Steve Jobs brings sexy back

Thinking different involved letting the world know that Apple wasn’t competing with other computer companies. On the contrary, Apple was playing ball on a different field. Steve loves to compare Apple products with prestige automobiles, like BMW, to justify their steeper price. Apple may not sell as many units as Toyota, but a Beemer is way cooler, and therefore, so are its drivers. The trouble with this clever analogy is that the auto and computer industries are two very different kinds of fruit. You can still use a BMW thirty years after driving it out of the showroom. On the other hand, nobody uses an Apple II anymore. Just try plugging a USB cable into that old thing.

Early one July morning in '97, the top brass Apples were summoned to the Cupertino boardroom. The last to arrive was Steve wearing shorts, sneakers, and a week old beard. He plonked down in a swivel chair and spun slowly from side to side, building anticipation in the room to a critical mass. "O.K., tell me what's wrong with this place," Steve asked the room. There were some half-hearted answers from the group. Steve lost patience and cried, "It's the products! So what's wrong with the products?" The executives looked sheepishly at each other. No one dared to answer in case they were wrong. He rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and yelled, "The products suck! There's no sex in them anymore!"[1] 

Steve cut the zillion Apple products down to four. With only four products, he was able to put his A-Team on each one. It was hard work. Steve told Fortune Magazine that …

The first six months were very bleak, and at times I got close to throwing in the towel too. I'd never been so tired in my life. I'd come home at about ten o'clock at night and flop straight into bed, then haul myself out at six the next morning and take a shower and go to work. My wife deserves all the credit for keeping me at it. She supported me and kept the family together with a husband in absentia.[2]

Steve needed a Hannibal for his A-Team. He needed a wunderkind who shared the same rarefied taste in exquisite European stuff as he does. He needed an Apple-o-phile whom he could mould into his own graven image. Jonathan Ive is an affable malleable designer who was thrilled to move all the way from London to work seventy hours a week for Apple. Steve decided Jonathan had the right stuff. A decade later he would be crowned Designer of The Year by The British Design Museum. The museum’s interview with Jonathan demonstrates why Steve likes him so much:

When I joined Apple the company was in decline. It seemed to have lost what had once been a very clear sense of identity and purpose. Apple had started trying to compete to an agenda set by an industry that had never shared its goals. While as a designer I was certainly closer to where the desicions were being made, but I was only marginally more effective or influential than I had been as a consultant. This only changed when Steve Jobs returned to the company. By re-establishing the core values he had established at the beginning, Apple again pursued a direction which was clear and different from any other companies. Design and innovation formed an important part of this new direction... In the 1970s, Apple talked about being at the intersection of technology and the arts. I think that the product qualities are really consequent to the bigger goals that were established when the company was founded. The defining qualities are about use: ease and simplicity. Caring beyond the functional imperative, we also acknowledge that products have a significance way beyond traditional views of function.[3]

Unfortunately, the very loyal and talented designer had everything except cool. During the Mac years, Steve was surrounded by some of the sorriest looking, shaggy-haired, mutton-chopped geeks the press had ever photographed. Jonathan was no different when he joined Apple. YouTube features an old nine-second clip of him trying to convince the market that computers can be sexy. In the video, Jonathan is sporting a shaggy head of hair and a decidedly unsexy beige zippered sweater. At the end of the video, he laughs at his own incredulous comment. Sometime between then and his stellar promotion to Senior Vice President of Industrial Design, Jonathan had an extreme makeover. The shaggy hair was buzzed off Fight Club-style. Like his boss, he wears a permanent five-o'clock shadow. Steve's superhero costume is a black turtleneck, so Jonathan adopted a deep blue t-shirt as his own signature attire. The press reports ad infinitum that Jonathan drives an Aston Martin roadster – probably because it is the only outward sign of status and wealth of an otherwise modest man. Since Jonathan has affected the new image, Steve loves to have his photo taken with his younger right hand man. He has become quite photogenic. A series of conspicuously self-aware studio photographs were taken of him. He has now become the pin-up boy for Apple’s purported superior taste.


