Cook's Smartest Move Yet: Elevating Ive
Today, who could possibly bring an organizing principle to Apple's line of hardware, software and services? There's only one answer, really. Jony Ive, the former senior vice president of industrial design who created the physical nature of Apple's best products. Everywhere you see a physical Apple product, it's been touched by Ive.
This story was originally published on Nov. 1, 2011, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.
When Apple announced its executive shakeup this week, there was plenty of news to chew on and make you wonder what happened behind the scenes and why. At the top of the attention list, Scott Forstall, the iOS software group leader, was fired by Apple CEO Tim Cook. What? The head of the operating system of the most wildly acclaimed smartphone of all time -- let go?
Seems a bit wild on the surface, but once the veneer is scraped away, rumors of ego and executive infighting start appearing to be the framework of Forstall's reputation at Apple -- not his accomplishments with iOS.
The final straw seems to have been the release of the new Apple-based Maps app in iOS 6, which was often hilariously inaccurate and sometimes alarmingly mistaken. Apple publicly apologized and Cook signed the letter.
The Maps Fiasco
I've seen various reports lauding Cook for taking the blame for the Maps debacle and publicly owning up to it, but I hardly see this as impressive. Maps came out of the gate clearly borked and in some ways far dumber than the previous Google-based version, despite the pretty 3D zooming and twirling, which I've greatly appreciated in Las Vegas -- as well as while scouting a hike into a new canyon back home. Awesomeness, though, doesn't make up for critical errors.
What I find surprising is that Forstall wasn't arm-wrestling Cook for the opportunity to sign the public apology himself. Granted, most of what we're getting out of Cupertino around this whole topic is a bunch of rumors and second-hand accounts, so we're not sure exactly what happened. However, if I were responsible for the Maps project -- no matter how rushed or how much pressure there was to deliver it half-baked -- I sure as hell hope that if I were in the kind of position Forstall was that I'd have the brains and the confidence to deal with the situation like a real leader.
Another One Bites the Dust
Cook also fired John Browett, head of Apple's retail stores. In just a few short months of being on the job, Browett seemed to be hurting Apple's worker elves with dubious staffing plans. The whole point of an Apple Store is to showcase Apple products and make the world feel like they are in a magical place, all the while doing more business per square foot than any other store on the planet.
Squeaking out a few extra percentage points of operating margin is worthless if the overall mood of an Apple Store grinds down. It's magic. You don't mess with the magic. The only surprise here is that Cook didn't bother trying to fix or redirect the executive, which shows Cook to not only be decisive, but savvy, too.
Putting the Pieces Together
Apple pitched this high-profile executive action on the pedestal of "collaboration," as a way to subtly acknowledge to industry watchers that Apple was rejiggering its secretive product lines in favor of working together across its hardware, software and services groups. What's the point of having perfect hardware ready to go if the software isn't up to speed?
When a sheer force of will like Steve Jobs was leading these teams (with Cook backing up operations, mind you) it was possible to herd these groups into line because Jobs was dancing around providing the secretive alignment.
We must all admit that it was a simpler world back then, just a few years ago. There were fewer pieces and parts that needed to work together seamlessly. It's just going to get harder as users expect tighter connections between their Apple product experiences.
So, today, who could possibly bring an organizing principle to Apple's line of hardware, software and services?
There's only one answer, really.
Jony Ive, the former senior vice president of industrial design who created the physical nature of Apple's best products -- the shape and feel of the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod, the mice, the MacBook Air, the iMac. Everywhere you see a physical Apple product, it's been touched by Ive.
Except software. It's hard to say how much Ive was involved with software considerations when Jobs was around, and still hard to say after he died. You might think Apple executives would collaborate intensely to make the sum of its parts amazing, but maybe not. The Apple executive announcement publicly pointed out an intent to increase collaboration, which implies -- at this level -- that it was sorely lacking.
Of course, Phil Schiller, Apple's senior VP of marketing, has clearly been involved in the creation of Apple products, but it's less clear if he's been an inspirational force in the design and overall function. Schiller has undoubtedly found the right way to market Apple products around the world. Can he provide design inspiration, though? If he's been doing this, it's been hidden behind the walls of Apple's corporate campus.
Meanwhile, three other executives gained responsibilities that better align Apple products: Eddy Cue picks up responsibility for all of Apple's online services, including Siri and Maps. Craig Federighi gets both iOS and OS X. And Bob Mansfield gets a new group called "Technologies" that will be responsible for wireless and semiconductor teams. All of these moves should result in better product integration.
Now here's what I find exciting: "Jony Ive will provide leadership and direction for Human Interface (HI) across the company in addition to his role as the leader of Industrial Design."
First of all, Apple lovers trust Ive. Sure, we might quibble about the color of a bezel or moan about an antenna every now and then, but there's a reason we drop into Apple Retail Stores and touch the products: They feel great. You want to touch them and marvel.
If Ive has the chance to control -- and inspire -- software interface development, oh baby, it's hard to imagine how good this might become. I mean, I have a hard time imagining that Ive would create the Mac OS X Launchpad application and think it was a good idea in any way. This alone gives me hope.
Of course, there's a lot more that's going on behind the scenes here, and it has to do with Forstall and his reputation for loving skeuomorphic design, which in Apple terms means you create an app that replicates a physical thing or function and you infuse the app with the trappings of the physical item. So the Notes app is represented with realistic yellow-lined note paper, even going so far as to have graphical representations of previous sheets being torn from the pad -- the little stubby bits are permanently left there at the top of the app.
The Calendar app in Mac OS X has the same thing going on, with fake leather at the top, and the iOS Reminders app has subtle leather-like frameworks around it, along with white lined paper and two thin parallel vertical red lines, which are often found on real notepads.
While I don't particularly mind the three apps I've noted above, they aren't inspiring, either. And at some point down the road, they're going to be limiting factors in the design of iOS and Mac OS X and how these apps behave. For instance, if you took a page out of Microsoft's live tiles metaphor with its Surface unit, how would the content from different skeuomorphic apps look and feel next to each other? I'll tell you -- jarring.
In other ways, take the iBooks "bookshelf" skeuomorphic design. Seems simple enough, but utterly unnecessary, and now, it turns out, I find the shelves just more visual clutter. This kind of design is scattered all over iOS and Mac OS X, and I'm starting to realize that maybe there are better ways -- something better than a plain white background for typing down notes, and something that doesn't pretend to be something it's not.
Ive, reportedly, doesn't like skeuomorphic design.
That's freaking awesome.
Why? First, it doesn't matter if you like skeuomorphic elements or not, because something far more important is at work here: One of the world's best artists of industrial design is going to have the ability to rethink how we interact with our iPhones and iPads and Macs. Our human interfaces. And that rethinking will beat back clutter and stagnation and all the crappy little apps and pieces of apps that get left alone and dragged along with each new release because someone either didn't have the power and authority to fix it -- or no one was paying attention. This happens as companies get larger, as products begin to bloat.
And Ive? I don't know the guy beyond the Web, the videos, and the announcements, but from what I've seen, he has the ability to rethink, redesign, to maniacally pound, carve, and create in order to get it right. If he can bring his passion for the physical form factor into the user interaction, oh boy, we might really be in for some fantastic innovations from Apple again.