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International Column
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How Steve Jobs infused passion into a commodity
For many the PC was a piece of hardware. For Jobs, it had a soul that craved for design
Issue Date - 27/10/2011
In the early 1990s, Compaq Computer was the technology darling of the day, and PC sales were surging. Dell was promoting its build-on-demand model, Gateway computer shipped its products in boxes with Holstein cow markings, and IBM had introduced the ThinkPad with its Little Tramp marketing campaign. Apple’s Macintosh was introduced during the 1984 Super Bowl, but was considered a marginal outlier with its quirky proprietary OS.

About this time I had lunch with Bill Gates, who dismissed PCs as nothing but components held together by plastic and screws manufactured on low-cost assembly lines, a commodity business with narrow profit margins. The future belonged to software and semiconductor makers like Microsoft and Intel, where the real innovation was going on.

This made sense to me, and as the years unfolded, Gates seemed prescient. The PC makers were mostly reduced to commodity producers; IBM sold off the ThinkPad, H-P bought Compaq and may now abandon the business; Gateway was sold off and the brand has all but vanished. Apple nearly went under. But today, the exception is so glaring as to have stood Gates’ prediction on its head: Apple’s operating profit margins have grown (to more than 33%), and Apple’s m-cap of $347.3 billion recently is bigger than that of Microsoft & Intel combined.

Of all Steve Jobs’ accomplishments, this, to me, remains both the simplest and the most astonishing. How did he take a commodity – to borrow from the novelist Tom Wolfe, the “veal gray” plastic boxes that once weighed so heavily on both our desks and spirits – and turn it into one of the most iconic and desirable objects on the planet? “Steve Jobs and Apple never – ever – wanted to be a low-margin commodity producer,” Donald Norman, a former VP for Advanced Technology at Apple Inc. and author of “Living With Complexity,” told me recently. “Even the Apple II had some charm to it. It was the first PC that had professional industrial designers. Before that they were designed strictly by engineers, and they were ugly. Steve was always, if not an artist, then someone who was charmed by style. He had this dream of something beautiful. If it was going to cost more, it didn’t matter. This was in his genes.”

Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, recalled buying a 1990 Macintosh Classic and taking it back to Italy. “When I got home, I took it out of that brown, padded carrying case with the rainbow-colored Apple logo on it and put it on my desk in Milan. It was like a little pug dog looking at me. It wasn’t just something I worked with; it kept me company. It had such personality and such life.”

My own conversion came much later. When I came across the MacBook Air, I thought it the single most elegant technology product I’d ever encountered, and not just because it looked good. Its light weight and paper-thin design made it easy to carry while offering all the functions and keyboard of a full-size PC. Even the packaging was so beautiful that I couldn’t bring myself to discard it. Now I refer to it as my third arm and can’t imagine life without it.

Jobs “had an exceptional eye for design, and not just an eye, but an intelligence for design,” Antonelli said. “We don’t talk just about the looks, but how objects communicate: The specific shape, how it feels in the hand, under the fingers, how you read it in the eye and the mind. This is what Steve cared passionately about.” MoMA has 25 Apple products in its permanent design collection. And like many great artists, Jobs’ near-dictatorial control of Apple made possible the pursuit of perfection. “If you’re a visionary, and a dictator, you can take risks and be consistent,” Antonelli said. “NeXT was a risk and a beautiful failure. It brought him back to Apple. The dynamics of Apple and Steve’s personality and the course of history made for this perfect alignment of the stars.”

Jobs made no secret of his focus on design; in a Jan 24, 2000, interview, Fortune magazine asked if it was an “obsession” and whether it was “an inborn instinct or what?” “We don’t have good language to talk about this kind of thing,” Jobs replied. “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the colour or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together. That is the furthest thing from veneer. It was at the core of the product the day we started. This is what customers pay us for – to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”


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