount of earth, has caused the usage of all of these different chemicals. It's an interesting way to think about these chain reactions that happen through the supply chain, and how we are constantly just kind of reordering not just economic factors, but actual geography on a daily basis.
And Apple is notoriously secretive, but it has published some information about its supply chain. Has Apple disputed any of your figures or findings?
They have not. I don't know what they actually think about a lot of this. I've asked them for comment numerous times, and we had an ongoing game of email tag or phone tag over months and months and months in which interviews were promised and withheld, requests ignored, and sort of the usual dance you get used to when you're covering Apple. So I never got a straight answer on a lot of these things or what even Apple's official line was. I do, however, know that after I brought to their attention the fact that they were using this mine in Bolivia that is known to host child labour, I do know that-- they told me that once I brought it to their attention-- that they have stopped using the smelter that gets those mined. So I must've been right or on to something about that enough for them to be worried about it to sever ties with that smelter. And I don't think they made an announcement, but they told me privately in an email.
I mean, even without the full cooperation of Apple, you do manage to paint a very strong picture of another, if you like, toxic element that went into the making of the iPhone, which was the whole Apple culture at the time with its incredibly tight secrecy around the project not revealed to anyone internally. I love the scene where you are describing how they recruited engineers internally, telling them they wanted them for a very secret project that they couldn't tell them anything about and then making them decide on the spot whether to join it or not, which is an incredible tale of that sort of division within the company. Part of me wonders whether though having seen some of them recount afterwards the poisonous affect it had on their families-- divorces and family breakdown and illness and so on-- part of me still wonders whether the iPhone could have been developed in any other way. And I wondered whether you'd concluded in the end that this, in a sense was, again, another vital ingredient in getting it to be produced at all.
Yeah, that's a great question, and it's one that I actually put to a number of the core designers and engineers who were involved in the process. Because everyone that I spoke to, and I spoke to dozens of the folks who worked on the original iPhone team. Some of them are still at Apple. The majority that I spoke to, on the record of course, have since moved on, but were there during those core years. Some of them recount these stories as straight ahead horror stories-- my marriage dissolved. It was a nightmare. I gained 50 pounds. I was a walking anxiety bomb. "It was a soup of misery" was one quote that I heard.
Yes, that's something that I love.
Yeah. And some others kind of almost wear this kind of badge of honour like, you know, we were working around the clock-- there's kind of this mythology with coders that if you're working around the clock and not going home and not changing and not showering, that you're really kind of on to something that's potentially revolutionary, which they were. So it's this strange sort of fixture in the story, and I think that many of them lament that it couldn't have been done differently. But I asked many, do you see another way? Like, what would have been better? And most of them drew blanks. It was just kind of like, well, maybe this is the way it had to be because when you do kind of have lightning in a bottle, and you have such a synergy going between designers and engineers and quality assurance people sending back the latest results. And you've got parts coming and it's really just got this momentum that is really incredible.
I mean, we're talking this iPhone really from soup to nuts, once the project was greenlit, matter of years that this game-changing device was built by a fairly small team of people primarily. So it really was that intense, and maybe it would have been folly to say, go home, take a two-week vacation, do this. Who knows? they ended up with the most profitable product of our time. It's the most ubiquitous consumer electronic device ever, and it certainly worked. So I think to say that maybe you could have avoided some of that toxicity, you probably could have. Would it have affected the outcome? I don't know. I honestly don't.
One of the things that you do-- a service for Apple really-- is by showing that although Steve Jobs strides through the pages here as a kind of angry, polarising figure, you also reveal lots of the names of people who either didn't get credit at the time because it was secret, or possibly were deprived of credit because they contributed to it. Were you surprised by the extent to which it was team operation, or had you already set out with the idea that this wasn't all about Steve Jobs?
One of the first things I did early on was kind of pore through the patents that were kind of considered the most important patents for the original iPhone device, and Steve Jobs' name is always first sure. But, there's usually dozens more in the so-called famous 949 patent. There's over 20 names. There's maybe as many as 29.
Sorry, the 949 patent-- just explain what that is.
