The man behind the design of the iPhone, the iPod and countless other i-products was just another young designer at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters when Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997.
Back then Apple’s computers stood out because of their software. They were the only serious alternative to the ubiquitous Windows PCs – but their hardware was just as dull.
Together, Ive and Jobs came up with their first big hit – the iMac, a computer that was both colourful and cute.
Prof Jeremy Myerson from the Royal College of Art says Jony Ive is to industrial design and computing what David Hockney is to painting and Christian Dior to fashion.
“Before Johnny Ive, computers were made of beige or grey plastic, they were cheaply made,” he recalls.
“The wonder was in what they could do functionally, not how they felt emotionally or what they looked like. And Jony Ive changed all that dramatically.”
What Ive and Jobs shared was an obsession with detail – they even wanted the inside of a product, invisible to the user, to be consistent with Apple’s design aesthetic.
You can see that philosophy in the often-parodied product videos where Ive describes the Apple Watch as “the most personal product we’ve ever made” or raves about the contrast between the iPhone 4’s “textured back and its highly-polished chamfered edge”.
His quiet, almost soporific voiceovers may have been much mocked, but Prof Myerson says every other firm has rushed to imitate Apple’s approach to technology.
“What he’s done, he’s made it personal, he’s made it cool, he’s made it attractive, and other companies have had no choice but to jump into that game.”
With many products, it was design not technology that made them winners. Apple was not the first company to bring out a touchscreen phone or Bluetooth earbuds,
But the iPhone and the AirPods immediately convinced millions of people that this was how they wanted a gadget to look and work.
In recent years, however, it has sometimes seemed that Apple’s obsession with the cleanest of lines in every product has come at the expense of usability.
Buyers of the MacBook, which has just one USB-C port, have been forced to buy a clutch of adapters to plug in devices. Problems with the laptop’s keyboard have also been linked to what one pundit described as “Ive’s obsession with device thinness and minimalism”.
Sir Jonathan – he was knighted in 2012 – is stressing that he will continue to be involved in projects at Apple. As one wag tweeted: “Jony Ive will still work with Apple but it will require a special adapter.”
Still, if he never designs another breakthrough Apple product he will go down in history as the genius behind the most profitable product in history, the iPhone.
Not bad for someone who started his career at a small UK consultancy designing toilets and toothbrushes.
Also on this week’s programme:
In an extraordinarily frank interview Nokia’s chief technology officer Marcus Weldon attacks its rival Huawei over what he describes as “sloppy” security.
The interview was too frank for Nokia – after reading an account of what Mr Wheldon had said, the company issued a statement saying his comments “did not reflect the official position of Nokia”.
And as a report says machines will replace 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030, we visit an event where robots that can do everything from walk upstairs to perform complex surgery are on display.