The Knives Come Out for Phil Schiller in Brian Merchant’s ‘The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone’

The Verge has an exclusive (and lengthy) excerpt from Brian Merchant’s The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, which comes out next week. Merchant seemingly has many first-hand sources on the record, including Tony Fadell and perhaps Scott Forstall. (I say “perhaps” because it’s not clear from the excerpt whether Forstall spoke to Merchant, or if Merchant got the Forstall quotes from somewhere else. It seems like there should be a lot more from Forstall in this story if he actually talked to Merchant.)

But Fadell spoke to Merchant extensively, including this shot at Phil Schiller:

The iPod phone was losing support. The executives debated which project to pursue, but Phil Schiller, Apple’s head of marketing, had an answer: Neither. He wanted a keyboard with hard buttons. The BlackBerry was arguably the first hit smartphone. It had an email client and a tiny hard keyboard. After everyone else, including Fadell, started to agree that multitouch was the way forward, Schiller became the lone holdout.

He “just sat there with his sword out every time, going, ‘No, we’ve got to have a hard keyboard. No. Hard keyboard.’ And he wouldn’t listen to reason as all of us were like, ‘No, this works now, Phil.’ And he’d say, ‘You gotta have a hard keyboard!’” Fadell says.

I don’t know if it’s true or not that Schiller was singlehandedly pushing for a Blackberry-style keyboard. But even if true, it only looks foolish in hindsight, especially if this argument took place before the iPhone’s software team had come up with a proof-of-concept software keyboard. Today it’s clear that the iPhone needed a good keyboard, and that a touchscreen keyboard can be a good keyboard. Neither of those things was obvious in 2005. And in the context of this story, it’s clear that at the time of this purported argument, Steve Jobs and Apple weren’t yet sure if the iPhone should be a pocket-sized personal computer or a consumer electronics product that would have no more need for a keyboard (hardware or software) than an iPod did. My guess is that Schiller was insisting that the iPhone needed to be a personal computer, not a mere gadget, and it wasn’t unreasonable to believe a software keyboard wouldn’t be good enough. For chrissakes there were critics who insisted that the iPhone’s software keyboard wasn’t good enough for years after the iPhone actually shipped.

I do know that Schiller’s hard-charging, brusque style and his obvious political acumen have made him a lot of enemies over the years. It sounds like Fadell is one of them.

So I’ll just say this: this story about Phil Schiller pushing for a hardware keyboard comes from one source (so far — if anyone out there can back that up, my window is always open for little birdies), and that one source is the guy who admittedly spent over a year working on iPhone prototypes with a click wheel interface.

Then there’s this:

Schiller didn’t have the same technological acumen as many of the other execs. “Phil is not a technology guy,” Brett Bilbrey, the former head of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group, says. “There were days when you had to explain things to him like a grade-school kid.” Jobs liked him, Bilbrey thinks, because he “looked at technology like middle America does, like Grandma and Grandpa did.”

Hats off to Bilbrey for putting his name on this quote, but having spoken to Schiller both on- and off-the-record many times, the idea that he “looks at technology … like Grandma and Grandpa did” and needs things explained to him “like a grade-school kid” is bullshit. Especially off-the-record, Schiller can drill down on technical details to a surprising degree. I don’t know what Schiller did to piss off Bilbrey, but Bilbrey either has a huge chip on his shoulder or was severely misquoted by Merchant.1

Anyway, I sure wish this book excerpt had come out before my live episode of The Talk Show last week — now I do have one more question I wish I’d gotten to ask Schiller.

  1. Here’s a story from Yoni Heisler for Network World on Brett Bilbrey’s retirement from Apple in 2014. Bilbrey headed Apple’s Technology Advancement Group. Merchant describes Bilbrey as having led “Apple’s Advanced Technology Group”. It’s a small detail, and the names are clearly similar, but the Advanced Technology Group was Larry Tesler’s R&D division at Apple, from 1986-1997. It was among the numerous divisions and products that Steve Jobs shitcanned after he rejoined the company. ↩︎