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Why Jony Ive’s greatest achievement wasn’t the iPhone. It was the original iMac

Jony Ive (right) and Apple CEO Tim Cook look over the new Mac Pro Display
Jony Ive (right) and Apple CEO Tim Cook look over the new Mac Pro Display and computer during Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference on June 3. Brittany Hosea-Small/AFP/Getty Images

Jony Ive is leaving Apple. It’s hard to imagine a bigger culture shock to the world’s largest tech company since Steve Jobs’ death in 2011.

When thinking of Ive and his design work, we often turn to the iPod and the iPhone. They’re the devices that sent Apple to stratospheric heights.

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But if you’re looking for Ive’s greatest achievement, you’ll have to go a little further back to 1998. That’s because Jony Ive’s most important work was not the iPhone — it was the iMac.

Breaking the mold

In 1998, Apple was at a critical juncture in its history. For much of the 90s the company had been in a downward tailspin, hemorrhaging money and customers at an unsustainable rate. In a single day on June 27, 1997, Apple lost $56 million — contributing to a $1.6 billion loss during then-CEO Gil Amelio’s 500 days in charge.

Steve Jobs had just returned as interim CEO and had to act fast to save the company. As recorded by the New Yorker, when Jobs first met head designer Jony Ive, the new CEO didn’t mince words. In his trademark brash fashion, Jobs told him, “Fuck, you’ve not been very effective, have you?” For his part, Ive had his resignation letter in his pocket.

Yet by the end of the day, Ive was excited to be working with Jobs. The two bonded over their maniacal obsession for design and their shared nature of being “a little bit odd,” in Ive’s words. That same day, they started work on what would become the original iMac.

Ive wanted to make a device that was all about removing the fear associated with computers.

At this point in the late 90s, computer design was at a dead-end, a sea of boring beige boxes with nothing to distinguish them. At the same time, there was a huge, untapped market out there — people whose lives would be made easier by computers but who were put off by their “nerdiness.”

Commenting on this in a 1998 interview with CNN, Ive was scathing: “The computer industry is creatively bankrupt,” he said, with companies too afraid to break out of the status quo to consider anything other than speed and performance.

Jobs and Ive had a better idea.

They would make a device that was all about removing the fear associated with computers. To many people, computers were inscrutable, alien objects, a mass of wires and circuit boards not meant for mere mortals. Instead, Apple would do something different. “We could make a computer look like a grapefruit,” Ive said. Anything to show people that computers were not to be feared.

iMac G3 Bondi Blue
Marcin Wichary/Flickr

“We tried to do things in a simple, elegant way,” Ive explained in that same interview. Instead of requiring users to connect a computer tower to a monitor, the iMac would come in an all-in-one shape, letting you simply plug it in and get started. It was all about removing hurdles that could stop newcomers in their tracks.

It would come in a variety of bright, fun colors, a million miles away from the staid, stale designs of Apple’s competitors. And that outer shell would be translucent, so users could see the insides of the machine, removing their mystery.

“Back then, people weren’t comfortable with technology.”

“We were trying to convey a sense of the computer being changeable based on your needs, to be like a chameleon,” said Ive. “That’s why we liked the translucency. You could have color, but it felt so unstatic. And it came across as cheeky.”

Topping it all off was a handle. From a purely functional perspective, this seemed out of place — the iMac was a desktop computer, and few people were going to be regularly carrying it around. But it was not merely functional — like every part of the iMac, the handle was there to convey something more.

“Back then, people weren’t comfortable with technology,” Ive explained. “If you’re scared of something, then you won’t touch it. I could see my mum being scared to touch it. So I thought, if there’s this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible. It’s approachable. It’s intuitive. It gives you permission to touch. It gives a sense of its deference to you.”

That goes a long way to explaining the genius of Jony Ive. There was no practical necessity for the handle, and at any other company it likely would have been rejected as redundant. But Steve Jobs recognized its importance and that “it was part of the iMac’s friendliness and playfulness,” as Ive later recalled.

A make-or-break design

The iMac’s design was a huge gamble. Ken Segall, head of Apple’s creative agency and the man worked on the famous “Think different” campaign, remembered it as a make-or-break moment in his 2012 book. When Apple revealed the iMac to Segall and his team, Segall felt “part shock, part excitement, and part hope that Steve Jobs really knew what he was doing — because there was a real chance that this revolutionary computer might just be too shocking for its own good.” It was Apple’s last throw of the dice, and it had to be brilliant. Thankfully for Apple, it was.

30% of iMac sales had come from people buying their first-ever computer.

It was seeing results on the ground, too. Just six weeks after the iMac first went on sale, Apple announced it was back in profit. It sold 278,000 units in that time, boosting Apple’s sales by 28% compared to the previous quarter. Perhaps most importantly, 30% of iMac sales had come from people buying their first-ever computer. The fear factor was gone.

Spot Apple - "Say hello" - iMac g3 Campain - 1998

What made the iMac so important was not that it was just another computer that happened to sell particularly well. It changed the way people saw computers. It brought them out of the impenetrable shrouds of fear and mystery that had cloaked them for so long, and into the light of public consciousness. It made them friendly, and in doing so, it paved the way for all of today’s modern consumer technology.

Without Ive’s iMac, there would be no iPod, no iPhone, no iPad, or any of their equivalents from rival companies. The world of consumer tech would likely be radically different. In 1998, the inertia and fear among computer firms of breaking the mold was too strong. It needed someone like Jony Ive to shake up the industry for good.

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