Read Inside Steve's Brain Online

Authors: Leander Kahney

Inside Steve's Brain (6 page)

The design team worked for three weeks, night and day, building working prototypes in Macromedia Director, a multimedia authoring tool often used for mocking up custom interfaces for software or websites. “We knew our jobs were on the line so we were pretty worried,” he said. “He [Jobs] came over to the offices. We spent the whole afternoon with him. He was blown away. From that point on, it was clear there was going to be a new user interface for OS X.”
Jobs was so impressed that he said to Ratzlaff: “This is the first evidence of three-digit intelligence at Apple I’ve seen yet.” Ratzlaff was happy to take the compliment. For Jobs, acknowledging you have an IQ higher than 100 is a glowing endorsement. Confident that their jobs were safe, Ratzlaff and the designers celebrated with a few six-packs of beer. But they became nervous when they saw Jobs coming back down the corridor with Phil Schiller, Apple’s head of marketing. Luckily, Jobs was pleased. As Jobs approached, they heard him tell Schiller excitedly, “You’ve got to see this.”
“From then on we had no trouble,” Ratzlaff said.
No Detail Too Small
For the next eighteen months, Ratzlaff’s team had a weekly meeting with Jobs during which they’d show him their latest mockups. For each element of the new interface—the menus, the dialogs, the radio buttons—Jobs requested several variations so that he could select the best ones. As we’ll see in more detail later, Jobs always asks for multiple variations of products in development—both hardware and software. During the meetings with Ratzlaff, Jobs gave lots of feedback for refining the designs, and only when he was satisfied could features be ticked off.
The design team’s mockups, in Macromedia Director, were dynamic, but they weren’t functioning software. Jobs could open and close windows, pull down menus, and see how the system would work. But they were only animations. They weren’t working code. The team had the working code running on another machine that was placed next to the Director demo. When they showed the working code to Jobs, he’d lean forward, his nose to the screen, and examine them closely, moving from the demo to the prototype and back again.
“He would compare them pixel by pixel to see if they matched,” Ratzlaff said. “He was way down into the details. He would scrutinize everything, down to the pixel level.” If they didn’t match, Ratzlaff said, “some engineer would get yelled at.”
Incredibly, Ratzlaff’s team spent six months refining the scrollbars to Jobs’s satisfaction. Scrollbars are an important part of any computer operating system but are hardly the most visible element of the user interface. Nonetheless, Jobs insisted the scrollbars look just so, and Ratzlaff’s team had to design version after version. “It had to be done right,” said Ratzlaff, laughing at the effort that went into such a seemingly minor detail.
At first, the design team found it very difficult to get the scrollbar details true. The little arrows were the wrong size, or in the wrong place, or the color was off. The scrollbars had to look different if the window was the currently active window or one of the background windows. “It was pretty hard to get them to fit with the rest of the design in all these different states,” Ratzlaff said with a note of weariness in his voice. “We kept at it until it was right. We worked on it for a long, long time.”
Simplifying the UI
OS X’s interface was designed with new users in mind. Because the system would be new to everyone—even veteran Mac users—Jobs focused on simplifying the interface as much as possible. For example, in the old Mac OS, most of the settings that determined system behavior were hidden away in myriad System Extensions, Control Panel menus, and special dialog boxes of the various system components. Setting up an Internet connection used to involve tweaking settings in up to half a dozen different places.
To simplify things, Jobs ordered as many settings as possible to be collected together into a single System Preferences box that lived in a new navigation element called “The Dock.” The Dock is an icon-filled bar that sits at the bottom of the screen. It is home to commonly used applications and the system trashcan. It can accommodate all kinds of stuff, from frequently used folders to mini-programs called “scripts.”
Jobs insisted on stripping back as many interface elements as possible, maintaining that the content of the windows were the most important thing, not the windows themselves. His desire to strip back and simplify put an end to several major features, including a single-window mode that the design team worked on for many months.
