Ex-Apple Designers Ask: What Product Saved Apple?

Fast Company's panel of ex-Apple designers. Photo: Leander Kahney.

Fast Company’s panel of ex-Apple designers. Photo: Leander Kahney.

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple went from being chump of the tech world to champ, and what was the product that turned it all around?

That was the question posed to a panel of ex-Apple designers at a special event here in the city.

The answers might surprise you.

The question was posed at Inside Apple’s Design Lab, a panel discussion at Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored, a cleverly-named one-day conference about design and innovation (clever, because it promised to lift the cloak on Apple’s infamous secrecy).

Before a full house at the Metreon Center, the panel consisted of Robert Brunner, designer of Beats headphones and former head of Apple’s Industrial Design studio and now at Ammunition Group, and Hartmut Esslinger, founder of Frog Design and Apple’s first world-class designer.

There was also Abigail Sarah Brody, who designed the first iPhone UI, Nitin Ganatra, who helped craft OS X’s early interface, Andy Grignon, the iPhone’s hardware engineer who has some colorful tales about the glitchy first prototypes, Tim Kobe, who helped Steve Jobs design the first Apple stores, Dave Morin, CEO of Path who worked in Apple’s marketing department, and Jeff Zwerner, one of Apple’s packaging experts.

So which single product put Apple back on the path to success?

  • Final Cut Pro:  Because it was a playground for a lot of UI experimentation that became important later. (Brody)
  • OS X: The operating system that’s the foundation of all the hit products, from the iMac to the iPad. (Morin)
  • PowerBook 100: The first great design of Apple’s new era. (Ganatra)
  • iPod: The product that changed everything. (Brunner)
  • iPhone: A huge revolution in computing. (Grignon and Esslinger)
  • iTunes on Windows: Because that blew the doors open.
  • The Apple Stores: They made Apple accessible to the great public. (Max Chafkin, the moderator)

It’s a great list, and very debatable. iTunes and the stores are not something most people would suggest, but they are great candidates. What do you think? What was Apple’s most important innovation of that era?

Leander’s new book about Jony Ive and the Apple design studio is out in November. ‘Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products’ is available for Amazon ($12.01).

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  • Buster

    Nitin Ganatra’s choice of the PowerBook 100 seems pretty ridiculous. Maybe everyone felt compelled to give a different answer, but the PowerBook 100 came out in 1991 right as Apple was about to slide into its worst performance period ever. No way you consider that the product that turned them around.
    Surprised that no one mentioned the original bondi blue iMac that turned heads shortly after Steve came back, but I think iTunes on Windows was the one that really turned the tide for Apple.

  • lkahney

    The question wasn’t fair because it was these things and more. It was the perfect storm of iMac (saved Apple), iPod (transformed it), iTunes (opened it up), stores (opened it more); and iPhone/iPad (next phase of personal computing). but it’s fun to debate!

    Even Final Cut Pro is an interesting choice, because she’s kinda right — there was a lot of unconventional software tweaking in that era. I remember a huge debate about how the QuickTime player violated Apple’s own human interface guidelines and was an abomination. But it lead — eventually — to stuff like iOS.

  • Timothy Williamson

    My knee-jerk answer would have been the iPod. I was in high school when MP3 players first came out, and the iPod+iTunes really did change the music landscape. But all those other responses are also great answers to an interesting question.

  • bdkennedy

    The question was, “What product SAVED Apple?”

    The iMac debuted in 1998 and it was the first Jony Ive product that changed Apple’s direction and companies started copying it. It gave them the cash flow to SAVE the company. How anyone can think otherwise is beyond me.

  • Steven Quan

    Someone might want to tell Morin that the iPad doesn’t run OSX (it runs iOS). And the iMac hasn’t been a runaway success (a hit product). Don’t get me wrong, I’m typing on a 27″ iMac right now and I love it, but people get gun shy about dropping $2,700 on a desktop computer.

  • Steven Quan

    The question was, “What product SAVED Apple?”
    The iMac debuted in 1998 and it was the first Jony Ive product that changed Apple’s direction and companies started copying it. It gave them the cash flow to SAVE the company. How anyone can think otherwise is beyond me.

    Microsoft gave Apple funds in the form of an investment to help save the company. I’m sure the iMac sales also helped out, but it wasn’t the only thing Apple relied on to stay afloat.

    That iMac didn’t set the world on fire and there may have been a few copy cats around but I look around today and I don’t see too many blueberry or cherry colored monitors around.

  • Paul Burt

    Someone might want to tell Morin that the iPad doesn’t run OSX (it runs iOS). And the iMac hasn’t been a runaway success (a hit product). Don’t get me wrong, I’m typing on a 27″ iMac right now and I love it, but people get gun shy about dropping $2,700 on a desktop computer.

    The iMac has been the best selling desktop computer for years.

  • Paul Burt

    Someone might want to tell Morin that the iPad doesn’t run OSX (it runs iOS). And the iMac hasn’t been a runaway success (a hit product). Don’t get me wrong, I’m typing on a 27″ iMac right now and I love it, but people get gun shy about dropping $2,700 on a desktop computer.

    The iMac has been the best selling desktop computer for years.

  • Bob Kolk

    I’ve gotta go with the iMac. It was the linchpin to the whole turnaround. Without it, there is no iPod, OSX, Stores, etc.

    iMac was the hail-mary touchdown to make the playoffs. The iPod was the game winner in the Super Bowl.

  • MacAdvisor

    I am going to go way out on a limb here and nominate a product Apple owned, but never sold: NeXTstep. By purchasing that product and the company that went with it, NeXT, Apple brought back Steve Jobs and the rest is history. NeXTstep saved Apple.

  • CitizenX1

    Not letting the sale people be in charge.

About the author

Leander KahneyLeander Kahney is the editor and publisher of Cult of Mac. He is the NYT bestselling author of Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products; Inside Steve’s Brain; Cult of Mac; and Cult of iPod. Leander has written for Wired, MacWeek, Scientific American, and The Guardian in London. Follow Leander on Twitter @lkahney and Facebook.

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