Why the iPhone has been waiting a long time to use copy-paste

A member of the very first iPhone team reveals why it took so long for the iPhone to finally get one of its most basic functions: copy and paste.

Copy and paste on iPhone 3GS // Source: Apple

When Apple introduced the very first iPhone in 2007, the smartphone world was changed forever. However, this dynamic of incredible novelty for the time was without some of the most basic functionalities.

Many years later, former Apple engineer Ken Kocienda explains why Apple’s original smartphone didn’t include an option to copy and paste text. While we’re waiting for the iPhone 14 this year, it was very different back then.

A project that was running at full speed

Ken Kocienda, who joined Apple in 2001, was one of the main engineers behind the first iPhone. He only says that the company never had time to think about integrating such a basic function.

Aside from the reason given, his team was already busy creating a virtual keyboard with an auto-correction system that required multiple attempts and caused Apple engineers a few sleepless nights to get it right.

The Kocienda team had to apply a larger virtual touch area than the keys themselves to make this keyboard possible. The iPhone therefore recognized the keys you wanted to type, even if your input didn’t exactly touch the button on the screen.

Problems to be solved and necessary tools to develop upstream

After launching the phone, his team finally got down to business, it then took some time for the feature to be leaked to end users.

The former Apple engineer also explains that before claiming the copy-paste option, it was first necessary to invent other necessary tools, such as the text magnifier, which allows users to know exactly where the cursor is in the text .

Our finger never really touches the intended area due to user perception, and the system had to account for this distortion.

The curve of your fingers makes you think you’re touching the screen higher than you actually are. Therefore, the keys are skewed to account for this. This is why, to this day, it’s difficult to type purposefully when you’re holding your phone upside down. pic.twitter.com/xl8YaxvKKu

— Ken Kocienda (@kocienda) June 19, 2022

A ” Touch History Log (History of finger movements on the screen) also had to be implemented to compensate for the latency of the system, which caused the user’s finger to be recognized with a delay, making input inaccurate.

So this history made it possible to automatically detect the position of the user’s finger a few milliseconds after the last input, so that the cursor stays in the right place.

Another issue the Apple team had to address was stylized fonts used in apps based on Safari’s WebKit rendering engine. Whenever an application used a custom font, a small web page was displayed for the text.

If the text wasn’t edited, the phone then displayed a static image of the content, presumably to save CPU, RAM and battery. The copy-paste option finally saw the light of day with version 3.0 of iPhone OS (now renamed iOS) arriving on the iPhone 3GS. The feature even got its own TV spot.

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According to Kocienda, copying and pasting wasn’t the only shortcoming of the first iPhone. Due to the lack of RAM and virtual memory, this one also lacked a multitasking mode.

The engineers then had to create a system called “Jetsam” that forces the iPhone to only use one app at a time and stop all other background tasks to avoid performance issues.

As a result, Apple teams had to put some features aside for a while to focus on what matters and ship this iPhone on time.


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