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This is Apple’s click wheel iPhone prototype

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Images and video show what appear to be an early version of iOS based on the iPod’s design

We’ve known for years that Apple considered a number of different approaches when creating the original iPhone and iOS, but before today, we’ve not had a really good look at any of these early, discarded prototypes. Pictures and video published by Sonny Dickson change that, showing what the site claims is an iOS precursor named “AcornOS” that uses a click wheel to navigate the phone’s interface.

The screen of the prototype is spit into two halves, with the bottom occupied by a software click wheel and the top by a menu-based UI that’s a straight copy of the iPod’s. Alongside familiar options for “Music” and “Games,” there are links to “Dial” and “SMS,” allowing users to call numbers and send text messages.

Dickson points to the existence of a 2006 Apple patent showing a “multi-touch device” with an optional click wheel as proof of prototype’s authenticity, but the iPod-Phone is a pretty well-known part of Apple history. In 2005, when Steve Jobs was designing the original iPhone, he considered two major options: to either expand upon the iPod, or shrink down OS X. To see which design would work better he pitted the iPod and Macintosh teams against one another, with the efforts led by executives Tony Fadell and Scott Forstall, respectively. AcornOS appears to be a legacy of the former, unsuccessful effort.

Speaking to The Verge in 2012 about this time, Fadell says there were “all types of different gestations” of the proto-iPhone’s design, including an “iPod plus phone” version. However, Fadell doesn’t mention an on-screen click wheel, but a hardware version; suggesting that the prototype software shown above could be a virtualization of that layout.

“The biggest problem with the iPod plus phone,” says Fadell, “was that we had a little screen and this hardware wheel, and we were stuck with that.” These images show that it’s certainly not the most intuitive of layouts (who wants to use a wheel to enter a number, or text?) but as Fadell concluded back in the 2012 interview: “Sometimes you have to try things to throw it away.”