He's Ga Ga About His Baby And He's Not Alone

Bob Brunner can't keep his mind off it. It's granite-gray, weighs 5.1 pounds, and Brunner brings it to bed night after night. His wife is fed up, he says.

Yet Brunner is no ordinary consumer swept away with product lust. The tall, blond, 33-year-old Californian is manager of industrial design at Apple Computer Inc., and the "it" is his baby, Apple's new PowerBook notebook computer. While Apple worked with Sony Corp. to engineer and manufacture the machine, Brunner's hot design team out of Cupertino, Calif., shaped what users see and touch, from the novel trackball in the middle of the keyboard to its playful hotdog-shaped screen hinge.

Industrial designers invariably go ga-ga over their own products. But just a week after PowerBook was introduced, it appears that customers can't keep their hands off Brunner's baby, either. "We're totally crazy about it," says a salesman at ComputerWare Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. People are lining up to play with the store's one demonstrator. While Brunner looks like a guy who would be happier with a surfboard under his arm than with sketches and foam models, he is no laid-back Californian. Until two years ago, he was an ambitious member of Silicon Valley's hip, young design fraternity. He was on the fast track, collecting awards and a list of clients at Lunar Design, a respected consultancy.

In 1989, however, Brunner gave up his independence and went corporate by joining Apple. Brunner really set tongues wagging in Silicon Valley's gossipy design community by announcing that he was going to end Apple's longtime dependence on outside consultants and build a powerful in-house group to design the company's newest products.

Brunner's strategy is risky. It certainly allows for faster, more strategic use of design. But much of Apple's past success has been bound up with outside designers -- ever since Steve P. Jobs hired the mercurial Hartmut Esslinger of frogdesign Inc. Esslinger left when Jobs did in 1985, and Apple turned to a slew of consultants. But without the autocratic Esslinger, Apple lost a strident design champion and began losing its edge. Apple turned out some design bombs, including the 18-pound "portable" Mac.

Since his arrival, Brunner has tripled his staff. His team has access to every conceivable state-of-the-art tool, from huge stereo lithography machines that make models to a Cray computer that conducts mold-flow analyses of plastic casings. Most important, Brunner has the ear of the boss. Chief Executive John Sculley, who meets with Brunner weekly, says good design is critical for the company "to recapture the idea that Apple is on the edge of innovation."

NO HANDLE. The PowerBook series of notebooks, starting at $2,299, is the latest and splashiest example. Brunner's initial efforts included last year's well-received Macintosh LC, but the PowerBook, announced on Oct. 21, is a major design statement. Apple research showed that it's not just flying execs who use portables these days. As weight and size have fallen, lots of ordinary business folk have taken to toting their notebook computers from meeting to meeting throughout the day and home at night and on weekends.

The hardware translation: No handle, for example, because Brunner believes users will carry a PowerBook like a Filofax. The clasp on the PowerBook opens quickly and easily with one hand. The flat surface in front of the keyboard, on which to rest the heels of your hands, makes it easier to type on your lap. Flip-down feet adjust the angle of the keyboard for writing on a conference-room table or your own desk. Add to that Macintosh's easy-to-understand software features, boasts Brunner, and the PowerBook becomes "one of the most usable portables on the market."

The eye-popper, in terms of pure design novelty, is clearly the trackball. By putting it directly on the keyboard, Brunner did away with the awkward clip-on trackballs and tethered mice used in other laptops. Planted in the center of the machine, it can be used by righties and southpaws without any adjustments. The tooling and engineering required to make that happen were not trivial, but that means it is not easily or cheaply copied, either.

WRIST COMPUTER? The choice of color for the case was not merely a designer's aesthetic preference. Studies show that consumers associate darker colors with richness and value. Black might seem the obvious choice. Apple went with dark gray, partly because a black computer would not meet European contrast and reflectivity standards, blocking some purchases from overseas.

Manufacturing issues play a big role in Brunner's designs. Apple uses snap-in plastic subassemblies to make many of its desktop machines easier for robots to assemble. But that adds more plastic material. To save weight and size in the PowerBook, Brunner turned to "a brand-new discovery" -- old-fashioned screws. The trade-off: PowerBooks require more hand assembly for the tiny screws.

Brunner is also creating "concept computers" analogous to Detroit's concept cars. A favorite: the Time Band, a computer that might sit on the wrist and manage your schedule via radio links to other computers that track your appointments and plane and train schedules. It could be sold as a "wristMac."

Sculley says he remains committed to having a top-flight design team within Apple, and PowerBook certainly helps justify that stance. But the company has been under cost pressure as profits have plunged. Brunner's department has been spared, but he has clearly become more stressed. Although he tries to get home in time to spend early evenings with his wife and two young daughters, Apple designers say they receive electronic mail from him in the wee hours of the night. That's when his bedside PowerBook comes in handy.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.