By Jason Snell
September 5, 2018 10:38 AM PT
‘Creative Selection’: War stories from Apple’s biggest moments
Warning: This story has not been updated in several years and may contain out-of-date information.
Slowly but surely, the people involved in building the iPhone have begun to tell their stories about how it all happened. We’ve heard some good podcast interviews, but I think Ken Kocienda’s “Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs” may be the first book written by someone who was directly involved in the process of building the iPhone.
The book is a good, fast read that will provide people who work in the tech industry some perspective on how Apple’s product process works—the title refers to a multi-step process internalized by Apple employees that involves inspiration, collaboration, and iteration fed by judgments fueled by taste and empathy. I would imagine that Kocienda’s book will provide motivation for tech managers and fodder for business school classes.
For those of us who follow Apple closely, I’m not sure that there’s much surprise in the fact that Apple under Steve Jobs had a process that involved all of these factors. For people like us, Kocienda’s war stories about the early days of the iPhone (and, perhaps less exciting for book-marketing purposes but no less vital, the beginnings of WebKit and Safari) are the big draw here.
Kocienda leads with the very best stuff, namely a terrifying demo encounter with Steve Jobs in the early days of the development of the iPad. If you want to feel what it was like to work at Apple and await a few moments trying to show your work to Jobs and his senior team, “Creative Selection” delivers. (There are some delightful illustrations by Guy Shield throughout the book, including one of Jobs sitting in a threadbare conference room with a poster for Mac OS X Jaguar hanging askew behind him, directly from Kocienda’s anecdote.)
Having hooked you with Jobs, the book then backs up to recount Kocienda’s process in joining Apple, struggling with his career trajectory—there’s a missed promotion, a failed attempt to become a manager, and a retreat to a focus on being a developer—and ultimately being recruited to join Don Melton to figure out how Apple could build its own web browser.
Despite the huge importance of the iPhone, I found the section about Safari and WebKit to be the most fascinating part of the book. In those days, Internet Explorer was pretty much the only browser on the Mac, and the Mac was constantly being dinged for being slow at web browsing—in other words, Microsoft was responsible for a huge portion of public perception of how good the Mac was. It simply couldn’t continue, so Jobs ordered a new browser with a premium on speed.
Fair enough, but how does one go about building a new browser? Melton, Kocienda, and team addition Richard Williamson ended up investigating open-source code bases and making the somewhat counterintuitive choice of Konqueror from the Linux desktop environment KDE. Even knowing how the story ends, I enjoyed how Kocienda tells it.
When the book turns back to the iPhone, you get a sense about how secret the project was, from both sides of the divide. (Kocienda disturbs a manager just by hinting that he knows of the existence of a secret project, without actually knowing what it was.) Two years before the iPhone made its debut, a very small team of developers is putting the software together, running demos on Macs attached to weird touchscreen display peripherals called Wallabies.
Kocienda’s job was to build the iPhone’s software keyboard, and the process he went through is the cornerstone of the book’s examination of Apple’s creative process. There’s a bake-off of keyboard ideas, a pursuit of a few specific directions, some insight from colleagues, and a breakthrough that is not the end of the story, but the beginning of an iterative process that led to one of the most important aspects of the first iPhone.
(For those who don’t remember, the iPhone entered a world full of phones with hardware keyboards. Many people believed that Apple’s choice to prioritize touchscreen space and use a software keyboard was a decision that doomed the product. That didn’t turn out to be the case.)
If you’re looking for dirt on Apple from a former employee, you won’t get it in “Creative Selection.” Kocienda has left Apple, but he doesn’t go into details about why, and this is not a book about settling old scores—just telling stories while pondering about the underlying culture and processes that led things to turn out the way they did. I enjoyed reading it, and if you’re reading this site, you will too.
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