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How the iPhone Works
by Tracy V. Wilson and Wesley Fenlon
Browse the article How the iPhone Works
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Introduction to How the iPhone Works
In January 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the Apple iPhone during his keynote address at the Macworld Conference and Expo. In its first appearance onscreen and in Jobs's hand, the phone looked like a sleek but inanimate black rectangle. Then, Jobs touched the screen. Suddenly, the featureless rectangle became an interactive surface. Jobs placed a fingertip on an on-screen arrow and slid it from left to right. When his finger moved, the arrow moved with it, unlocking the phone. To some people, this interaction between a human finger and an on-screen image -- and its effect on the iPhone's behavior -- was more amazing than all of its other features combined. And those features are plentiful. In some ways, the iPhone is more like a palmtop computer than a cellular phone. As with many smartphones, you can use it to make and receive calls, watch movies, listen to music, browse the Web, and send and receive e-mail and text messages. You can also take pictures and video (using an iPhone 3GS or later model) with a built-in camera, import photos from your computer and organize them all using the iPhone's software. In 2008, Apple introduced the second generation iPhone. This iPhone can operate on third-generation (3G) cellular networks
The white iPhone 4 launched in spring 2011. Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
and has a GPS receiver. It also lets you view map and satellite data from Google Maps, including overlays of nearby businesses. Owners of the original iPhone got the opportunity to upgrade the software on their phones. The 2.0 software gives the old phones new functions, but without the GPS receiver or 3G network capability. 2009 was the year that Apple launched the iPhone 3GS. The 3GS iPhone models have more storage capacity than earlier
iPhones. They also have a better camera that's capable of taking still shots and video at 30 frames per second. Another added feature is a compass, which comes in handy when you need to find your way through unfamiliar territory. Also in 2009 came iPhone OS 3.0, which offered many improvements, such as the ability to cut and paste. In 2010, Steve Jobs took the stage to announce a new generation of Apple's runaway success: the iPhone 4. The new device sports two cameras -- one on the front and one on the back. The iPhone 4 has a retina display with a better resolution than earlier phones. It also marked a departure from the basic iPhone design -- the phone doesn't have a slightly curved back so it lays flat on surfaces. Jobs also announced a new name for the iPhone operating system: iOS. A modified version of the Macintosh OS X operating system used on Apple desktop and laptop computers lets you interact with all of these applications. It displays icons for each application on the iPhone's screen. It also manages battery power and system security. The operating system synchs the phone with your computer, a process that requires a dock much like the one used to synch an iPod. It also lets you multitask and move through multiple open applications, just like you can on a laptop or desktop computer. But instead of using a mouse or a physical keyboard, the iPhone uses virtual buttons and controls that appear on its screen. This isn't really a new phenomenon -touch screens have been part of everything from self-checkout kiosks to smartphones for years. But the iPhone's touch screen is a little different from many of the others currently on the market. When you touch the screen on a PDA or a Nintendo DS, you typically use a slender, pointed stylus. The iPhone, on the other hand, requires you to use your fingers. It can also detect multiple touch points simultaneously, which many existing touch screens cannot do. This article will explore exactly how the iPhone's touch screen carries instructions from your fingertips to the phone's internal circuitry. We'll also look at the features in Apple's latest and greatest, the iPhone 4S, and the 2011 update to its operating system: iOS 5.
