An Oral History Of Apple Design: 2004

The greatest business story of this generation is a design tale.

If Apple is known for one thing, it’s impeccable design. If Apple is known for two things, it’s impeccable design shrouded in a culture of secrecy. So Fast Company spent months collecting more than 50 interviews with the faces behind the 37 years of Apple’s iconic products to tell the untold stories behind Apple’s seemingly effortless “signature” of simplicity. This is part four in the series.


2004: “The holy of holies”

The third-generation iPod, released in April 2003, was thinner and featured a new navigation wheel. At the same time, Jobs unveiled the iTunes Store. Apple would sell 2 million iPods in 2003, more than twice as many as it had from its debut in September 2001 through 2002. With 2004’s release of the iPod Mini, the figure would increase fivefold. The division was split from the rest of Apple, with Rubinstein at the helm. Ive, who had reported to Rubinstein, would now report directly to Jobs, concentrating power in the hands of his elite group of industrial designers.

SATZGER: Those of us in the industrial design studio were locked down. Steve made it really clear that if you don’t have any reason to be there, you don’t belong there, and that it was important that we didn’t talk about the designs with anybody else outside the team.

ERIK LAMMERDING, senior manager, developer relations (now cofounder, N3twork):
I was never allowed in the secret room. Do you remember the show Get Smart? Duh-dun, duh-dun, duh-dun–chish chish chish. Multiple keycards, frosted glass. The Holy of Holies.


BOB STEVENSON, chief creative officer, Ngmoco (now cofounder, N3twork):
We went in there once. Do you know the end scene of 2010 [the 1984 sequel to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey]? It was like an entire set of humans from the future.

JEREMY KUEMPEL, intern, iPad product design:
I made it to the door. Have you seen the scene in Star Wars where he goes to Jabba the Hutt’s palace, and the eyeball sticks out and looks at him? It was like that.

SATZGER: The studio is about 10,000 to 15,000 square feet. It’s an amazing space. When you walk in, you go through this little stainless-steel corridor that’s probably about 10 feet long and that opens up into this expanse of concrete floor and glass. The ceiling is covered with metal. There are these huge concrete pillars and right in the middle is a glass section–like a giant fishbowl–and Jony has a three-wall room. I remember that Jony had a desk that was custom-designed by Marc Newson, a chair, and two standing drawer shelves. He had a whole series of colored pencils laying on his table, a Tolomeo lamp, a computer, and that’s it. There wasn’t a picture of his family, his kids, nothing–in fact, there wasn’t an image of anything on any wall in the whole studio.


RUBINSTEIN: My job was to manage all the different requirements from all the different teams, and make it work. And that means you’re the bad guy. Steve didn’t like being the bad guy, so that was my role.

SATZGER: Jony and Steve spent a lot of time together outside the office, and they’d talk about business plans and products and things like that. Jony complained that a lot of the things that Steve took credit for were his ideas. Jony has a very political agenda when it comes to his positioning within the company. He would tell me, “Anytime you meet with Steve, I gotta know.” He projects this soft-spoken English gentleman persona.

RUBINSTEIN: It’s a good image: “Shaken, not stirred.”


SATZGER: But if you challenge the VP of design–and you’re not a designer–there are going to be consequences. There are many people who are not at Apple because Jony has decided that person was in his way.

RUBINSTEIN: There was an antenna on one of the PowerBooks, and Jony and I were arguing how big the enclosure should be. And we compromised, which, frankly, compromised performance. You can’t violate the laws of physics.

According to Walter Isaacson’s book, Steve Jobs, Ive threatened to leave Apple if Rubinstein did not. In 2006, Rubinstein announced his retirement (unretiring a year later to be CEO of Palm), leaving Fadell in charge of the company’s iPod division as it was preparing to spin off a new, top-secret product.


MATT ROGERS, firmware engineer, iPod division (now Fadell’s cofounder at Nest):
When we started working on this skunk works project in 2005, our team was super small. One hardware engineer, one antenna guy, one project manager. There were a lot of people at Apple who thought we’d maybe sell a million units a year. That was the high bar.

FADELL: We started with an iPod Mini and tried to make it a phone. We actually built a phone with a click wheel–it worked like a rotary dial.

ROGERS: There’s a reason nobody wants rotary phones anymore.


ANDY GRIGNON, senior manager, iPhone division (now founder, Quake Labs):
Apple had just acquired a company called FingerWorks, which made multitouch keyboards. So the idea was born to do a full touch-screen-based platform for the phone.

