The One Device
by Brian Merchant Bantam 416pp £20
The iPhone, Brian Merchant writes in The One Device, might be the “pinnacle product of all capitalism to this point”. This is “one of those sentences that seems absurd until you properly think about it, and then abruptly does not”, said Hugo Rifkind in The Times. Apple has sold about a billion iPhones since the product’s launch a decade ago – more than 20 times the sales of the Toyota Corolla, the world’s bestselling car. The iPhone is “not just the bestselling phone in the world, but also the bestselling camera, music player, computer and video screen”. Merchant’s book – part discussion of the technologies that produced the iPhone, part journalistic quest to understand its place in the modern world – is a “formidable”, if inevitably geeky, history of Apple’s iconic product.
As Merchant shows, the iPhone wasn’t really a “breakthrough invention in its own right”, more a “collection of previous developments”, said Jacob Mikanowski in The Guardian. Its lithium batteries “were developed by scientists working for Exxon during the 1970s oil crisis”. Touchscreen technology was invented by a brilliant young electrical engineer “as a way to alleviate his carpal tunnel syndrome”. Even Steve Jobs, Apple’s mercurial boss, was less crucial to the iPhone than is widely believed: most of the early work on the device “was hidden from him, to keep him from killing the project in the crib”. Merchant’s research has “great depth”, and his book is full of “compelling anecdotes”, said Aleks Krotoski in the London Evening Standard. All the same, it could have done with fewer “factoids” and more “analysis”. We now know how the iPhone was made, but it would have improved the book if Merchant had zoomed out, to give a sense of “the bigger picture”.