With Jony Ive Gone, the Steve Jobs Era of Apple Is Finally Over
Whatever the reason the company’s design chief quit, the days of magical thinking are done. Apple needs to become a different kind of company.
Why would Jony Ive choose this moment to leave Apple?
It could be that even for someone as protean as Apple’s design chief, there are limits to what one man can achieve within a large corporation.
Ive leaves Apple later this year having been second only to Steve Jobs as the company’s magical rainmaker.
But he wants us to know that it’s not exactly farewell: “While I will not be an Apple employee I will still be very involved, for many, many years to come” he told The Financial Times. “This just seems a natural and gentle time to make this change.”
Apple watchers are naturally fretting. “It makes me queasy to see that Apple’s chief designers are now reporting to operations,” wrote John Gruber on his blog, Daring Fireball.
Under Ive the product design team enjoyed unusual independence and influence. Now they will report to Jeff Williams, the chief operating officer.
In some corporations that change could sound sinister, but Apple isn’t just another corporation. It abhors silos and preaches cross-departmental thinking. Williams himself demonstrates that—as well as overseeing Apple’s suppliers he helped to incubate and promote the Apple Watch, which after a slow start is catching on.
The reality is that the world has changed for Apple. The whole relationship between people and devices is changing fast, in a way that goes well beyond the kind of products that Ive oversaw.
More than anyone of his generation, Ive proved that fastidious industrial design can lift a consumer product above all its competitors. Largely due to him, Apple became the first company to be worth a trillion dollars.
In his most consequential single work, the iPhone, Ive figured out how to make a smartphone much smarter by directing all its functions through a touch screen and icons.
It seems so obvious and intuitive now but in 2007 it was the kind of eureka moment that transformed the world. That vision came encased in one of the simplest and most beautifully crafted consumer products ever seen. (I still cling to an iPhone 5SE because the size and tactile pleasure of it disappeared with the bigger models.)
But future smart devices won’t be confined to those that fit into anyone’s pocket, strap on the wrist, are sewn into garments or sit on a desktop. Artificial Intelligence is upping the scale and complexity of many products.
Since 2014 Apple has been grappling with that future by trying to develop something more ambitious than it has ever attempted, a self-driving car. And by making that decision Apple has realized that it needs to become a different kind of company.
Moving up the chain of consumer products to personal transportation mandates a huge change in scale and the number and kind of skills that are needed to design, produce and market products.
This is where Apple’s habitual secrecy about new products has left it behaving like a paranoid version of a skunk works, one of those deep state off-the-books secret military programs. The Apple Car project has gone through cycles of hirings and layoffs, of arriving and departing leaders, but all the while staying alive.
The whereabouts of the venture has been part of the mystery. It has not, apparently, been included in Apple Park, the recently completed Cupertino headquarters first conceived by Jobs and Ive in 2004 and over which Ive has presided at every stage with his relentless eye for detail.
Silicon Valley gumshoes have identified a group of buildings, including a former Pepsi bottling plant, in nearby Sunnyvale as the most likely site. There is also said to be a secret lab in Berlin run by a former Mercedes executive. Sometimes you get the feeling that Jason Bourne must be involved.
All this cloak and dagger stuff stands in contrast to the self-driving operation run by the Google parent company Alphabet, called Waymo, that already openly operates a self-driving taxi service in Phoenix. Alphabet has never been secretive about its progress or its future intentions.
The key question about the Apple project—one that could explain Ive’s departure—is whether they have finally pulled back from the idea of becoming an auto manufacturer.
There is no precedent for a consumer product company getting into an industry as different as the manufacturing of cars on a mass scale. Apple has always been a rigorous steward of its supply chain, but alongside the elaborate supply chain of the auto industry it’s like a walk in the park.
In fact, Apple finds itself taking the same research and development path as the auto industry, where huge investments are being committed to electric power and autonomous cars.
In this game, what would Apple’s advantage be? It would seem to make sense for Apple to impose its genius for marrying software and hardware on car design by creating a standard and system of its own for autonomous vehicles that automakers could adopt.
As it is, Apple finds itself having to buy into the future rather than invent it. Two weeks ago they bought an autonomous driving technology startup named Drive.ai. This points to something that industry analysts have raised: whether Apple yet has fully grasped the importance of AI.