Jobs hated having multiple windows open. Every time a new folder or document was opened, it spawned a new window. Quickly, the screen was filled with overlapping windows. So the designers created a special single-window mode. Everything was displayed in the same window, no matter which software program the user was working in. The window would display a spreadsheet, then a text document or a digital photo. The effect was rather like jumping from website to website in a single web browser window, except here it was between documents stored on the local hard drive.
Sometimes the system worked well, but the window often had to be resized to display different kinds of documents. When working with a text document, the window was best made thin and narrow to make it easy to scroll up and down the text. But if the user opened an image in landscape format, the window would have to be widened.
But this wasn’t the biggest problem. Critically for Jobs, the system required the designers to create a dedicated button in the window toolbar to switch it on and off. Jobs decided, in the interest of simplicity, to take the button away. He could live with resizing windows, but not the additional button cluttering the menu bar. “The extra button wasn’t justified by the functionality,” Ratzlaff said.
While working on the new interface, Jobs would sometimes suggest what at first seemed to be crazy ideas, but later turned out to be good ones. At one meeting, he was scrutinizing the three tiny buttons in the top left corner of every window. The three buttons were for closing, shrinking, and expanding the window, respectively. The designers had made all the buttons the same muted gray, to prevent them from distracting the user, but it was difficult to tell what the buttons were for. It was suggested that their functions should be illustrated by an animation that was triggered when the mouse cursor hovered over them.
But then Jobs made what seemed like an odd suggestion: that the buttons should be colored like traffic stoplights: red to close the window, yellow to shrink it, and green to expand it. “When we heard that, we felt that was a strange thing to associate with a computer,” Ratzlaff said. “But we worked on it for a little while and he was right.” The color of the button implicitly suggested the consequence of clicking it, especially the red button, which suggested “danger” if the user clicked it but didn’t mean to close the window.
Introducing OS X
Jobs knew that OS X would cause a huge outcry from Apple’s outside software developers, who would have to rewrite all their software to run on the new system. Even with OS X’s great programming tools, there would be pushback from developers. Jobs and his executives struggled with the best way to approach the software community. Eventually they came up with a strategy: if they could persuade just three of the biggest companies to embrace OS X, everyone else would follow. The big three were Microsoft, Adobe, and Macromedia.
It worked—eventually. Microsoft supported OS X from the get-go, thanks to Jobs’s 1998 deal with Bill Gates that cemented five years of software support. But Adobe and Macromedia weren’t so quick to convert their big applications like Photoshop and Dreamweaver. Both companies eventually ported them over, but they refused to rewrite their consumer applications for OS X, a decision that led Apple to develop its own application software and, indirectly, the iPod (more on this later).
While it was no secret Apple was working on OS X, the fact that it had a new interface was. The interface was designed in intense secrecy. Very few people at Apple even knew the interface was being overhauled, only the handful of people working on it. One of Jobs’s stated rationales for keeping it secret was to prevent others—Microsoft in particular—from copying it.
But more important, Jobs didn’t want to kill sales of the current Macintosh operating system. Jobs wanted to avoid what’s known as the Osborne effect, where a company commits suicide by announcing cool technology still under development.
As soon as OS X development started, Jobs directed everyone at Apple to stop criticizing the current Mac OS in public. For years, Apple’s programmers had been quite frank about the system’s problems and shortcomings. “Mac OS X was his baby, so he knew how great it was,” said Peter Hoddie. “But he said for the next few years we’ve got to focus on Mac OS because we’ll never get there without it. He was like Khrushchev, banging his shoe on the table. ‘You’ve got to support the Mac OS, kids. Get this through your heads.’”
Jobs unveiled Mac OS X in January 2000 at Macworld, after nearly two and a half years of work by nearly one thousand programmers. Mac OS X was a colossal undertaking. It was— and arguably still is—the most sophisticated computer interface designed to date, with complex, real-time graphics effects like transparency, shadowing, and animation. But it had to run on every G3 processor Apple had on the market, and it had to run in as little as 8 Mbytes of video memory. It was a very tall order.