The most striking aspect of these pictures is the intensity of his gaze. Jonathan seems enslaved by an obsessive-compulsive attention to detail that rivals Rain Man. In the 2009 documentary on design, Objectified[4], Jonathan speaks eloquently about his deep desire to build the finest objects he possibly can. He gesticulates openly with large brawny hands that you could imagine Rodin used when he carved The Thinker. These hands seem always to be cradling an imaginary object. His eyes are as gentle and haunted as a romantic poet. Jonathan describes the painfully intense effort that goes into making his designs seem effortless. He then pauses a beat, laughs at himself, then says, "that's quite obsessive isn't it?" His razor-sharp focus was applied to re-designing what he described as the "splendidly banal" personal computer.

The new Apple desktop was called the iMac. Its monitor unit absorbed the system case to become a singular gum-drop-shaped bauble to decorate your desktop. In case you didn’t believe the all-in-one trick, the case was translucent so you could see how the hardware fit inside the monitor like a completed game of Tetris. For those who were still not impressed, it came in thirteen different colours - or flavours - like strawberry, grape, tangerine, lime, blueberry, et cetera. Lolly makers were consulted to choose the right shades of colour (Cite – chan 4 interview?). The iMac – or G3 -was bundled with a funky colour-matched mouse. Its hockey puck shape was awkward for those of us with big hands; but, hey, it looked cool. While every other mouse designer was cramming as many buttons and wheels on their mice as they could; Steve insisted that his hockey puck only have one button. Steve had always felt that one button was prettier ever since he stole the mouse idea off Xerox’s three-button mouse (In fact, two years later he went a step further and released a zero button mouse).Upon the unveiling of the iMac, Steve bragged that, “the back of this thing looks better than the front of the other guys’”. Trashing the beige box paradigm was a result of Jonathan’s insight. After watching a child during market testing, he was inspired to design a computer you want to hug. [5]  Five years later, the Spring Style and Design section of Time Magazine featured a dramatic photograph of Jonathan hugging an Apple laptop like a father would hold his child. The very personalised iMac was the realisation that there was a new generation who had more in common with fun individualised brands like Swatch than old world behemoths like IBM. Bill was sceptical about iMac window dressers: ''The big thing that Apple is providing now is leadership in colors. It won't take us long to catch up with that.''[6] Nevertheless, the lollypop-look was the beginning of Hollywood’s love affair with Apple as a stage prop. To this day, film and television programs will use Apple computers and laptops simply because they look cooler. Other computer companies have to pay Hollywood producers to get them to switch. HP paid the producers of Sex and The City to switch Carrie‘s beloved Macbook for one of their Plain Jane laptops.[7] When Business Week gave the iMac the 1999 gold medal design award. Journalist, Joan O'C. Hamilton explained why:

 

…for giving industrial designers the confidence to look their clients right in the eye and say, ''See! See what design can do!' … for turning its form into something you want to touch instead of something you ought to dust; for reminding a beige, 90-degree-angled computer world that colors and soft edges can be irresistible; for giving people afraid to buy computers the hope that it just might be fun after all … for revitalizing an American icon, Apple; for ''thinking out of the physical and metaphorical box'' … and bravo to Jonathan Ive and the Apple design crew for creating what's likely to become one of the century's lasting images.[8]

Steve said the “i” stood for many words: individual, internet, instruct, inform, and inspire. These sweet-smelling sentiments sounded great at the Macworld unveiling of the iMac. However, the “i” in iMac is much more sophisticated than that. Any ad-man will tell you that “I” is a powerfully seductive word that touches a self-important yearning for individuality.  This is exactly what Steve was promoting with his new toy. The “i” prefix would become the signature of later flagship Apple products. Moreover, the prefix became absorbed into the cult of Steve. One of his biographies was entitled “iCon”. Two UK newspaper articles about Steve were entitled “iGod”. Even his estranged friend, Woz jumped on the bandwagon, calling his autobiography, “iWoz”.
The iMac became the biggest selling personal computer since the Apple II. John Sculley felt moved by Steve’s miracle rebirth because he too had some personal experience overcoming challenge. John fought a stutter and a debilitating shyness to become one of America’s biggest businessmen. John praised the man who still won’t talk to him, "The turnaround isn't a fluke. It's back to the future. Steve has done an absolutely sensational job of turning Apple into what he always wanted it to be."[9]

