Business Technology

Monday 21 October 2019

Apple rocked to the core as designer who helped create $1trn firm quits

Saturday Insight

End of a era: Apple CEO Tim Cook, left, and chief design officer Jonathan Ive who is leaving after two decades to start his own company. Photo: AP
End of a era: Apple CEO Tim Cook, left, and chief design officer Jonathan Ive who is leaving after two decades to start his own company. Photo: AP
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

For anyone even mildly interested in the world of tech, it feels like the end of an era - Jony Ive is leaving Apple.

For those unaware of who Ive is, the Englishman is credited as being the world's most influential industrial designer over the last two decades.

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Working with the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, he gave us the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone, three of the most important and iconic products in recent history.

His was always the quiet, calm voice in those whiteroom videos that describe what's new with the tooling of each new gadget.

He would also regularly be seen at every launch event, usually in a faded T-shirt and jeans, unshaven.

I had seen him a few times at such events, but it was always hard to pick him out. He blended in to the crown like just another engineer.

Officially, Ive will still have some input into Apple products via his new company, LoveFrom. But he is moving on to other projects also, he says.

"While I will not be an [Apple] employee, I will still be very involved - I hope for many, many years to come," he told the 'Financial Times', which broke the story last week. "This just seems like a natural and gentle time to make this change."

Ive spent nearly three decades at Apple, leading the design of the colourful iMacs that helped Apple re-emerge from near death in the 1990s to the iPhone, regarded by some experts as one of the most successful consumer products of all time.

"It's the most significant departure of somebody who was a core part of the growth story" under Jobs, said Ben Bajarin, analyst with Creative Strategies.

Ive joined Apple in 1992 and led Apple's design teams since 1996. He became chief design officer in 2015.

After Steve Jobs' death in 2011, pundits questioned whether Apple could continue Jobs' pace of new products. Ive became a symbol of continuity, bridging the Steve Jobs and Tim Cook eras.

Since then, he has been to the fore of every major Apple product, from its re-envisioned iPhone X models to the Apple Watch and AirPods.

His design contributed to Apple becoming the first company to reach a $1trn equity valuation in the US, although it has since been overtaken by Amazon and Microsoft.

Longtime Apple watchers have mixed views on the news.

"This may be good news," wrote John Gruber, one of the most respected longtime Apple analysts.

"Ive is, to state the obvious, preternaturally talented. But in the post-Jobs era, with all of Apple design, hardware and software, under his control, we've seen the software design decline and the hardware go wonky. I don't know the inside story, but it certainly seems like a good bet that MacBook keyboard fiasco we're still in the midst of is the direct result of Jony Ive's obsession with device thinness and minimalism. Today's MacBooks are worse computers but more beautiful devices than the ones they replaced. Is that directly attributable to Jony Ive? With these keyboards in particular, I believe the answer is yes."

Others point to a process that has seen Jony Ive reaching for the exit for some time.

"Jony Ive has been leaving Apple for years," said Bloomberg's Mark Gurman, arguably the most consistent analyst into Apple's new product lines.

"The departures herald a new era. The days when Apple could reliably deliver a whole new category of device - a spare music player, a sleek tablet, an elegant smartphone - every few years have waned. More recently, the company has focused on iterations of its existing lineup. Now, the company needs another hit, but this one will require fundamental technological innovation, not just the design genius of Ive and his team."

The obvious question most people will have is: who will replace him?

Apple has the answer: Evans Hankey, vice president of Industrial Design and Alan Dye, vice president of Human Interface Design. These two men will report to Jeff Williams, Apple's chief operating officer.

This is a logical choice but will be controversial in some quarters. It will be the first time in Apple's recent history where the head design executive comes below both the lead operations executive and the chief executive.

"From a product standpoint, the post-Jobs era at Apple has been the Jony Ive era, not the Tim Cook era," said John Gruber."That's not a knock on Tim Cook. To his credit, Tim Cook has never pretended to be a product guy. My gut sense for years has been that Ive without Jobs has been like McCartney without Lennon. Only that the fruit of their collaborations were, seemingly magically, far greater than the sums of the duos' talents and tastes."

The turning point for Ive appeared to come after the launch of the Apple Watch in 2015, insiders say.

Around that time, Ive told the New Yorker he'd become "deeply, deeply tired." He said the year leading up to the Watch debut was "the most difficult" since he joined Apple. Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs and a friend of Ive's, suggested to the New Yorker that there could be a "slightly different structure that's a little more sustainable and sustaining," while keeping Ive at Apple.

"This has been a long time in the making," according to a company insider quoted by Bloomberg. "He's been at Apple over 25 years, and it's a really taxing job. It's been an extremely tense 25 years for him at Apple and there's a time for everyone to slow down."

Apple, predictably, is putting an upbeat flavour on things, emphasising continuity.

But that only stretches so far. The company knows that it cannot minimise the scale or impact of Ive's meaning to Apple.

"Jony is a singular figure in the design world and his role in Apple's revival cannot be overstated, from 1998's groundbreaking iMac to the iPhone and the unprecedented ambition of Apple Park, where recently he has been putting so much of his energy and care," said Apple CEO Cook.

"Apple will continue to benefit from Jony's talents by working directly with him on exclusive projects, and through the ongoing work of the brilliant and passionate design team he has built. After so many years working closely together, I'm happy that our relationship continues to evolve and I look forward to working with Jony long into the future."

Irish Independent

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