Written by the creator of the original iPhone keyboard, Creative Selection is available now (Amazon, iBooks) and explores Apple’s software development process for the iPhone, iPad and more.
Written by the engineer that made the original iPhone keyboard, this is my favourite book focused on the ‘modern’ Apple era. It covers Apple’s decision-making strategy under Steve Jobs, what it is like to demo for the man himself, a deep dive into how the iPhone keyboard came to be, and much more in between. Read on for my review of some of the book’s best bits.
The author, Ken Kocienda, worked at Apple from 2001 through early 2017. Kocienda worked on Safari for Mac, iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. The bulk of the material revolves around the genesis and iterative development of the software keyboard for the original iPhone. Along the way, Kocienda describes his approach to successful product design, which he labels ‘creative selection’.
The book starts with Kocienda in the weeds of Apple tablet development in summer 2009, waiting outside of a conference room about to demo to Steve Jobs. He was tasked with creating the keyboard for the iPad. The storytelling is fabulous. It’s not just an explanation of how Kocienda collaborated with Bas Ording from the Human Interface team to make a prototype. The anecdote is also a great way to illustrate how Apple is set up.
Kocienda starts by demoing to his colleagues and direct report, Henri Lamiraux. Scott Forstall reviews progress regularly, and a successful demo to Forstall eventually results into a demo to Jobs for final approval. Each stage of the management chain acts as another filter of feedback, refinement and review.
This is Kocienda’s second ever demo to the infamous CEO, but his narrative makes it plain that it is no less nerve-wracking. Whilst Forstall had asked that he demo the keyboard personally to Jobs, and he had done so once before, the ‘privilege’ was still very much a tentative position that could be rescinded on a dime, with a bad demo reflecting both on Kocienda and Forstall as the endorser.
It shows how lower-level Apple engineers could regularly give demos to people other than direct superiors (all the way up to Jobs himself), if deemed to pass muster. It also highlights how Jobs acted as the ultimate auteur and editor on everything important.
Kocienda’s pitch for the iPad keyboard was to have two layouts, one that looked like a Mac keyboard with more keys, and another that would be like a blown-up iPhone keyboard with larger keys that approximated the physical size of real laptop keycaps. A ‘zoom’ button next to the spacebar swapped between these two modes. Ording had designed a cool animation to switch between the two, which Kocienda had programmed.
When Jobs saw the demo, he played about with it for a minute or two. Jobs compared both modes and proclaimed ‘we only need one of these’. He asks Kocienda which layout he prefers, and that’s the decision made. The larger keys design shipped on the iPad mere months later.
The stress of the moment is palpable just from reading about it. It’s a perfect example that highlights the payoff — Kocienda’s choice determined what millions of iPad customers would use every day — and the pressure of really being put on the spot under the direct stare of Jobs. In a room with other Apple executives and senior managers like Forstall and Lamiraux, Jobs asks Kocienda what they should go with. He expected people that demoed for him to be more than just presenters, they were worthy if they were opinionated about what they were presenting.
There’s also some great details like the fact this all happens in a dingy conference room with run-of-the-mill tables and a marketing poster of OS X Jaguar on the wall. Why did Jobs care so intently about the products in front of him, but not the decor of the room he used on a weekly basis? This book raises so many questions like that.
After this chapter, the book roughly follows a chronological order. Kocienda describes how he came to join Apple in 2001 and his first project, making Safari. At the time, the go-to choice of web browser on the Mac was Internet Explorer, and Apple had decided that it wanted to control its own future.
I did not find these early chapters as gripping as the iPad story. Admittedly, it’s hard to top an encounter with Steve Jobs. That’s not to say that the chapter is unnecessary, or mere filler content. It’s still a great part of largely-untold Apple history and it leads well into explaining how Kocienda became involved with the iPhone. The explanations of how programmers write code probably should have been omitted though.
After Safari shipped, Kocienda’s boss — Don Melton — was promoted but Kocienda did not get the promotion to manager of Safari that he felt he deserved. He took interviews with Google, looking to advance his career elsewhere. Kocienda explains how Forstall courted him to stay and gave him a new project to run; improving the OS X Mail app to enable editing of rich HTML messages.
With Safari 1.0 out the door, Kocienda asks to be promoted to an open manager position, running OS X Sync Services. He gets the job … but he quickly hates the role. This leads to one of the best extracts in the whole book:
One day I ran into the fellow who handled the marketing for some of the products in Scott’s organization, including Safari. He had always worked directly with Don on the messaging for the web browser, but I saw him in the Safari hallway often, so we stopped to chat.
“Hey, Ken. How do you like your new management job?”
“Hi Kurt, it’s good,” I lied. Yet I thought this brief chat might have a silver lining. I made my pitch. “So, now that I’m managing Sync Services, maybe you and I can collaborate on the marketing for it.”
When Kurt heard my suggestion, his expression changed. He gave a nervous laugh and then he broke the bad news, letting me in on a fact that was obvious to him but about which I was oblivious.
