Son of iMac: Jonathan Ive on the shape of things to come

It was inspired by a sunflower, and looks like a lamp. Will the new iMac catch on? Charles Arthur talks exclusively to its designer, Jonathan Ive
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The Independent Online

Jonathan Ive can hardly believe it. He's been working on this product under complete secrecy for two years – including a year when he headed down the wrong design path – and in the space of a few hours it's gone from being Apple Computer's equivalent of the Manhattan Project to being plastered all over the city of San Francisco, where Steve Jobs, the company's chief executive, introduced it this morning.

"It's funny, it having been so, so secret," Ive says. "Now it's everywhere, and there are huge posters. I can't get used to it."

He's talking about the new iMac, the replacement for his ship-like design which first appeared in May 1998. He says this one is modelled on a sunflower; others say it looks more like a desk lamp. It has a white dome about the size of a chopped melon for its base, topped by a stainless-steel "neck" that attaches to a flat screen, which you can move up and down, and swivel through 180 degrees.

User reaction to that subtle confluence of design, price and internals is never easy to forecast. After Jobs launched it at the Macworld exhibition, saying "It's the best thing we've ever done," Ive anonymously paced the show floor, watching people's reactions. "I think they like it," he says when we meet a few hours later. "Yeah, yeah, people are... pretty enthusiastic." For he had worried that they wouldn't be.

But it was the same with the original iMac: back then, Jobs praised it by saying, "It looks like it's from another planet, a planet with better designers... The back of this thing looks better than the front of other guys' systems."

Six million iMacs later, it's easy to think success was foretold. Not so, says Ive: "I remember walking back to the car and hearing people wondering what world we [designers] were living in to produce this."

Jobs and Ive knew two years ago that they needed a redesigned iMac; they knew, too, it would have a flat screen, because component prices were falling fast. But that was all they were certain of.

Initially, Ive and his hand-picked team tried simply sticking the guts of the computer into the space behind the flat screen. But hard discs, CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs run slower when vertical than when horizontal. The processor-heat output demanded a fan, which would be noisy and, in a "flat PC", perhaps just inches from your face. And the screen would lose its mobility: no tilt and swivel for that one-piece.

In autumn 2000, after a year of work, Ive took a preliminary "flat" design to Jobs. His boss's response was to head home and summon Ive to join him.

Most people would worry for their job in this situation. But Jobs took Ive for a walk in his wife's vegetable patch, and told him to think again about the pieces he was trying to fit together. "Each should be true to itself," he said. That meant the disc drives being horizontal, and the flat screen retaining its mobility. "We had to liberate the display, explode it, disconnect it from the CPU," says Ive now.

The new shape emerged shortly afterwards: a dome is the only shape that lets the screen swivel without having "preferred" positions, maximises stability and offers lots of horizontal space. After that, it was the fine detail – of which there is a huge amount.

But a white dome? When we meet, one website is already calling the new design "a computer for the Anglepoise generation". Ive laughs. "But I've never seen an Anglepoise that stays where you put it. They sway in the breeze. To stay stationary is very difficult to do. And then you have to do the testing to make sure that it will stay straight for years. And we've done that. Oh, sure."

And if you've ever wanted to grab a computer by the scruff of its neck, you're welcome to now. "Yes, we do expect that people will carry it by the neck," says Ive. "It is designed to bear that." Though at 9kg (20lb), the weight of the base may come as a surprise; its small size makes it look lighter. (Ive designed it as small as possible to maximise the distance from screen to CPU; that leaves more room to shift the keyboard forward and back in front of the machine.)

British-born, Ive is 35 next month, and has been chief of design at Apple for four years now, leading a hand-picked team from around the world ("quite a few of them British"). He's been there since 1992, when he left his job at the London-based agency Tangerine, where he designed (among other things) washbasins.

In the flesh he's quiet, restrained. He says he doesn't have any great sources of inspiration – "it's more about how you look at the world" – though he does admit to admiration for the people who work on satellites, where every cubic centimetre and every extra gram costs thousands of pounds to launch into space. "When you look at how a satellite is made – the formal solution that has to answer a bunch of imperatives, what goes in, what doesn't, how you fit it together, there's so much stuff that people don't think is consciously designed." He often struggles for words, sounding like a man trying to describe God to a world without religion.

Certainly, the PC industry has never revered design, preferring blocky beige boxes or, more recently, coloured go-faster curves devoid of real function. He's scornful of those who use "swoopy shapes to look good, stuff that is so aggressively designed, just to catch the eye. I think that's arrogance, it's not done for the benefit of the user."

