Like the best historians, Merchant, an American journalist and editor of Vice Media’s technology blog, Motherboard, unpacks the history of the iPhone in a way that makes it seem both inevitable in its outline and surprising in its details ... Some of the best sections in The One Device involve Merchant going out to recover some of these forgotten pioneers ... In sections scattered throughout the book, Merchant tries to wrestle with the moral price of a single iPhone...What should we do with this information? The very complexity of a device such as the iPhone makes it difficult to conduct the sort of moral calculus which can be applied to simpler commodities such as diamonds or gold. A wide-ranging history like Merchant’s is the start of an answer.
Merchant does the important work of excavating and compiling large numbers of details and anecdotes about the development of the iPhone, many of them previously unrecorded ... The iPhone is designed for maximum efficiency and compactness. The One Device isn’t. The three chapters on the development of the iPhone are the heart of the book, but there’s some filler too ... Even worse is Merchant’s ghastly time-traveling habit. In order to talk about magnetometers we first have to sit still for a history lesson ('compasses can be traced back at least as far as the Han dynasty, around 206 B.C.') ... But when he gets back to the actual iPhone’s creation, Merchant tells a far richer story than I — having covered Apple for years as a journalist — have seen before ... The iPhone masquerades as a thing not made by human hands. Merchant’s book makes visible that human labor, and in the process dispels some of the fog and reality distortion that surround the iPhone. The One Device isn’t definitive, but it’s a start.
It’s a remarkable tale, one that takes us well beyond the predictable panorama of late-night coding sessions and choreographed Apple product launches (though we see those as well). Instead, Mr. Merchant goes deep into the guts of the device that has made Apple the most valuable publicly traded company on the planet ... To his credit, Mr. Merchant doesn’t buy the myth of Steve Jobs as the lone genius. He highlights the men who actually made it happen, often working without Jobs’s involvement or even knowledge ... His focus is on the human side of the device—on the people who overcame engineering challenges to design it, who mine the metals that go into it, who put it together at a rate of one every 60 seconds. The One Device is not without problems: Its prose is uneven, its organization highly idiosyncratic. But the story it tells is compelling, even addictive—almost as addictive as the iPhone itself.