In my estimation, whether Ive intends it or not — and I think he likely does, for what it’s worth — this is the beginning of the end of his time at Apple. To give up “management” in exchange for “thinking freely” is, when it comes to business, akin to shifting from product-focused R&D to exploratory R&D. Steve Jobs was very clear on the consequences of that approach:
One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. And I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room. And I got the scar tissue to prove it.
I found this quote/clip in this excellent Gruber piece, Working Backwards to the Technology; the analogy I’m trying to draw is that just as the best way to ensure that great technologies make it to market is to start with the product and work backwards, inventing along the way, the best way to lead an organization’s design direction is to lead the organization, and that means managing. And that is what Ive is giving up.
The other reason to suspect it’s time, beyond the orchestration and the very real surrender of responsibility, is, well, the fact it’s the right time. The Watch is here, and there almost certainly won’t be any significant new products from Apple for at least a few years (I take this as a bearish signal on the car, which I was already skeptical about — but you could take it the opposite way too!). As many have noted Ive has previously expressed interest in raising his children in the United Kingdom, which sure seems to be a convenient match for the fact he plans to “travel more,” and in the meantime he can pursue, well, the sort of affects-daily-life design I noted was his passion: stores, the new headquarters, office furniture (no designer is a designer until they’ve designed a chair). Not a bad life, for him anyways, and Ive has certainly earned it.
WHAT ABOUT APPLE?
The bigger question, of course — the $764 billion question — is what about Apple? First Jobs, now, if my sense of the situation is correct, Jony Ive, Jobs’ “spiritual partner” and, after Jobs’ passed away, his spiritual successor. Who is left? Tim Cook? Phil Schiller? Jeff Williams?
It’s a trick question, because the answer is not a who, it’s a what: what remains is Apple. After the unveiling of iOS 7 — the true coming-out party for Jony Ive’s expanded imprint on Apple — I wrote in Tim Cook is a Great CEO (This was a controversial opinion then!) about the firing of Scott Forstall:
Apple didn’t need another Steve Jobs. The price of individual brilliance is collective friction, and only a founder has the cultural capital to make the elevation of the individual possible. After all, he/she created the culture to begin with!
It’s not unlike a revolutionary movement: typically there is the transcendent leader, surrounded by the true believers. Eventually the leader departs, but the revolutions that endure have an ideology that continues to unite. To be sure, over time said ideology ossifies into rules enforced by a bureaucracy, until a new revolution uproots the old one, but this can take many years, even decades.
Most revolutions, though, don’t make it that far. Usually, when the leader departs, his closest lieutenants scheme and fight for the throne, and the entire movement implodes. ThFrs was always my fear for Apple: Steve Jobs was the glue that united a strong, stubborn, and talented company that continually operated under high pressure. What would happen when the glue was gone?
Tim Cook has answered that question: the glue is Apple, and the ideology is design. It is a shared belief system that “No” is more important than “Yes,” that focus is essential to making great products, and that no one individual is essential. Not Steve Jobs, and certainly not Scott Forstall.
And, if I’m right, not Jony Ive. Time — even if it’s not this time — will tell.
Frankly, I’m concerned. Especially since it was announced during a long weekend to avoid spooking the markets. This means nothing new in the pipeline for the next few years. I just hope Jony will miss Cupertino enough to come back often.