A member of the very first iPhone team reveals why it took so long for the iPhone to finally get one of its most basic features: copy and paste.
When Apple introduced the very first iPhone in 2007, the smartphone world was changed forever. This momentum of incredible novelty for the time was however devoid of some of the most basic functionalities.
Many years later, former Apple engineer Ken Kocienda explains why Apple’s original smartphone didn’t include an option to copy and paste text. While we are waiting for the iPhone 14 this year, things were very different back then.
A project that was going full speed
Ken Kocienda, who joined Apple in 2001, was one of the main engineers behind the first iPhone. He simply says that the company never had time to think about integrating such a basic function.
Beyond the reason given, his team was already busy creating a virtual keyboard with an automatic correction system that had taken several tries and earned Apple engineers a few sleepless nights to get it right.
The Kocienda team had to apply a larger virtual touch area than the buttons themselves to make this keyboard possible. The iPhone therefore recognized the keys you wanted to type even if your input did not precisely touch the button on the screen.
Problems to solve and necessary tools to develop upstream
After the launch of the phone, his team finally got down to it, it then took some time for the feature to trickle down to the end user.
The former Apple engineer also explains that before being entitled to the copy-paste option, it was first necessary to invent other necessary tools such as the magnifying text magnifying glass allowing users to know exactly where point the cursor in the text.
Our finger never actually touches the intended area because of user perception and the system had to take this bias into account.
The curvature of your fingers makes you think you’re touching higher up the the screen than you are. So, keys are warped to account for this. That’s why—to this day—it’s hard to target taps when you hold your phone upside down.
—Ken Kocienda (@kocienda)
A ” Touch History Log (History of finger movements on the screen) also had to be implemented to compensate for the latency of the system which ended up detecting the user’s finger with a lag which made input imprecise.
This history thus made it possible to automatically detect the position of the user’s finger a few milliseconds after the last input so that the cursor remains in the right place.
Another issue the Apple team had to address was stylized fonts used in apps that were based on Safari’s WebKit rendering engine. Whenever an application used a custom font, then it displayed a small web page for the text.
When the text was not being edited, the phone then displayed a static image of the content, presumably to save CPU, RAM and battery. The copy-paste option finally saw the light of day with version 3.0 of iPhone OS (now renamed iOS) which arrived on the iPhone 3GS. The feature even got its own TV spot.
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According to Kocienda, copying and pasting wasn’t the only shortcoming of the first iPhone. This one also lacked a multitasking mode due to the lack of RAM and virtual memory.
Engineers then had to create a system called “jetsam” that would force the iPhone to use only one app at a time and stop all other background tasks to prevent performance issues. .
Apple teams therefore had to put some features aside for a while to focus on the essentials and deliver this iPhone on time.
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