The birth of the second generation iMac was explained in purple prose by veteran Silicon Valley wordsmith, Josh Quittner in his Time Magazine article, ‘Apple’s New Core’: 

[Steve] went home from work early that day and summoned Ive, the amiable genius who also designed the original iMac …As they walked through the quarter-acre vegetable garden and apricot grove of Jobs' wife Laurene, Jobs sketched out the Platonic ideal for the new machine. "Each element has to be true to itself," Jobs told Ive. "Why have a flat display if you're going to glom all this stuff on its back? Why stand a computer on its side when it really wants to be horizontal and on the ground? Let each element be what it is, be true to itself." Instead of looking like the old iMac, the thing should look more like the flowers in the garden. Jobs said, "It should look like a sunflower."[10]

The article presents quite a romantic image of the Zen master discussing big concepts with his acolyte as they stroll side by side through the garden. The second-gen iMac – or G4 - was indeed like a sunflower. It was a flat screen pivoted on a stalk rising from a half-globe base. Again, Apple knocked this one out of the park in both sales and sensation. It was an apt design considering the target demographic. Sunflowers are so named because they always face the radiant source of their nourishment. In the iMac’s example, the source is the self-involved Apple customer who is more than happy to play the role of the sun that shines on the world.


The third generation was a flat screen that would “glom all this stuff on its back” as Steve said he wouldn’t do in the above quote. Nevertheless, in 2005, the G5 won the Design Week Award, the cNet Editor’s Choice Award, and the Bottom Line Design Award.

Not all of Jonathan’s designs were a hit. On Steve’s behest, Jonathan designed arguably the most precious personal computer ever made – the Power Mac G4 Cube. It was arrived with an equally precious price-tag at US$200 more than an equally powerful, more flexible, but less cool looking non-Cube G4.It was the realisation of Steve’s twenty-year old dream that he make a computer without a fan, The cube uses the much more expensive Rage 128 heat-sink to cool its innards. Steve told the world in Apple’s press release that, “The G4 Cube is simply the coolest computer ever”.[11] Jonathan describes in loving detail how the he crafted the darling Cube:

With the Power Mac G4 Cube, we created a techno-core suspended in a single piece of plastic. You don’t often get to design something out of one piece of plastic. This was about simplifying – removing clutter, not just visual but audio clutter. That’s why the core is suspended in air. The air enters the bottom face and without a fan (therefore very quietly) travels through the internal heat sink. Movement within the cube is all vertical – the air, the circuit boards and even the CD eject vertically.[12]

“Techno core”? One of Jonathan’s many talents is transforming the description of chunk of circuits into a beautiful vignette. This is precisely why Steve chose him as the embodiment of high-minded Apple design. Unfortunately, cracks appeared in the veneer of his costly desk ornament - literally. Customers who donated a kidney to buy this lovely thing were outraged when the silky Perspex casing started cracking before their eyes. The official response from apple.com was:

These lines are called mold lines, and occur when the enclosure is manufactured. These lines may appear on the enclosure's inside and outside surfaces. Mold lines are not cracks, and do not represent a weakness or defect in the plastic.[13]

A line sounds better than a crack, yes? Admitting a fault would mean a costly refund, and Apple was already bleeding money from the Cube’s dismal sales. However, one concession was made to one unhappy Apple customer. Kevin Pedraja of Seattle faxed a letter to Steve Jobs threatening to go public about the Cube’s ugly cracks and Apple’s dismissive attitude towards him. His plan to expose Apple during their annual earnings call was probably what motivated Steve to make a personal phone call to Kevin:

