Jony Ive Departs Apple

The Wall Street Journal:

In 2017, Mr. Cook met with Mr. Ive to discuss resuming day-to-day responsibilities. Mr. Ive agreed.

Initially, designers were encouraged. But his absences later resumed. He spent more time in the U.K., where his father has been ill.

“He built Apple into this ID (industrial design) and HI (human interface) powerhouse. What does that mean going forward? None of us know,” this person added. “It’s not the team that he inherited.”

If you take the Wall Street Journal’s timeline as truth, ignoring the silly sales statistics meant to paint a picture of a company in turmoil, then Ive’s exit should only be seen as a positive step. It doesn’t make sense to have a person in the leadership team that is slowing down the product development process out of fatigue. The recent Bloomberg report mostly corroborates the same account of events; Ive was intimately invested in making the Apple Watch, and gradually shirked his responsibilities in the following years after the Watch debuted.

Along these lines, the real criticism should be pointed at Tim Cook for mismanagement of leadership. Ive was gracefully transitioning away from the company with his ‘promotion’ to Chief Design Officer. It was perfectly setup for a clean departure with Richard Howarth and Alan Dye’s faces viewable on the Apple Leadership page since mid-2015. However, what the Wall Street Journal says is that it was Cook who convinced Ive not to leave in 2017, and put him back at the top of the pyramid. History now shows that Ive retook the management role somewhat unwillingly, reportedly frustrating the product development of things like the iPhone X user interface as subordinates looked to approval from a leader who had either lost focus or interest (or understandably otherwise preoccupied by the declining health of his parents).

Ive sold his soul to Apple for a long time, did excellent work, and he now wants to chill out. Who can blame him. I think a lot of people under-approximate Ive’s impact on the company. Up until 2015, he was integral and working hard. I can’t get this Jobs quote from the Isaacson biography out of my head:

He’s not just a designer. He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me. There’s no one who can tell him what to do, or to butt out. That’s the way I set it up.

Apple employees waited on his opinions and craved his approval. The Wall Street Journal post cites a good anecdote from Ive’s time as Chief Design Officer (the first run at retirement) where employees who were supposedly under Howarth and Dye’s purview were not interested in judgements that were not Ive’s. Even Cook himself seemingly sided with Ive to begin making watch wearables in the first place.

It will be a hard gap to fill. It was probably the right time for him to be gone, but that doesn’t make dealing with the repercussions any easier. The company renowned for its design expertise literally doesn’t have a leader of design anymore; neither Evans Hankey nor Alan Dye are becoming senior vice presidents. Moreover, the vice presidents fall under Jeff Williams and not Cook directly. Cook is unusual in having a high number of direct reports compared to most CEOs at other companies, yet design is apparently not worth his unqualified attention anymore. To stress this point, there are currently five VPs named on the Leadership page and all of them report to Cook directly. In the two year span of Dye and Howarth’s stewardship, both of them were also listed as reporting to Cook.

I think fears that Apple is transforming into a highly-efficient factory line of iPhones, iPads and $999 last-generation MacBook Airs are overblown. But clearly design is going to be less influential under the new structure than it ever has been. As someone who loves it when Apple releases opinionated products, not necessarily chasing new product categories every year but adventurous products fuelled by daring decision-making and effusive care, a demotion of design leadership does not sit right with me. It didn’t feel right on day one and I can’t shake the consternation a few days later.

Jeff Williams is great, but is he a a best-in-class design lead that is not laden with myriad other responsibilities? If Apple wants to preserve its culture of design, Apple should have a SVP of design.

There’s no one who can tell him what to do, that’s the way I set it up.