As the news about Jony Ive that Apple let in sinks, you will see many people weighing what Apple's Ive era meant and what the future holds. This is all good, because Ive was remarkably influential – a person who not only drove for Apple products, but also for the industry in general. The only person who could claim the same level of fame and influence was Steve Jobs himself.
It's annoying to see the word & # 39; era & # 39; continue to use, but that's the word. It sounds unnecessarily ominous to talk about designing computers, but it fits the scale of this turnover. So when I leave, I'll join in and say this: Apple's unique genius era is over.
The truth is, it's been a while. I would like you to take a look at this remarkable quote that Tim Cook gave to the Financial times, intended to calm those who claim that Apple is in serious trouble without Ive:
"The company is running very horizontally," said Mr. Cook. "The reason it is probably not so clear about who (determines product strategy) is that it is the most important decisions, different people are involved, due to the nature of how we work."
There is a much more concise expression for what Cook is talking about. It is the expression for when decisions are made by a consensus of a group rather than by one person. That sentence is of course "draft by the commission".
It's a destructive expression, so it's no wonder Cook has avoided it. But make no mistake, that is what he is talking about here. It's a scary thing to consider for Apple because so much of our idea of what the company is is and what it resources is connected to the idea of a unique genius.
The unique genius is the myth of how Apple was founded and how it became the global giant it is today. And I don't mean & # 39; genius & # 39 ;, like & # 39; very smart & # 39; but if the Romantic genius – the person who has contact with the exalted in a way that the rest of us cannot understand. That version of "genius" still lives with us today and appears – like many powerful concepts – to be more of one social invention supported by technology (the need to give value to copyrighted works) then some innate human divinity.
Although Apple may have a good story about being founded in a garage, Apple's true founding myth is the myth of genius. You know the fable, which has the advantage of being true. When Steve Jobs was in charge, Apple made amazing things: the Apple computer, the Mac. Jobs not the boss: the very bad years & # 39; 90 with Scully and the Newton. Jobs back the boss: the Renaissance, the iPod, the iPhone.
After Steve Jobs, that mantle was passed on to Jony Ive. And he took it (quite literally) quietly. It was important to our Apple concept that there is a single, demanding decision maker. Someone who is uncompromising about quality. Someone with a very good taste. A capital letter G Genius.
The genius is the opposite of the committee. John Gruber is very correct that it is very strange that the two people counted as the successors of Ive report to the Chief Operating Officer. I agree, but mainly because it is very strange Apple.
There are two major changes to take apart. First, there are two people who have replaced Ive, not one. And second: they report to the COO, not directly to Tim Cook. That is the exact opposite of how Steve Jobs had set up Jony Ive at Apple. Here's how Jobs himself described the role of Ive:
He is not only a designer. That is why he works directly for me. He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me. There is no one who can tell him what to do or to find out. That's the way I set it up.
Compare that quote about Ive with Cook's earlier one about how product decisions are made. The difference is grim! Cook & # 39; s vision is not how we imagine Apple to operate. As Gruber said it concisely: "I am not worried that Apple is in trouble because Jony Ive is leaving; I am worried that Apple is in trouble because it is not being replaced. & # 39;
It is much too early to know whether that level of concern is justified. I know it comes from a real place – it is a place where I am. From here it seems that Apple has lost a step when it comes to design leadership. There are the easy dunks that you can make on some of Apple & # 39; s products, such as the first Apple Pencil, the iPhone battery case and the iPad Smart Keyboard. But there are many more fundamental concerns about the keyboard of the MacBook, the time it took to recover from the "trashcan" Mac Pro and the strangely inoperative Apple TV remote.
The thing about those missteps is that we don't know their cause. One way to think about it is that they come from a lack of product focus – there is no genius to send things back to the drawing board when they are not good enough. However, another is that they come from too much focus – focus on form over function, on making things thin and beautiful instead of making things usable.
In that context, the problem was that Jony Ive did not pay attention or that he had too much power and misused it. That's how the thinking goes, because our thinking about Apple is defined by relying on the taste of a single genius, because design by the commission is clearly worse than that.
The reality is that Apple's design is merging into those two conflicting statements. Apple's product strategy is no longer determined by one person – and I wonder how much I have even driven into it, especially in the last few years. Multiple stories – including this from Bloomberg – Suppose Ive not been as committed as he once was.
Although Ive been leaving, he will still be there. More importantly, the team he led is not going anywhere and does not suddenly change their entire design philosophy. At least Apple designs products years in advance, so Ive & # 39; s designs will be with us for a while.
Nevertheless, his departure will have real consequences. The first consequence is not Apple's problem, but it is ours: we must stop considering Apple as the unique expression of someone's genius. The history is beyond the Great human theory, and that also applies to our ideas about how Apple works.
When I look at some of the design decisions that Apple has made in both hardware and software, the only word that comes to mind is "uncompromising." That is a virtue if it applies to a leader who pays attention to quality, but it can be a vice when it applies to products to be used by messy, messy people.
Commissions are tricky, they are not as mythical as a unique genius, they are often timidated than they should be. But perhaps Apple's design is a little less myths and a little more compromise right now.