The former Apple engineer who designed the iPhone keyboard reveals what it was like to work under Steve Jobs' strict requirements for secrecy

Ken KociendaKen Kocienda, the author of ‘Creative Selection.’
  • Apple’s culture of secrecy means that a lot of details about how the company makes software remain hidden from the public.
  • But one of the programmers who worked on the original iPhone recently released a book about his experience at the company.
  • We sat down with Ken Kocienda, the author of “Creative Selection,” and talked about Steve Jobs, Apple terminology, and how the company has changed under Tim Cook.

Today, the iPhone is one of the most successful products in history, and Apple has thousands of engineers working to keep it competitive.

But before it launched, it was developed by a relatively small team of engineers working in complete secrecy.

One of those engineers was Ken Kocienda, who developed the iPhone’s software keyboard. It was one of the first touchscreen smartphone keyboards, and most likely the one that made them break into mainstream usage.

Now he’s telling that story in a new book, “Creative Selection,” which provides an insider’s view of what it was like to help build Apple’s Safari browser and play a role in the early development of the iPhone and iPad.

In person, Kocienda comes across as thoughtful and stylish, as you’d expect from a former Apple designer. He spoke about his former bosses at Apple, CEO Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall, the software boss who was pushed out in 2012; what it feels like to make a breakthrough on a product; and how Apple has changed since the pre-iPhone days.

Creative Selection 04 highSt. Martins

Below is a transcript of an interview with Kocienda, edited for clarity and length.

Business Insider: What was the eureka moment like when the iPhone keyboard started to work for actual people?

Ken Kocienda: I don’t think I had many moments like that in my career. Usually software is a matter of long iteration. The progress is, hopefully, slow but steady. But that moment was different.

All of a sudden I made a software change, and my colleague came in and tried out the keyboard, and he just banged away at the software as fast as he could. And he went way faster than anybody ever did. The software just kind of cleaned up everything. We couldn’t believe it. We truly were two grown men and yet we just started laughing like little kids.

Business Insider: The iPhone keyboard is much smaller than a traditional keyboard. How did you develop for that?

Kocienda: If you think back to that time, smartphone keyboards were like the BlackBerry-style keyboard, with a smaller screen above the hardware keyboard below. The iPhone was a completely different concept, where you’re going to be typing on a sheet of glass, where your thumbs didn’t feel the edges of the keys.

So what do you do? We wound up in this place where we had a Qwerty keyboard, which looks like a mostly shrunken-down version of the keyboard you have in your laptop or your desktop computer. But getting there was a long evolution, and we started with these other ideas – bigger keys with multiple letters on the keys. We had these multitouch systems where you would type or slide, Morse code keyboards, dot-and-dash-type things. Maybe a long press for a dash, or a piano keyboard where you would use multiple fingers at once.

But none of those ideas wound up working. You know, eventually we evolved back to a place where there were single letters, with one single key with a single letter on it. And the real breakthrough was to provide the software assistance to have the software step in and help you.

Blackberry quark 6210 phoneBart Everson/FlickrWhat smartphones looked like before the iPhone.

Business Insider: So it wasn’t like the keyboard came out fully formed out of the mind of Steve Jobs, and he said, “This is what it is,” and you went and built it. It was a process, right?

Kocienda: The way that Apple worked is different, I think, than a lot of people think.

Steve didn’t write code. He didn’t design icons or graphics. He didn’t. Steve was an editor. He sent the assignments. He communicated what he wanted: “I want a software keyboard,” in this case. And then he evaluated the work that came back, right, and so he was looking for people to provide original answers for the questions that he asked. But then he’d be very, very tough as an editor.

His evaluations could be really intimidating if he didn’t like something, but, you know, that was his role. I had a role in there as well, which was to go away and figure out how to make this touchscreen software keyboard work. So it was a long process.

Business Insider: So one of my favourite things in your book is the rich jargon. At times you write you “signed up” for projects. What does that mean?

Kocienda: Well this comes from a book written by a fellow named Tracy Kidder called “The Soul of a New Machine.” It’s one of the most popular, influential books in high tech. It won the Pulitzer Prize. And it was the story of a company called Data General, which doesn’t exist anymore, and how young and harried engineers at the end of the ’70s came together to make a new computer, or a piece of hardware called a minicomputer.

The notion of “signing up,” even though we [at Apple] didn’t call it that, it was called “directly responsible individual,” or DRI. For the original iPhone, I was the DRI for the software keyboard. Every feature in an Apple product has a DRI. There’s a person’s name against that feature, and so if somebody else working on the development team had a question about that feature, you knew who to go to, and that person was empowered to give answers, to make decisions. Now, of course, those decisions were reviewed up the management chain. And the big decisions in this period were always made by Steve.

Business Insider: What about the term “disclosed”?

IOS 8 iPhone keyboard shift keyBusiness InsiderThe iPhone keyboard is one of the world’s most used pieces of software.

Kocienda: You didn’t know about what they were working on in the next hallway; you were expected to be focused on your piece of the puzzle. And so one of the ways that you know that Apple evolved its culture of secrecy was with these “disclosures.”

I think a lot of people think this is somehow negative, or that the company doesn’t trust you, or that it’s cloak-and-dagger for no reason. But there’s also a positive aspect to it: that it created teams. You were working with that person, you knew that the person in the next office was “disclosed” on the same things that you were, and so you were free to talk about all of these deep, dark secrets with software that’s coming along that nobody can know except the person you know in the next office who’s “disclosed” just like you are.