“Ken, we don’t market sync. We don’t really consider it a … well … a customer-facing technology.”
Kurt seemed half embarrassed for himself and half for me. I knew immediately that “customer-facing” was Kurt’s euphemism for “important”, at least from his perspective in the marketing department.
You can just feel the sucker-punch happen. Apple’s laser focus has no room for companionship or being friendly for the sake of it. Kocienda went from working on things that had the purview of Steve Jobs (who was pushing for a speedy Apple web browser and a better Mac email app), to something that still technically affected customers but Apple did not deem significant. Sync Services is closer to implementation detail than feature.
How does this result in Kocienda working on the iPhone? At this point in the timeline, work on Purple had begun and Kocienda had become aware that some secret project was underway, but he did not know what it was. He told his manager (Lamiraux) that he wanted to work on the next big thing, or he was leaving Apple. Certainly a bold choice, given he had only just taken the Sync Services position a couple months before.
However, a few days later, his boldness paid off. He was inducted into the Purple project, with another NDA under his belt, and it turned out that Forstall wanted the same HTML text editing technology from the OS X Mail app to power text editing in apps like Notes and Mail on the iPhone. This became Kocienda’s job.
This leads into chapter six, which kicks off the discussion of the iPhone’s keyboard evolution. You can get the gist of what is covered in this section from an article we posted last month, but rest assured the book itself goes into much more detail still. I don’t want to repeat it all here, but make no mistake, it’s a fantastic read. Early keyboard prototypes are accompanied with illustrative mockups to aid the imagination.
One thing that confused me when I first read the book was that each of these screenshot sketches are framed in a rounded rect bezel and feature a status bar, with iOS 7-style cellular dots and the iconic 9:41 time. Initially, the iPhone launched with the signal bars, but the circle design was definitely floated at that time, as revealed in the Apple-Samsung patent trials. I asked Kocienda about this and he said that the status bar design is not a reflection of the thinking at the time; it’s just something he made to make the screenshots look prettier on the page. So bear that in mind.
After Forstall selects Kocienda’s keyboard as the winner of the demo derby, Kocienda is assigned as the directly responsible individual for the iPhone keyboard. The winning design obviously is not what shipped in 2007, and the book carefully lays out the landmark moments that saw the late 2005 prototype transform into the final iPhone keyboard.
There’s a great contrast in how Forstall describes the prototype as ‘amazing’, whilst later demos to Schiller and Fadell are nowhere near as enthusiastic. Kocienda has to go back to the drawing board several times and each of these stages are detailed over the next few chapters. There’s a gradual “convergence” to the final design, punctuated by some spectacular failures along the way.
Up until late 2006, the iPhone keyboard included a QuickType-esque suggestion bar to offer up alternative corrections. Forstall told Kocienda to remove this in November. Something as fundamental as the input method was still in flux just six weeks before Jobs unveiled the iPhone to the world in January 2007.
On the timeline of Apple products, Creative Selection ends with the iPad. Whatever Kocienda’s involvement with the tumultuous iOS 7 rework, or the Apple Watch, those topics are not included here. In fact, the words ‘Apple Watch’ are only mentioned once in the entire book, in a footnote. You will not read about the repercussions and fallout of the post-Jobs era in this book. There’s a fleeting mention that Apple’s software development culture changed in the epilogue, but it is not elaborated on.
The book concludes with Kocienda’s final interaction with Steve Jobs. Kocienda was tasked with creating the four- and five-finger multitasking gestures, that were introduced for developer beta testing in iOS 4.3 and released for all customers in iOS 5. He invented the ‘scrunch’ five finger pinch to go the home screen, and the multi-finger swipes to switch between apps. Kocienda once again describes the demo of the new features to Jobs, and Jobs — in short — loves them. The time jumps forward a bit, and Kocienda asks Lamiraux to organize a final demo for Jobs to give approval on the new gestures to ship for iOS 5:
Henri responded with a shake of his head and a matter-of-fact “At this point, I think we should go with the multitasking gestures as they are.”
We finished our chat a few minutes later, and when I left Henri’s office and made my way down the hall, I heard his words again in my mind.
‘At this point …’
Then it hit me. Henri knew: Steve wasn’t coming back. About six weeks later, Steve resigned from his position as CEO of Apple. About six weeks after that, he was gone.
This high-level overview hopefully gives you a sense of what to expect from Creative Selection. Any Apple fan should love to read the full anecdotes, the full quotes, the full account of what it was like to work at Apple. Why were iPhone app icons 57 pixels square? How did Jobs rehearse for his keynotes? What was it like to hold a real iPhone in your hand, after spending years with a cable-tethered rough hardware prototype? This books answers all of those questions, and many more.
If you have ever wondered about how an Apple product comes to be, you should read this book. It imbues an exposition of Apple’s management hierarchy, product development process, and demo-driven culture into a compelling narrative of Kocienda’s career on the front line.
Creative Selection is available at Amazon, the iBooks Store, many other retailers, and in audiobook form at Audible. Find more information and other testimonials here.