“You can do this.” Steve Jobs and his preference for glass.
Today we would like to take a moment to cover Jobs’ underestimated area of innovation – his preference for and work with glass.
In 2007, Steve Jobs changed the world with the launch of the iPhone. As famously demonstrated in his famous launch presentation, the product combined into one device the functionality of an internet communicator, iPod music device and a cellular telephone. On the day of launch at MacWorld, those in the audience left with their jaws on the floor as not only was the iPhone a revolutionary piece of technology, but it represented a fusion of stunning materials – especially aluminum and glass that had never been seen in the largely plastic consumer electronics products that preceded it. However, little known is the story of how glass was chosen for the iPhone’s screen at Jobs’ request – because it almost didn’t happen. But as engineers and suppliers lined up to tell Jobs that glass was an impossible solution, he refused to believe it. He knew that to produce one of the greatest products in history, ‘plastic’ was an unacceptable material for the window to its greatness.
As published in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography, the iPhone was all but set to carry a sapphire crystal screen, synthetic and to Jobs, not good enough. But while he preferred glass, he was the only one on the planet who dreamt it could be suitable – and ready – for the iPhone. Design cynics said it would crack. But in 2006, jobs said to designer Jonny Ive “we have to master glass.” In theory, Jobs was somewhat of a glass advocate already, having demanded glass construction – including glass staircases – in as many Apple stores as possible. But as iPhone production approached, his desire for glass seemed ungrounded in reality.
After being prompted by a friend, Jobs reached out Wendell Weeks, CEO of Corning Glass. While not in production, Weeks mentioned a unique approach to glass they had developed in the 1960s often referred to as Gorilla Glass.
Weeks then used a whiteboard (Clarus wasn’t quite launched yet), to explain the chemistry of the glass to Jobs. He was sold. Jobs asked for every ounce of Gorilla Glass Corning could produce in the next six months. When Weeks responded with the requisite and logical “no can do” – the engineering challenges would make such production impossible – Jobs reset the tone. “Don’t be afraid. You can do this,” he told Weeks. Jobs was adamant that this glass must be in the first iPhone.
Corning repurposed a Kentucky facility designed to produce LCD displays to achieve the impossible and did so in under six months.
The beauty of glass instead of plastic for the iPhone must have compelled Jobs to again demand a unique approach to glass in one of his final projects, the design of Apple’s upcoming campus. With its ‘spaceship’ design, and Jobsian demands for design specifications such as materials gaps to be less than 1/32 inch in width, he next made a pitch for ‘curved’ glass for the campus walls, measuring up to 60 feet per panel. Once again, designers, engineers and suppliers cringed, but they found a way. The panels are now in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Jobs’ preference for materials evolved throughout his career. First was his twist on color and form, contrasting the ‘beige boxes’ of the PC world with the early macs. A magnesium cube for the NeXT computer followed – known for its geometrically perfect 90 degree corners. Upon his return to Apple, translucent, colorful plastics were his paintbrush, followed by metals in aluminum and titanium. But he saved the best for last in his vision and innovation with glass which stands today as the preferred material for the world’s best consumer products, architecture and engineering.