Where form meets function

In July of this year, Apple and CEO, Tim Cook, celebrated one billion iPhone sales to date, saying, “iPhone has become one of the most important, world-changing and successful products in history. It’s become more than a constant companion. iPhone is truly an essential part of our daily life and enables much of what we do throughout the day.”

Although that figure represents consumers who have purchased multiple phones since Steve Jobs first introduced the innovative product back in 2007, the sheer volume would mean that one out of seven people on the entire planet has had an iPhone in their pocket during the last nine years.

Yes, the design and attributes have shifted to meet both consumer need and Apple’s vision for the future, but the core tenets have remained relatively the same. In fact, the speed and pace at which Apple innovates remains one of its biggest issues with the public. They want to be wowed during every keynote address. They want a device that changes the way we live and communicate. Most of all, they want the next iPhone.

But many would be surprised to learn that this iteration of the Apple iPhone is already 33 years in the making and not as nubile as it appears.

Norman Seeff

It has been well-documented that Apple’s early years were marked by infighting between co-founder, Steve Jobs, and the company’s board of directors over failed product launches and overzealous thinking as it related to its earliest product launches – specifically the ill-fated Lisa computer – the first commercial computer with a graphical user interface that would finally make computers usable by people with no special training.

Not only did the Lisa carry a $10,000 USD price tag, but it was ultimately what led to Jobs shifting his attention to the “Macintosh” project before his untimely firing in 1985.

Although this was a tumultuous time for Steve Jobs, his eyes were always on the future.

During a 1983 talk at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Jobs actually described his desire to create a product that one could argue was what would become the iPhone/iPad years later, stating, “Apple’s strategy is really simple. What we want to do is we want to put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes. That’s what we want to do and we want to do it this decade. And we really want to do it with a radio link in it so you don’t have to hook up to anything and you’re in communication with all of these larger databases and other computers.”


At the time, Apple had been engaged in planning and designing products which they hoped would revolutionize communication. The man tasked with heading up the initiative, Hartmut Esslinger, had come to Apple after working with Sony on their Trinitron and WEGA ranges of televisions and quickly made an impression on Steve Jobs with his unabashed criticisms of the company and their shared desire to create a universal “design language” for Apple.

“He asked me what I thought of Apple,” Esslinger recalled. “I said it was a cool idea, but bad design. Internally, Steve could already see that they had problems. He didn’t like that I said the products were incredibly ugly and wasteful in production. But when I explained he understood. He said that Apple would do a design competition, which I won. After that it turned out the internal designers were not good enough, so he put me in charge to revamp the entire design effort in Apple – out of the engineers’ hands and working directly with him.”

Creative Commons

Esslingen made an impression by introducing his “Snow White” aesthetics on the Apple IIc whose vertical and horizontal lines were represented for both decoration and ventilation purposes and ultimately became the hallmark aesthetic for computers from Apple for over a decade.

During this period of rapid growth where seemingly no product was deemed “too out there,” Esslinger began working on Apple’s first attempt at peer-to-peer communication through a headset exchange on a prototype commonly referred to as the “MacPhone.”


Part stylus-operated tablet and part corded landline, the design was the result of stated desires between Steve Jobs and Apple CEO, John Sculley, who recognized that there would eventually be a paradigm shift in the way people talked to each other.

“He was not a drawer, he was a great visionary but he couldn’t draw,” Sculley said of his work relationship with Steve Jobs. “I could draw, I had studied design. So Steve would describe it to me, I’d draw it out. The best definition of a genius is someone who sees the obvious 20 years ahead of the rest of us.”


In the early ’80s, the telephone market was dominated by the Western Electric model which was the most popular telephone of the 20th century. According to The Atlantic, “It’s the phone you think of when you think of telephones, and its silhouetted handset shape remains the universal icon for ‘phone’—even on your iPhone’s telephone app.”

Although Apple was still in its relative infancy as a company, all of their earliest products were far from the status quo. Thus, the MacPhone would be nothing like the aforementioned Western Electric model and did much more than just connect two people.

Renderings and prototypes reveal a device with touchscreen capabilities and a check-writing “app” which fit Steve Jobs’s desire to innovate. Similarly, its outward visual aesthetics – like minimal surface texture, no paint, minimal transitional angles and solitary Apple logo badge with seamless inlay into the design – fit Esslinger’s vision for how Apple products should look.

On paper and in the prototype phase, it was seemingly the perfect marriage of form and function.

As Steve Jobs noted at his keynote address in 1983, the company was slated to dedicate over $50 million USD to research and development that year. It’s unknown to this day if millions of dollars were spent on developing the MacPhone, or if perhaps not a single dollar was spent after Esslinger’s prototype was unveiled.

One has to consider that a simple landline product wasn’t forward-thinking enough and that the impulse to create an “enhanced” product couldn’t be realized with technology that was in place at the time. After all, in order to serve any significant purpose, the early ’80s MacPhone would have needed a built-in modem for transferring data to other phones or computers and in 1983 the internet was over a decade away from widespread consumer adoption.

Over the years, Esslinger has referred to his MacPhone as a “show car” as a means to illustrate what was possible in the future – not unlike what BMW did with its Vision Next 100 series of vehicles.

In an interview, Esslingen seemed to suggest that Steve Jobs’s departure from Apple during this key segment of innovation could have been the major reason why the MacPhone never left the prototype phase. But when Jobs returned, he reignited the spirit of the original design when technology finally caught up.

“I think what Steve had, compared to all the others, was the courage that he envisioned that intelligent technology would go into everything,” Esslingen said. “He was also not really singling out computers. The iPod, iPhone, iPad are a logical continuation of his way of thinking and doing. What also helped at his return, was to converge digital technology with entertainment and content into digital consumer electronics, Sony was asleep; Samsung just copied Sony; Phillips didn’t know what to do. But Steve understood—and understands—that both technology and aesthetics are a means to do something else on a higher level.”

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

What To Read Next