Apple engineer: We wanted to make a phone for 'normal people'

In an Apple v. Samsung patent case, an engineer who worked on the first iPhone's user interface talks the jury through the development of the device and Apple's steps to make it user-friendly.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
5 min read

Greg Christie is one of the inventors of Apple's slide-to-unlock iPhone feature. CNET

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Apple took great pains to make its first iPhone as simple as possible, a company engineer told a court here, as Apple sought to add weight to its patent infringement suit against Samsung.

A key argument for Apple throughout its various trials involving Samsung is that Apple took many risks when making the iPhone, and that its innovations should be protected. It took the company about three years to make its first smartphone, Greg Christie, an Apple vice president who worked on the first iPhone, testified Friday. Part of the reason it took so long was that engineers devoted time to developing and tweaking features tech novices could understand. Making things simple isn't easy, Christie said.

"One of the biggest challenges is that we need to sell products to people who don't do what we do for a living," Christie, one of the inventors of the slide-to-unlock iPhone feature, said. When designing products, Apple keeps in mind that it wants "normal people -- people with better things to do with their lives than learn how a computer might work -- to use the product as well as we can."

Almost two years after Apple and Samsung faced off in a messy patent dispute, the smartphone and tablet rivals have returned to the same San Jose, Calif., courtroom to argue once again over patents before federal Judge Lucy Koh. Apple is arguing that Samsung infringed on five of its patents for the iPhone, its biggest moneymaker, and that Apple is due $2 billion for that infringement. Samsung wants about $7 million from Apple for infringing two of its software patents.

While the companies are asking for damages, the case is about more than money. What's really at stake is the market for mobile devices. Apple now gets two-thirds of its sales from the iPhone and iPad, South Korea-based Samsung is the world's largest maker of smartphones, and both want to keep dominating the market. So far, Apple is ahead when it comes to litigation in the US. Samsung has been ordered to pay the company about $930 million in damages.

Christie, the second witness to testify for Apple in this trial, after marketing chief Phil Schiller, walked the jury on Friday through the process of developing the first iPhone in the mid-2000s. Much of his time on the stand was spent emphasizing Apple's efforts to make the device easy to use. According to various surveys Apple conducted -- and that were made available as court exhibits -- ease of use is the most important factor for smartphone buyers.

Christie worked on the "human interface" team at Apple, primarily responsible for the Mac OS X operating system. In 2004, Scott Forstall, leader of the Macintosh group, came into Christie's office to ask him, "how would you like to do a phone?" Christie and his team got to work on the device in their spare time away from working on the desktop operating system. In the early days, meetings were held in a windowless, "dark, dirty little room" reserved for meetings with then-CEO Steve Jobs. It had special security, including a numerical code to enter.

The team, which specialized in user interface, held regular meetings with Jobs every couple of weeks or so where it would show a single feature demo, such as the phone's dialing feature. After the Macworld conference in early 2005, Jobs got angry with the team's lack of progress. He gave the team two weeks to "put together an end-to-end story" and full demo, or the project would be reassigned to a different group of engineers.

Apple v. Samsung 2014: The gadgets in question

See all photos

Jobs ended up being happy with the progress report, Christie said, and work on the device continued rapidly.

"He got what he asked for," Christie said.

In early 2005, security around the device became even tighter, he said. The engineers were told not to talk about the work with anyone who wasn't in the dark, dirty room. Then, special badge-access locks were installed on the team's floor. Along with the human interface team, there also were teams working on industrial design for physical aspects of the device; software engineering for the underlying operating system and applications; radios that talked to Wi-Fi and cellular networks; operations; manufacturing; marketing and sales; and retail.

In the patent case, Apple and Samsung have accused each other of copying features used in their popular smartphones and tablets, and the jury will have to decide who actually infringed and how much money is due. This trial involves different patents and newer devices than the ones disputed at trial in August 2012 and in a damages retrial in November 2013. For instance, the new trial involves the iPhone 5 , released in September 2012, and Samsung's Galaxy S3 , which also debuted in 2012.

The latest trial kicked off Monday with jury selection. Tuesday featured opening arguments and testimony by Schiller. He continued testimony earlier Friday.

There are seven patents at issue in the latest case -- five held by Apple and two by Samsung. Apple has accused Samsung of infringing US patents Nos. 5,946,647; 6,847,959; 7,761,414; 8,046,721; and 8,074,172. All relate to software features, such as "quick links" for '647, universal search for '959, background syncing for '414, slide-to-unlock for '721, and automatic word correction for '172. Overall, Apple argues that the patents enable ease of use and make a user interface more engaging.

Samsung, meanwhile, has accused Apple of infringing US patents Nos. 6,226,449 and 5,579,239. The '449 patent, which Samsung purchased from Hitachi, involves camera and folder organization functionality. The '239 patent, which Samsung also acquired, covers video transmission functionality and could have implications for Apple's use of FaceTime.

The Samsung gadgets that Apple says infringe are the Admire, Galaxy Nexus , Galaxy Note , Galaxy Note 2, Galaxy S II, Galaxy SII Epic 4G Touch, Galaxy SII Skyrocket, Galaxy S3, Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, and the Stratosphere. Samsung, meanwhile, says the iPhone 4 , iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPad 2 , iPad 3, iPad 4, iPad Mini, iPod Touch (fifth generation) and iPod Touch (fourth generation) all infringe.

The arguments by Apple and Samsung in the latest case are expected to last until April 29 or 30, at which time the jury will deliberate. Court will be in session three days each week -- Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays -- though the jury will deliberate every business day until it has reached a verdict.

Up close and personal with the Samsung Galaxy S3 (pictures)

See all photos