The coolest address in the universe
I stood last week at the entrance to 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, the coolest address in the universe, remembering the time I had gone inside and managed to annoy Steve Jobs.
For me that man was Willy Wonka and every time I went to Cupertino I was Charlie visiting the Chocolate Factory. I don’t mind saying that there was no one alive in the world I admired more and no one I wanted to rile less. I will come to my story, but first the background. I am sure you know most of it.
Along with the great electronics wizard and programmer Steve Wozniak, Jobs founded Apple Computers in the mid-1970s. He had been fired/forced to resign from his own company the year after he had led the team that brought into the world the Macintosh, the first consumer computer to come with a mouse, pulldown menus and a graphical user interface.
Outside Apple he went on to create NeXT Inc on one of whose computers Tim Berners-Lee wrote the programs and protocols of his invention the World Wide Web.
Jobs then founded a computer graphics company, Pixar. When it was bought by Disney he became that company’s leading shareholder.
inally, he returned to a nearly bankrupt Apple, a once pioneering company now ready, everyone predicted, for the breaker’s yard. Within a year Jobs had presided over the launch of the iMac.
In swift and dazzling succession came MacBooks, iPods, iPhones, iPads ... there had never been a corporate story like it in our lifetime. Rags to riches to rags to riches again doesn’t do it justice.
And it took place in a sector which has always made me drool and quiver and moan with ecstasy. The world of digital devices. I am sure I have already bored people enough with relating how I bought the second Macintosh sold in Europe, after Douglas Adams.
Suffice to say I have watched the fortunes of the Big A from a distance and from close up for more than 30 years. Some people love Ferraris, tifosi they are called. Some people love Apple products. Fanbois we are called. And yes, that is the right spelling. I apologise.
It has been many years since the Apple story was a story of David facing up to the brutal IBM Goliath or a story of St George piercing the side of the fire-breathing Microsoft dragon. Apple has been the big man on campus for a decade or more now. Campus.
More on that later.
The Jobs legacy
The legend goes like this: the Steve Jobs legacy was one of almost maniacal micro-management when it came to creating a new product and of almost Barnum-like mastery of hoopla and razzmatazz when it came to selling.
His charisma and skills as a showman were unique in the dorky digital world. He famously found within Apple a fellow perfectionist in Jonathan Ive, the British designer whose trademark elegance, finish, simplicity and attention to detail have made him the most influential and feted person in his field. This very newspaper voted him in 2008 the Most Influential Briton in America. He was knighted in 2012. Heavens, he even received a gold Blue Peter badge.
As Jobs so terribly and sadly sickened and finally withdrew from the company, the question arose on Wall Street and in the pages of the tech press: Could the company survive without its great impresario? “Call him huckster or call him genius, he is Apple.” That was the cry.
Tim Cook, Jobs’s chosen replacement as CEO seemed to many, on the face of it, a pallid successor. A highly skilled business manager, a master of detail in his own way, but in matters of inventory, sales and the bottom line. So it was thought. How could he hope to reinvigorate a workforce stunned and disoriented by the loss of their mercurial, touchy, moody but magnetic leader? The one man band had lost its one man.
But since Jobs’s death Apple’s fortunes have not gone into decline. In fact the growth graph has climbed ever more steeply. The figures are simply incredible.
The most valuable company on earth
Apple is now far and away the most valuable company on earth. Industry analysts, tech-bloggers and stock-market pundits have been dumbfounded by such astonishing and seemingly unstoppable success. Websites proliferate that attempt to make sense of Apple’s worth: more than the entire 1977 US Stock Market. More than the entire global coffee industry.
But those two comparisons come from a site which was put together when Apple was worth $500 billion. It is now worth $764 billion and rising. It will not be long before it is worth a trillion dollars. One thousand billion. How can any of us begin to imagine what that means?
Has Tim Cook done this by throwing a grey corporate blanket over Apple? By tightening every financial and fiscal screw? It seems not. Tim Cook has done what Steve Jobs did but more so. He has reinforced the ethos of design, design, design. He has overseen the launch of dazzling new products and software evolutions. Cook has put design even more front and centre than it ever was.
Design, like food in Britain, used to be something you didn’t talk about. It was flash, faintly unmanly and frankly foreign. Yes, of course a fellow sometimes has to get out a ruler and a Rotring to make a technical drawing which might show how something functional and useful could look.
But you don’t go about the place calling it design with a capital D. How pretentious. Emperor’s new clothes. Nonsense. All a bit Danish and weird. Nobody can afford to believe that any more. There was a time when you would hear that Apple’s success was the result of a herd mentality fuelled by chic early adopters, fools who were soon parted from their money. The only fool today would be someone who still believed that this explained the Apple phenomenon.
Jony Ive, the man at the centre of the Cupertino giant’s success under both Jobs and Cook, is entirely and quite exhaustingly passionate about every last detail that goes into his creations.
The development costs and development times of everything from those first iPods to the new line of Apple watches were far higher and far longer than any other company in the sector might tolerate.