iPhone Touch Screen
Electronic devices can use lots of different methods to detect a person's input on a touch screen. Most of them use sensors and circuitry to monitor changes in a particular state. Many, including the iPhone, monitor changes in electrical current. Others monitor changes in the reflection of waves. These can be sound waves or beams of near-infrared light. A few systems use transducers to measure changes in vibration caused when your finger hits the screen's surface or cameras to monitor changes in light and shadow. The basic idea is pretty simple -- when you place your finger or a stylus on the screen, it changes the state that the device is monitoring. In screens that rely on sound or light waves, your finger physically blocks or reflects some of the waves. Capacitive touch screens use a layer of capacitive material to hold an electrical charge; touching the screen changes the amount of charge at a specific
The conductive layers in the iPhone's touch screen enable users to give the device commands with a simple swipe of the finger. ©2007 HowStuffWorks
point of contact. In resistive screens, the pressure from your finger causes conductive and resistive layers of circuitry to touch each other, changing the circuits' resistance. Most of the time, these systems are good at detecting the location of exactly one touch. If you try to
touch the screen in several places at once, the results can be erratic. Some screens simply disregard all touches after the first one. Others can detect simultaneous touches, but their software can't calculate the location of each one accurately. There are several reasons for this, including the following: Many systems detect changes along an axis or in a specific direction instead of at each point on the screen. Some screens rely on system-wide averages to determine touch locations. Some systems take measurements by first establishing a baseline. When you touch the screen, you create a new baseline. Adding another touch causes the system to take a measurement using the wrong baseline as a starting point. The Apple iPhone is different -- many of the elements of its multi-touch user interface require you to touch multiple points on the screen simultaneously. For example,
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The many component layers in a mutual capacitance screen.htm/printable you can zoom in to Web pages or pictures by placing your thumb and finger on the screen and spreading them apart. every point on the grid generates its own signal when touched and relays that signal to the iPhone's processor. Because of its reliance on this capacitive material. the iPhone uses a new arrangement of existing technology. The processor uses software located in the iPhone's memory to interpret the raw data as commands and gestures. To zoom back out. Its circuitry can sense changes at each point along the grid.howstuffworks. Here's what happens: 2 of 7 11/6/2011 11:47 . The capacitive material sends raw touch-location data to the iPhone's processor. which detect the current at nodes. the iPhone works only if you touch it with your fingertip -. you can pinch your thumb and finger together. One houses driving lines. Both of these possible setups send touch data as electrical impulses. just like many other touch screens. In the next section. In mutual capacitance. Self capacitance uses one layer of individual electrodes connected with capacitance-sensing circuitry. ©2007 HowStuffWorks Unlike the mutual capacitance circuitry. Multi-touch Systems To allow people to use touch commands that require multiple fingers.com/iphone12.it won't work if you use a stylus or wear non-conductive gloves. In other words. The iPhone's touch screen is able to respond to both touch points and their movements simultaneously. the capacitive circuitry requires two distinct layers of material. and the other houses sensing lines. We'll look at exactly how the iPhone does this in the next section. the iPhone's capacitors are arranged according to a coordinate system.HowStuffWorks "How the iPhone Works" http://electronics. This allows the phone to determine the location and movement of simultaneous touches in multiple locations. ©2007 HowStuffWorks iPhone Processor The iPhone's processor and software are central to correctly interpreting input from the touch screen. However. which carry current. Its touch-sensitive screen includes a layer of capacitive material. we'll take a look at exactly what happens. a self capacitance screen contains a transparent electrode layer. The iPhone's screen detects touch through one of two methods: Mutual capacitance or self capacitance.
The keys and buttons you need to navigate each application appear only when you need them. it also sends commands to the iPhone's screen and other hardware. including in-line pictures.HowStuffWorks "How the iPhone Works" http://electronics. We'll take a closer look at those in the next section. We'll look at these programs and the iPhone's other features. and widgets. 3. which the YouTube site relies on.or 3. GSM or EDGE cellular phone service as well as a visual voice mail menu Mail: POP and IMAP e-mail access. If you move your finger. There. the processor arranges touches with similar features into groups. calculator. Older iPhones include a 2. The processor relays your instructions to the program in use. Even though the iPhone doesn't support Flash.2-megapixel camera and software you can use to organize your pictures -. HTML capabilities and push e-mail Web: Safari Web browser iPod: Music and videos You can open the iPhone's other applications from the upper portion of the Home screen. An accelerometer inside the iPhone lets the operating system know to change the orientation of the image on the screen. and you can watch movies in a widescreen format. In the nanosecond between the time you touch the iPhone's screen and the display reacts. It combines your physical movement with information about which application you were using and what the application was doing when you touched the screen. If necessary.the Home button. several calculations and signals are sent from the touch screen to the software. This means that you can scroll through long lists of music files on a long.you can shift the perspective from vertical to horizontal by tilting the phone. the iPhone disregards it as an extraneous touch.you see changes in the screen based on your input almost instantly. These include a calendar. the processor calculates the difference between the starting point and ending point of your touch.com/iphone12. you can choose from the device's four primary functions using icons at the bottom of the phone: Phone: 3G. 2. If the raw data doesn't match any The iPhone's touch screen registers your touch and converts that raw data into precise coordinates. in more detail in the next section.the iPhone 4 ups the stakes with a 5-megapixel camera.howstuffworks. 3G iPhone Applications and Problems 3 of 7 11/6/2011 11:47 . or mini-applications made specifically for the iPhone. as well as how the iPhone's cost measures up to its abilities. The shape of the screen changes when you need it to as well -. Pressing the Home button takes you to the main screen of the iPhone's graphical user interface. This includes size. shape and location of the affected area on the screen. ©2007 HowStuffWorks iPhone Features The front surface of the Apple iPhone has only one button -. 4. If necessary. ©2007 HowStuffWorks applicable gestures or commands. narrow screen.htm/printable 1. you can watch YouTube videos using the corresponding application. You can also use an iPhone to check weather reports and stock quotes. This process allows you to access and use all of the iPhone's applications with your fingers. Signals travel from the touch screen to the processor as electrical impulses. notepad. You can learn more about accelerometers in How the Wii Works. The processor uses its gesture-interpretation software to determine which gesture you made. All these steps happen in a nanosecond -.0. The second generation of the iPhone introduced several new features. The processor uses software to analyze the data and determine the features of each touch.
