Here’s why the first iPhone didn’t have copy and paste

Apple introduced the first iPhone 15 years ago and a lot has changed since then. We’re now discussing rumors about the next iPhone with 8K video and a new display, but it’s hard to believe that back in the day the iPhone didn’t even have copy and paste options. Now former Apple software engineer and designer Ken Kocienda has revealed details on why the first iPhone didn’t have such features.

Kocienda, who joined Apple in 2001, was one of the key engineers behind the iPhone. Prior to working on the iPhone, Kocienda was part of the team that created Apple’s Safari web browser – earning him a key role in the development of Apple’s first smartphone.

Now that the iPhone is approaching its 15th anniversary on the market, the former Apple engineer decided to share some interesting stories about how Apple created the first iPhone. One of them includes details on why the company decided to ship its first smartphone without copy and paste options.

There was no time for that.

Kocienda’s short and funny explanation is that Apple engineers didn’t have time to implement copy and paste on the first iPhone. But of course the story goes beyond that.

According to him, the team was already busy creating the iPhone’s virtual keyboard and auto-correction system. Eventually, after the iPhone launched, Kocienda and his team decided to work on copy and paste options, but it still took a while before the feature was ready for users.

The engineer explains that he came up with the idea of ​​the “magnifying text magnifier” to let users know where exactly they were pointing the text cursor, which was crucial for copy and paste. But even with this classic virtual magnifying glass, after the user took their finger off the screen, the cursor would move between characters due to natural flickering.

Kocienda had to develop a “Touch History Log” just for text editing. For example, after lifting the finger off the screen, the system automatically recognized the position of the user’s finger milliseconds after the last touch, keeping the cursor where the user really wanted it to be.

Another interesting detail of the text input system on the iPhone is that according to the former Apple engineer, all formatted text was originally based on WebKit. This means that whenever an app used a custom font, it basically presented a tiny webpage to render the text. When the text boxes weren’t in edit mode, they showed a static image of their content – probably to save CPU, RAM, and battery.

Copy and paste options were introduced in 2009 as part of iPhone OS 3.0, which came standard with the iPhone 3GS. Apple even created a TV ad at the time that highlighted the new feature.

More tidbits about the first iPhone

Kocienda also shared some other tidbits about the development of the first iPhone. For example, the iPhone lacked real multitasking not only because of the low RAM, but also because of the missing virtual memory. Engineers had to create a system called “Jetsam” to force the iPhone to run a single app at a time, automatically killing other background processes to avoid performance issues.

Because touchscreen devices weren’t popular and lacked tactile feedback, the iPhone team implemented a virtual area larger than the buttons displayed on the UI. As such, the iPhone recognizes touch even when the user isn’t exactly touching the button on the screen.

This system was also important to the keyboard’s autocorrect feature, as it identifies the letters surrounding the one the user tapped to replace the misspelled word with the correct one.

Kocienda also explains that users’ perception of where they are touching their fingers is different than where the finger is actually touching, and the system had to be prepared for that.

If you want to learn more about the iPhone development process, be sure to read Kocienda’s book, Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs.

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