And as a result the revenues from those products are far, far higher than any other company can dream of. The more Ive spends in time and money the more desirable the products and the higher the incomes they derive. Steve Jobs collaborated with Ive in close, often interfering, ways that the quietly intense Englishman admitted he often found “maddening”, for all that he loved him absolutely.
Tim Cook values Ive just as highly as ever Jobs did. A few years ago he gave him responsibility for the Human Interface (HI) department on top of his role as head of Industrial Design (ID), effectively giving him control of the entire sweep of the Apple design process.
ID is about the physical devices themselves while HI is about the images, interactions, sounds, flow and feel of the software that we interact with as we use them.
With control over both, Ive has been able to migrate the mobile and desktop operating systems from their old-fashioned skeuomorphic rendering of app icons as real world representations (ring binders and even torn page effects on the contacts and calendars apps, for instance) into a brighter, clearer set of exquisitely designed images that speak for themselves. Ive’s inventiveness can perhaps most starkly be expressed by revealing that he has nearly 5,000 patents to his name. To give you some point of comparison, Edison was granted 2,332.
If nothing else Ive has done Britain a huge favour. Apple has recently developed a standard British power plug whose prongs fold elegantly back flush into their body. Easily stowed, no agony if accidentally trod on. A separate and wholly different solution to that offered by the Mu Plug which solves the problem in another way.
“It took ages to solve,” Ive says wistfully.
And that is the point. No one else cares as much. Of course it took ages, because anything worth doing does. People who take pains to the extent he and his team do are very very rare.
Take packaging. On this issue alone Apple’s design team should be hugged. Every parcel they ship opens easily, without scissors or knives or painful grunting and wrestling.
Perfectly thought out little strips unzip the boxes. Once open, other exquisitely origami-inspired solutions to the wrapping problem compound the buyer’s delight. If you want to be cynical about it, they “add value”, but that is the virtuous circle of good design. Done for its own ends, but carrying with it the advantage of extra commercial worth.
But I came to Cupertino in California last week to learn more about a change that I had heard was in the air.
As one approaches 1 Infinite Loop one passes the Company Store, where all things Apple can be bought. I found a T-shirt that said: "I visited the mother ship - Just so you know how sad I am."
Tim Cook joined me for a juice under the parasols that shade the patio outside Caffé Macs, the campus’s cafeteria. Yes, campus. In America it is not only universities that describe their headquarters as a campus.
Cook tells me that Jony Ive designed the tables that we’re sitting at. Round white/grey marble disks. At least I think they’re marble. They might well be a new material called Ivelon or Jonathanite. Except the famously modest Ive would bridle at such vanity.
Cook quite clearly adores Jony, not just as the goose that continues to lay his golden eggs (solid gold in the case of the Apple Designer Watch), but as a colleague and a person. Everyone does. It is impossible not to get delightedly caught up in the earnest and halting way he expresses his highly focused passion. Cook himself reminds me in appearance a little of Principal Skinner from the Simpsons, but where poor Seymour is not the sharpest knife in the drawer Tim Cook has a mind like a laser.
I’m not the sort of person who often gets to meet people of real power and position in the corporate world. But my love of technology has at least led me to get to know a few. In some ways meeting a man like Cook is similar to meeting a great athlete or musician. You always come to the same conclusion: “That person,” you say to yourself, “didn’t get where they are by accident.”
And where they are in his case, is in charge of the most valuable corporation on the planet. Cook is endearingly honest about the “shocking”, “unexpected”, “enormous” rate of growth in the company. “In excess of our expectation”’ is how he finally phrases it in more established business-speak. He has a fair old chunk of shares and options, but he announced not long ago that once a nephew’s college education is paid for he will begin to rid himself of his entire fortune. The one who dies with money in the bank loses, about sums up the New Philanthropy.
This, as the clerk Stern says of Oskar Schindler’s list, is an absolute good.
In 2009, Apple’s growth was already substantial enough, and employee numbers were swelling enough, for Jobs to initiate the building of a new campus, called – unexcitingly – Apple Campus 2. Ground was broken in 2012 and it is due to be ready for occupancy late next year or early 2017.
“Maybe it should be called the Steve Jobs Campus?” I suggest. “Oh, Steve made his views on that very clear,” says Cook.
We talk about the old campus, the one we’re sitting in. Fully 23 years old, it’s a grand seigneur by Silicon Valley standards. I make the point, hoping that I don’t sound insulting to my host country, that American infantilism (so apparent in the pappy children’s food that adults eat and the children’s fizzy sweet drinks they drink and the children’s comic book films they watch) was also quite rife in Silicon Valley campuses, although not in Apple’s.
Google’s Mountain View Googleplex campus boasts play areas and wacky coloured slides, for example. Facebook’s in Menlo Park is inspired by Disneyland. I wondered if Apple could create a new campus that wasn’t self-consciously FUN in that rather awful way, but wasn’t so severely, achingly tasteful that you would feel compelled to take your shoes off and speak in hushed tones?
“Well, you can tell me what you think. Why don’t we take you around?”