And so there is this positive element to it. It created this small-team cohesion, which I think is a really important part of the overall attitude that we had.

Business Insider: At the end of development, you went through a period of “convergence.” What did that mean?

Kocienda: It is part of the endgame. It’s the beginning of the endgame. Convergence is when you have the software finished in concept but not in fact. There are bugs. There are deficiencies! There might be some small missing parts here or there.

So convergence is this process of modifying the software, changing it to the point where you can give it out to people in the world, where it really is polished – it’s done to that Apple level of quality. And throughout the convergence period, naturally, we were always fixing bugs and defects, right, making the software work the way that it was supposed to. But we were also undergoing this process of refinement.

Sometimes I would sit with a designer and we would look at an animation and we would say: “Should that be 350 milliseconds or 320 milliseconds? What’s the subtle effect that is going to make the best-in-the-world experience?”

Business Insider: What makes Apple’s engineering and demo culture special?

Kocienda: Demos were really important, because when you want to make great products, that’s the end of the story. At the beginning the work isn’t great, so you have to start somewhere. Whenever we wanted to make a new piece of software, a new feature, making a first demo was an important part of getting the ball rolling. And even if that work wasn’t any good, it was the benchmark.

So we would throw away the weak parts, keep the strong parts, make the next demo, have the next evaluation. Eventually managers, executives, or Steve would get involved. It was round after round of iteration and refinement. Why I called the book “Creative Selection” is that it’s this Darwinian process.

Business Insider: You didn’t know the name “iPhone” until the day Steve Jobs held it up. You had to add the word “iPhone” to the keyboard dictionary later.

Kocienda: I was in the audience on that January day in early 2007 [that the iPhone was launched], and when I walked in that morning I didn’t know what the product would be called. We called it “Purple,” which was the code name for the phone. It was a surprise.

Business Insider: Could you have guessed it?

Kocienda: There was some rumour, but we simply weren’t sure, because actually “iPhone” was trademarked by another company. I don’t know the details, but it shows it was the name that he wanted. Steve was Steve – when he made a decision, he usually got his way!

Business Insider: What was it like working with Scott Forstall?

Kocienda: He gave me the opportunities to work on these products. He was the one who made the decision to hire me when I was applying to Apple, and then, later on, he was the one who gave me the chance to join the iPhone software team when it was just six or eight people working on what became iOS.

So I feel like I owe the guy a lot of debt of gratitude. But not only that – he had great taste. He was also very decisive, and he was an important part of this culture that we’ve been talking about. He helped to keep us on track, to encourage us. But he could be tough, just like Steve was, and be very, very demanding.

Business Insider: Are you surprised he went into a second act in the theatre?

Kocienda: I would put it this way: When it comes time to leave Apple, like I did a little bit less than a year and a half ago, it’s time to figure out what’s next. I decided to write a book. Scott decided to get involved in the theatre.

Business Insider: If there’s one issue anyone has with the iPhone keyboard – this issue comes up a lot – it’s the word “ducking.” You know, like, “This ducking phone won’t type that word.” Obviously you had lots of design decisions to make. What are your thoughts on that autocorrect issue?

Kocienda: Well all of these decisions have a judgment call. The fact is when you actually type the dirty word, maybe you were trying to type the name of the aquatic fowl. How do you know? Because the keys are right next to each other.

So you have to make a judgment call, and we did. We had discussions about how should this software behave. It’s hard. These decisions are sometimes on the knife’s edge.

So we decided to err on the side of not inserting obscenities into the text that might be going to your grandma. This issue was something that we dealt with in a related context, which is hate speech. We discovered that we needed to add words that you would never say in polite speech – racial, ethnic slurs. We actually needed to research and get a compendium of these words and add them to the [iPhone] dictionary.

Seems like an odd exercise, but those words were in the dictionary, marked specially so that they would never be offered as a correction, so that the software would never assist you in typing these words.

Business Insider: You said in the book’s epilogue that the culture of software development at Apple has changed. How has it changed?

Kocienda: I think the biggest difference is that Apple is a much bigger company now. When I joined, the company hadn’t even released the iPod. The Mac was the main product, right? And so now there are many more products, and there are many more product teams. Apple’s a trillion-dollar company, right?

Back when I joined, it was an underdog. There were just more people. There are more projects. It’s bigger. I thought back to when where we were this scrappy team trying to make this smartphone operating system from scratch – I found that working style, of being the scrappy underdog, fit better for my approach.

Business Insider: The big thing people are talking about now is augmented reality – you know, placing digital things into the real world. It strikes me that we don’t have the multitouch keyboard of augmented reality yet. What would your advice be, to your knowledge, about working in this burgeoning field?

Kocienda: I think that the analogy to multitouch is excellent, because what we did on the first iPhone was we took a technology, the touchscreen, and we built a system around it so that you could use it for general-purpose computing.

We made it possible with that first phone for developers to make their own apps and for there to be an app ecosystem built around this new user-interface paradigm.

Apple’s approach has always been to add that level of thought and that developer support so that you can make a clear and consistent environment and experience for users. I think we’re still waiting for that in augmented reality. I think we need it. So the potential is there.

I think that the hardware and software and networking pieces are coming together. I’m looking forward to seeing who’s going to crack the problem. I certainly hope that it’s Apple. I still have very strong feelings for the company. And I hope that we see some exciting stuff from them in the coming years.

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