Read Inside Steve's Brain Online

Authors: Leander Kahney

Inside Steve's Brain (9 page)

Jobs disliked the design of the Mac’s predecessor, the Lisa, which had a thick band of plastic above its screen. It reminded Jobs of a Cro-Magnon forehead. He insisted the Mac’s forehead be much slimmer and more intelligent. Jobs also wanted the case to be durable and scratch resistant. Manock selected a grade of tough ABS plastic—the kind used for Lego bricks— and gave it a fine texture that would disguise scuffs. Manock colored it beige, Pantone 453, which he thought would age well in sunlight. Lighter colors used in earlier machines turned an ugly bright orange. Plus, an earth tone seemed to be the best color to blend into offices and homes, and it was similar to the color Hewlett-Packard was using for its computers. And so started a trend in computers and office equipment that’s lasted nearly twenty years.
Oyama made a preliminary plaster model and Jobs gathered most of the development team to critique it. Andy Hertzfeld, a key member of the team who wrote a lot of the system software, thought it was cute and attractive, and had a distinct personality. But Jobs saw room for improvement. “After everyone else had their say, Steve cut loose with a torrent of merciless criticism. ‘It’s way too boxy, it’s got to be more curvaceous. The radius of the first chamfer needs to be bigger, and I don’t like the size of the bezel. But it’s a start,’ ” Hertzfeld wrote. “I didn’t even know what a chamfer was, but Steve was evidently fluent in the language of industrial design, and extremely demanding about it.”
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Jobs paid close attention to every detail. Even the mouse was designed to reflect the shape of the computer: it has the same dimensions, and its single square button corresponds to the shape and placement of the screen.
There was only one switch on the Mac—the on/off switch. It was put at the back, where the user couldn’t accidentally hit it and turn off the computer. Because it was hidden at the back, Manock thoughtfully put a smooth area around the switch to make it easy to find by touch. By Manock’s estimation, it was this kind of attention to detail that elevated the Mac into an object of historical interest. ”That’s the kind of detail that turns an ordinary product into an artifact,” Manock said.
Jobs also gave a lot of thought to the way the Mac’s design could be fashioned to determine the user’s interaction with it. For example, Jobs removed all the function keys and cursor arrows, which were standard issue on keyboards at the time. Jobs didn’t want users hitting function keys to interact with the machine—they would have to use the mouse instead. The absence of these keys had another, secondary effect: they forced software developers to completely rewrite their programs for the Mac interface, instead of simply porting over their Apple II software with minimal changes. The Mac’s GUI represented a new way to interact with computers, and Jobs wanted to force software developers to fully embrace it.
Every month for several months, Manock and Oyama made new models, and Jobs assembled the team for their feedback. Every time there was a new model, all the old ones were lined up next to it for comparison. “By the fourth model, I could barely distinguish it from the third one, but Steve was always critical and decisive, saying he loved or hated a detail that I could barely perceive,” Hertzfeld recalled. Manock and Oyama made five or six prototypes before Jobs finally gave his approval, and then they turned their attention to making it into a mass-produced case. To celebrate—and to acknowledge the artistry of the entire effort—Jobs held a “signing party,” which was celebrated with champagne and the signing of the inside of the case by key members of the team. “Artists sign their work,” Jobs explained.
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However, when the Mac was finally released in January 1984, it was seriously underpowered. To save money, Jobs had given it only 128K of memory, a fraction of what it needed. Simple operations like copying files were painful affairs requiring users to swap floppy disks in and out of the floppy disk drive. Early users loved the Mac in principle, but not in practice. “What I (and I think everybody else who bought the machine in the early days) fell in love with was not the machine itself, which was ridiculously slow and underpowered, but a romantic idea of the machine,” wrote science fiction author Douglas Adams.
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Luckily, the Mac’s primary hardware engineer, Burrell Smith, anticipated this, and secretly included the ability to expand the memory to 512K by adding several lines of extra circuitry to the Mac’s main logic board—against Jobs’s express orders. Thanks to Smith’s thinking ahead, however, Apple was able to release a much-improved version of the Mac with more memory a few months later.
Unpacking Apple
Jobs lent his eye to
every detail
of the machine’s design, including the design of the packaging. In fact, Jobs decided the first Macintosh’s packaging was going to be an integral part of introducing consumers to his “revolutionary” computer platform.
Back in 1984, no one outside of a few research labs had seen anything like the Macintosh. Personal computers were used by bespectacled engineers and hobbyists. Computers were bought in parts and soldered together on a workshop table. They performed math calculations and were controlled by arcane commands entered at a blinking cursor.
By contrast, Jobs and the Mac team had worked up a friendly machine with picturesque icons and menus in plain English, all controlled by an unfamiliar pointing and clicking device— the mouse.
To help consumers familiarize themselves with the mouse and the Mac’s other components, Jobs decided that the buyer should have to assemble the Mac themselves out of the box. The act of assembling the machine would introduce the user to all its components, and give them a feel for how they worked.
All the parts—the computer, keyboard, mouse, cords, disks, and manual—were packaged separately. Jobs helped design the minimalist box decorated with a black-and-white picture of the Mac and a few labels in the Apple Garamond font. At the time, Jobs talked of “elegance” and “taste,” but his packaging ideas introduced to the technology industry the “unpacking routine,” a familiarization ritual that has been adopted by everyone from Dell to cell phone makers.
Apple still carefully designs its packaging with introductory lessons in mind.
In 1999, Jonathan Ive told
Fast Company
magazine that the packaging of the first iMac was carefully designed to introduce the machine to the new consumer. The iMac’s accessories, keyboard, and manual were all packed in a piece of packing foam that doubled as a table to hold them. When the consumer removed this first piece of foam packaging, they saw the handle at the top of the iMac—which clearly indicated to the consumer to lift the machine out of its box and set it on a table. “That’s the great thing about handles,” and Ive. “You know what they’re there for.”