He rises, bids me farewell until tomorrow and pads across the decking of the patio to his next meeting. I feel very, very privileged. No one is allowed to see Apple Campus 2. I heard someone say that even the construction workers have to wear blindfolds.
But first I had an appointment to see Jony Ive.
Until now, Ive’s job title has been Senior Vice President of Design. But I can reveal that he has just been promoted and is now Apple’s Chief Design Officer. It is therefore an especially exciting time for him.
Inside the fabled design studio (cloths over the long tables hiding the exciting new prototypes from prying eyes like mine) Jony has two people with him. They too have been promoted as part of Ive’s new role.
One is Richard Howarth, English as Vimto. “Richard is going to be our new head of Industrial Design,” says Jony. “And this is Alan Dye, the new head of User Interface.” Dye is a tall, amiable American.
They show me around their departments, each of which give off the air of a friendly well-stocked studenty art-room, latest ideas adorning the walls, books on the shelves for reference, everything from medieval German typographical manuals to Damien Hirst’s Relics.
When I catch up with Ive alone, I ask him why he has seemingly relinquished the two departments that had been so successfully under his control. “Well, I’m still in charge of both,” he says, “I am called Chief Design Officer. Having Alan and Richard in place frees me up from some of the administrative and management work which isn’t … which isn’t …”
“Which isn’t what you were put on this planet to do?”
“Exactly. Those two are as good as it gets. Richard was lead on the iPhone from the start. He saw it all the way through from prototypes to the first model we released. Alan has a genius for human interface design. So much of the Apple Watch’s operating system came from him. With those two in place I can ...”
I could feel him avoiding the phrase “blue sky thinking”... think more freely?”
Jony will travel more, he told me. Among other things, he will bring his energies to bear – as he has already since their inception – on the Apple Stores that are proliferating around the world. The company’s retail spaces have been one of their most extraordinary successes.
Their new store in Hangzhou in China with its breathtaking cantilevered first floor, is one example.
It is the fruit of a longstanding and friendly collaboration between Apple and Foster + Partners — you might say between Sir Jonathan Ive KBE and Lord Foster of Thames Bank OM. Norman Foster is of course known for all kinds of architectural coups de theatre, from Wembley Stadium and the Millau Viaduct to London’s Gherkin and the Reichstag in Berlin.
He is now embarking on the largest private construction project in America. The one in Cupertino that Tim Cook promised me I could visit.
The Apple Campus 2 site, not so many miles from Infinite Loop, is insanely vast. The great feature is a ring, a huge circular building four storeys high above ground and two below. Its outer circumference is a mile long.
I arrive there with Tim Cook and Jony Ive in a jeep driven by Dan Whisenhunt, the manager of the project. Jony is immediately explaining to me the way the heating works (something about using outside air, natural venting … I’m so bad at understanding this sort of thing). There is much talk of precast concrete moulding, terrazzo and void slab ceilings. You would think they were building an international airport so epic is the scale. Other buildings include car parks for 6,000 vehicles and a theatre which will allow Apple to stage its product launches and press conferences on site.
Jony’s signature will be everywhere. The oak chairs, the desks which people can raise or lower with little buttons. Foster + Partners have 70 or 80 working on the project in London and another 40 on site. It is a massive undertaking.
I wonder if there is another company in the world whose lead designer fashions the patio furniture used by the employees, the vitrines in the retail outlets, the flow of an image swiped on a screen, the bevelling and sweep of the curve of a telephone and the packaging of a watch strap.
So much technological savvy combined with so much artistry.
That reminds me, I’ve left a story hanging. How I annoyed Steve Jobs.
In January of 2010 the turtlenecked tech messiah had taken to the stage of the Yerba Buena Centre in San Francisco to launch a brand new product called, much to the world’s amusement and derision, the iPad — “sounds like a feminine sanitary item!” some hooted.
Jobs stood in front of a graphic representation of two roads meeting.
“I see Apple,” he said, “as existing at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts.” (Note: the liberal arts in this context does not connote Left-leaning politics. It is American for what we would call “the humanities”).
I was present and sat in the audience wondering why he had left out the third road. Seven weeks later I went to see him at 1 Infinite Loop. It was then that I riled him. I picked him up on what I saw as a lacuna in his metaphor.
“Surely,” I said, “there are three roads. Isn’t it truer to say that Apple exists at the intersection of technology, the liberal arts and commerce?”
“Why would you say that? Why would you say that?”
Oops. He looked seriously annoyed.
“But this is America,” I stammered, “isn’t commerce a good thing?”
He drummed his fingers and shifted his cross-legged position on the chair he sat on.
It’s not as if he could hit me, or fire me. But he had that powerful quality of ... I don’t know what one calls it ... Personality.
“Yeah, you’re right. Commerce. There’s that road. I guess.”
But I could see that he was still uncomfortable with accepting “that road” into the image of Apple he had cast. It was the last time I ever saw him.
I think I was right. The road marked “commerce” should have been there, but I wish I hadn’t said it.