It’s not everyday that the private conversations between two executives of multi-billion-dollar companies are revealed. Today, however, the discussions between Steve Jobs, then-CEO of the infamous Apple, Inc., and Ralph de la Vega, Chief Operating Officer of Cingular Wireless (now known as AT&T). The subject? How to build a phone radio that works.
It was back in 2006: LOST was a hit TV show, George W. Bush was President of the United States and all smartphone enthusiasts, a small minority of the population, were rocking Windows Mobile 5. Under wraps, both Apple and AT&T were working on building the iPhone, which went on to be announced to the public less than one year later, in January 2007.
Jobs and De la Vega, on a visibly stressful day at Apple. Jobs asks: “How do you make this device be a really good phone?” he was not concerned about the design or the functionality, just the internals. “I’m not talking about how to build a keyboard and things like that. But I’m saying the innards of a radio that worked well.” AT&T provided a set of guidelines for its phone manufacturers, which included tips on the keyboard design, which it handed to Jobs. AT&T’s CTO recalls:
He said, ‘Well, send it to me.’ So I sent him an e-mail. Thirty seconds, he calls me back. ‘Hey, what the … ? What’s going on? You’re sending me this big document, and the first 100 pages have to do with the standard keyboard,’ ” de la Vega says, laughing. ‘ “ Sorry we didn’t take those first 100 pages out, Steve. Forget those 100 pages. Those don’t apply to you.’ He says, ‘Okay,’ and he hangs up the phone.”
These exchanges show how much of a gamble AT&T actually took by taking on and a new smartphone made by a company, which, at the time, had absolutely no track record of delivering such a device. The company went on to tear up its own device guidelines, and even keep its key executives out of the deal by signing a strict NDA with Apple that only allowed the device to be described very loosely to most of the phone company’s own executives.
This represented a massive change in how the company did business: AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson later confessed “I told people you weren’t betting on a device. You were betting on Steve Jobs.” 7 years and millions of iPhones later, this switch over has arguably paid off.