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The consumer then naturally turned to the accessory box, which when opened contained three cables: one for power, one for the Internet, and the other for the keyboard. Ive said the presentation of these things in that precise order—the iMac’s handle, then the cables to set it up—were carefully thought out so that they clearly told the consumer, who may have never bought a computer before, the steps they needed to take to get the machine up and running. “It sounds simple and obvious,” said Ive. “But often, getting to that level of simplicity requires enormous iteration in design. You have to spend considerable energy understanding the problems that exist and the issues people have—even when they find it difficult to articulate those issues and problems themselves.”
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This kind of attention to detail can sometimes seem maniacal; and sometimes it is. Shortly before the launch of the iPod, Jobs was disappointed that the headphone jack didn’t yield a satisfying click when plugging and unplugging the earphones. Dozens of sample iPods were to be given to reporters and VIPs at the product presentation. Jobs instructed an engineer to retrofit all the iPods with a new jack that would give a satisfying click.
Here’s another example: At one point Jobs wanted the original Mac’s motherboard redesigned for
aesthetic
reasons. Parts of the motherboard were “ugly,” in his opinion, and he wanted the motherboard to be reconfigured to make for a more pleasing arrangement of chips and circuits. Naturally, his engineers were appalled. Motherboards are extremely complex pieces of technology. Their layouts are carefully designed to ensure robust and reliable connections between components. They are carefully laid out to prevent chips from coming loose, and to prevent electrical charges arcing from one circuit to another. Redesigning the motherboard to make it look pretty would not be easy. Naturally the engineers protested, saying nobody would ever see it. More important, they predicted a new arrangement wouldn’t work electronically. But Jobs persisted. “A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it,” Jobs said. Grudgingly, the hardware engineers created a new design, investing several thousand dollars to produce a prettier circuit board. But, as predicted, the new motherboard didn’t work, and Jobs was forced to drop the idea.
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Jobs’s insistence on excellence sometimes delays products; and he’s quite willing to kill projects that his team has worked on for years. But his unwillingness to compromise ensures that Apple products are never rushed out of the door until they are polished to his satisfaction.
The Great Washing Machine Debate
Jobs famously lived in a mansion in the early eighties that was nearly empty of furniture because he couldn’t bear substandard furnishings. He slept on a mattress, surrounded by a few giant photographic prints. Eventually he bought a German grand piano, even though he didn’t play, because he admired its design and craftsmanship. When Apple’s former CEO John Sculley visited Jobs, he was shocked by the unkempt appearance of the house. It looked abandoned, especially compared to the perfectly manicured palaces surrounding it. “I’m sorry I don’t have much furniture,” Jobs apologized to Sculley, “I just haven’t gotten around to it.”
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Sculley said Jobs was unwilling to settle for anything but the best. “I remember going to Steve’s house and he had no furniture, he just had a picture of Einstein, whom he admired greatly, and he had a Tiffany lamp and a chair and a bed.” Sculley told me. “He just didn’t believe in having lots of things around, but he was incredibly careful what he selected.”
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Jobs has a lot of trouble shopping. He can’t decide on a cell phone. “I end up not buying a lot of things,” he said in response to a query about what gadgets and technologies he buys, “because I find them ridiculous.”
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When he does go shopping, the process can be laborious. Searching for a new washing machine and dryer, Jobs roped his whole family into a two-week debate about which model to select. The Jobs family didn’t base its decision on a quick glance at the features and the price, like most other families would. Instead, the discussion revolved around American versus European design, the amount of water and detergent consumed, the speed of the wash, and the longevity of the clothes.
“We spent some time in our family talking about what’s the trade-off we want to make. We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table. We’d get around to that old washer-dryer discussion. And the talk was about design.”
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In the end, Jobs opted for German appliances, which he thought were “too expensive” but washed clothes well with little water and detergent. “They are really wonderfully made and one of the few products we’ve bought over the last few years that we’re all really happy about,” Jobs said. “These guys really thought the process through. They did such a great job designing these washers and dryers. I got more thrill out of them than I have out of any piece of high tech in years.”
The great washing machine debate seems excessive, but Jobs brings the same values—and the same process—to the task of developing products at Apple. Industrial design at Apple isn’t treated as the final gloss on a product that’s already been engineered, as it is at many other companies. Too many companies treat design as the skin slapped on at the last minute. In fact, at many companies, design is outsourced altogether. A separate firm will handle how the product looks— just as a separate firm will likely handle manufacturing.
“It’s sad and frustrating that we are surrounded by products that seem to testify to a complete lack of care,” said Ive, the affable Brit who heads up Apple’s small design team. “That’s an interesting thing about an object. One object speaks volumes about the company that produced it and its values and priorities.”
Apple outsources most of its manufacturing, but not the design of its products. Quite the opposite. Apple’s industrial designers are intimately involved from the very first meeting.
Jonathan Ive, the Designer
An Englishman in his late thirties, Ive has a muscular wrestler’s build and his hair is closely cropped. But Jonathan Ive is friendly and approachable. He is extremely soft-spoken, almost shy, which is quite unusual for someone in his position at the top of a hard-driving corporation like Apple. He’s so retiring, he once had Jobs get up on stage to accept an award for him, even though he was sitting right there in the audience.
He won a major design award twice while still a student, the only undergraduate to have ever done so. Since then the awards have come thick and fast. Thanks to a string of highly influential products, from the iMac to the iPhone, Ive has twice been named Designer of the Year by London’s prestigious Design Museum. In 2006, he was made a Commander of the British Empire, an honor awarded by the British monarch.

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