Oh, that's a patent that gathered together a lot of the fundamental basics. This is the one that they go to in court against Samsung and say, look, this is everything that the iPhone is. It's a touch screen and an interface that has these design features and these capabilities that no other device had at the time. So it's kind of the founding document of the iPhone's essence. And there were many, many, many people on this patent. And I just started ticking them off and reaching out and finding out what their stories were. And yeah, it really did not take long for it to become very clear that many people had a great deal of work invested in this thing-- innovations that completely flew under the radar, that completely went unheralded.
There's a handful of folks that I like to focus on because they're kind of exemplary of this, but there are dozens more even than that. But a guy like Wayne Westerman who brought the technology called multi-touch, which is a technology that allows us to use multiple fingers to manipulate objects on the screen, and which is now the standard vernacular for how we interface with computers and technology. This is a guy who has this incredible story of overcoming hardship and hand disability to build something for himself to use computers that ended up in a product that Apple then bought, and then ported into the iPhone more or less. And he came on to Apple. He worked very hard on bringing that to reality, and then here's a guy who they forgot to invite him to the unveiling of the device of the iPhone launch in January 2007.
At that famous keynote, Steve Jobs is up on the stage saying, well, we've done it. We invented multi-touch, and then the guy who could actually feasibly have said to have done so is at home because they forgot to send him an invite. So there's kind of things like that in this story that I was really glad to bring them out and get some credit for these folks. Because it also paints a fuller picture of how innovation and how invention actually unfurls. This lone inventor myth is one of the craziest, most misleading and most persistent myths of all time.
It's a very American tendency we have to say this, oh, you know Thomas Edison came down from a mountain. And he had the light bulb, and pulled it out of his forehead, and there it was. And he gave it to the world, and it was good. And so we do it with Steve Jobs, but it's just the opposite is true. It takes a whole ecosystem of people doing different things, doing incredible work and collaborating. And it's almost incomprehensible, I think I say in the book, the scale to which this actually operates-- this collective achievement-- to get us to something like the iPhone. So I really wanted to hammer that home once it became clear to me just how true that was what you just pointed out.
You do a very good job of explaining how ideas are in the air. This is the phrase you keep coming back to. And you introduce us to a cast of characters even decades before the iPhone. So you introduce us to Frank Canova of IBM, who you think produced the first smart phone-- an engineer from IBM. [INAUDIBLE] a physicist-- I think I've said his name right-- a physicist who you tracked down in Switzerland. Was it hard to get hold of these people? And how did you decide which ones to include and which ones to disregard?
Sometimes it was just a matter of, again, tracing the annals of technology history, which the through lines are often there if not very widely explored or remarked upon. Frank Canova, for instance, I think there are a lot of people who would consider the Simon, which he invented, to be pretty much the first smart phone that came to market.
And this was 1933?
1933. It's so remarkable. I mean, I'd like to say, if you were just to describe the basic fundamentals of the IBM Simon to a layperson, they would think you're talking about the iPhone. It's this black, rectangular device with a touch screen, and you press it to load apps. And it can go on the internet, and you can do email on it. And it just sounds really like the blueprint, sort of the iPhone in chrysalis, which it was. and I make the point in that chapter that many of those ideas had kind of been in the air for a while, and he and he pulled them out. But he did sort of give it this structure and this form that many other smartphone makers would attempt and put in.
And there was a small but sort of under the radar lineage of smartphones that marched up to the iPhone before the iPhone sort of became the standard and drove it home. So yeah, absolutely. There are tonnes of these invisible lineages, and I've no doubt left out hundreds of people who I could have included who could be said to have played some small, pivotal role here or there. But including folks like [INAUDIBLE] was meant to be exemplary of the greater phenomenon, not necessarily the definitive history of multi-touch in his case or touch screens. Just to point out that there are many different sources or well-springs that feed into this final product.
Your book's cunningly timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the launch of the iPhone, and clearly they go on producing new versions with different additions to the original. But as you point out in the book, it's not significantly different from the first one. And you quote rather surprisingly at that end one of the lead iPhone software engineers saying that in 20 years, nobody's going to care about the iPhone. do you think in 10 years time, we're still going to be talking about the iPhone 20 or whatever it may be at that point, or will it, as that engineer suggests, just be superseded by other technologies and will become an irrelevance?
That's a great question. Those kind of speculations are the great folly of technology writers I think. You're making those predictions, and then you can either be so wrong 90% of the time or look really good when you're right one out of 10 times.