Apple has been road testing at least 70 vehicles, conventional SUVs and sedans converted for autonomous driving. Most of this effort involves developing the sensors at the heart of the software of a self-driving car. Judging by the clunkiness of the equipment spotted on the top of these vehicles there is still a long way to go before the technology is ready for purpose.
Some of Apple’s hires have come from Tesla. They would certainly know from experience how tough it is to build a car company from scratch. Tesla had a loss of $702 million in the first quarter of this year. As well as problems with quality control and production rates, there have been three crashes involving Tesla Model 3 sedans while using its Autopilot system.
While pushing the development of battery power and significantly increasing the range of its sedans, Tesla has made no attempt to change the aesthetic of car design. All of its models have a boring generic look.
That kind of styling would not satisfy Ive. He has been dismissive of the current state of car design. So, too, has been his close colleague, Marc Newson. Newson, who spent 60 percent of his time working with Ive at Apple, is leaving with him to join the new company with the whimsical name of LoveFrom.
This is interesting because Newson, who has a prolific design practice of his own, is a gearhead with a collection of vintage classics. He developed a concept car for Ford loaded with novel ideas but it was never built. He is thought to have been deeply involved in the Apple Car.
Whatever the soothing platitudes issued by Apple to make Ive’s departure appear mutually congenial, this is the end of a remarkable era. Ive’s role was unique. He carried the aura of “Son of Steve” because of the instinctive affinity of ideas that he shared with Jobs.
Few companies are lucky enough to find a successor to a founding genius. In Ive Apple found one able to surpass the basic engineering challenges and sustain the mystique that Jobs created around all Apple products, that they were just so much smarter and more elegant than any others.
In a company like Apple with around 132,000 employees, most of them, however competent, will never stand out as stars. But it was different with the industrial designers. Ive headed a department that had a relatively small staff—around 50. This was where the magic happened, and they were all treated like stars.
Ive often cites as one of his inspirations the work of Dieter Rams, the former head of design for Braun, the German consumer electronics manufacturer. That may be an immediate influence, but Rams and all other industrial designers owe a debt to a cohort that first assembled 100 years ago.
The Apple design group functions as something much more resourceful than a design studio. It really has the character and purpose of a workshop able to combine concepts with the crafts and materials necessary to execute the complete idea. That idea goes back to 1919 in Weimar, Germany and the foundation of the Bauhaus.
A group of architects, designers, artists, photographers and craftsmen came together in common cause in the Bauhaus, partly in response to the idea that industrialization would kill off craftsmanship. Countering that belief was the Bauhaus proposal that there was no reason why factory-made everyday products, from a tea cup to kitchen appliances should not combine utility and beauty.
This philosophy was put into practice through “workshop masters” who educated a new generation of craftsmen in the use of both modern and traditional materials.
Every design school established since then aspires to those ideas and standards. Anyone sitting in a chair with a tubular metal frame, or a recliner using molded plywood, or at a desk with an adjustable angle lamp, or in an office with walls of glass, or an airport terminal with vaulting steel and glass is enjoying the legacy of the Bauhaus.
Every Apple product breathes the Bauhaus principles—Rams passed on his “less is better” doctrine to Ive, but it was the Bauhaus that first insisted that minimalism was both more practical and exquisite. Not everybody gets that message. For example, my Apple TV remote is one-tenth the size, little more than a sliver of steel, than the clunky and confusing remotes provided by the cable companies.
Ive was never able to close the loop on cleaning up TV. The service providers and the TV makers have never collaborated to make the experience seamless and intuitive. But that’s just part of the larger problem: Good design is far outnumbered by bad design, just as good architecture is far outweighed by bad architecture.
Imposing an aesthetic as demanding and thoughtful as Ive’s is never going to be widely possible. These days excess is flouted in displays of wealth. People ask architects to move their cars from the garage to a room in which they can be placed like a trophy. And we all know who thinks that splashing gold around a building is a sign of class.
There is something fundamentally utopian about the Bauhaus ethic, a belief that everybody can tell the difference between a beautifully crafted object and one bereft of any sense of practicality or beauty, between simple good taste and no taste at all. If only that were true.