Vox Acquires Recode; Stars, Money, and Reach; The Apple Car and Jony Ive

Recode has sold to Vox, and while everyone involved is putting a happy face on the matter, it seems highly likely that Recode failed as a business. Understanding how content businesses work show where they went wrong, but what does that mean for someone like Bill Simmons?

Also, Jeff Williams spoke at Recode, and he just might have changed my mind about Jony Ive.

21 Inc. and the Future of Bitcoin

Bitcoin is commonly characterized as an alternative currency, but actually the core concept has little to do with money. The potential as a protocol is massive, but only if everyone everywhere is connected to the network. 21 Inc. is trying to make that happen.

[FREE] Jony Ive “Promoted”, The Implications of Not Managing, What About Apple?

Given (what I believe is) the importance of yesterday’s news about Jony Ive, today’s Daily Update is free for everyone to read. If you enjoy it, I hope you will consider subscribing to the Daily Update.


Good morning,

Beyond the (welcome) day off, a big reason to not have a Daily Update on an American holiday is the lack of news. The day after a holiday, though, is often a great day: you just know someone is going to try to bury something.

On to the update:

Jony Ive “Promoted”

With Apple, of course, nothing is buried — that’s why I suspect the latest bit of news dropped on Monday (as opposed to Friday afternoon). But first the particulars — we’ll get to the mechanics of the release in a bit, which is in some respects just as interesting.

From Tim Cook’s internal memo, as reported by 9to5Mac:

I have exciting news to share with you today. I am happy to announce that Jony Ive is being promoted to the newly created position of Chief Design Officer at Apple…His new role is a reflection of the scope of work he has been doing at Apple for some time. Jony’s design responsibilities have expanded from hardware and, more recently, software UI to the look and feel of Apple retail stores, our new campus in Cupertino, product packaging and many other parts of our company.

Design is one of the most important ways we communicate with our customers, and our reputation for world-class design differentiates Apple from every other company in the world. As Chief Design Officer, Jony will remain responsible for all of our design, focusing entirely on current design projects, new ideas and future initiatives. On July 1, he will hand off his day-to-day managerial responsibilities of ID and UI to Richard Howarth, our new vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, our new vice president of User Interface Design.

Richard, Alan and Jony have been working together as colleagues and friends for many years. Richard has been a member of the Design team for two decades, and in that time he has been a key contributor to the design of each generation of iPhone, Mac, and practically every other Apple product. Alan started at Apple nine years ago on the Marcom team, and helped Jony build the UI team which collaborated with ID, Software Engineering and countless other groups on groundbreaking projects like iOS 7, iOS 8 and Apple Watch.

There has been much debate on Twitter about the significance of this move. On the one hand, of course Ive should be Chief Design Officer. It’s exactly what Cook said: the title change is a reflection of Ive’s changed role at Apple, where he has been stretched far beyond his prior focus on hardware. While writing about Apple car rumors and the Jony Ive New Yorker article I said:

Ive has quite clearly consolidated a significant amount of power at Apple, and over the last six months especially he has become much more clearly the public face of the company. Ive, though, while Steve Jobs’ “spiritual partner”, has always spoken most passionately about the importance of design and how dissatisfied he is with most of the objects in our lives, not the power of personal computing. When I stated previously that Apple has always been a personal computer company, that is because Jobs believed so deeply in the potential of the computer to change people’s lives. If Ive, as this profile argues, now serves Jobs’ function as the soul of Apple, my characterization is surely obsolete: perhaps we need to think of Apple as a design company with a specialty in computers, not the other way around.

Surely a design company needs a Chief Design Officer, no?

Moreover, when that New Yorker article dropped back in February, the reaction that stood out to me was John Gruber’s:

There’s much to digest, but I think the biggest takeaway is that Jony Ive is stretched very thin. The Watch is clearly his baby, but he’s also heavily involved in the supervision of Apple’s new campus and he’s working with Angela Ahrendts on a heretofore unannounced redesign of Apple’s retail stores.

If design is the center of Apple, and so central that one person ought to lead every aspect of design, whether that be hardware, software, stores, or anything else — including the furniture in the new headquarters — then surely that person needs lieutenants. And by extension, those lieutenants are of outsized importance, and worth introducing to the press. No wonder Howarth was in that New Yorker article — and with a quote that sure seems to praise his management acumen:

Richard Howarth, a veteran Ive lieutenant, soft-spoken and British, is considered “a badass, in terms of driving things,” I was told, half-jokingly. “He’s feared.”

Dye’s turn came a couple of months later, in the Wired pre-release piece on the Apple Watch:

That’s where Alan Dye comes in. As chief of Apple’s human interface group, he’s in charge of creating the ways you tell your device what to do and how that device responds…A graphic designer by training, Dye is much more Burberry than BlackBerry…

Ive began dreaming about an Apple watch just after CEO Steve Jobs’ death in October 2011. He soon brought the idea to Dye and a small group of others in the design studio. At the time, they were in the midst of a marathon push to overhaul Apple’s mobile operating system. “We were literally living in the design studio,” Dye says, “a small group of us, working on iOS 7.” The seventh iteration of the iPhone’s operating system, iOS 7 was much more than a redesign of smartphone and tablet software: It was an inflection point at the company, marking the ascendance of Jony Ive to the throne atop all Apple design. Dye and the human interface crew had to rethink every interaction, every animation, every function.