By contrast, he says, "you won't be able to find a single thing on an Apple that hasn't had thought put into it". He cites the base of the new machine, where extra RAM and a wireless card can be installed. "Maybe you would only access it once or twice in the product's life. Yet... originally we liked the idea of a hatch. But because the base is circular, you couldn't be sure which way up people would open it; they might find themselves operating in the flap's shadow. So we made it a screw-on flap." Four screws; but each spring-mounted on a washer. "So even technophobes will be able to install the cards." But that puts the logic board at the bottom of the machine. Which puts the power supply above it. Which means the fan... You get the picture of how it's not just a matter of stuffing bits in.

Because Ive's designs aren't intended simply to attract, pictures consistently don't do them justice. It's only first-hand that you notice the tiny things: the magnetically-operated latch on the notebook computers; the light which, when the machine is "asleep" rather than off, "breathes" brighter and dimmer; the drop-hinge on the iBook, which puts the screen further away than usual on a notebook.

Even so, you might wonder whether design truly matters in computers. After all, aren't the screen and the keyboard the only important elements the user sees, and the processor and hard drive the only important invisible ones? Surely no one will care if it's a panel or a flap?

Not so, says Ive, becoming animated. "One of the things that's really frustrating about this [PC] industry is that it's so often about things that you can measure with numbers. The hard drive holds X gigabytes. The chip is this fast. You know, it's 'five is bigger than three'. It's much harder to market the value of a display like this [he gestures towards the screen], which stays just where you put it, but can be moved anywhere. You can't put a value on that."

You can try, though. In terms of size, Apple's closest rival in the PC world is Gateway Computer, currently the sixth-largest PC maker. But Gateway is struggling because in the Windows world, where the software is the same, hardware competition creates murderous pressure on margins. Bigger companies push down prices, squeezing rivals. Last year, that forced Gateway to shut all its operations in Europe and fire more than 3,000 people, a quarter of its staff. Overall, it lost $1bn (£700m) on sales of $7.39bn (£5bn); on Wednesday its bonds were downgraded by Moody's, the big credit group, to "junk" status.

Now: could you sketch any of Gateway's products? Got any thoughts about what makes them special?

Apple had a tough year, too, losing a total of $242m (£160m) on sales of $5.36bn (£4bn), principally because of a dreadful first quarter at the end of 2000. But Jobs eschewed big layoffs, and even pushed the company into new areas. It completely remodelled its laptop machines – making one out of titanium – and pushed into the consumer electronics area with the iPod, an MP3 music player the size of a cigarette packet with a tiny hard drive able to hold 1,000 songs. So far, more than 150,000 have been sold.

So you might put the value of design at the difference between Apple's profits and Gateway's – about $750m (£520m), or about seven cents (5p) for every dollar of sales. Seven per cent of turnover is significant for any company.

So where Ive leads, other PC companies often follow. Some tried to copy the original iMac's shape; Apple injuncted them. Dell has mimicked the easy-access drop-down side of the Apple G4 desktop computer. Toshiba has a version of the "breathing" sleep light. "I remember when there was a plethora of stuff following the iMac. That was disappointing, because people were just responding to the colour and translucency. But that's just part of what it was about. Sometimes it seems a little sad that people are missing the point."

But design won't guarantee success. Eighteen months ago the critics swooned over the Cube (one is now in the New York Museum of Modern Art), but the public disliked its high price tag. Apple killed it early last year. Did that disappoint him? "User satisfaction among owners of the Cube was high," he says. "I know we didn't sell as many as we would have liked." But he's sure this isn't another Cube.

He says that he could have released a flat design much earlier. "We had solutions that people would have responded well to; we could have shipped earlier with something different. But we would have repented at our leisure... we felt that we weren't just designing a product; it was a configuration for the category of flat-screen, all-in-one computer. The fact that it looks so obvious is the thing that's most encouraging. The base almost disappears. It's not this austere, scary digital thing; it's animated, easy to feel comfortable with. And when you're innovating, 'new' makes people nervous. Think how long it takes to get used to a new car's headlight shape."

It's subtle and restrained, much like Ive. "With the first iMac the goal wasn't to look different, but to build the best integrated consumer computer we could. If as a consequence the shape is different, then that's how it is. The thing is, it's very easy to be different, but very difficult to be better. That's what we have tried to do with the new iMac."