This is your chance to look really good, and we'll call you back in 10 years and check whether you're right.
Yeah, so, I'm going to stake my reputation here on arguing that whether or not it's an iPhone, I think that we can pretty safely say in 10 years, we're going to be carrying a rectangular device with a screen. It'll probably be a touch screen. Maybe there'll be some more interfacing with voice assistance or maybe not. Maybe there will be some more augmented reality, but I tend to think that what they did with the iPhone, and right next to that quote, I think you're talking about Henri [INAUDIBLE] wrote about how technology is all sort of ephemeral. And that's certainly one, perhaps pessimistic, way to look at it. And that things will change, and no one will care about whatever-- the Mac or much less the Simon in enough time.
But then, I think just the next page even Tony Fidel says, look at what has changed so far on the iPhone. It's been 10 years, and that very first iPhone is almost functionally identical to the one that I have in my hand right now. It's still this grid of apps. It's still these basic functionalities. It's still Safari Internet browser. It's still offering you maps and email access. It's still pocket-sized. It's still all of these things, and they iterated it. They've tweaked it. They've introduced more powerful processors, bigger screen, of course improvements. But we're 10 years on now, and we're still using a device that is incredibly similar to those fundamentals that are laid out. So using that sort of trajectory, you can never predict a big disruption when something's going to throw everything off course. But given what we know now in the ingredients that I see percolating at least, I think we've got another 10 years of iPhone, maybe more.
Just I want to ask you about the other finalists in the Business Book of the Year Award. There are some great books there. We've spoken to most of the authors already. Which of the five other shortlisted books have you enjoyed the most or are you most looking forward to reading?
I really enjoyed Reset, Ellen Pao's book about her fight for inclusion in a very male-dominated industry. I think, for me, it served as a very sort of granular eye-opening account of the systemic sexism at these venture capital funds and not only that, but in Silicon Valley.
There aren't many women in your book it has to be said. It's pretty clear.
It's Wayne Westerman's mother is probably the most prominent female character in your book.
Yeah, it is. It was something that when I got done with researching my book and laid everything out, it was something that rang out. And I had to remark upon it near the end of the book because for decades now, it's been such a problem in Silicon Valley. And it's one that's not just a social issue, although it is that. It is a political issue, but it's also a remarkable problem for these businesses that they're soon going to run into, I think, not having a full range of views going into their products. It's a bottom line issue too. I think first and foremost, it's a social issue, but it's just remarkable to me how resistant to change they are given that we're looking at markets that are pretty saturated for white male computer users, you'd think that there would be many different imperatives to fix this issue.
But here we are in 2017. We have these same gender disparity issues, and you read about them, but what Ellen's book did is really brought it to life. We think about Silicon Valley as this revolutionary, disruptive, transformative entity, not just as a hub of business, but also a force for good socially, or at least that's how they very much like themselves to be seen. I like how in the book she starts out with her tenure at a law firm in the east coast, and then we see that Kleiner Perkins-- the cultures there, the toxic cultures of masculinity of these 1,000 cuts that she says that women have to endure are interchangeable really. They've just replicated all the old toxic issues in new trappings. So it was really very revealing to me to see that investigated and told very frankly.
The one I'm most looking forward to reading myself, is it The Great Leveling? The Great Leveler
The Great Leveler, Walter Scheidel.
Boy, that looks great.
Yeah, you'll need another retreat to read that. It's quite a chunky volume. Do you an all-time favourite business book that you look on as something to emulate?
Yeah, one book that I found really inspiring to me as I was writing my own book even though it kind of takes an opposite approach is-- are you familiar with The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder?
Yeah, he sort of drills down on one company and the personalities, the politics, the work culture. And he really did something that hadn't been done before and sort of brought to life the act of technological innovation. And you see a lot of the things that you see in my book. You see tough work cultures and you see some backstabbing and stuff. But he really did a really fascinating job of bringing that to life, and that's I guess I'd say an all-time business book or look into how business is run.
That's it from us. We'll be talking to another shortlisted author next week. In the meantime, don't forget to tweet us at ftworkcareers using the hashtag ftbizbooks. We'd love to hear from you. My thanks to Brian Merchant, to Andrew Hill and to our producer, [INAUDIBLE]. Until next time, goodbye.