SATZGER: The initial concept of multitouch was from a tablet-computer brainstorm. We were always trying to shove a PC into a tablet. Duncan Kerr [a designer in Ive’s group] sat people down for a couple of hours and just talked about multitouch. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just turn a page like you were turning a page? Wouldn’t it be great if you could just zoom in and out by doing some kind of gesture? We had all those ideas on paper in the ID team. And I’m sure Duncan was talking to the sensor people and the hardware people about multitouch. A couple of weeks later, we were all just blown away by the prototype Duncan and his team built. We were zooming in and out on Google Maps and rotating it.

RUBINSTEIN: It was pretty cool. But it wasn’t good enough. And so the technology wound up in the iPhone before the iPad.


GRIGNON: This was around when Scott Forstall [then in charge of Mac software] got wind of the project. He really wanted to do Mac OS on a phone.

ROGERS: The iPhone was done in these vacuums. The software and hardware teams didn’t even talk. One of my early tasks was to build a parallel software system for the iPhone so we could actually use it to make calls.

GRIGNON: We called it “skankphone.” Of Tony’s whole hardware team, which was maybe 60 people at full strength, only me and three guys were allowed to see the real user interface. Before you got UI access, you had to sign a separate legal document, Steve had to approve it, and then you’d go to Forstall, who was the ultimate owner of the secret list. He would tell you, “Don’t talk to anybody. Don’t tell your wife.”


ABIGAIL SARAH BRODY, user interface designer:
I’d been working on a new design language for what we called Pro Apps–Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, Aperture. One day around 2005, I got a call to move up to the fourth floor, the executive floor. I wasn’t told I’d be working on a phone. They just said, “Create a user interface for multitouch.”

SATZGER: When we developed the first iPhone, we developed around a screen size and a home button.

BRODY: I had a crude prototype and a sense of the dimensions. I rendered some finger-size images and looked at how far my thumb would reach across the screen. I had to create some sort of menu, so I just created a screen with rounded rectangular buttons.


SATZGER: We had a screenshot that we put on every model, and that’s all we knew about the UI. Jony knew what was going on, but most of the ID group didn’t know how the gestures worked, how you did basic functions, visual voice mail–all the amazing things that came out of that first product.

NITIN GANATRA, director of engineering, iOS applications (now executive director, Jawbone):
Everyone on the team knew that Apple had attempted to ship a device with a touch input with the Newton–and was laughed at by the industry. Scott was very focused on the fine points around the look and feel. When we launched an app, it had to come up instantly. When you moved your thumb up or down, the scrolling had to track your movement with no delays.

LOREN BRICHTER, graphics engineer (later inventor of the Twitter app Tweetie, which introduced the pull-to-refresh gesture to iOS): The UI was mind-blowing: 3-D graphics, 60 frames per second. Nothing like it existed.


ROGERS: Before we launched at Macworld in January 2007, I was sitting in the bathroom using one of the devices, and I was like, This is revolution. I’m checking email in the bathroom. That was the moment when I realized this is a totally different kind of device.

BRODY: Steve showed it with clown-fish wallpaper and some green sea anemones in the background. It was the same sample image I used: the black UI, the glossiness, the big numbers. Later, I saw Steve in the hall, and I said, “Is it a coincidence that it looks like my design?” And he said no. One of my fondest memories from my time at Apple was that launch day. Even if it was finished by a completely different team, and even though my contribution is maybe 0.1%, there is still something in there that I helped make a difference with.

HORACE DEDIU, analyst, Nokia (now an independent analyst and founder of Asymco):
The day after the first iPhone launch, I went to the Nokia cafeteria and asked people about it. They were like, “Meh, there’s nothing here.” The compromises Apple took on design were legendary: You didn’t have copy-paste, you didn’t have multitasking, you didn’t have apps. Apple said, We just want to have a cool phone. Everybody else was focusing on being smart. Apple focused on being loved.


The iPhone would become the most successful Apple product of all time, accounting for more than half its revenue. Over the next few years, Ive’s team would crank out a succession of refinements–and the company would return to the original idea it had for a multitouch device: a tablet computer.

GANATRA: I first heard about this tablet in late 2008. Steve was saying, “Just think of it as a big iPod Touch.” It was one of the few times that Steve was arguing that we didn’t have to do that much work.

MATT MACINNIS, marketing manager:
There’s no magic to the product planning cycle at Apple beyond a ruthless focus on a limited set of use cases. What each product does in the first iteration is going to be narrow, but those things are going to be airtight. For the iPad, there were ideas about having docks on two sides. Depending on where you put it in your house, it would behave differently. If you put it on its side by your bed, it would be an alarm clock. But if you put it upright in the kitchen, it’d be a recipe book. Those got cut back.


SEGALL: Back in the Apple II days, they had a tagline, the “most personal computer.” But this, the iPad, is really the most personal computer ever made. I mean, you touch it. It responds to your voice.

Additional reporting by Austin Carr, Skylar Bergl, and Mark Wilson.

[Illustrations by Benoit Challand | Amanda Mocci]