but he still had some surprises up his sleeve. you can also control music playback and other functions. causing massive delays during the product launch. Customers in Hong Kong wait in line to buy the 3G iPhone. It also has two cameras. Compass: When paired with the accelerometer and GPS receiver. It also adjusts the image's white balance automatically. Apple's systems suffered an overload. Instead of the slightly curved back. Another big departure from previous iPhone models are the buttons: The iPhone 4 has four buttons or switches around the edge of the phone." According to Apple. Apple retains the right to deny any application that duplicates or damages the features of the iPhone. The phone's front and back are both covered in glass. the iPhone 3GS is up to twice as fast as the previous iPhone 3G model.howstuffworks. Simply hook the iPhone 3GS to the computer using an Apple USB cord and you can surf the Web at 3G speeds. 9. The S stands for "speed. he confirmed a lot of rumors that had been swirling around for more than a month. The phone's appearance only changed a little bit -. APP CONTROVERSY To get an application into the iTunes App store. iPhone 3GS Apple unveiled the iPhone 3GS at the 2009 World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC). it can record video at 30 frames per second. an iPhone owner had to first jailbreak his or her phone. iPhone 4 When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone 4 in 2010. That brings us up to the iPhone 3GS. In real-world tests. Video camera: Not only does the iPhone 3GS's camera capture larger photos (3. On the next page.this model had a slightly sleeker design and its back isn't silver. Jailbreaking just means the owner could load and run third party applications. By adding this feature. and Apple eventually took legal action to get its phone back. Some of the new applications that became available when Apple opened up development for the iPhone take advantage of the device's accelerometer feature. Perhaps the biggest announcement -. too. but many of them already exist on other smartphones. Voice control: While many other phones on the market have voice dialing features. compatible iPod touch and Mac OS X users. the iPhone 4 has flat surfaces. though Apple had remotely locked most of its functionality. 2009 press event. we'll take a closer look at the iPhone 4. The new iPhone's design was a departure from previous models. keeping the screen relatively smudge-free. Here's a rundown of what you'll find on the iPhone 3GS: More storage space: There are two versions of the iPhone 3GS: 16 GB and 32 GB models. Not only can you make calls by speaking into your phone. Oleophobic screen: One problem with touch screens is that they tend to attract smudges. That's because the device is constantly receiving signals from satellites orbiting the Earth. Could the iPhone become the next portable gaming platform? That's precisely what Apple claimed at its Sept. Apple wanted them to activate the phones inside the store. But the 3G iPhone acts as an application platform. It also has an LED flash for low-light photography [source: Apple].2 megapixels versus the iPhone 3G's 2. This doubles the capacity of older iPhone models. But it came with a risk -.0 megapixel camera). Steve Jobs unveiled the 3G iPhone at a conference for application developers. Some carriers don't allow tethering.the phones businesses use to keep executives and employees connected when out of the office. Tethering: If your cell phone carrier allows it. Most customers ended up having to activate at home anyway.apart from the fact that the phone could take advantage of 3G network technology -. Because the 4S looks nearly identical to the iPhone 4. Games like "Super MonkeyBall" let the player control the game character by tilting the phone in different ways. The front-facing camera plays a part in Apple's Facetime app. That phone made its way into the hands of gadget blog Gizmodo. the iPhone 3GS's compass helps keep iPhone owners from getting lost. The phone belonged to an Apple employee who appeared to leave it behind at a bar by accident. Jobs slyly acknowledged the fact that his audience knew more about the phone than they should.in 2009. It also allows app developers the opportunity to develop augmented reality applications. One of the challenges of GPS devices is that they tend to drain batteries pretty quickly. When it released the original iPhone. the iPhone 3GS's voice control extends the functionality to other parts of the phone.com/iphone12. That applies both to accessing the data network and launching applications. journalists found that the iPhone 3GS often was more effective at picking up 3G signals from the cell phone