This is my first week publishing on the Tuesday-Friday summer schedule and it has paid off in a major way with a significant Thursday announcement that I can cover immediately! In addition, given the momentousness of this announcement, I have made this Daily Update free.
On to the update:
Jony Ive Leaves Apple
From the Financial Times:
Jony Ive is leaving Apple after more than two decades in which his iconic designs for the Mac, iPod and iPhone turned one of Silicon Valley’s faded giants into the world’s most valuable company and defined a generation of consumer products.
Sir Jonathan is setting up his own new venture, a creative business called LoveFrom, with Apple as its first client. The transition will begin later this year, with LoveFrom launching fully in 2020.
“While I will not be an [Apple] employee, I will still be very involved — I hope for many, many years to come,” Sir Jonathan told the FT in an exclusive interview. “This just seems like a natural and gentle time to make this change.”
This is, in my estimation, a change that has been unfolding for the last four years. Back in 2015 there was a very interesting sequence of events in the run-up to the launch of Apple Watch (which was announced in 2014):
- That February there was this phenomenal profile of Jony Ive in the New Yorker that included reporting on the makeup of Apple’s industrial design team
- Then in April there was this Wired article about the design of the Apple Watch and Apple’s user interface team
- Finally in May Tim Cook announced Ive’s “promotion” to Chief Design Officer and the handoff of managerial duties to Richard Howarth (industrial design) and Alan Dye (user interface design)
I wrote in this Daily Update that I thought the events were related:
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. 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.
To me, though, the real story was about Ive stepping back:
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.
Over the next few years Ive reportedly spent nearly all of his time on Apple Park, the company’s new headquarters, and while Apple says that Ive resumed some of his duties in 2017, both Bloomberg and The Information reported last night that Ive was an increasingly rare presence in Cupertino, spending more time in his native United Kingdom and, even when he was in San Francisco, holding meetings in a design studio built near his house.
And so, when Ive says this is “a natural and gentle time to make this change”, that is because the groundwork has been laid for a long time: occasionally consulting with Apple’s design team is not a significant departure from what Ive’s role has become.
To be very clear, Ive deserves to do whatever he wants: Apple observers, though, should have no illusions about the depth of his involvement going forward, just as they should have read the tea leaves four years ago. To work for a company like Apple at the level that Ive did for two decades is an all-encompassing endeavor, which is why I was so sure this day was coming four years ago: you are either all-in or you are all-out.
Indeed, in my estimation the best way to think about the last four years of Ive’s tenure is investor management. The “Apple is doomed” narrative goes in cycles, and was definitely at one of its peaks in mid-2014; there was tremendous pressure on Tim Cook in particular to launch a new product line and demonstrate that Apple could innovate without Steve Jobs. The Apple Watch was that product (although it turned out that the real breakthrough for Apple, at least from an investor perspective, was the large-screened iPhone 6 that launched the same day). Ive was very deeply involved in the Watch, which made its release — the culmination of years of work — the right time to step back internally, but it took a few years for Apple to fully transition to the post-iPhone era from an investor perspective. Frankly, there is no better time for this announcement than right now, which is to say, even Ive’s exit was beautifully designed.
Earlier this month I wrote in The First Post-iPhone Keynote about the end of iTunes:
This is both straightforward and overdue, but still meaningful: while iTunes didn’t save Apple, the application is the connective thread of one of the greatest growth stories in business history. There is a direct line from the introduction of iTunes in January 2001 to the introduction of the iPod later that year, then the iTunes Music Store in 2003 (upon which the App Store was built), and ultimately the iPhone in 2007. iTunes provided the foundation for everything that followed, and it seems appropriate that the application is going away at the same time that growth story is coming to a close.
This arc is even richer in light of this news, for it is also the arc of Ive’s career at Apple — with one notable missing piece: the iMac.
From my perspective, this remains Ive’s greatest work: just as iTunes was the core of Apple’s rise from a services perspective, and OS X the core of Apple’s rise from a software perspective (and OS X, notably, ushered in its own generational change with the introduction of SwiftUI at WWDC), the iMac was the foundation for everything that followed from a hardware perspective. For the very first time, yet most certainly not the last, a computer was meant to be desired, not simply because of its components (which were hopelessly inferior to Wintel alternatives at the time), but as an integrated whole.
To that end, an iMac circa mid-2001 was, at a conceptual level, Apple’s offering to the world for the next 18 years: beautiful, desirable, and functional hardware with a world-class operating system (OS X was released in March of that year) and service-based software (iTunes) that expanded the definition of what a computer could do beyond the arena of productivity to entertainment. The only difference is that the names have changed to iPhone, iOS, and the App Store.
Each of these pieces is indispensable, but it makes sense that everything started with hardware: the original iMac shipped in 1998 with a decrepit operating system and a paucity of software relative to Windows, but it was enough to save Apple and give the company room to fill in the missing pieces. And then, as the company grew stronger, hardware continued to lead the way: the iPod, then the iPhone, then the Apple Watch, each drawing in new customers with every iteration. OS X and iOS is what keeps those customers with Apple, and iTunes and the App Store expanded what they could do, but all depended on the hardware drawing them in in the first place.
