Did Phil Schiller really want a physical keyboard on iPhone?

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Blackberry won its case against Ryan Seacrest. Photo: Typo
Phil Schiller allegedly wanted the iPhone to look more like this. Possibly.
Photo: Typo

One of the fascinating tidbits of Apple history that emerged online this week was the story that Phil Schiller was insistent that the original iPhone ship with a physical keyboard.

Only problem is, no-one seems to know whether it’s true or not. Former Apple exec Tony Fadell claimed it is. Schiller denied it. Now Fadell has denied it, too, but the author he told the story to is sticking by what he was told. What a mess!

The anecdote is from an upcoming book by tech writer Brian Merchant, titled The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, timed to coincide with the iPhone’s tenth anniversary. 

In a lengthy excerpt from the book published this week on The Verge, Tony Fadell — who worked at Apple from 2001 to 2008, before going on to found Nest Labs — is quoted as saying that Schiller was the only holdout in wanting the iPhone to come with a BlackBerry-style keyboard.

“He just sat there with his sword out every time, going, ‘No, we’ve got to have a hard keyboard. No. Hard keyboard,'” Fadell is quoted as saying. “And he wouldn’t listen to reason as all of us were like, ‘No, this works now, Phil.’ And he’d say, ‘You gotta have a hard keyboard!'”

It was a fun story, particularly seeing as the lack of physical keyboard on the iPhone wound up being one of its most talked-about distinctive features when it launched in 2007. (Check out this recent “Today in Apple history” post in which I recall even the Apple-loving Walt Mossberg fretting over the use of a virtual keyboard.)

However, it didn’t sit well with Phil Schiller, who tweeted to say the story never happened. Strangely, Fadell then also tweeted to say that, “I respect @pschiller as a colleague & friend. The story about him is not true. Have asked writer to correct the record.” (Seeing as the book’s first edition will have been published months back, that’s not quite as easy as amended an online story.)

But having had his credibility called into question, author Brian Merchant now says that he has a recorded conversation with Fadell to prove his point. In a new podcast he says that:

“So I wasn’t in the room at Apple 10, 15 years ago when this would have happened. But this is a quote verbatim as Tony Fadell who was in the room told it to me. He told me this quote in such detail and he gave such a vivid account, and I had no reason to believe it was untrue … It certainly wasn’t intended to make Phil Schiller look dumb. It was an opposing viewpoint… I think that it’s totally fine to be a dissenting voice and want to contextualize this emergent technology and even be opposed to it. Why would you not have someone in the room who is forcing people to think critically about this potentiality?”

At the end of it, we’re left none the wiser. Was Fadell joking when he told Merchant the story? Did Merchant misquote him (which seems unlikely, given that it’s a lengthy quote, and he presumably has no reason to lie)? Did Phil Schiller send a horde of killer Apple Cars to track down Fadell and force him to recant his claim?

Maybe Scott Forstall’s upcoming interview on the iPhone, his first since leaving Apple, will  shed some light on a strange situation…

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3 responses to “Did Phil Schiller really want a physical keyboard on iPhone?”

  1. lattermanstudio says:

    This is an ‘Apple Image’ issue……. Phil has been ‘told’ to be sure and deny it ever happened and they guy that supposedly leaked the story is also being told to SHUT the F Up…… “or else!!!” …… and so it goes. It’s probably actually true but does not go well with the ‘Iphone story” for the 10th anniversary…..

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  2. Deewin says:

    Unless Tony is a compulsive liar then I don’t think he has any reason lying about the story. And going by the assumption it is true then I’m sure almost everyone at the time would feel the same way phil did. Touch screen phones sucked back then and it would’ve been hard to imagine anyone, even Apple, pulling off a good touch screen phone.

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