carrier than its predecessor. which lets you make video calls to other iPhone 4. These features sound impressive. The 8 GB model was only available in black. Apple could tell that some hanky panky was going on.if you tried to install official updates from Apple with a jailbroken phone. Microsoft Exchange support means users can now synchronize their iPhones with their Microsoft Outlook accounts. the FCC stepped in to investigate claims that Apple rejected Google Voice applications unfairly. Both models are available in white or black. including AT&T in the United States.was that the 3G iPhone had a GPS receiver. THE LOST IPHONE 4 Controversy erupted around the iPhone 4 when an Apple employee accidentally left an early model of the phone in a bar. An oleophobic material repels oils. The rear-facing camera takes 5-megapixel pictures and can capture 720p video. in order to even run a non-Apple application. But the iPhone 3GS isn't just faster than previous models. The camera can focus automatically or you can use the touch screen to tell the camera where to focus the image. Gizmodo revealed many of the phone's features. Customers who bought the 16 GB model could choose between an iPhone with a black or white plastic back. One is the on/off switch. Andrew Ross/AFP/Getty Images Another important addition to the iPhone was support for Microsoft Exchange. Apple offered 8 and 16 GB options of the 3G edition of the iPhone. The technology news blog Gizmodo made headlines of its own when it ran a story about a prototype version of the iPhone 4 ahead of the official announcement. the second controls volume and the third 4 of 7 11/6/2011 11:47 . though that didn't stop developers from writing them. The iPhone 3GS has an oleophobic screen. and Apple encourages developers to create content for it. it's possible the lost phone was mistaken for a year-old handset.htm/printable In June 2008. Instead of allowing customers to purchase phones and activate them at home. It also boasts some new features. Unfortunately. The same thing reportedly happened a year later with the iPhone 4's successor. This has led to controversy -. Metal bands around the edge of the phone act as antennae. Apple didn't support third-party applications.HowStuffWorks "How the iPhone Works" http://electronics. the iPhone 4S [source: CNET]. you can use the iPhone 3GS as a modem for your computer. the iPhone became more competitive with other enterprise smartphones -. But with the original iPhone. The transfer to the 3G iPhone didn't go without a hitch. Apple must approve it first.
Apple's iPhone received more attention for what it couldn't do than its wide range of features. while Verizon and AT&T are both larger networks that may provide better cellular coverage.htm/printable Apple launched its first CDMA iPhone in early 2011. Why did it take so long for Apple to support these basic features? There's no clear answer. Sprint and Verizon's CDMA technology cannot use voice and data simultaneously. But that's not how it works: The iPhone 4S comes locked to a specific network. some. cellular phones and related topics. At its introduction.S. Numerous smartphones have a built-in Opera Web browser designed for mobile devices. To use it abroad. the mobile operating system designed by Google. it would also mean foreign SIMs could be loaded into the phone to pay local rates while traveling abroad in GSM countries. on Sept.MMS is common even on regular cell phones. Several phones now run on Android. With a spread of popular devices from Samsung. or horizontally to access a QWERTY keyboard. and the iPhone 4 supports faster HSPA+ data on AT&T's GSM network. it puts a heavier strain on the network.howstuffworks. The iPhone 3GS is still available.com/iphone12. CISCO IPHONE When Apple announced the iPhone in January 2007. Cisco was already using the iPhone name on a range of VoIP products and services. Customers reported difficulties with the lengthy activation process and itemized paper billing statements that were hundreds of pages long. The agreement allows both companies to use the iPhone name. in real-world use. The once-common Windows Phone 6. Early iPhone adopters were also angry at the dramatic price drop -. The 3G iPhone came with another drop in price: The 8 GB 3G iPhone became available for $199. In some cases. To learn more about the iPhone. It costs the same amount on Verizon. As of fall 2011. however. they make a significant impact on their carrier's network. As of 2011. Apple was able to discount the phone because service providers like AT&T subsidized the hardware. Sprint offers an unlimited data plan. HTC. Apple knocked the price of the previous iPhone model down to $100 (on a two-year contract) with the launch of its new device. it quickly got the attention of computer technology company Cisco. compared to Apple's 28 percent [source: Nielsen]. and Hewlett-Packard swept in to acquire the company in 2010. In September 2007. Apple sold its millionth iPhone in September 2007. LG and others. Like previous iPhone models. depending on your region. Although most other phones don't have completely virtual controls. but other phone models already have similar features. however. use touch screens and virtual controls much the way the iPhone does. The orientation of the images on the screen changes depending on which keyboard you're using. 