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The story of the iPhone may have unfolded very differently had Apple’s engineers not convinced Steve Jobs to abandon one of his design principles.
According to “iPodfather” Tony Fadell, Apple’s legendary co-founder and CEO was opposed to the original iPhone having a SIM card slot, as he felt it would detract from the device’s elegant design.
Fadell recounted the story to journalist Joanna Stern during an interview at a special event for The Computer History Museum, where he was promoting his new book, Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making.
When the original iPhone was still in its nascent design stages, Fadell was heading up Apple’s iPod division and was involved in many high-level conversations among engineers and designers.
According to Fadell, Jobs was firmly against having a SIM card slot in the original iPhone. The oft-mercurial CEO told the group working on the device that “we don’t need another hole” in it.
[Steve] was such a reductionist. He didn’t want a SIM card slot on the first iPhone. “We don’t need another hole in this. Look at Verizon. They don’t have SIM cards. Why do we need SIM cards? We’re not going to have SIM cards on our iPhones.”
The original iPhone used a full-sized SIM card, and it was inserted at the top, beside the power button and headphone jack. This was before the days of even the Micro SIM cards used in the iPhone 4/4S, much less the smaller Nano SIM introduced with the iPhone 5. The original iPhone was also much smaller than the iPhones we use today, so the slot was conspicuous enough that it’s not hard to see why Jobs wasn’t a fan of it.
Jobs suggested designing the original iPhone for Verizon, as it was a CDMA carrier at the time and therefore didn’t rely on SIM cards the way GSM phones did.
CDMA phones were instead provisioned directly by the carriers through a process that generally required customers to bring their devices to a store to have them directly programmed by an employee or representative of the carrier.
Fadell and the rest of the engineering team knew that this would be a bad idea for the future of the iPhone. Although CDMA was somewhat popular in North America and parts of Southeast Asia at the time, most of Europe and the rest of the had adopted GSM almost exclusively.
In other words, releasing a CDMA iPhone would have effectively torpedoed the global market for the device. Apple may have been able to successfully launch the first iPhone on Verizon and a couple of Canadian carriers. Still, it would have needed to eventually create a GSM version if it planned to sell it in Europe.
Steve, that doesn’t work. Verizon is a special case. Look at the rest of the world. So we had to bring him all the cell phone data. Almost 95% of all cell phones at the time had SIM slots, and if we want to go to other markets, that’s what you have to do because no one had the technology for eSIM that now finally is out. But that took 12–13 years to get there. Tony Fadell
Interestingly, Fadell notes that Apple had already picked AT&T to partner with at that point, so the SIM card slot was already required for that partnership. However, it wouldn’t have been unlike Jobs to scrap that deal entirely if he thought he had a better idea.
In this case, though, he didn’t, and fortunately, Fadell and the team were able to convince Jobs that a CDMA iPhone was not the way to go. However, Fadell notes that it took digging up solid data to present to Apple’s co-founder, and they had to confront him as a team.
When you work with a highly opinionated person, especially when they can get V1 so right, and you’ve got to go against them, make sure you bring data. And it had to be a team of us, couldn’t be just one.Tony Fadell
History has proven that Fadell was right. As 3G technology emerged, SIM cards became necessary anyway, and many carriers shut down their CDMA networks and adopted GSM as it was easier.
Verizon was one of the few that held onto the older CDMA technology, even as it rolled out its 3G and LTE services. Apple eventually did release one iPhone without a SIM card slot — the Verizon iPhone 4 that came along eight months after the GSM version.
However, by 2011 when the iPhone 4S rolled around, even the Verizon version gained a SIM card slot. It wasn’t necessary for folks using the iPhone on Verizon, but it did allow owners to take their iPhones to other carriers and was particularly useful for roaming on GSM networks in other countries.
Ironically, the rise of eSIM technology means that an iPhone with no SIM card slot may soon be a reality. Somewhere, Steve Jobs is smiling.