Jonathan Ive, iPad Designer, Leaving? Apple’s New Exec Drama

With the company’s future already clouded by Steve Jobs’ latest medical leave, the possibility of the iPad’s chief designer, Jonathan Ive, cashing out ups the uncertainty, Dan Lyons writes.

Apple's head designer Jonathan Ive poses for a portrait on January 27, 2010 in Cupertino, California. (Photo by Paul Harris / Newscom)

Is Apple losing its design guru?

When Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced in January that he would take a third medical leave, the biggest concern was the cloud of uncertainty that hovered over the company. Now that uncertainty has become an issue again, as rumors have started swirling that Apple might lose its chief designer, Jonathan Ive.

Reports in Ive’s native England suggest that the man who oversaw the design of the iPhone and iPad wants to spend more time in the U.K., putting him at odds with Apple’s board enough that he would consider leaving the company. Although Ive and Apple won’t comment, the scenario is plausible for two reasons: First, Ive is about to cash in options valued at $30 million that he was granted in 2008; and second, Ive has an especially close relationship with Jobs.

Whether Ive stays or goes, the brouhaha shows the challenges that Apple is increasingly likely to face given the questions about Jobs’ role in the coming months. One scenario being bandied about by Apple-watchers suggests Ive is making a power play to succeed Jobs; it seems just as likely, however, that he simply may not want to work at Apple if Jobs isn’t there.

Still others think the entire notion that Ive might leave is completely unfounded. But either way, the whole incident shows how the Jobs health situation is bringing more drama to a company that, until now, has been a model of tight-lipped discipline.

Apple’s products are famous for their sleek designs, and conventional wisdom holds that losing Ive would be a terrible blow to Apple—“Apple’s worst nightmare,” Britain’s Guardian called it. But the truth is, losing Ive may not be as big a deal as some Apple watchers think.

For one thing, Apple has loads of bench strength in every department, and because of its success it can attract just about anyone it wants.

“How much of this is Steve, how much is Jon, how much someone else? Steve always had an eye for design. The designer is only as good as the client,” says Jean-Louis Gassée.

For another, the real genius behind Apple’s designs might not be Ive—but rather Jobs.

That’s the educated guess of Jean-Louis Gassée, a former top executive at Apple and a longtime close watcher of the company who still has many connections there.

Gassée points out that Ive was already working at Apple when Jobs returned to the company in 1996. Ive joined the company in 1992, when Jobs was gone from the company, having been ousted by the board in 1985.

And before Jobs returned to Apple, Ive wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire. The first products that Ive designed under Jobs were the “Bondi Blue” iMac and the somewhat ugly iBook. Ive’s next products, the "desk lamp" Mac and the early metal laptops, were better looking, Gassée says.

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“Ever since then, the style got sharper and simpler with every cycle,” Gassée says. “What I’m getting at is: How much of this is Steve, how much is Jon, how much someone else? Steve always had an eye for design. The designer is only as good as the client.”

The thing is, if Jobs is the true design genius at Apple, then the company really does have a problem. Because Jobs, a cancer survivor, is now on yet another medical leave, and according to recent reports, is being treated at the Stanford Cancer Center.

Jobs also has been videotaped walking out of a restaurant and looking weak.

At the same time, there have been reports that Jobs is still running Apple from home while he’s on leave, as well as reports that he has been seen on Apple’s campus, looking in good shape.

On Feb. 17, Jobs was among the handful of top Silicon Valley figures who attended a dinner with Barack Obama in the Bay Area.

As for the rumor about Ive leaving Apple, another longtime Apple watcher, Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a Campbell, California, consultancy, says he doesn’t believe there is any truth to it: “This is pure speculation and I really doubt it has any merit. I am sure he could be homesick for England, but Jobs and Apple have allowed him at various times to go back as needed.”

Like Gassée, Bajarin also emphasizes the role that Jobs has played in Apple’s design. While Ive is “quite important to Apple’s success in design,” Bajarin says, “not all design decisions rest on his shoulders. There is a team of designers and they all have Jobs’ understanding of how he thinks about industrial design and the Apple way when it comes to design products.”

Even if Ive were to leave, Bajarin says, the designers working for him “are more than capable to keep the design innovation moving forward.”

But why is word suddenly leaking out of Apple about Ive feuding with the board? Apple is a notoriously secretive and buttoned-down place. Could it be that Ive is jockeying to succeed Jobs and hoping to gain leverage against Tim Cook, the company’s chief operating officer, who has been running the company while Jobs is away?

Cook is seen by some as the de facto heir to the CEO position at Apple. But while Cook is an able executive, he is not an inspirational leader or visionary like Jobs. Ive, on the other hand, has been a close friend to Jobs. The two have often been seen strolling together on Apple’s campus in Cupertino, California, and some Apple folks refer to the duo under a single name: Jives.

Ive, 44, studied design at Newcastle Polytechnic and first worked for Apple as a contractor—he was running a design shop in London that did projects for Apple. In 1992 he moved to California to work at Apple.

Ive has won numerous awards for his designs, though Blake Gopnik, art critic for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, argued recently that Apple’s designs are stuck in the past.

Losing Ive would not be the end of the world for Apple. But losing Ive and then finding out that Jobs is not coming back? Now that could be a problem.

Dan Lyons is technology editor at Newsweek and the creator of Fake Steve Jobs, the persona behind the notorious tech blog, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Before joining Newsweek, Lyons spent 10 years at Forbes.