Dogfight by Fred Vogelstein

3 minutes estimated reading time

The story Dogfight tells feels much more recent than it now is almost two decades on, and yet so far away as smartphones are central to our lives. Back in the mid and late 2000s Silicon Valley based journalist Fred Vogelstein was writing for publications like Wired and Fortune at the time Apple launched the iPhone and Google launched Android. He had a front-row seat to the rivalry between the two brands.


And being on the ground in Silicon Valley would have meant that he would have had access to scuttlebutt given in confidence of anonymity as well as official media access.

But he’s probably best known for being part of the story itself: Fred Vogelstein wrote about his experiences with Microsoft’s PR machine for Wired back in 2007.

The fight

Original iPhone - The Motorola ROKR
The Motorola ROKR E1 I was given, but eventually threw out.

Dogfight starts some time after Apple had withdrawn support for Motorola’s ROKR phone, which was able to sync with iTunes for music downloads. This particular track of Apple’s history isn’t really documented in Dogfight.

The book goes through two separate but entangled story strands. The first is Apple’s development of the Apple iPhone and iPad. At that time Apple in the space of a decade had gone from almost going under, to having the iPod and iTunes music store, together with a resuscitated computer range thanks to the iMac and Mac OS X.

The Google of this era was at its peak, search had become a monopoly and the company was overflowing with wondrous and useful web services from Google Earth to Google Reader. What was less apparent was that inside Google was chaos due to internal politics and massive expansion. Into this walked Andy Rubin who had built and designed the Danger Hiptop, sold exclusively on T-Mobile as the Sidekick.

T-Mobile Sidekick2 w/ skin

The Sidekick had been a text optimised mobile device. It featured email, instant messaging and SMS text messages. His new company Android had been acquired by Google to build a new type of smartphone that would continue to provide a mobile audience for Google services.

Dogfight’s style

Dogfight is undemanding to read but doesn’t give insight in the way that other works like Insanely Great, Where Wizards Stay Up Late and Accidental Empires did. Part of this might be down to the highly orchestrated public relations campaigns happening at the time.

Instead Vogelstein documents developments, from video recordings, marketing materials and court documents. Some of the things covered were items that I had largely forgotten about like music labels launching albums as multimedia apps on the new iPhone ecosystem. This was doing in software with what the Claudia Schiffer Palm Vx or the U2 autograph edition iPod had previously done in hardware.

U2 iPod (front)

Google’s decision to ‘acquihire’ the Android team to build their mobile operating system, wasn’t examined in depth. Yet there are clear parallels with the Boca Raton team in IBM which came up with the IBM PC a quarter of a century earlier. Vogelstein kept to the facts.

It’s a workman-like if uninspiring document. And that mattered deeply to me. Part of the reason why I went into agency life was because I was inspired about the possibility of working the technology sector. This inspiration had been fired up by the chutzpah and pioneering spirit portrayed in older technology of history books. Some of them were flawed characters, but all of them had an energy and vibrancy to make the world a better place.

Wired magazine issues had a similar effect. Yet in Dogfight Vogelstein brought neither of those influences to the table, instead he was writing an account that will probably only read by academics citing his material as a contemporary account in a future thesis.

Dogfight isn’t the Liar’s Poker of the smartphone world, it isn’t even that illuminating about the nature of Silicon Valley.

This is probably why Vogelstein hasn’t had a book published since Dogfight – he’s a reporter, not a writer. You can find more book reviews here.