"Hi, this is Steve Jobs."
"Eh? Who?"
"It's Steve Jobs and I'm calling about the letter you sent me."
I wait for the laugh track to start or my housemate to come out from behind the door holding his phone and snickering.
"If you're not happy, you can just send the computer back and we'll give you a refund."
"Um, okay, but you guys already offered to replace it."
"We did? OK, and is that doing it for you? Are you happy with it?"
Still struggling to accept what's happening, I mutter something about being satisfied.
"Good, cause it's a great computer," says Jobs. And then he's gone.[14]

It is said that hindsight is 20/20. PC World recently ran an article explaining why the Cube failed with flying colours: 

Even if you opted for a Cube and brought it home, you'd have to treat it gingerly to maintain its perfect appearance. The problem with making something intentionally perfect is that it won't stay that way with use. Apple has a habit of making devices that are beautiful only as long as you never touch them, and the Cube is high on that list. Unfortunately for Apple, many consumers chose never to touch a G4 Cube at all.[15]

It seemed as if Steve was jinxed when he tried to sell a cube-shaped anything. At the time of its drum-rolled debut, every computer store was filled with Windows-loaded PCs selling at half the price and twice the speed. The cube was not a smart buy; but appealing to your smarts was never Steve’s intent.

A re-purposed Cube. Now more useful than ever.
After Apple put down this lame horse, the Cube enjoyed a cult following that only Apple customers are capable of demonstrating. Cube owners grew to love their cracked up little box and formed fan-sites like cubeowner.com. The Cube fanatic hangs on to his decade-old computer like an old man hangs onto a gas-guzzling ’58 Ford Edsel. He furiously upgrades the hardware so his Cube will run at least as fast as his kid’s smartphone. Common discussions on cubeowner.com include “dust covers for your cube”, “cleaning and polishing your cube”, and instructions on how to add a fan (omg). You will never see such loyalty from old Dell or IBM owners. They are buying a workstation, not a work of art.

[1] Burrows, P. & Grover, R. (2006, January 26) Steve Jobs' Magic Kingdom. Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

[2] Schlender, B. (1998, November 9) The Three Faces Of Steve. Fortune Magazine.
[3] Design Museum (2003) JONATHAN IVE. Retrieved from http://designmuseum.org/design/jonathan-ive?print=1

[4] Swiss Dots (Producer). (2009) Objectified [DVD].

[5] Markoff, J. (1998, February 5) AT HOME WITH: Jonathan Ive; Making Computers Cute Enough to Wear. New York Times.

[6] [6] Burrows, P. (2000, July 31) Apple: Yes, Steve, you fixed it. Congrats! Now what's Act Two? Business Week.

[7] Elliot, S. (2010, April 20) What Next, the Official Salad Dressing of ‘Sex and the City 2’? [Blog]. From Media Decoder. New York Times. Retrieved from http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/20/what-next-the-official-salad-dressing-of-sex-and-the-city-2/?partner=rss&emc=rss

[8] Hamilton, J.O.C. (1999) The Sweetest Apples in Ages. Business Week. 

[9] Schlender, B. (1998, November 9) The Three Faces Of Steve. Fortune Magazine.
[10]  Quittner, J. & Winters. R. (2002, January 14) Apple’s New Core. Time Magazine.

[11] Apple.com. (2000) Apple Introduces Revolutionary G4 Cube. Retrieved from


[12] Design Museum (2003) JONATHAN IVE. Retrieved from http://designmuseum.org/design/jonathan-ive?print=1

[13]Apple.com. (2008, October 4). Power Mac G4 Cube: Mold Lines in Enclosure Plastics Are Normal. Retrieved from http://support.apple.com/kb/TA26034?viewlocale=en_US

[14] CNET News Staff (2009, January 22) Mac at 25: Readers Reminisce. Cnet.com. Retrieved from http://news.cnet.com/8301-13579_3-10147455-37.html

[15] Edwards, B. (2010, August 13) Cube at 10: Why Apple’s Eyecatching desktop flopped. PC World. Retreived from http://www.pcworld.com/businesscenter/article/203146/cube_at_10_why_apples_eyecatching_desktop_flopped.html

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