The message again, is clear: when Ive took over software, Dye was there.

Indeed, taken as a whole, this entire episode is a masterful display of public relations: plant the seeds of this story in two articles — ostensibly about the Watch — that provide unprecedented access to Apple broadly and Apple’s design team in particular, and happen to highlight two designers in particular, neither of whom had any public profile to date (kind of — as John Gruber and I discussed on The Talk Show — Dye is a polarizing figure in Apple circles). Then, after a presumably successful Watch launch, announce on a holiday — when the stock market is closed — that these two newly public designers have newly significant roles at Apple.

The Implication of Not Managing

The catch, of course, is that for all my previous arguments to the contrary — all of which make perfect sense, I might add — the level of orchestration around this announcement augurs something far more significant than a changed title (i.e. why should the stock market be nervous about this move?). And this bit from Stephen Fry’s piece in The Telegraph, which actually broke the news, is more important than it first appears:

When I catch up with Ive alone, I ask him why he has seemingly relinquished the two departments that had been so successfully under his control. “Well, I’m still in charge of both,” he says, “I am called Chief Design Officer. Having Alan and Richard in place frees me up from some of the administrative and management work which isn’t … which isn’t …”

“Which isn’t what you were put on this planet to do?”

“Exactly. Those two are as good as it gets. Richard was lead on the iPhone from the start. He saw it all the way through from prototypes to the first model we released. Alan has a genius for human interface design. So much of the Apple Watch’s operating system came from him. With those two in place I can …”

I could feel him avoiding the phrase “blue sky thinking”… think more freely?”

“Yes!”

In my estimation, whether Ive intends it or not — and I think he likely does, for what it’s worth — this is the beginning of the end of his time at Apple. To give up “management” in exchange for “thinking freely” is, when it comes to business, akin to shifting from product-focused R&D to exploratory R&D. Steve Jobs was very clear on the consequences of that approach:

One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. And I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room. And I got the scar tissue to prove it.

I found this quote/clip in this excellent Gruber piece, Working Backwards to the Technology; the analogy I’m trying to draw is that just as the best way to ensure that great technologies make it to market is to start with the product and work backwards, inventing along the way, the best way to lead an organization’s design direction is to lead the organization, and that means managing. And that is what Ive is giving up.

The other reason to suspect it’s time, beyond the orchestration and the very real surrender of responsibility, is, well, the fact it’s the right time. The Watch is here, and there almost certainly won’t be any significant new products from Apple for at least a few years (I take this as a bearish signal on the car, which I was already skeptical about — but you could take it the opposite way too!). As many have noted Ive has previously expressed interest in raising his children in the United Kingdom, which sure seems to be a convenient match for the fact he plans to “travel more,” and in the meantime he can pursue, well, the sort of affects-daily-life design I noted was his passion: stores, the new headquarters, office furniture (no designer is a designer until they’ve designed a chair). Not a bad life, for him anyways, and Ive has certainly earned it.

What About Apple?

The bigger question, of course — the $764 billion question — is what about Apple? First Jobs, now, if my sense of the situation is correct, Jony Ive, Jobs’ “spiritual partner” and, after Jobs’ passed away, his spiritual successor. Who is left? Tim Cook? Phil Schiller? Jeff Williams?

It’s a trick question, because the answer is not a who, it’s a what: what remains is Apple. After the unveiling of iOS 7 — the true coming-out party for Jony Ive’s expanded imprint on Apple — I wrote in Tim Cook is a Great CEO (This was a controversial opinion then!) about the firing of Scott Forstall:

Apple didn’t need another Steve Jobs. The price of individual brilliance is collective friction, and only a founder has the cultural capital to make the elevation of the individual possible. After all, he/she created the culture to begin with!

It’s not unlike a revolutionary movement: typically there is the transcendent leader, surrounded by the true believers. Eventually the leader departs, but the revolutions that endure have an ideology that continues to unite. To be sure, over time said ideology ossifies into rules enforced by a bureaucracy, until a new revolution uproots the old one, but this can take many years, even decades.

Most revolutions, though, don’t make it that far. Usually, when the leader departs, his closest lieutenants scheme and fight for the throne, and the entire movement implodes. This was always my fear for Apple: Steve Jobs was the glue that united a strong, stubborn, and talented company that continually operated under high pressure. What would happen when the glue was gone?

Tim Cook has answered that question: the glue is Apple, and the ideology is design. It is a shared belief system that “No” is more important than “Yes,” that focus is essential to making great products, and that no one individual is essential. Not Steve Jobs, and certainly not Scott Forstall.

And, if I’m right, not Jony Ive. Time — even if it’s not this time — will tell.

Podcast: Exponent 046 — Everything Has a Price

In this week’s episode, Ben and James discuss ad-blockers, both personal ones and the rumored carrier-implemented one, as well as Internet.org and the moral quandary that is the Internet.