Jobs' Golden Apple

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It's a classic tale, told and retold through the ages: the hero reaches for greatness but fails, finds wisdom and maturity in scarred exile, then comes home to save his dying kingdom in Act III. Watching Steve Jobs hold his gorgeous new iBook triumphantly aloft before his assembled legions at last week's MacWorld convention in New York City, it was easy to imagine Apple Computer's interim-CEO-for-life perched somewhere in the pantheon between Odysseus and Simba the Lion King.

At 44, Steve Jobs has entered his golden age. He's rich, happily married and the loving father of three. His digital studio, Pixar, has reinvented the animation industry with such groundbreaking films as Toy Story and A Bug's Life (its next release, Toy Story 2, is due in November). Then there's Apple, whose resurgence since Jobs retook the helm two years ago has surprised observers who'd predicted only a downward spiral, and has delighted die-hard Mac loyalists with its new hit lineup of powerful G3s and sexy iMacs.

Now, in tangerine or blueberry, comes the iBook, Apple's "iMac to go," a clamshell-shaped laptop that promises to do for the portable market what iMac did for the desktop--sell like crazy and leave the rest of the industry playing catch-up. The iBook, available this September, morphs iMac's elegant, curvilinear design and Life Savers colors into an affordable portable (see chart) with a bunch of minor innovations and one major one: AirPort, a PC version of the cordless phone. AirPort's snap-in card and UFO-shaped "base station" (a $400 optional package) allow up to 10 users to swap data and surf the Web wirelessly from a range of up to 150 ft., putting Apple at least a few fiscal quarters ahead of its Windows rivals in the race to free humanity from those pesky cords. Very hot.

How vindicated Jobs must feel, playing savior at the company that canned him back in 1985, dooming him to a drifting decade at his consolation-prize start-ups, NeXT and Pixar, while Apple plateaued and then sank under John Sculley and his successors. And how grateful the Mac faithful must be that the once erratic wunderkind is back in the saddle. "When Jobs returned to Apple," says Owen Linzmayer, author of the new insider history Apple Confidential (No Starch Press; $17.95), "he said he was only coming back as an adviser, and I thought, 'Good,' because the last time he was in charge, he, uh, wasn't the best manager. And then when he took over, I was like, 'Oh, God, what are we in for?'"

Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. In keeping with those archetypal imperatives, the mercurial Jobs seems to have returned from the wild a far more disciplined and effective executive, but his first moves still basically consisted of tearing the place apart--restocking the boardroom and labs with trusted NeXTers, ending the belated effort to build a market for Mac clones, spiking ancillary projects like the Newton palmtop and the Claris software subsidiary and replacing the bewildering tangle of product lines (raise your hand if you know the difference between the PowerBook 3400c/180 and the PowerBook 1400cs/166) with just four: the G3 desktop and laptop machines for the Mac-friendly publishing and graphics communities; the iMac desktop consumer machine; and the last pillar of Jobs' four-prong strategy, the consumer laptop iBook.

Who wrote the iBook? The project employed hundreds but had three primary authors: Jonathan Ive, the brilliant, soft-spoken V.P. of industrial design; senior V.P. of hardware engineering Jon Rubinstein; and, of course, Jobs himself, official purveyor of the vision thing, who delivered his basic concept in one pithy sentence: "The iBook is something you'd throw in your backpack."

From that single idea--a machine for the backpack, not the briefcase--a thousand developmental insights were launched. In this second Jobs era, says Ive, Apple products are designed "holistically," each aspect of development altering every other as the project evolves, the design group producing first sketches, then computer work-ups and finally physical prototypes in a perpetual rondelet with the software guys, Rubinstein's hardware jocks and Jobs, who was a continual presence during the iBook's 18-month gestation.

Take, for instance, these three givens: the iBook is wireless, it needs a full-size keyboard, and it must make sense for schools. From here the design implications topple like dominos. Both the wireless idea and the education focus demand long battery life, because what's the point of lugging a wireless into class if the machine is always asking to be plugged in? But being able to run for six hours (the length of a school day) demanded a large battery, which the full keyboard forced down to the machine's bottom lip. The design guys, meanwhile, had decided that the perfect latch was no latch at all, just a clamshell top that clicked securely shut, like a cell phone. The engineers by this point realized that the heavy battery made the bottom dense enough to handle the latchless top.

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