2009. As it does every year. when it made the iPhone 4 available on Verizon's cellular network. the company released one model using a dual-mode chipset to work on Sprint and Verizon's CDMA networks and AT&T's GSM network. Apple announced that it was lowering the price of the 8 GB model to $399 and that it would continue to sell the 4 GB model while supplies lasted. though one theory is that. And then. Google Android has given Apple its most serious competition with an open source OS embraced by a range of electronics companies. As the iPhone gets more features. AT&T and Sprint. In spite of all these difficulties. Android controls 39 percent of the market. The iPhone changed the face of the phone market as we know it. Lots More Information Related Articles How to Jailbreak an iPhone 5 Myths About Apple 10 Great iPhone Apps 5 Questionable iPhone Applications 10 Off-the-wall iPhone Apps How to Use Your iPhone as a Security Camera How Smartphones Work How Cell Phones Work The Ultimate iPhone Quiz More Great Links Apple: iPhone 6 of 7 11/6/2011 11:47 . have multiple physical keyboards. including slow browsing speeds and difficulty using the virtual keyboard. You can find both of these features on other phones -. No single carrier offers a clear-cut best option. Other phones. Cisco filed a lawsuit. Motorola. Apple's focus on touch controls pushed the industry in a new direction. While "smartphones" existed before the iPhone. Google's Android actually rules the smartphone market in the United States. Unlocked iPhone pricing starts at $650. or pay a cellular carrier for a global roaming plan. 32GB model costs $299 and a 64GB model costs $399. However. APPLE IPHONE VS. However. It's possible that Apple is working with its carriers to avoid overloading networks with increased traffic. The Pre didn't save Palm from financial problems. check out the links on the next page. HP may one day release future handsets running on WebOS.the company moved more than 4 million units in the device's first weekend on the market [source: CNET]. In the days after the release. there are two choices: Buy an unlocked model directly from Apple. The Palm Pre was the first phone to use Palm's new OS called WebOS.x line was phased out in favor of an entirely new operating system with Windows Phone 7. iPhone Competitors and the Evolving Smartphone Market The iPhone has gotten a lot of attention in the press. like the Samsung Instinct. because iPhone owners use their data plans more than the average smartphone user. like the Helio Ocean. RIM's BlackBerry line has been in decline for years. the 8GB model is free on a two-year contract. the iPhone's price was $499 for 4 GB of storage space and $599 for 8 GB. The iPhone 4 is now available on Sprint as well. that 39 percent is spread out over many devices and manufacturers. data speeds vary by network usage and location -.Apple responded by offering a $100 store credit [source: Apple].Verizon or Sprint could potentially be faster than AT&T based on those factors. Only time will tell. iPods. Ideally. That means the phone can roam in other countries on either kind of network. the iPhone was incapable of using cut and paste. The first iPhone hit the U.HowStuffWorks "How the iPhone Works" http://electronics. 25. Apple rolled out multimedia message (MMS) support to its users. You can slide the front portion of the Ocean vertically to access a number pad. users and reviewers criticized some of the iPhone's features. or the company may focus exclusively on tablet devices instead. the 16-gigabyte 4S is available on a two-year contract for $200. With the iPhone 4S. 2007. market on June 29. the LG Prada and the HTC Touch phone. but only on AT&T. but the two companies eventually reached an agreement with undisclosed terms in February 2007. Apple reaps all the rewards from iPhone sales. Consumer-rights advocates criticized the cost of the iPhone's battery replacement program. The iPhone 4S set records as Apple's fastest-selling phone yet -. Until June 2009.
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