While introducing OS X at Macworld, Jobs also announced that he was becoming Apple’s permanent CEO, which drew huge applause from the keynote crowd. Several Apple employees have noted that Jobs didn’t become the company’s permanent CEO until after OS X shipped in March 2001. By this point, Jobs had been at Apple’s helm for two and a half years, and had replaced almost all the directors and senior staff, fixed marketing and advertising, reinvigorated hardware with the iMac, and reorganized sales. Ratzlaff noted that with OS X, Jobs had overhauled the company and all of Apple’s major products. “He was waiting for the last big parts of the company to be running to his standards before he took on the role of Apple CEO,” said Ratzlaff.
Jobs’s Design Process
For many years, Apple encouraged strict adherence to its Human Interface Guidelines, a standards bible designed to ensure a consistent user experience across software applications. The HIG told designers where to put menus, what kind of commands they should contain, and how to design dialog boxes. The idea was that all Mac software would behave alike, no matter which company it came from.
The guidelines were first drafted in the 1980s, when computers were used primarily to produce things, such as creating and printing out documents. But in the Internet age, computers are used for communication and media consumption as much as they are for printing documents and editing video. Software for playing movies or videoconferencing with friends can be much simpler than applications like Photoshop or Excel. Often, only a few functions are required, and all the dropdown menus and dialog boxes can be jettisoned in favor of a few simple buttons. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a steady shift toward single-purpose mini-applications in both Mac (Widgets) and Windows (Gadgets).
Apple’s QuickTime player was an early example of software that benefited from an interface rethink. Used to play multimedia files, mostly music and video, the player needed only a few controls for starting and pausing movies and adjusting the sound. It was decided that the QuickTime player should be one of the first pieces of Apple’s software to get a simple appliance-like interface.
The player’s interface was designed by Tim Wasko, a soft-spoken Canadian who later went on to design the iPod interface. Wasko came to Apple from NeXT, where he’d worked with Jobs. Wasko is known at Apple as a design god. “He’s a total fiend at Photoshop,” said Hoddie. “You’d say, ‘What about this idea?’ and it’d be: click click, click”—Hoddie mimicked the sound of fingers flying across a keyboard—“and it was rendered already.”
The QuickTime player design team was made up of half a dozen designers and programmers, including Hoddie and Wasko. They met with Jobs once or twice a week over six months. Each week, the team would present a dozen or more new designs, often playing around with different textures and looks. Early ideas included a yellow plastic motif inspired by Sony’s Sport Walkman, and various wood or metal textures. Anything was game. “Steve is not a design radical, but he is willing to try new things,” said Hoddie.
At first, the designs were presented on a computer, but the team found that flashing them on and off screen was a laborious process, so they switched to printing out the designs on large glossy sheets of paper. The printouts were spread over a large conference table and could be quickly sorted through. Jobs and the designers found it easy to pick out the designs they liked from the pile, saying this texture should go with that shape. The method proved to be so effective that most of Apple’s designers have since adopted it.
After the meetings, Jobs would sometimes take away a handful of printouts and show them to other people. “He has great design sense, but he’s also listening,” said Hoddie.
After several weeks of playing around with different designs, Wasko came up with a metallic look, which Jobs liked but thought wasn’t quite right. At the next meeting Jobs showed up with a brochure from Hewlett-Packard with the HP logo in brushed metal, resembling a high-end kitchen appliance. “I like this one,” Jobs told the group. “See what you can do.”
The team came back with a brushed-metal look for the QuickTime player, which for several years since became the predominant design motif used extensively across Apple’s software plus its high-end hardware. Through the early 2000s, most of Apple’s applications were given a brushed-metal look, from the Safari web browser to the iCal calendar.
Jobs is intimately involved in the design process. He brings a lot of ideas to the table and always makes suggestions for improving designs. Jobs’s contribution is not just choosing what he likes and dislikes. “He’s not, ‘this is bad, this is good,’ ” said Hoddie. “He’s really part of the design.”

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