Book review and Highlights: The One Device, by Brian Merchant

The One Device by Brian Merchant

“Steve Jobs will forever be associated with the iPhone. He towers over it, he introduced it to the world, he evangelized it, he helmed the company that produced it. But he did not invent it.

Proving the lone-inventor myth inadequate does not diminish Jobs’s role as curator, editor, bar-setter—it elevates the role of everyone else to show he was not alone in making it possible.”

In “The One Device,” Brian Merchant spends 400+ pages shattering our illusions that the iPhone is, indeed, just that one device invented by one person.

Instead, Merchant takes us back in time, sometimes hundreds of years, to explore the people, ideas, and progress that eventually allowed Steve Jobs to weave together one of the most impactful—and the most profitable—products in history. 

At times the technical detail is drawn too sharply. The book bogs down in spots, mulling over information in a way that would never fly on a modern iPhone assembly line. In other spots, the pacing flies. When Merchant goes inside the firmly locked doors at Apple, describing the incredible effort put forth by so many to, create the iPhone, the tension and sense of urgency are palpable and the story moves quickly. 

The most interesting passages detail the drama and office politics that swirled around the iPhone as it evolved from long-shot idea to prototypes and, eventually, the assembly line. Jobs lives up to his ruthless reputation in the book, but we also see many people sacrificed their time, freedom—and sometimes their health or marriages—to bring the iPhone to life.

We also learn about the iPhone’s impact on the lithium mines deep in the Atacama Desert in Chile. And Merchant sneaks into the monolithic (and dystopian) FoxConn compound in China, to show us what life is like for the thousands of workers who assemble the devices we use every day. 

Like the iPhone, this book packs a lot inside its frame: deep history, tales of Jobs Machavellian machinations, the backbiting and secrecy and sacrifice that all swirled around the creation of the device. 

If you’re a fan of Apple, Steve Jobs, and/or the iPhone, this book will shatter popular myths of Steve Jobs as the singular inventor or the iPhone itself as, well, The One Device. 

The iPhone is the result of many people who made technological progress over hundreds of years. It exists because of the sacrifice of many people at Apple, and thousands of people doing incredibly hard work along the supply chain, from raw materials to finished product.

Jobs, rather than singular inventor, is shown to be a curator, building on technological advancements of the past, pushing others to push them forward, and synthesizing it all into the device we know today. Merchant does a good job chasing down and laying out the path for us.