Arcs, though, have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and at this point nearly everyone who will ever be an Apple customer has been reached: industrial design will remain critical to Apple, but it is software that keeps them and services that will drive growth going forward. Moreover, this is not a recent development; from an article I wrote in 2013 called Whither Liberal Arts:
I went back and watched the iPad 1 introductory video, and the relative roles of Ive and Forstall were jarring:
Ive opened and closed the 7 minute and 48 second video, but his total time on screen was only 70 seconds – 15%. Forstall, on the other hand, featured for a straight 3 minutes and 45 seconds – just about half. Ive himself all but explained why:
The face of the product is pretty much defined by a single piece of multi-touch glass. And that’s it. There’s no pointing device. There’s isn’t even a single orientation. There’s no up, there’s no down. There’s no right way of holding it. I don’t have to change myself to change the product. It fits me.
Indeed, the first iPad – and all of the iPads that followed – are marvelously designed and manufactured, but the magic is absolutely in the glass, in the software. And that was all Forstall…Forstall’s enthusiasm and excitement are absolutely tangible, and, quite frankly, in marked contrast to Ive. And so it goes. Meaning and value always rise up through the stack, and as hardware increasingly melts away, it’s software that differentiates, that requires the utmost in care, and the ethos of the liberal arts.
By the time I wrote this Forstall was gone, replaced by Ive; being the most important person at Apple requires more than being a great designer — and by 2012 it required managing more than hardware. The Information piece I linked above noted:
While he was known for his artistic sensibility, Mr. Ive also earned a reputation inside Apple as a shrewd operator. In 2012, after Mr. Jobs died, Mr. Ive prevailed in a political struggle with Scott Forstall, then the chief of Apple’s iOS software, whom Mr. Cook forced out after the troubled launch of an Apple maps service.
Shortly before the news about Mr. Forstall’s departure was announced, Mr. Ive slipped into a meeting with Apple’s human interface team, part of the software group Mr. Forstall oversaw and which Mr. Ive then took charge of, according to a person who was present. When a designer asked where Mr. Forstall was, Mr. Ive responded from the back of the room.
“Scott isn’t with us anymore,” he said, according to the person who was present.
Frankly, I’m not sure Ive’s consolidation of power was entirely positive for Apple: iOS became more beautiful, but also less usable. It is a subtle shift that happened with the company’s other products — particular the Mac Pro and the Macbook Pro — as well. That, though, is the usual route revolutions take: what is inspired at the beginning — making computers desirable — becomes tyrannical in the end.
The Post-Ive Apple
Perhaps the biggest surprise to many was who will replace Ive. From Apple’s press release:
Design team leaders Evans Hankey, vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, vice president of Human Interface Design, will report to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer. Both Dye and Hankey have played key leadership roles on Apple’s design team for many years. Williams has led the development of Apple Watch since its inception and will spend more of his time working with the design team in their studio.
John Gruber at Daring Fireball captured Apple observer angst:
It makes me queasy to see that Apple’s chief designers are now reporting to operations. This makes no more sense to me than having them report to the LLVM compiler team in the Xcode group. Again, nothing against Jeff Williams, nothing against the LLVM team, but someone needs to be in charge of design for Apple to be Apple and I can’t see how that comes from operations. I don’t think that “chief design officer” should have been a one-off title created just for Jony Ive. Not just for Apple, but especially at Apple, it should be a permanent C-level title. I don’t think Ive ever should have been put in control of software design, but at least he is a designer.
I don’t worry that Apple is in trouble because Jony Ive is leaving; I worry that Apple is in trouble because he’s not being replaced.
It seems clear he won’t be. From that Financial Times article:
In their separate interviews with the FT this week, Mr Cook and Sir Jonathan insisted that no single person at Apple decides which innovations graduate from its R&D labs and which are sent back to the drawing board. “The company runs very much horizontally,” said Mr Cook. “The reason it’s probably not so clear about who [sets product strategy] is that the most important decisions, there are several people involved in it, by the nature of how we operate.”
There is a certain rationale — in fact, a necessity — to this approach. Apple sold 278,000 iMacs its first full quarter on the market, 125,000 iPods its first full quarter on the market, and 1,119,000 iPhones its first full quarter on the market. Today Apple sells the same number of iPhones approximately every 11, 5, and 45 hours respectively. That requires a staggering amount of coordination between industrial design, manufacturing design, and operations. It simply isn’t feasible to have any one of these disciplines dictate to the others.
And yet, I understand Gruber’s angst. It is precisely that sort of dictatorship, first and foremost in the person of Steve Jobs, that made Apple, Apple. Again, though, I think Ive is in part a cautionary tale: he did his best work under Jobs, while the last few years have been more fraught from a design perspective; if Ive was not entirely up to the task of being the ultimate arbiter of all things Apple, who can be?
That is why the conclusion I had after WWDC feels more applicable than ever: it is less that Jony Ive is leaving Apple, and more that Apple, for better or worse, and also by necessity, has left Jony Ive and the entire era that he represented. So it goes.
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